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  PAGE ONE    

 1. RULES REGARDING CHANGES

 6. FIRING CUSTOMERS

 2. POLICY CONCERNING UPGRADES

 7. ADVANTAGES OF THE GROUP EXPERIENCE
 3. THE "BOOK IT THRU MARLA" RULE - No Piggyback allowed  8. CANCELLATION of TRIP
 4. THE PARTY CRASHERS  

 5. MARLA ARCHER: THE BUSINESS SIDE OF CRUISES

 


RULES REGARDING CHANGES and CANCELLATIONS
Written by Rick Archer, August 2011

In order to understand this article on "Requesting Changes", we should start by looking at the Travel Agent's Time Line.

There are three critical dates in the Cruise Travel Business:  First Deposit, Final Payment, and Sailing Date.

Accordingly there are three Time Periods for every cruise trip: Flex Time, Revisions, and Crunch Time

Flex Time ends on the First Deposit date.  Revisions end after Final Payment.  Crunch Time is the period after Final Payment until Sailing.

The term "Prevailing Rate" should be explained too.  There are always two prices:  Group Rate and Prevailing Rate (same thing as  "Market Rate" and "Daily Rate").   

 


FLEX TIME

When a Travel Agent like Marla books a cruise, she is given an initial option to sell 50 cabins at a discounted price known as the Group Rate.  The agent has 90 days to sell that space.  This 90-day period is known as "Flex Time". Flex Time ends on the First Deposit Due Date. 

During this time, Marla has a great deal of "Flexibility" regarding making changes; hence the title.  Marla can change roommates at will, upgrade cabins, downgrade cabins, and handle special requests as to room placement ("put me by the elevator", "near to the Dining Room") without any trouble at all because she has control over 50 different cabins.

Royal Caribbean basically lets her do whatever she wants. They are not even involved until the week before First Deposit which is when she finally begins to register the passengers and process the deposits. 

You should always try to sign up for your cruise during Flex Time for three good reasons:

1. It is much easier for Marla to match roommates by age, dance experience, and other common interests.
2. You are assured of getting the type of room you prefer.
3. You are guaranteed the lowest possible rate for your room. 

Furthermore the time to make "changes" is clearly Flex Time.  Changes can be made effortlessly during this time nor is there any service charge or the need to worry about Prevailing Rate.
 

REVISION PERIOD

The Revision Period is the toughest time for the Travel Agent.  According to the rules, once the deposits have been applied, each passenger MUST BE assigned a roommate.  This means that as Marla registers her passengers for First Deposit Day, she must assign two people in every cabin (or just one person if they pay double deposit).   

Marla's Note:

"Revision Period
is a really difficult stretch for me.  For something like the Alaska Trip where we had mostly couples, there were only a few roommate changes to be made.  But on the Rhapsody singles cruises, sometimes it feels as if people swap roommates like kids swap baseball cards.

Anytime you mix the birds and the bees with SEVERAL MONTHS of time, things are going to happen and things are going to change.  While on the one hand, I want to accommodate everyone, I want you to understand that each time you change your mind, from now on, you will need to pay for it.

Before First Deposit during Flex Time, I can have up to 10 cabins with only one person in them. I have plenty of roommate flexibility and can wait on people to make roommate and cabin upgrade decisions.  However, After First Deposit, RCCL will not allow only ONE PERSON to hold a room (unless you pay $500 deposit).  They insist I assign roommates immediately.  Therefore everybody has to be matched up on the spot.

This means I must operate with my hands tied after the First Deposit date.  I have lots of restraints!  When people sign up without roommates after the First Deposit cutoff, I put them on Wait Lists and they get the next available person to become their roommate. These people MUST take the next person available.  And when people want to change roommates, they tend to overlook that in a sense someone else is getting left behind. I have to deal with all sorts of awkward situations.

Let's just say Revision Time is rough sailing."

What this means is that Marla does not have the luxury to wait any longer and see who else is going to sign up.

One of the reasons for the success of the SSQQ Cruise Trips is that we don't require our guests to find their own roommate.  However, the closer the sailing date becomes, the more our hands are tied.  During Flex Time, Marla actually puts thought into whom she pairs people up with.  But if you sign up during Revision Period, you get the next available roommate automatically.  It is common for Marla to 'wait list' people during this period.  All 'Wait List' people will definitely go on the trip, but it might take a week or two until your roommate shows up. Just be patient.


PREVAILING RATE

Another problem for people who sign up during the Revision Period is that the "Prevailing Rate" kicks in. Once First Deposit Day passes, the Group Rate goes away. Now you pay whatever is advertised to the general public. Your cabin might just be $20 more than other SSQQ passengers who signed up during Flex Time, but sometimes the difference can be several hundred dollars. 

CHANGES AND CHARGES

People change their minds.  That is a fact of life.  It is a shame that people are expected to make decisions so far in advance of the actual trip, but that is the nature of the cruise business that we have to accept.  If changes are made during Flex Time, they are relatively easy to take care over.  All this changes during Revision Period. 

When people ask to switch roommates, the rule is that the person asking for the change has to vacate the room.  The original roommate stays put and pays the Group Rate while the "changing roommate" now has to acquire a new room at the Prevailing Rate to share with his or her new roommate.

During the Revision Period, there will be a Service Charge of $50 for every change,

Marla's Note:  The reason for the Service Charge is that each change requires a lot of time. The main problem is that every change depends on "cabin availability".  The change can't be made until a new cabin is found to accommodate the change. Since many cabin categories are sold out, no change during the Revision Period is ever simple. Put another way, each change this late in the game generally requires a great deal of scrambling.

Before anyone complains about this Service Charge, let me simply remind everyone that "time is money".

I researched the topic of Service Charges.  It is a common practice in the travel industry to either simply refuse to make changes or to charge an arm and a leg for the service.  For example, I found one cruise site that charges a mandatory $150 service charge for "changing names".  If you don't believe me, email me and I will send you the link. 

 

CRUNCH TIME

Crunch Time starts the day after Final Payment. You now have 60 days till the ship sails.  Passenger Cruise Documents are issued and making changes is extremely difficult.  Most sailings are sold out at this point, therefore changes are practically impossible anyway.


CANCELLATIONS


Regrettably, Cancellations are a part of the Travel Experience.  No matter how much you want to go on your trip, occasionally life intervenes and you have no choice but to cancel.

Basically, Cancellations have two major variables - how soon till the ship sails and whether you have a roommate or not.

EXAMPLE DATES

The best way to explain Cancellation policies is to use the charges from one of our cruises as an example.

2009 Carnival Cancellation Schedule
1. until March 18th  
2. March 18th - June 5th
3. June 6th - July 24 
4. July 25th - August 16th 
5. SAIL DATE: August 17 thru 23rd
2009 Carnival Cancellation Charge:
 1. No Cancellation fees
 2.
$50 Cancellation fee
 3. $250 Deposit plus $50 cancellation fee
 4. 50% of Total Fare plus $50 cancellation fee
 5. 100% of Total Fare plus $50 cancellation fee

Explanation of Charge Schedule

1. until March 18th - In 2009, our ship sailed on August 23.  First deposit was not due until March 18th.  When it is this far out, if you want to change your mind, no problem.

2. March 18th - June 5th - This is the Revision Period.  The Cancellation Fee is $50.  Final payment was due on June 5th.  Unfortunately, after Final Payment, it becomes much more expensive to change your mind.

3. June 6th - July 24 - At this point, we are getting closer to sailing.  At 75 days prior to sailing, Carnival charges a fee of $250 to cancel.  We charge an additional $50 cancellation fee. 

4. July 25th - August 16th - We are now inside the 30 days out window.  During this three week period, the Penalty gets increased to 50% of the cruise fare in addition to the $50 penalty.

5. August 17th - This is the 7 days out window.  At this point, if you cancel, you lose everything. 

1. The Cruise Line will not refund a single penny that you have paid them.
2. We will charge you a $50 cancellation fee.
3. In addition, you are responsible for handling your former roommate's additional costs. 

Note: If you have a roommate that is not canceling, whether or not we arranged that roommate for you, the single supplement for your roommate will be added to your cancellation charges.

The responsibility falls to the person who cancels. 

If you have a roommate that is not canceling, the cruise company now categorizes your roommate as a SINGLE OCCUPANCY

As an example, a man actually did cancel from the 2009 trip six days before sailing.  His roommate had paid $515.  The single occupancy rate was $984.  Carnival Cruise Line now expected to be paid an additional $469.  It isn't fair to hold the former roommate accountable and it isn't fair to expect the travel agent to pick up the difference either. 

Please be aware this responsibility exists even if you don't show up for your cruise.  Sorry to say, if you 'no-show' the cruise, you will still be responsible for paying the single occupancy supplement whether or not we arranged the roommate for you or not.  SSQQ will be forced to bill you for this money. You will be responsible for the single supplement for your roommate in addition to the $50 cancellation charges.

Since our Destination Cruises are much more expensive than our Caribbean cruises, it is extremely difficult to replace roommates when people change their minds.
2008/2009 RCCL Cancellation Charges:
1. THROUGH JULY 19TH --
2. JULY 20TH - AUGUST 27TH -- 
3. AUGUST 28TH  - SEPTEMBER 18TH --
5. SEPTEMBER 19TH --

 $100 PER PERSON
 $250 PER PERSON TO RCCL Plus $100 fee
 50% of Total Fare plus $100 fee
 100% of Total Fare plus $100 fee

For this reason, we instituted an increased cancellation fee list.  We need for all our passengers to understand that we want you to commit to the trip and stay committed. 


2. POLICY CONCERNING FREE UPGRADES

We have a simple policy concerning Free Upgrades: 
Free Upgrades go first to those who don't ask for them
.

There are two kinds of upgrades on cruise trips. 

One upgrade is where the passenger decides to pay to move to a higher category cabin and asks Marla to make the change. 

The other kind of upgrade is a free upgrade given to passengers at random.

Here is a true story regarding the Free Upgrade situation.

Automatic Upgrades are frequently given to Marla.  Ships are constantly upgrading passengers based on availability.  It is a well-known fact that the less-expensive cabins sell first.  At a certain point about three months before the sailing, the cruise line takes a close look at what has sold and what hasn't. 

When few inexpensive cabins are left but plenty of expensive cabins are still open, the cruise line will often make the decisions to upgrade current passengers to a more expensive cabin which allows them to free up the less expensive cabins for sale. 

So who gets the upgrades? 

Frequently the people who are in groups like ours get upgraded. There is a good reason for this: the group travel agent who phones in new registrations on a regular basis begins to develop a rapport with the people who handle the bookings.  It is much easier to reward someone like Marla who does a steady business with the cruise line than some anonymous couple who signs up online.

However Marla has found these people do have memories.  There was a situation on one cruise where a passenger specifically expected an upgrade because he had traveled this same cruise line several times previously and was on the cruise lines 'preferred customer list'. Based on his status, he expected to receive an upgrade or a reduced rate and deliberately purchased the least expensive cabin preparing to be moved up the ladder. Then the passenger asked Marla to directly intercede on his behalf. 

However this plan backfired.  When Marla called the customer desk the first, she was informed that his status didn't allow for an automatic upgrade and that the group rate we had was actually lower than any discounted rate he would have received had he booked alone.

So Marla relayed this information.  Informed that she could not expect an automatic upgrade, the passenger then asked for a specific cabin location closest to the dining room.  Marla found a cabin and informed the man who said that location was perfect.

Meanwhile the ship sold out of its least expensive space.  Not only that, the ship actually OVERSOLD its least expensive cabins which meant someone would have to be upgraded.  About this time, the passenger asked again about the possibility of being upgraded.  Marla told him that he could not receive an upgrade because he had already requested a specific cabin - once he is assigned a cabin, upgrades become unlikely.  Marla then made the mistake of revealing that some upgrades seemed imminent because she knew about the oversold position.

At this point, the passenger decided the chance of an upgrade was more valuable than any specific location on the ship, so he requested to be moved back to unassigned-room status.  This move qualified him for the chance of an upgrade.

Over the course of the next three weeks, Marla received 3 phone calls or and 3 emails inquiring as to the upgrade.  Each time Marla received an inquiry, she turned around and contacted the cruise line.  Because the cruise had entered the 60 days period, Marla spoke to the same agent each time about this specific passenger. 

On the sixth and final contact, this agent became very annoyed with Marla.  The agent told Marla they working on it and to give it a rest (in non-spoken terms, Marla got the feeling she had been seriously brushed off.) 

One week later, the decision was made.  One upgrade was given. Of the two cabins within our group eligible for upgrades, one pair of passengers got the upgrade and one pair didn't.  The star of this story was in the cabin that didn't get the upgrade.

Marla concluded that the travel agent at the cruise line deliberately stiffed the man who had insisted that Marla contact the cruise line six times about an upgrade.

When the passenger received the final cabin assignments, he realized he was still in a new cabin, but on the same level and nowhere near the restaurant. His gamble had failed.

Immediately this man dashed off another email to Marla asking where his upgrade was. 

Marla replied that she did not know the true reason, but there was nothing else she could do.

In the end, the man had received the cabin he had paid for so he was cheated out of nothing.  But during the three-week period, his constant insistence had exhausted all of her patience. 

Contrary to accepted folklore, the squeaky wheel does not always get the grease.

It is said that the loudest complaints get the most attention, as in 'No matter what table they give her, Helen generally insists on a better one and gets it'. 

This is a perfect example of the saying that the squeaky wheel gets the grease.

However, the squeaky wheel idiom is not a sure-fire guarantee of anything.  Many people in service positions bristle when a request seems unreasonable or too strident.  They resent requests for special service and the sense of privilege that lays behind it.

It never hurts to ask politely, but in this situation, Marla's instincts told her that her constant calls irritated the travel agent at the cruise line so much that she deliberately sidestepped the upgrade request. 

The lesson here is clear - you are more likely to get what you want if you don't ask.  Whoever asks for an free upgrade automatically goes to the end of the line.


(Rick Archer's Note:  After Marla told me this story, I realized I personally could not imagine calling a cruise line SIX TIMES to beg for someone to get an upgrade without any particular justification.  Marla's mistake in this particular situation was actually being too conscientious to the point she inadvertently irritated the woman who worked for the cruise line so much she actually ruled against our individual. 

Normally Marla is very successful at getting upgrades.  For example, on the particular cruise that was referred to in this story, 25% of the passengers on this trip did receive an upgrade.

Here is a previous story:
Upgrades

 

3. THE "BOOK IT THRU MARLA" RULE


To be included as a part of the SSQQ Cruise Group, you must book your cruise through Marla.  
NO EXCEPTIONS!

Article Written by Rick Archer
First published: January 2005
More recent Update: August 2011

The Number One SSQQ Cruise Rule:  In order to participate in SSQQ cruise activities, you must book your cruise through Marla Archer.

Do you hate rules?   Surely you wonder why would anyone even need to make up a "Rule" like the one above.  

The answer is that at one point or another, someone did something so utterly thoughtless they forced us to make a rule.

Have
you ever been in an airport stuck in line furious because you have to take off your shoes at the airplane screening station?   Millions of people every day take off their shoes at airport screening stations all because a total jerk named Richard Reid tried to smuggle a make-shift bomb onto an airplane back in 2001. 

In Life, Rules occur because one person did something so utterly stupid that the rest of us have suffered ever since.

Marla and I were forced to insist upon the "Book Thru Marla" rule after people kept trying to piggyback our cruise trips year after year.
 


It only takes one act of stupidity to make life difficult for the rest of us.  

THE ORIGIN OF THE SSQQ 'BOOK IT THRU MARLA' RULE

Rick Archer's Note: Marla and I have been forced to make rules to protect our cruise business from outsiders.  I am sorry to say reveal that there are people who try to take advantage of our Travel Program.  

Here are a couple axioms for you:

1. Rules are made for a reason.
2. People hate Rules! 

I know I hate rules, especially the ones that make people with common sense suffer needlessly.   In my youth, I was a huge rebel.  I resisted haircut rules, uniform rules, and parking rules any time I could.  As a result, I was a frequent visitor at the Saturday morning detention hall.  But that's another story.

Considering I was such a high school rebel, I find it highly ironic that back when I owned SSQQ,  I found myself making up rules all the time!   Such a contradiction - The Rule Breaker becomes the Rule Maker. 

I have learned that whenever a new problem comes up, if I don't have a rule to cover it, the argument that is sure to follow will go poorly.  Without a stated rule, people tell me they have the right to do whatever they want!   Bend me, shape me, break me any way you make me, you got the power, you got control.

In other words, without a line in the sand, my hands are tied.  So rules must be made. 


HERE ARE THE STORIES BEHIND THE RULES

Jubilee 2003:  THREE LADIES JOIN OUR GROUP

During our Jubilee Trip in 2003, three women mysteriously showed up at our Cocktail Party on the first night of the trip.  I noticed them out of the corner of my eye.  Since there were 144 people aboard - a record that still stands as of 2006 - quite frankly I had no idea who a lot of these people were.  I got distracted and did not have the opportunity to talk to them.  

Later that evening during dinner a couple came up to me at my table to complain that there was no place to sit.  I asked Marla about the problem.  She told me to inspect their boarding pass ID card to look for which table they were supposed to sit at.  I identified the table and glanced over at it.  By coincidence, the same three women were sitting there plus there was was one empty chair. 

Who were these three women?  I pointed them out to Marla, but she didn't have any idea who they might be.  However she whispered that in her opinion this was not the time to take the chance of embarrassing them or ourselves.  This was something that should be done quietly.

Since the couple in question had come twenty minutes late to dinner, I didn't see any point in disrupting dinner to figure out the problem.   We had one free seat at our table, so I found another chair and we made room for them to sit with us.  I told the couple not to worry about it and that I would clear up the problem by the following evening.

Marla and I went back to the cabin and looked at her seating charts.  Sure enough, our couple was assigned to the correct table.  We remembered the three women and looked to see if there was a cluster of three women.  It turned out that table had five couples assigned to it. I knew everyone at that table by face and name.  Apparently one couple had skipped dinner altogether and the couple I talked to came late. Obviously those three ladies had discovered a table with 4 open spaces, so they decided to help themselves.

We scoured our records to see if we could identify a cluster of three women who might be with us.  Marla and I were stumped.

The next day at our dance lesson, I saw one of the three ladies from the night before.  She was speaking with one of the women in our group in a friendly way. Judging from the interaction, they seemed to know each other fairly well. Again, I didn't say anything, but I did watch her carefully.  Since we had a dozen more women than men, I felt some heat rising under my collar since her presence only made the boy-girl ratio worse than it already was.

After the lesson, I pulled the lady aside who was in our group to ask if she could identify the mystery woman who crashed our dance lesson.  It turns out this fourth woman knew the whole story.  All three women had heard about the trip through a mutual friend at her church singles group.  One of the three women had a sister who was a travel agent.  She asked her sister to book three spots.  Then they decided to invite themselves into our group. 

I didn't see any point in shooting the messenger.  I thanked the woman for her information and went in search of my culprits.

I found them out at the pool standing next to group in the hot tub. They were participating in our "group activities" as much as anyone else in our group!

I did not want a scene so I waited.  Finally they moved away.  I caught up to them as they headed elsewhere.  I then asked them politely not to join our activities again.  Two of the three were visibly embarrassed, but the third asked me where I got the nerve to tell them what they could and could not do.

Now I was angry. I said they were not part of our group and had no business participating in our activities. I said if I saw any of them anywhere near one of our group activities, I would call them up and introduce them to the entire group. 

The lead woman left in a huff with the other two in tow.  I did not know what they intended to do, but I barely saw them again for the rest of the trip. 

Jubilee 2003:  TWO MEN JOIN OUR GROUP

There was a second incident in 2003.   I noticed a gentleman who was also aboard this trip, but whose name wasn't on our list. I liked this man and I liked his son. This man had taken many dance classes from us over the years. I wasn't nearly as inclined to lower the boom on him as I was the three party crashers.  I simply asked him what the story was.

He said he had saved $40 on his two tickets by booking the trip through an internet site.  I didn't have the heart to fight another battle. I welcomed him to the group and didn't say another word.

This man in later years has since gone on many cruises with us as part of the group and has helped us in many ways. 

I am glad I didn't make an issue out of it in his case. 

There were no posted rules in 2003.  That was the year we started to learn things the hard way. 
 

Jubilee 2003: THE CASE OF THE ATTEMPTED PIGGYBACK CRUISE

There was yet a third incident in 2003 which provides a further example of people who have no problem exploiting our work. 

2003 was Marla's first year as a Travel Agent.  She booked the summer Jubilee Cruise with 144 people.  Two months after the cruise was completed, one of the passengers on that trip took the entire email list from our summer trip and used it to solicit people to go on her own cruise in November 2003.  This was back in the days before Marla learned the hard way why she should use "blind carbon copy" on her emails.

Did this person ask permission to piggyback Marla's email list for a trip of her own?  No.  Not only did she fail to ask us first, she also tried to do it behind our back.  What was interesting was that she emailed 150 people, but neither Marla nor I received an email.  Since my email address and Marla's were on the original list, it is fair to assume our email addresses were deliberately excluded.  You don't suppose the woman was trying to conceal her activity, do you? 

However the email regarding the November trip raised many eyebrows, especially since it was obvious that Rick and Marla were not involved.  Several people forwarded us copies which is how we learned what was going on.

Both Marla and I were angry.  Marla had just begun to publicize our February 2004 Mardi Gras Cruise.  The November trip meant we were now being forced to compete with the rogue organizer for our own customers!   No one had enough money to go on two different trips scheduled just three months apart.  Our Mardi Gras Trip was being sabotaged.  

This time I didn't need to post a rule.  I quietly asked the lady to reconsider and the problem discretely went away.  


Rhapsody 2004: THE CASE OF THE MYSTERIOUS TRAVEL AGENT BYPASS

In July 2004 there was a bizarre incident involving a couple who booked their Rhapsody Cruise through another travel agent, then asked to be included in our Group.

This couple had previously emailed Marla several times about going on the 2004 Rhapsody Trip.  In other words, they became interested in the trip because of our publicity.  Six emails were exchanged, but they never signed up for the trip.

Two months before the late September sailing, this same couple sent Marla an email asking if Marla would arrange their seating for them at the SSQQ tables. They said they definitely wished to be part of our group.

To: Marla@ssqq.com
Sent:
Thursday, July 29, 2004 5:22 PM
Subject:
rhapsody cruise

Marla,

I hated to bother you with my late registration for the cruise since you seem to have a full plate, so I registered for the cruise along with my roommate, xx, on line using another agency.  I hope that doesn't screw things up for you.

Our  reservation code:  2248326  I didn't know if I should have told them that we were going with SSQQ.  Will you please seat us at one of your tables?

Thank you

Marla and I stared dumbfounded at the email.  This couple had bypassed Marla to sign up for the same Rhapsody trip through another travel agency.  Marla had lost $100 in commissions.  And our Group total was deprived of two more guests.  (All group perks are based on the overall number of people signed up, so every name is valuable.)

However what left us totally flat-footed was that they emailed Marla asking her arrange their seating at dinner time with our group as if she was their travel agent of record.  This made no sense at all.

The mystery deepened when Marla discovered this couple had paid $170 more for their ticket than they would have paid by booking through Marla.  We know this for a fact because the Royal Caribbean group specialist who worked directly with Marla confirmed the ticket price.  Our group rate was significantly lower than the Prevailing Market Rate at the time, so by going online, this couple paid 20% than necessary.  This entire incident made no common sense and it made no economic sense. 

We were completely mystified.  Why would they bypass Marla? Why would they pay MORE for their ticket?  And why would they turn around and expect her to book their seating as if she were their travel agent? 

I am embarrassed to admit I have never figured it out.  Several years have passed and I still don't know the answer.  The woman told Marla that she knew Marla was getting married on this trip and figured Marla was too busy to fool with their reservation.

You tell me... does that explanation make any sense?

Why would someone deliberately bypass Marla for the chance to pay more money?  It made no sense.  Maybe it was "Personal".  But that wasn't likely.  Truth be told, these were two pretty nice people. There were no axes to grind that I know of.  Plus they turned around and asked Marla for help in securing their seating arrangements.  And during the trip, they were very gracious to us. 

Were they trying to put some money in someone else's pocket that needed the money?  That might be the answer.

Or perhaps they decided to go on impulse and discovered they could order over the Internet.  Who knows.

In the end, Marla and I decided to let them join our group for two reasons. 

The first reason was that we did not have a posted rule that said they could not book on their own.
 The second factor was that Marla and I LIKED both people.  They were classy and attractive.  I had been hoping they would join the trip all along.  Marla agreed with me, so we welcomed them to the group.

But I also decided this was this last time we would permit this to happen.  2003 had seen two previous incidents along this same line.  This third incident was the one that made me decide to put my foot down
 

2011 Update

Rick Archer's Note:  Now that you know some the original stories behind the "Book It Thru Marla" Rule, it is time for a 2011 update. 

In recent years, there have been several more incidents, two of them very serious.  One was so serious I am legally prevented from commenting on it.  These recurring incidents make it obvious that we have no choice but to draw a line in the sand and stick to it.

I have three important points to make. 

1. Marla cannot match the very best price on the Internet.

Marla sells cruise trips for a living.  On your typical dance cruise, Marla gets an average commission of $45.  That is the absolute truth.  One very effective way to make some extra dollars on a cruise commission is to add $10 or $20 as a markup.  Marla has never done this. 

Marla and I give you our absolute word that we offer the lowest price the cruise line permits us.  If you ever hear a rumor that we have added a markup, that is a lie. 

Sad to say, even though Marla takes no "markup" whatsoever, she readily admits that her best price may not always be the lowest price on the market.

Over the years, Marla has encountered dozens of instances where a potential customer was able to beat her price and there was not a single thing she could do about it. 

Marla came to the frustrating conclusion that if a customer combs the Internet hard enough, he or she will probably find this same cruise for a less expensive price.  There are many reasons for this.

  • Large travel organizations can purchase large blocks of cabins and get a better price, then pass those savings on.

  • Individual travel agents can defer some of their commissions to undersell.  This is illegal, but it still happens.

  • Credit Card discounts, airline miles discounts, etc, will often allow a person to purchase a cruise at a reduced price below the prevailing rate.

  • The cruise line itself will offer promotions specifically designed to undercut travel agents. 

  • The savings are a mirage.  Internet Travel promotions can promise anything, but once all the hidden charges creep in, the savings are often nominal at best. 

Here is the most recent example.  A man who had been on one of our group cruises asked Marla to book him and his girlfriend on a cruise trip that had nothing to do with our next group cruise.  Marla quoted him the lowest price she could find.  That night his girlfriend combed the Internet and found what she was looking for - a better deal.  She discovered a large online travel agency was selling the cruise for the same price that Marla quoted, but in addition offered $25 per person onboard credit.   Ta da!

The next day the gentleman asked Marla about the discrepancy.  Marla researched and discovered this agency had purchased a large block of cabins.  In return, the agency received 'perks' for their outlay.  For example, if you get a bottle of champagne in your room, that is a perk you get for signing up through Marla's own group trips.  The different here was that the agency wasn't selling any group trip.  It was selling the cabins to individuals who had nothing in common with each other.  However, the agency used it 'perks' to come up with a better offer than Marla could.   In other words, the agency had found a way to use "group perks" as a way to sell individual cabins.  Marla simply could not match that offer.  

Once upon a time, a Home Depot came into the Bellaire area (Westpark at 610). Within a year, I watched as three different Bellaire Mom and Pop hardware stores went out of business. 

The people eventually let Marla book the trip anyway, but did so out of loyalty.  Marla was grateful, but felt vulnerable at the same time.  Marla was shaken by her experience with the travel equivalent of the hardware store problem.  Many people would have opted for the $25 savings and Marla's time researching the trip for them would have gone down the drain.

It is a tough world out there. 

Marla is selling a "Group Experience".  That's not always the easiest thing to put a monetary value on. 

By and large, the difference between Marla's price and the bigger guy's price is usually $20-$30 at most.  However, many people who are used to buying whatever peanut butter brand sells for 20 cents less at the grocery store will likely use the same logic for cruise shopping. 

Marla gets her share of perks too (free room upgrades, champagne, cocktail parties, private rooms for dance workshops, group dining experience and so on), but to many potential customers who don't know her that well, these intangibles are not as easy to grasp as a $25 savings.

If saving $25 is that important, then go ahead and book the cruise somewhere else.  Just don't expect to participate in our activities. 

We can and will exercise our right to ask ship security to remove you from our activity.  That includes group dining, dance lessons, private excursions, cocktail parties, private group-only cruise activities, and our private after-hours dance events as well. 
 

2. There is strength in numbers.

As I have pointed out, there are perks and amenities based on the size of each group.

  • On Greece 2008, we made a free cocktail party by hitting the number right on the nose.  One less person and there would have been no party. 
     

  • On Conquest 2011, we missed out on a private Cocktail Party by one cabin.  ONE CABIN.   How would you feel if two women or two men or a couple bought their tickets elsewhere and then turned around and tried to show up for our dance activities? 

Think about it.  These people saved $20 and cost the entire group a private Cocktail Party.  And then they show up for our dancing at night.  Ladida.  Do they deserve to be included in group activities?

If you sign up for the cruise trip through Marla, you are not only benefitting yourself, your participation supports the entire group
 

3. Riding Piggyback

Let's say you are a member of the SSQQ Cruise Group for a trip that has just begun.  Maybe some strangers show up at one of our dance workshops because you invited them.  This has happened before.  Or maybe some people show up at our Cocktail Party because you invited them.  This has happened before.  Or maybe some people are sitting in your seat at Dinner Time because someone else at your table invited them... at your expense.  This has happened before.  

We call this phenomenon "Piggybacking".  This happens on practically every cruise.

It is pretty easy to spot Piggybackers.  After all, Marla and I know the names and faces of 90% of our guests ahead of time.  That means we know exactly if there is a new face in the group.  We waste no time welcoming that person.  As we greet them, we are also covertly checking their name against our mental list of new names.

On almost every trip we have ever taken, someone pops up who isn't signed up with our group.   So Marla or I try to turn these people away only to discover someone in our group actually know these people and wants to stick up for them.  This has happened before several times.  Maybe our group member is soft-hearted and says his friends didn't know our rule ahead of time, but adds they are really nice people.  Let's make an exception for them!

Well, yes, that's what Marla and I did in the beginning.  Back in the early days, we looked the other way.  I think it was about the fifth or sixth time it happened that we realized being nice about it wasn't working.  On every trip people kept showing up.  At first we were mad at these people for trying to crash the party.  Then we began to realize they were there in large part because someone in our group had actually invited them!!

Now we realized that trying to be nice about it had backfired.  Our cruise group people noticed that exceptions were being made... so the problem happened again on the next trip and then the one after that. 

There are two kinds of Piggybackers.  Some are well aware of our Book it thru Marla rule, but try to crash the party anyway.  I don't have much sympathy for this bunch.  Others are just vaguely aware of our rules... or at least they say they didn't know.  It is tough to know what is the right thing to do with them.

Let's make up a story.  Dick and Jane run into their friend Jeff at Wild West and ask him what he's been up to.   Jeff says he is dancing hard to get his skills honed for his upcoming dance cruise.  Dance cruise?  What dance cruise?   So Jeff quickly gives them some details.  Jeff says he is going with some group over Labor Day that always has a great time. 

Dick and Jane may have heard of Marla, they may have heard of SSQQ, but they don't really have any connection to Marla.  What they do know is this dance cruise sounds like a fun idea.  Dick and Jane have nothing special planned for Labor Day.  Even better, they have a $100 Carnival discount they can use to reduce the price on their next cruise.  So they decide to use the discount on that same cruise their friend Jeff from Wild West told them about.  They book the trip through Carnival.   No one can blame them.  That makes complete economic sense. 

Once on board the ship, naturally Dick and Jane want to hang with their dance friend Jeff and his friends in our group.  They don't understand why Rick and Marla object.  What does it hurt to let two more people join the fun? 

Marla and I understand that Dick and Jane are not malicious in any way.  Dick and Jane did not mean to disrespect us or the SSQQ Cruise group even slightly.  They mean no harm.  Heck, they barely know who we are.  However, now that they are on the cruise and see how much fun we having, they want to join the group and be our friends.  If we let them join, maybe they will sign up for next year's trip!   But right now, they want to dance with their friends like Jeff and the rest of his crowd.    What does it hurt to let two more people join the fun? 

The problem is that in the long run, allowing Dick and Jane to participate undermines our business and undermines our group.
 

Crashing the Party

Dick and Jane are attempting to Ride Piggyback.  Their participation is a headache for Rick and Marla because it undermines our business.  We are selling a Group Experience.  Every time we let someone share the "Group Experience" for free, we are sending the message to others that they really didn't need to sacrifice and sign up for $25 more dollars.  What a chump they are.  Next year they will just go ahead and sign up elsewhere and save a couple bucks.  So what if they can't dine with the group?  They can always find their friends on some dance floor.

Dick and Jane would not have even been on this ship if Marla had not spent countless hours organizing the trip in the first place.  The group would not even exist if Marla had not spent ten years slowly building the business.  It is the same thing as downloading music, books, or movies for free... the artist created a product, but someone figures out how to get it for a bargain.

Except that in our case, this action isn't anonymous; the Piggyback happens right before our eyes.  Piggybackers stick out like a sore thumb.  We know who they are immediately.  Pretty soon the Grapevine means the rest of the group knows it too.  

Marla deserves to be rewarded for her time and effort.  These trips work like a charm because Marla puts her skill into making all the right moves ahead of time. Trust me, Marla does not make scads of money in commissions.  If you saw all the work she does behind the scenes like I do and all those endless hours on hold on the phone to Carnival, you would agree Marla deserves every cent that comes to her.

In Dick and Jane's case, Marla and I have absolutely no way to prevent them from signing up elsewhere.  It is actually no surprise to me at all that this sort of thing happens practically on every trip.  For example, on Conquest 2008, two women from Houston showed up every night attempting to participate in the dancing with our group.   On Conquest 2009, the exact same thing happened again.  On both occasions, we had several women sitting on couches because these Piggyback women were not only cute, but good dancers as well.  How do you suppose the discarded women in our group felt as the men in our group fell over themselves chasing the Piggyback girls?   Even more frustrating, I learned members of own group had invited them to come along on the trip in the first place!  In other words, our larger group was being sabotaged by its own members.

On Virgin Islands 2011, a woman who had been a member of our Bahamas 2010 cruise also signed up for the VI 2011 cruise, but not with Marla.  This woman had made friends with several of the people on our VI trip from the previous year's cruise. Now she repeatedly tried to join our group activities.  However we said no.  We explained it isn't right to expect to hang with the group without paying the dues.  We explained to her that she is more than welcome to join another cruise with us, but that we expected her to steer clear of the group on this trip. 
 

Why Can't our friends join the Group?

When the first pair of women Piggybacked on Conquest 2008, they had several friends who were part of our group on board.  These friends made it clear to me they wanted the Piggybackers to join us.  When the second pair of women Piggybacked on Conquest 2009, they too had several friends who were part of our group on board.  These friends made it clear they wanted the Piggybackers to join us. 

Both times we said no.  If we had said YES, then every single person in the group would see that Marla and I make exceptions.  That would open the door to a lot of headaches.  For example, on Conquest 2011, perhaps we would have 4 people show up. When questioned, they might say their friends in the SSQQ group PROMISED them that since we let some people from last year join the trip, they could probably do the same thing this year. 

So let's say in 2011, Rick and Marla let them join too.

On Magic 2012, what if we have ten people try the same trick? 

On a small scale, this is the same thing as letting people crash your party.  On a large scale, this is the same thing as allowing uncontrolled immigration. 

As host, Marla and I have every right to insist that the borders of our group be respected.

The point is that once we make an exception, it has repercussions that go way beyond the trip itself.   In each successive trip, every person who wants to save $20 or $40 knows they can do so with impunity. 

Pretty soon, each year we take the chance that fewer and fewer people will join the "official" group. 

The "unofficial group" may continue to grow, but to their surprise one year our Cocktail party won't make.  Then they will discover our Champagne Party didn't make.  All those group amenities dry up. 

Meanwhile the group identity gets blurred.  Just who is with the group and who isn't?  People start sitting with us at dinner who aren't even part of the group because someone "invites them".  Don't laugh; this exact thing happened in New England 2006. 

Then one year maybe the cruise ship decides there aren't enough people in our group to merit reserving a private room for dancing.  There may be 150 people in our "unofficial group", but our official group is now too small to get the ship's attention.  The trips stop being as much fun.
 

We Need Your Help 

No only do Marla and I have to draw the line and enforce the line, we need the people in our group to support our position.  Even though it is not obvious at times what harm it would do to make exceptions, the Big Picture says that in the long run it does a lot of harm.

Back when I ran SSQQ, one year I discovered that 20 people had gotten into the SSQQ Halloween Party for free.  The party cost $15.  That price included free wine, beer, and soft drinks.  Marla and I had spent an entire day before the party putting up decorations and the Haunted House.  Then Marla and I had spent another entire day taking down the decorations and the Haunted House.  We were exhausted.  As I took down the curtains that helped create the Haunted House, a person showed up early for Sunday classes.  This person said with a frown that she had watched people in Room 5 open the door all night long to let their friends to come into the party for free.  This person said she had wanted to say something to me last night, but that an SSQQ Staff person had said it was okay, these people were volunteers who deserved to get in for free.  However, this woman still had her doubts.  She thought I should I know.  I thanked her and let the incident go.  Oh well, that was $300 down the drain.  The real damage was that I felt betrayed by the Staff person.  This incident caused an anger within me towards the Staff person that never healed.

Every time someone in our cruise group invites a person to join one of our cruise trips, but fails to explain the consequences of bypassing Marla, this person is not only disrespecting Marla, but our entire cruise group.

Signing up for our cruise trip does not give you the right to encourage buddies outside the group to attend our activities.  To me, that's just as bad as letting them into the Halloween Party for free.  This short-sighted behavior is disrespectful not just to Marla and me, but to every single group member. 

"To be included as a part of the SSQQ group, you must book your cruise through Marla.  There will be NO EXCEPTIONS!"

Our group can only stay healthy if our group members understand this concept and embrace it.

 


THE ADVANTAGES OF THE GROUP EXPERIENCE

Alaska 2005:  THE DISGRUNTLED GENTLEMAN WHO WANTED TO SAVE $49

In January 2005, as Marla and I put together our promotion for the Alaska 2005 trip, I decided to post the "Book It or Hook It" Rule for the first time.  I quickly discovered that someone out there didn't like this rule one bit.  He complained bitterly about the injustice to an SSQQ Hall Monitor who then passed his tale on to me.

It seems this student had discovered a travel agent who in his opinion was selling the same trip at $49 less than SSQQ. He was bitter about this new Book It or Hook It  Rule because he thought he could get next July's SSQQ Alaska Cruise at a cheaper price than we had listed on our web site.

He intended to book his cruise separately, save $50, then join the group anyway.  But before he could carry out his plan, I passed the "Book It or Hook It" Rule which effectively closed the back door.  Angry about the new rule, he related his feelings to the Hall Monitor who turned around and shared the story with me.


I never knew whether his claim about the money was correct or not.  The Hall Monitor preferred not to share his name with me nor the travel agency where he thought he could get a better price. All I heard about were the sour grapes.

Why do you suppose this gentleman was interested in this particular trip in the first place?

After all, there are a dozen cruise lines operating in the Alaskan waters and literally hundreds of trips to choose from next summer. Or for that matter there were plenty of cruises to different places all over the world. 

How do you suppose out of all those infinite choices, our Disgruntled Gentleman (DG for short) managed to choose our particular July sailing to be the one he wanted to go on?

My guess is that he chose this one-in-a-thousand sailing for the following reasons:

  1. He knew a group from SSQQ was going.

  2. SSQQ had earned a reputation for well-organized trips.

  3. He looked forward to having plenty of attractive women from our group to dance with on his trip.  

In other words, Mr. DG wanted all the benefits being part of our group, but didn't want to pay the extra 50 bucks.  Marla and I refer to this as the "Have Your Cake and Eat it Too" phenomenon.

He told the Hall Monitor because he had taken a dance class here at SSQQ, he should get included in the group automatically.

Had Mr. DG spoken to me, I would have said this, "
Please answer this question - would you have been interested in this particular sailing if we had not advertised the SSQQ Group would be on the ship in the first place?"

It seemed to me the only defense that Marla and I had against this man signing up elsewhere with the expectation of joining the party was to put the Group off-limits to any and all outsiders.  

Our new rule forced the man to choose.  Do I want to save some money or do the advantages of hanging with a neat group of people outweigh the extra expense?  And what exactly are the advantages of sailing with the SSQQ Group?
 

Cruising with a large Group has many advantages.

Take for example the SSQQ Alaska 2005 Trip.  As it turned out, the Alaska Cruise was a wonderful trip.  It was definitely one of our best trips ever.  In fact, of all our previous trips, many people beg us to put Alaska back on the agenda (Hawaii is in this same category).  We had 73 passengers aboard who danced and partied their way through the most beautiful area we have ever visited.

Alaska was
an expensive trip, but it was also a trip many people had wanted to take all their lives.  Many of our guests told us they decided to go specifically because the thought of sharing their adventure with the SSQQ Group made it seem worth the money.  Without our group, many people said they probably would have put it off for some other year. 

In other words, the chance to sail with the SSQQ Group made this vacation seem much more attractive.  Going with a group like ours made a big difference. 


For starters, traveling with the SSQQ Group meant you could always find a friend for any occasion.  One nice thing about our SSQQ Groups is how easy it is to make new friends.

Who on earth would want to take an exciting train ride deep into the heart of the magnificent Alaskan forest alone?

Or what's the point of visiting the famous Denali National Park all by yourself?  Eagles, caribou, grizzlies, and moose wander everywhere. Half the fun of seeing these animals is the chance to point them out to a friend or loved one!

What's the fun of witnessing the grandeur of the massive Hubbard Glacier or seeing magnificence of America's largest mountain - the towering Mt. McKinley - all by yourself?

What's the joy of hiking rugged trails through glacial waterfalls outside Juneau alone?

And who would dream of taking a sea kayak trip on the protected harbor of Tongass National Park without a friend to share the boat ride?  

For people who are single, the chance to join a group like this is a perfect opportunity.

I suppose some people can be happy reflecting on the rugged beauty of Alaska all by themselves, but most people would rather have a friend to share this magnificent experience with.  Furthermore, many single people appreciate the added safety of traveling with a group, especially the ladies. 

And what about Romance?  If you have read the story of the trip, one couple got engaged during the trip and FIVE COUPLES got married within four months after the trip ended.  Romance was definitely powerful on the Alaska trip!

The Single members of our trip enjoy the added chance of Romance.  T
he success of our trips with Singles is legendary. Who can take one look at the pictures of our cruises and fail to conclude that the birds and bees are way out of control?

In addition to the Singles, Couples seem equally attracted to traveling with a group like ours.  Couples often want to share the experience with other couples.  Besides, it's fun to dance with everyone at the parties even when you come along with a loved one!  As they say, the more the merrier.   The proof is in the pudding - we have over a dozen couples that try to make each SSQQ trip they possibly can. Their repeat business is the highest compliment imaginable. 

And Couples always have the choice to cut free from the crowd when they choose.  If
you are a Couple, what could be more romantic than a spectacular adventure like Alaska or Hawaii?  Couples on a cruise have the best of both worlds - each other plus lots of friends for extra fun. 

After sharing the adventures with friends during the day, the evening Dinner is a great "group activity".  After a full day of excitement, Dinner Time is marvelous fun as people can talk about the day's events.  In Alaska, for example, members of our group made new friends quickly.  From that moment of our first dinner together, each evening offered the chance to share stories of the fantastic adventures of the day. We heard about a brown bear interrupting lunch in the wilderness, whale sightings, and stories of plane trips into the unfathomably beautiful Misty Fjords. 

Now try to i
magine what the trip would be like sitting at dinner with a bunch of strangers all week.

The trip started with a terrific SSQQ Cocktail Party. We danced, we drank for free, we laughed, and we made friends with everyone. Traveling as a "Group" gave us this party. It was a 'Group Perk'.  Large Groups like ours are always rewarded with many benefits like this that people traveling as singles or couples will never see. 

Furthermore, traveling with a group means you can take the friends you make back home with you.  It is so much better to hang with a close group of friends who you will be able to see again back in Houston.  

When you travel as a Loose Moose instead of with the Herd, anyone you meet on the trip likely becomes "Here Today Gone Tomorrow". But when you travel with our group, a friend found in Alaska could become a friend for life.

In addition to the sightseeing adventures, SSQQ DANCING was another marvelous reason to be a part of the group. Let's face it, when SSQQ isn't around, dancing DOES NOT happen on these cruises - at least not the way we are used to dancing.  We become instant Cruise Celebrities simply because our dancing brings so much energy to each trip.

And the trip doesn't end when you return home. There's an "After Trip" Party at the studio complete with a Slide Show.

And what a simple pleasure it is to relive the trip by browsing the SSQQ Travel web site writeup to see the pictures again! 

Plus t
here is always the racy Trip Story.  After all, what if you do something spectacularly naughty?  How is the whole world going to find out without our cheerful gossip about the Trip? And what about the countless pages and pages of incriminating pictures to take you down memory lane that will stay on our website forever?  One glance at the amazing Alaska pictures reminds you immediately at how wonderful this trip was (and how good the next one will be!)

In addition, there are many advantages to traveling with a large group like ours that you would never get if you traveled alone.

For example, we
get free cocktail dance parties, we get champagne, we get dance lessons, and we get free room upgrades. We get group discounts on our tickets.  And I bet those ship cabins sure get expensive without a roommate.  SSQQ Cruises are perfect for Singles because they make those "need-a-roommate" problems conveniently disappear.

But gee, if you can save 50 bucks on a $2000 cruise trip, hey, 50 bucks is 50 bucks!  

And then after those big savings, why not just crash the party anyway?  After all, the SSQQ Group is where the action is.

On every trip, the SSQQ Dance Group is the largest, most powerful, the most energetic, and the most tightly-knit group on board.  On each trip, after they see us in action, outside people ask to be seated with us and join our dance classes all the time.  And why not?  They are drawn to our energy.

So now you see why this article had to be written.  Everyone needs to understand that no one comes in the back door

If you want the benefits of our Group, then you must sign up with the Group, contribute to the Group, and accept the rules of the Group.   

After our 2004 Rhapsody trip I wrote at great length why it is important for each person to stick together and be part of the SSQQ Group. If there is any doubt in your mind, please read what I had to say: The Business Side of Organizing a Cruise Trip.  

But when it comes to our Disgruntled Gentleman, I suppose it is the nature of the beast to want to have your cake and eat it for half price.

However there was something about Mr. DG's complaint about saving money that made Marla curious.  Who was underselling her? She told me she thought she had the lowest price on the market. 

After listening to the story of DG, the thing that made no sense to Marla was that he claimed he could find a way to improve on our prices. Marla did a quick Internet check that confirmed the SSQQ prices were running $150 to $350 below Royal Caribbean's Prevailing Rate for the same trip!  

Take a look for yourself (prices in RED were added by me):


Here is how to understand the picture taken from the Royal Caribbean Web Site above.

First add $27 in taxes to each of the RCCL prices. This bumps up Interior Cabin from 1199 to 1226, Oceanview from 1534 to 1561, and Balcony from 1779 to 1806.  Now compare these prices to the SSQQ prices for the same categories:

As of January 26th, the RCCL price for an Inside Cabin including taxes was $1226 and our price was $1027. That was a $199 difference.

The RCCL price for an Oceanview was $
1561 and our price was $1216. That was a $245 difference.

The RCCL price for a Balcony was $
1806 and our price was $1452. That was a $354 difference.

After checking the RCCL prices, for the fun of it I sent Marla to the web site of Houston's largest travel agency, Vacations to Go. Known for their excellent discounts, as of January 26, 2005, Marla found their Inside Cabin price was $1158 (our price was 1027), their Oceanview was $1483 (our price was 1216), and their Balconies were $1738 (our price was 1452).

It certainly appeared that the SSQQ prices were actually quite a bargain.

I asked Marla why our prices were lower. She explained that our price was way below market for the simple reason that she got a Special Group Rate based on our group performance from our two previous trips last year.  In addition Marla got an excellent price by booking a group trip so far in advance!   Thanks to Marla's efforts, SSQQ has become an RCCL favorite.

The reason Group Rates are lower than Individual Rates is simple - Groups have bargaining power! 
That is a powerful reason why it is important for us all to stick together!

In fact, our posted Internet prices were so low we even had suspicious travel agents calling Marla to question how we got that price.  They didn't like being undersold.  In other words, the SSQQ Group Rate was terrific!


So you might ask, "Even though the SSQQ prices are significantly lower than prices published on the Internet, was it still possible the Disgruntled Gentleman could actually find a price $49 lower?"


The answer was: Maybe.

It may be that DG was confused about the prices.  Take for example the picture above that listed Royal Caribbean's daily Prevailing Rate.  I had to remind you to add in a $27 hidden tax.  Lots of things have a way of not being listed!

Since it is common for travel agencies not to list hidden charges such as taxes and port fees, it can be very tricky to make accurate comparisons.  Just like when you look at the price of the same car at different car dealerships, they change the accessories enough that you are never sure which place is actually cheaper. The travel industry plays the same games.

However there might be another explanation. I
t is possible that Disgruntled Gentleman found a travel agent willing to discount their own commission.

Travel Agents make commissions on their sales. For an expensive trip like Alaska, Marla might get $100 per passenger. Since she splits that money with her sponsoring travel agency, Marla ends up making about $50 net.  This is good money, but believe me when I tell you that Marla works her butt off. It may be good money, but it isn't easy money.

The cruise industry would love to find a way to completely bypass Travel Agents. If they could cut out the middle man they could lower costs and boost profits.  For example, on our Rita Rhapsody 2005 Trip, on the last day of the trip an announcement came over the Intercom hinting at huge savings if people would book their next trip RIGHT NOW.  

People came running to Marla for an explanation.  Should they book now?  Once Marla explained that the SSQQ Group Rate would always out-perform whatever was being offered to individuals, they calmed down.  Nevertheless several ssqq passengers on that trip reported to Marla they almost signed up right on the spot since the message seemed so compelling.

This serves as a simple example how the cruise industry
tries to cut out the middle man by booking customers on another trip before they even leave the ship.

Do I blame them?  Of course not.  I certainly understand this thinking. Commissions to travel agents have been a curse to Cruise Lines because they can be manipulated to the Travel Agent's advantage.  You already know how nuts Mr. DG got over $50.  What you don't know is that in 2003 a man and his son signed up through someone else just to save $20 apiece, then asked to join the SSQQ group.  People can't bear to think someone else is getting a better price, so they are drawn to anyone who can undersell by a few bucks.

For example, let's say Royal Caribbean wants $1500 per booking. If RCCL books the customers by themselves, they pocket the entire $1500. But if a Travel Agent gets involved they expect a commission in return for their service.  Assume RCCL will give the travel agent a commission of say $100.  However this opens RCCL to being undersold by the travel agent.

Here is how it works: If DG goes directly to the RCCL Web Site, he pays $1500.  But if Disgruntled Gentleman finds a convenient Travel Agent, he can pay the travel agent $1450, then the travel agent turns around and pays RCCL $1500. Then in a couple months further down the line the travel agent gets back $100 in commission. Disgruntled Gentleman saves $50, the travel agent makes $50, and RCCL loses out on $100.

Now you know one of the reasons the cruise industry would rather simply bypass the travel agents.

It is true that if RCCL catches an agent doing this, they can lose their license. But it isn't easy to prove a transaction like this. Since $50 is better than nothing, I imagine some travel agents are willing to occasionally cut a deal under the table with certain customers to keep them 'loyal'.  As long as they are sure they won't get caught, this is a simple way to steal someone else's commission.

So maybe DG could have saved 50 bucks by using a cozy relationship with another travel agent.  But once we posted our "Book It or Hook It" Rule, that ruined his plans and made him angry.


THIS IS A  BUSINESS RUN BY SOMEONE WITH A BIG HEART

In conclusion, it is no secret that Marla organizes these trips because she receives a travel agent commission on each sale.  

I wish to point out that Marla works unbelievably hard to make each trip a success.  She goes way past the call of duty all the time.  I know because I watch her in action.  I have great respect for Marla's abilities. 

If anything, she tries too hard. Marla cares so much about her job, sometimes she goes slightly crazy when things go wrong (please read the Dark Side for further insight.)

I hope all of our customers understand Marla has a right to be rewarded for her efforts.  

It is a shame that there are people like clever Mr. DG who are quite willing to stiff Marla her commission, but can't wait to get in line to grab a share of the group goodies.

No one likes the smart guy who cuts in line.  It was a nonsense plan all along.  Our group isn't "That Big".  We would have noticed.  We always do!  After all, this is a cruise trip, not the "Wedding Crasher" movie. 

Had this person tried to crash the party, someone would have asked a couple questions, his story would have come out and ruined his plan anyway.  You are on board for seven days with nowhere to hide. Why go to so much trouble for $50?

Wouldn't it be nicer if the gentleman would simply join us and contribute to the fun?  

For one thing, my hunch is after the smoke screens were cleared away, he would see that our price was competitive all along.  Best of all, his conscience would feel better and he would find how comfortable it is to be part of such a neat group of people.  

 

ADDING INSULT TO INJURY:
TWO MORE STORIES ABOUT SSQQ'S BOOK IT OR HOOK IT RULE


Written by Rick Archer
Part One: May 23, 2006


2006 marked Marla Archer's fourth year as a part-time Travel Agent. There are rumors that being a Travel Agent is a glamour profession marked with many perks such as free cruises. While it is true that we sail for free, I can guarantee you there have been no silver linings to date.

This job of Travel Agent is hard work. And sometimes the position is an absolute nightmare. For example, Marla nearly went crazy last year trying to handle the voluminous problems caused by Hurricane Rita on our 2005 Rita Rhapsody Cruise.

Even when things are going pretty well, Marla sits at her computer practically the entire day answering calls and emails about our upcoming trips as well as interfacing with Royal Caribbean agents regarding the countless details of each cruise trip.

Take my word for it - Marla works hard for the money.

At this point, SSQQ takes two cruises a year. For the past three years Marla has planned one dance cruise and one high-end cruise. Last year's Alaska Cruise was such a slam-dunk success we experimented with three cruises this year. Our Pacific Northwest Cruise almost "made", but not quite. We found our client base is simply not big enough yet to sustain three trips.

So this year Marla settled on two cruises - the annual Rhapsody Dance Cruise around the Gulf of Mexico plus a very interesting trip to Boston in September to take a cruise along the scenic New England and Canadian coastline during the beautiful "autumn leaves are falling" season.

Oddly enough, despite the incredible popularity of Rhapsody Trip, it doesn't have a big payout. Marla estimates she gets a commission of perhaps $25 a person on this trip. When I explain this to people, they scoff. What these people don't realize that Marla has to split all commissions with her parent travel agency. Considering the hoops she has to jump through, she earns every penny.

Because the New England cruise is so expensive, Marla actually makes a fairly decent commission of about $150 a person. Lots of people have told me they would LOVE to go, but the stiff price is a realistic obstacle. Since there are not very many people with this kind of money, the numbers for this exciting trip are limited.

The SSQQ Cruise Trips have grown in popularity each reason for two reasons. The first reason is that our Group Trips are a lot more fun than going alone.

There are friends to be made.

It is effortless to find company to share the shore excursions with.

There are the dance classes during the day.

Dinnertime is great fun as stories of each day's activities get passed around.

There is safety in numbers. There are always people to watch your back or help you if you get stuck. There are opportunities for shared travel arrangements.

There is a special 'energy' in numbers as well. 40 people in a Group have pull that 40 individuals don't.

There are shared experiences that come back to Houston.

Plus there are many perks that come with traveling with a group like ours as opposed to going on your own. The best-known perk is our free welcome aboard cocktail party complete with hors d'oeuvres, dancing, and free drinks.

Normally a large group guarantees a free cocktail party for example. Usually you need 50 people to make this cut-off. In the case of this year's New England trip which is hovering around 35 people as I write this story, Marla decided to simply reduce her commission and pay for this party out of her own pocket.  

Last week Marla thought there was an outside chance we might make the 50 Cut-Off when there was a flurry of new interest in the trip.

Instead she received two consecutive slaps in the face.

INCIDENT ONE

On May 1st a woman phoned Marla about the New England Cruise. She explained that she had a friend who was already signed up for the trip. The woman said that she and her husband were interested in going on the cruise as well.

She asked Marla several very general questions about the cruise. She answered all her questions and then referred her to the SSQQ cruise website.

Soon the woman phoned Marla back and left a voice mail to please phone her. The message stated this woman had some more questions that needed to be answered before she could sign up.

Marla returned her call the next day. The woman asked several very specific questions in regards to cabin dimensions, pricing, locations, including finding out what cabin her friends would be in. She said that she wanted to make sure that she would be able to be near her friend. Marla assured her that if she would let Marla book her trip quickly, she would be located close to her friend. Marla then phoned Royal Caribbean. After about 15 minutes of holding plus some back and forth with the RCCL agent at the other end, Marla confirmed she could book the cabin next to the woman's friend.

Marla called the woman back. At the end of the conversation, the woman then asked if she could use a certain credit card to pay for the trip. She said that she wanted to make sure she got her "points". Marla assured her that the card named was accepted as a form of payment. The woman concluded the phone conversation by saying she needed to verify with her credit card company that she could book with Marla.

Marla raised an eyebrow at that statement. Something told her this meant trouble. At this point, Marla explained we had a distinct rule known as "Book It or Hook It" that clearly states Marla is the travel agent of record on each trip if people are going to join our group.

After a few days, Marla phoned her to see if she still was interested in making the cruise.

She informed Marla that her credit card company told her that she had to book the trip through their travel agent to take advantage of the points offered. Marla misunderstood what this meant. Marla had interpreted this statement to mean the woman and her husband were not making the trip after all.

It turned out this was not the end of the story. Two weeks later a mutual friend - yet another acquaintance - approached Marla on this woman's behalf. It turned out this woman and her husband had booked the cruise after all using the credit card company's travel agent. Now she and her husband wanted to be included with the SSQQ Group at dinner and for other activities as well. It would seem the woman was too embarrassed to approach Marla directly. Would Marla please arrange for this woman and her husband to sit with the SSQQ group at dinner????

Marla's eyes grew wide as saucers. She had spent a serious amount of time "selling the cruise" only to have the woman go behind her back and book the same cruise with someone else.

Afterwards, Marla did some research on the credit card in question. It seems this card has specific rules regarding booking travel. The rules say you must book with "their agent" to receive the benefits.

First Marla had lost $300 in commissions so the couple could save a few bucks in credit card points.

Then they had the nerve to ask to be included in the SSQQ Group Activities.

That is called adding insult to injury.
 

INCIDENT TWO

A few days after the third party brought up the highly awkward request to have these people included in the New England group, a second incident occurred.

On Friday night May 19th, a couple that had been on a previous SSQQ cruise showed up for Friday Practice Night. As I danced with the woman, she mentioned that she and her husband had taken a Mediterranean Cruise the previous year. I told her how envious that made me. Then the lady asked me if SSQQ was going to take any cruises this year. I mentioned our two trips as we danced.

After the song was over, I escorted the lady over to see Marla. The two women talked about the SSQQ Cruises for about fifteen minutes. Marla quickly realized this couple had cruised extensively. After determining their background, Marla targeted the New England Cruise. She also discussed her role as the Travel Agent for the studio since on the previous trip there had been another travel agent.

On Sunday May 21st at 1:30 pm, Marla received a voice mail from the lady asking what Dinner seating the group had plus she needed to know how to book the trip. She asked that Marla return her call right away.

On Sunday May 21st at 3:30 pm, Marla made several attempts to return the call, but had no luck. Later that same day at 5:00 pm Marla and the woman were able to connect by phone.

The woman stated that she had just booked the trip using Continental's online site because she wanted to receive miles for the cruise purchase. (Grand total of 3000 miles) APPROXIMATE VALUE = $40.

Marla groaned. Here we go again. She explained the "Book It or Hook It" rule. She also reminded her that we do this for a living and that these cruises are a lot work-from their inception to the cruise post parties. The conversation went back and forth for fifteen minutes discussing Cruise Website Write-ups, Cruise Meeting, Cocktail Parties, Dance classes, dining arrangements etc.

Finally Marla offered her the option of canceling her reservation and letting Marla take over so she could still be included as a part of the group. That didn't go over very well. There was dead silence at the end of the phone.

Marla stated that of course she could book whatever cruise she wished whatever way she wished, but unfortunately she would not be a part of the SSQQ Group . . .

Her response was "So, can we still come to the Group Activities?

Marla wondered to herself if the woman had listened to a word she said.

Add another insult to injury.

Marla was not only out $600 in commissions; her chances of adding enough people to the group to qualify for the "free" Cocktail Party were diminishing by the minute.

To be frank, when Marla told me these stories, I was livid. In both situations Marla had literally "sold" these women on the trip and offered to book them. Instead they NOT ONLY deliberately bypassed her to save a couple bucks, BUT ALSO turned around and asked to be included in the group activities.

And now you know why we wrote the "Book It or Hook It" Rule in the first place.

The difference this time is that both women knew about our rule ahead of time, then they deliberately ignored it.


ADDENDUM

One week after Marla spoke to the woman in Incident Two, the lady emailed her to say she had changed her mind.  It was more important to be part of the Group than to save a few dollars. 

----- Original Message -----
From:
To: marla
Sent: Friday, May 26, 2006 10:58 AM
Subject: New England cruise with SSQQ

Marla, I talked with you on Sunday afternoon about the New England cruise.  We would love to be included in your group.

We would like you to book us a Balcony cabin on the port side of the ship if at all possible.

I've checked the Balcony rooms available and my first pick would be 8042 (port side and near a main stairwell). Second pick would be 9006.

Call me for my credit card number.

Thanks so much!
 

Not only did Marla respond to this good news with open arms, both she and I felt much better.  It is no fun to argue with people you like over money.  That said, this is an issue where we intend to stand our ground. Otherwise it will come up again and again and again.

 

(Editor's Note: Believe it or not, when the New England Cruise took place in September 2006, there was an interesting new development to the story you have just read.)

 

4. THE PARTY CRASHERS
(excerpted from the New England 2006 write-up)


There is a Yiddish word known as chutzpah.  It describes someone who is quite self-confident, but who also lacks respect for the feelings of others. 

This is the story about a woman who, in my opinion, had the shameless audacity to force her way into our group even after we told her she was not welcome. 

If this story about the couple from Houston who crashed the party upsets her friends, I apologize in advance.  But I resent the treatment my wife received and I intend to speak out.

Marla and I have had a firm rule in place for a couple years known as "Book It or Hook It".   The rule goes like this:

"To be included as a part of the SSQQ Group, you must book your cruise through SSQQ.  NO EXCEPTIONS!"

Surely you wonder to yourself, why would anyone even need to make up a "Rule" like the one above?   At some point before this incident, someone did something so utterly thoughtless and stupid that we felt taken advantage of. 

The Book It or Hook It Rule was published on our web site in 2005.  The couple that crashed the New England Trip were well aware of our rules ahead of time.  They ignored them.

PART ONE - MARLA LOSES A $300 COMMISSION

On May 1, 2006, a woman named Hope phoned Marla about the New England Cruise. She explained that she had a friend who was already signed up for the trip. Hope said that she and her husband were interested in going on the cruise as well.

She asked Marla several very general questions about the cruise. Marla answered all her questions and then referred her to the SSQQ cruise website for more information.

Soon Hope phoned Marla back and left a voice mail to please phone her. The message stated this woman had some more questions that needed to be answered before she could sign up.

Marla returned Hope's call the next day. Hope asked several very specific questions in regards to cabin dimensions, pricing, locations, including finding out what cabin her friends would be in. She said that she wanted to make sure that she would be able to be near her friend.  Marla assured Hope that if she would let Marla book her trip, she would be located close to her friend.  Hope said she wanted to be sure. So Marla then phoned Royal Caribbean. After about 15 minutes of holding plus some back and forth with the RCCL agent at the other end, Marla received confirmation that she could book the cabin next to Hope's friend.

Marla called Hope back to report the good news.  At the end of the conversation, Hope asked if she could use a certain credit card to pay for the trip. She said that she wanted to make sure she got her "points".  Marla assured her that the card named was accepted as a form of payment.  The woman concluded the phone conversation by saying she needed to verify with her credit card company that she could book with Marla.

Marla raised an eyebrow at that statement. Something told her this meant trouble. At this point, Marla explained to Hope we had a distinct rule known as "Book It or Hook It" that clearly stated Marla is the travel agent of record on each trip if people are going to join our group.

Hope did not call back.  Since Marla sensed that Hope was serious about going on this trip, a few days later Marla made a courtesy phone call to Hope to see what was going on.

Hope informed Marla that her credit card company told her that she had to book the trip through their travel agent to take advantage of the points offered.  Her explanation was sufficiently confusing that Marla misunderstood this to mean the woman and her husband were not making the trip after all.  

At this point, Marla was completely in the dark as to what was going on.  She was frustrated since she had put in quite a bit of time and effort into helping Hope, but she had been in sales long enough to be philosophical about it. 

If this was the end of story, I would not have had a problem.  But this was not the end of the story.
 

PART TWO - CAN WE STILL JOIN YOUR GROUP?

Two weeks later, one of Hope's mutual friends on the trip approached Marla on Hope's behalf.   The mutual friend explained to Marla that Hope and Joe had booked the cruise using Royal Caribbean directly.  They had some points or credits of some sort from previous cruises that they wanted to cash in.  To do so, they had to book directly with Royal Caribbean.  

This contact is how Marla finally found out what Hope had really done.  Marla did not appreciate being deceived, but she was okay with it.  As far as Marla was concerned, it is a free country.  An individual can book a trip with whomever they wish.  No hard feelings. 

What angered Marla is what came next.


The mutual friend said Hope
and her husband wanted to be included with the SSQQ Group at dinner and for the other group activities as well.  It would seem that Hope was too embarrassed to approach Marla directly, so she asked her friend to be her intermediary.

Would Marla please call Royal Caribbean and kindly arrange for this woman and her husband to sit with the SSQQ group at dinner????

Marla's eyes grew wide as saucers.  She felt like she had just had the rug pulled out from under her. 

Marla
had spent a serious amount of time organizing an attractive cruise.  Hope would not have even been on the phone were it not for Marla's work in the first place.  

Then Marla had answered every question Hope
asked plus spent part of a morning on the phone with RCCL trying to help the woman. 

Now Marla realized it had been a complete waste of her time because it was obvious Hope intended to
book the cruise elsewhere from the start.

Marla was incredulous that Hope now wished to join the group. After all, Marla had specifically told the woman she had to book with Marla or forget about the group.  Didn't the woman hear a word she said? 
Marla put her foot down. She told the mutual friend to tell Hope that she could not be a part of our group in any way.

First Marla lost $300 in commissions so the couple could save a few bucks in RCCL points.

Then the couple had the nerve to ask to be included in the SSQQ Group Activities despite having already been told what the rules were.

There is a term for this. It is called "adding insult to injury".

You might expect a kid to disobey your rules, but a grown adult?

Marla and I were both upset at Hope's shenanigans.  However once Marla said 'no' for the Second Time to Hope's friend, we figured she would get the message and that would be the end of it.  This story should have stopped right here, correct?  

Well, it didn't.

PART THREE - SOMEONE WILL NOT TAKE 'NO' FOR AN ANSWER

A month later, Marla received this email from Hope's other friend on the trip.

----- Original Message -----
From:
To: dance@ssqq.com
Sent: Tuesday, July 25, 2006 1:22 PM
Subject: New England Cruise

Hi Marla,  Thanks for the cruise update; I'm getting really excited about it.

Our friends Hope and Joe, who are veteran RC cruisers, are signed up to go on this trip. They had RC credits they "had" to use up.

They are not dancers so I doubt they will be participating in any serious dancing with us. I would like to have dinner with them though, as well as with the SSQQ group. Is there any way we can include them in our dinner group?  Maybe they can make arrangements for dinner with us from their end, so you don't have to do any extra work.

This was my reply.

 -----Original Message-----
From: Rick Archer
Sent: Tuesday, July 25, 2006 3:42 PM
To:
Subject: Joe and Hope

Marla and I have a firm rule that people must book with Marla to be part of the group.

Given the way American business throws around incentives and discounts, this rule was created to discourage people from bypassing Marla's role as the travel agent.

For example, you mentioned that Joe and Hope are trying to cash in on some Royal Caribbean credits. Did you know that Royal Caribbean would dearly love to completely cut travel agents out of the middle?

I have seen RC offer deals that Marla simply can't match. I frown because it is obvious Royal Caribbean knows EXACTLY what they are doing. I am sure old Joe Rockefeller used similar techniques while he was starving out the little oil producers at the turn of the century.   This game that Hope and Joe are playing is a perfect example of a travel agent being squeezed and I don't appreciate it. 

Royal Caribbean seems to forget that many people would not even be interested in their trips if travel agents like Marla were not involved.  She was the one who drummed up the idea for this trip in the first place. You have no idea how hard Marla works behind the scenes to plan these trips and handle all the details. She deserves to be rewarded for her efforts.

I am sure that Joe and Hope are very nice people and that their decision to book elsewhere was not evenly remotely "personal", but the fact remains that they are on their own.

There are likely to be several ways to find a compromise. There might be openings at their table one evening. Even better, you might try eating together at one of the special elite restaurants. For example, on the Alaska trip, there was another couple that did not book with us, but had friends within our group. On one night, the two couples had dinner together at one of the special restaurants (Portifinos). The food was so good they went back and did it again two more times.

I would dearly love to find a way to thank you for all the kindness you have shown me over the years, but this is one rule I can't bend on. Please forgive.

A reply

-----Original Message-----
From:
Sent: Wednesday, July 26, 2006 3:31 PM
To: dance@ssqq.com
Subject: Re: Joe and Hope

Hey Rick, no need to explain, I understand completely. We will all have a great time, I'm sure.

The big accounting firms (which I used to be a part of) have been trying to squeeze out the little guys for decades. Now, it seems the table has turned on them, ergo Arthur Anderson & Co and others. My business has never suffered though because most people worth their salt value the personal attention of a good service provider ... accountant, travel agent, dance instructor extraordinaire.

I have really enjoyed you and your SSQQ over the past couple of years. Keep on dancin'.
 

This incident marked the Third Time that we told Hope we did not want her to be a part of our group.  First Marla explained the situation on the phone, then she had enlisted a friend to talk with Marla at the studio, and now she had asked her other friend to intercede as well.  Marla and I were remarkably consistent in our responses. 

No, No, No! 

PART FOUR - WHAT PART OF 'NO' DON'T YOU UNDERSTAND?

Fast forward two months to the New England Cruise.  It was the first night of the trip. 

The first night of dining was bizarre.  There was an enormous line of people waiting to come in through the one door that was open.  Marla and I were the first ones to be seated because we used a trick.  We entered the Dining Room from one floor above and descended the elegant staircase to become the first people in our group to be seated. 

As I watched the rest of our guests slowly enter the Dining Room, I shook my head.  At every occasion involving "moving people", the Jewel was so far behind the Rhapsody it wasn't even close.  The Jewel only carried a hundred more people, but they just couldn't figure it out!

While we waited for the rest of our group to join us,  Marla looked around and did a double-take.  She tugged on my arm.

"Rick, something's wrong here.  These tables are completely out of whack.  Someone has changed my seating arrangement!"

My eyebrows furrowed at her comment. I hadn't said anything, but from the moment I sat down I couldn't understand why Marla had created such a stupid seating arrangement.  It was something I could live with, so I kept quiet.  Why make a fuss and make her feel bad?  What good would that accomplish?

Marla had my immediate attention.  I asked her to explain to me how the tables were supposed to arranged.

"Rick, the tables are all messed up.  They were supposed to be next to each other!  I set them up four tables in a row side by side."

Looking at the odd zig-zag arrangement we were now stuck with, I experienced an odd sense of relief and anger at the same time. 

On the one hand, I was relieved that Marla's original plan had made sense after all. 

But now that I realized someone else had interfered with her work, I was very angry at the new arrangement.  What kind of moron would do this without even bothering to check with my wife? 

"Marla, do you have any idea who made this switch?  Can you think of a reason?  This arrangement doesn't make any sense."

Marla was as baffled as I was.  She was angry that her work had been tampered with.  Thanks to someone's invisible hand, 4 tables that were meant to be side by side were now not even close.

What had gone wrong?

It had been Marla's responsibility to arrange the seating for all guests.  Her original plan had four tables - three tables of 10 and one of 8 - located side by side.  Now the arrangement was all messed up.

Then we noticed there was one table with twelve people sitting together.  In a group of 38, why would one table have twelve people?  That made no sense at all.

THE PARTY CRASHERS

Our eyes simultaneously locked on a mystery couple sitting there at the Table of 12.  Both Marla and I stared in disbelief.  Our group was large, but it wasn't that large. I knew the faces and names of everybody who came with us.  These two people were total strangers. 

Marla and I were instantly suspicious.

We looked at each other in disbelief.  Was it Hope and Joe?  But how could it be?!  Marla had specifically said they couldn't sit with us.  Who on earth would push that hard to join a group against explicit written and verbal objections? 

Besides, they weren't sitting with either of their friends.  That made no sense either.  Hadn't they pushed so hard so they could be with their friends in our group? 

The more I thought about it, the more I felt it had to be Hope and Joe.  There were plenty of empty seats around the room.  No couple would choose to sit with a group of strangers without a specific reason.

I assumed that Hope and Joe had noticed two empty spots at one of our tables and helped themselves.  How convenient that these two chairs weren't taken!   If that was the case, I was ready to look the other way and leave it alone.  This entire affair had made me feel uncomfortable from the start.  What a lucky break for them that one of our tables had two empty spots.

But then Marla whispered something to me.  She said in her experience the seating was highly organized on Royal Caribbean ships.  Practically every table in the room was designed to seat ten.  Plus our group's natural number was ten.  Therefore it was very unlikely for our group to have a table with twelve seats by accident.  Someone must have specifically requested it. 

Her words hit home.  There were two things that made no sense. First, the seating arrangement had gotten rearranged behind Marla's back. Second, there were two people sitting with us who were not with the group. It seemed quite possible the two problems were linked.

Now I began shaking my head.  I grabbed Marla's hand.  Together we excused ourselves from the table and made our way to the front of the dining room.  We found the Maitre d' and asked him to help us to confirm the identity of the mysterious couple.   We explained what we thought was going on.  I told him before we decided to do anything, we needed more information.

The Maitre d' was reluctant to help at first.  He told us this was a highly unusual situation.  He had never heard of a seating problem like this before.

That is when Marla spoke up.  She explained that she was the group coordinator.  She gave him our group number.  She gave him the name of her RCCL Specialist and explained the two of them had organized a much different seating arrangement. She added that someone had rearranged everything behind her back.  Now she wanted some answers.

The gentleman frowned.  This situation could become very unpleasant.  I got the feeling he wished we would go away, but it was obvious to him Marla intended to see this through.  Plus she obviously knew what she was talking about.  The man asked to see Marla's Ship ID card.  He then checked her name against the manifest to confirm that Marla was indeed the Group Leader.  Once her authority was established, the Maitre d' asked Marla what she would like him to do.  Marla asked him to research the name of the mystery couple.

The Maitre d' carefully checked the computerized seating plan for the dining room.  He looked up our tables.  He confirmed our educated guess was correct.  The mystery couple was indeed Hope and Joe.  Then he had a little surprise for us. He said that Hope and Joe had a right to be there.  They were sitting at their assigned table!

Assigned table?  I looked at Marla and she looked back at me.  They hadn't just availed themselves of two empty seats.  They had gotten someone to give them permission to sit at one of our tables. 

Marla was fit to be tied.  She explained to the Maitre d' that she had personally made every seating assignment in the SSQQ group.  Hope and Joe were not part of the group and they had not been part of the seating plan. 

The more she thought about it, the angrier she got.  Because of Hope and Joe, the entire seating plan of her group had been screwed up.  And no one had shown her the courtesy to explain the change. Not only had the change been made without her permission, the change had ruined the configuration of our group's seating arrangement. 

She looked at the man with a furrowed brows.  She said,
"On whose authority were these two people added?  And who switched the seating arrangement of our tables?"

At this point, there was an interesting shift in the man's demeanor.  Till now, he had kept us at arm's length.  But Marla spoke with such assurance that he began to sense something out of the ordinary was going on here.  Yes, this was awkward, but on the other hand, he began to see where Marla was coming from.  Marla wasn't scamming him; something strange was clearly afoot. He spoke to Marla. 
"I will do what I can to help clear up this problem.  What do you want me to do?"

Marla said,
"Can you access their accounts and see who was responsible for this change?" 

The Maitre d' nodded. He looked up Hope and Joe's record.  He responded,
"Recently a representative of Royal Caribbean made this seating assignment at the request of the passengers in question."

He paused for a moment, then added, "I see here that the couple in question has taken many cruises with us.  If I were to guess, perhaps they used their status to receive special accommodations."

He paused. 
"You have the authority to make a change. Would you prefer they be reassigned to another table?" 

Marla looked at me. 
"What do you think, Rick?"

"I think that out of respect to Hope and Joe's friends, I have no wish to embarrass them.  Let everyone enjoy the trip. I can live with it if you can.  You're the one who keeps getting pushed around, not me."

Marla nodded her head in agreement with what I said. Marla told the man, "There's nothing to be gained by being ugly.  Let them sit where they want.  Thank you for at least explaining to me what was going on."

As a result of Marla's decision, Hope and Joe were allowed to join our group for each meal during the trip.  No one was told about the problem. 

Hope and Joe joined us on other occasions as well.  They were on the periphery of one group activity after another.  They never participated, but they were always in the background watching.  They became our constant shadows.

Since Hope and Joe made themselves a part of our group, I can only assume they would want to have their picture included. I took this picture myself at dinner one night in preparation for this story you are reading.  It remains a complete mystery to me why they smiled for my snapshot. 

Were they completely oblivious to how Marla and I felt about their actions?  Or did they simply not care what we thought?

 

POSTSCRIPT

Royal Caribbean has developed a system of valuable incentives designed to lure repeat customers to book directly with them. 

This email on the left is a perfect example of how RCCL offers discounts to previous customers.

This practice allows RCCL to bypass travel agents.

RCCL can discount their fares $100- $200 (see picture below) at the drop of a hat.   

After all,
if they don't have to pay a commission to a travel agent, then they aren't losing any money

I have little doubt that RCCL would greatly prefer to lessen their dependence on travel agents. 

They stand to make more money if when customers book with them directly plus RCCL gains greater control when customers deal with them. 

Meanwhile, the travel agent gets systematically undermined by this practice. 

You know what?  That is how business in America works.  It is called 'competition'. 

RCCL is looking out for their own interests and I am sure Carnival, etc. does it too. 

And you know what else?   Marla and I have the right to fight back.

We are not helpless.

Marla and I have something that Royal Caribbean and the other cruise lines cannot take away from us:

Group Cruise trips are very attractive and very popular. 

Marla and I have been told time after time how much people enjoy to taking vacations with our groups. 

Look at it this way -  If the guest wants to hang out with friends, that opportunity is always there.  But if a guest wants to be alone, he or she has that choice too! 

On a Group Cruise, you have the best of both worlds.  Go where you want to go, be with whom you want to be. Enjoy the advantages and safety of a large group or disappear whenever you want to be alone.

The Group Cruise Card is a very valuable asset that Marla and I hold. But as we have explained, we have to protect that Card against the lure of Big Business Discounts. 

Most people understand our position and are very loyal.  But not everyone...

The lure of savings is very powerful. 

I remember one man who showed up for our Pre-Cruise Meeting for the 2003 trip. He had not signed up for the trip.  What was he doing here?  At the time, I couldn't figure out what was going on.   Maybe he was coming to pick up some tickets for a friend. Who knows?  Since I liked him, I didn't mind him being there. So I didn't give it another thought.

When the ship sailed, I was surprised to see him show up for one of our dance events.  Where did he come from?  That is when I recalled he had crashed our pre-cruise meeting. Hmm.

So I asked him what was going on.  He explained he had signed up with another travel agent to save a whopping $20 for him plus another $20 for his son who was along with him.

This saved $40, but Marla was out $200 in commission.

Some people will bypass us to save a couple dollars.  (Previous incidents)

The incident with Hope and Joe should put to rest any doubts that we are correct in this conclusion. 

Hope and Joe's actions prove there are people who are willing to bypass Marla to save money or get extra benefits. Then they turn around and try to piggyback our group anyway.  Hope and Joe didn't want to play by our rules.  We said no, but our authority meant nothing to them.  They were going to do it their way whether we liked it or not. So they went behind our backs to get seated with our group.  I hope it was worth it to them.

Given that lucrative discounts will be a constant nemesis, I don't see any choice but to stand firm on our willingness to exclude people from the group. Even if means we have to be nasty about it, we will stick to our guns.  And now you know why we have our 'Book it or Hook it' Rule


Book it or Hook it
 
Ė to be a part of our group, you must book with Marla.  It isnít fair to her to go to all the trouble to book this trip only to see people give their commissions to other agents. 

A FUNNY COINCIDENCE

By chance, there was another couple on our trip who initially did the same thing as Hope - book this cruise with someone else.  Like Hope and Joe, they were experienced cruisers who had likely accrued similar credits.  Perhaps they booked elsewhere to take advantage of these credits. 

This couple learned about our trip one night when they visited the studio for our Friday Night Western Dance.  I happen to like both of these people.  In fact, they actually met at my studio at a New Years Party.  I asked the lady to dance.  As we danced, we also chatted. The lady mentioned they had just returned from a Mediterranean cruise.  Now we had something in common so we talked about cruises. The next thing you know, she and her husband were interested in going with us on the New England cruise.

The following day, the lady contacted Marla.  After a game of phone tag, she and Marla got a chance to discuss the details.  Satisfied that it would be a fun experience, the couple decided to go.  But they bypassed Marla and booked the cruise elsewhere - perhaps directly with Royal Caribbean like Hope did. 

Then she got back to Marla for seating with the group.  That is when she learned that she and her husband would not be allowed to join the SSQQ group.  Marla could tell on the phone she was disappointed.  The lady thought about it for a while and probably talked it over with her husband.  A few days later she changed her mind.  First she canceled her reservation and then she asked Marla to book it instead. 

Marla was very grateful.  So was I.  I was very touched by the kind gesture of this couple.

In life, there is a right way to do things and there is a wrong way to do things. 


5. Marla Archer: The Business Side of Organizing a Cruise Trip
 


FORWARD WITH RICK ARCHER

Rick Archer's Note: The following story was part of the writeup for our 2004 Wedding Rhapsody cruise.  I wrote this article back in 2004 as a way to explain to people just how hard Marla works behind the scenes. 

In the words of one previous customer, "I suppose if I looked hard enough I could find a less expensive price somewhere, but I will never find a travel agent that tries harder to make her trips successful than Marla Archer."

September 2004: Champagne Night and The Life of a Travel Agent

The SSQQ Champagne Night was definitely one of the favorite evenings on the 2004 trip.  For those of you who like to understand more about how the "Travel Industry" works, there is an interesting story behind our "Champagne Night".

Marla not only became my Bride on this year's trip, she was also the Travel Agent for our group. If anyone was ever born into a particular role such as this, it is Marla.  She has a genuine gift for organizing trips. 

Even before Marla and I met, 'Travel' had always been one of her favorite hobbies.  I relied on an outside travel agent to coordinate the first three SSQQ cruises, but soon after we met, I realized Marla was a natural for this role.  I used my contacts and secured a position for Marla as a "travel agent in training".  On last year's Jubilee 2003 trip, Marla shared the workload with an experienced travel agent.  She did so well that she was rewarded with more responsibility when she organized the Mardi Gras trip earlier in 2004.  After Mardi Gras, Marla was promoted again.

This Rhapsody 2004 trip was the first cruise where Marla did all the work without supervision. Given this kind of responsibility, from the start Marla put all her energy into making sure this would be our best trip ever.  I think she succeeded beyond our wildest dreams, but then I am prejudiced.

One of the things that Marla learned is that when you decide to take a cruise, there are huge advantages to going with a Group as opposed to booking individually.  I have a hunch the cruise industry would love to repeat the airline industry's trick of cutting out the travel agent.  But it isn't going to happen any time soon because a good travel agent is still the cruise industry's best friend.

As it stands today, "Destination Industries" such as the ski industry and the cruise industry realize the value of catering to individuals like Marla whose leadership can attract large groups of customers.

Both Marla and I have noticed many people greatly prefer to cruise within a group.  Traveling with friends is a marvelous way to share experiences. 

It should be duly noted that although the mischief level varies drastically between the Singles and the Couples, traveling with a large group such as ours seems equally attractive to both sides. 

The opportunities to dance are greatly expanded with a group such as ours and the trips ashore seem more fun as well. 

The "more the merrier" slogan seemed especially appropriate for every activity we had on this trip ranging from Bar Hopping at Key West to the Bloody Volleyball Match at Chankanaab Beach. 

Indeed, our Post-Trip Party was equally packed with Singles and Doubles all smiling and laughing themselves silly at Gary's Slide Slow.  Obviously Everyone had fun whether they came alone or came together.  Cruise trips afford everyone the chance to get to know each other at a much deeper level.  I find it interesting that several of the roommates Marla put together have become best friends once they returned to shore.  Something about "partners in crime"...


A SURPRISE BENEFIT OF GROUP TRAVEL - UPGRADES

Did you know that in addition to increasing the "Fun Level", there are huge economic advantages to traveling with a group?  One little known story on this trip were the large number of people who received upgrades in their accommodations. 

You might be surprised to find all that money you pay for a cabin barely covers the ship's expenses.   Where they make their money are from the drink tabs, the excursions on shore, the gift shops, the art show auctions, the bingo, the gambling, and selling the pictures at auctions.  These activities are vital towards assisting each ship to turn a profit. 

Take my dance studio for example.  A class of 20 makes more money for us than a class of 10, but there is no increase in cost to the studio.  Therefore the larger the classes, the easier it is to pay the SSQQ rent.  The Rhapsody feels the same way - the more cabins they can fill, the more profit they make from people participating in the activities.

So the Rhapsody does everything it can short of giving the trips away to fill as many cabins as possible.

Since it is far easier to sell a cheap cabin than an expensive cabin, as the departure date grows nearer, the cruise specialist rewards many of the passengers who have already signed up with "upgrades" to more expensive rooms at no extra charge.  There is no rule as to who gets the upgrades. These lucky passengers are usually people who have registered through "Groups" because here the specialist can ask the agent for suggestions.  

Marla enjoyed a terrific rapport with her RCCL Specialist, a man named Courtne (yes, that's how he spelled his name).  Every day I would hear laughter from her office only to discover she was on the phone with Courtne again. Was I jealous?  Maybe.  They clearly were on the same wave length.  For example, I asked him why he doesn't spell his name with a "Y".  He answered, "Because I never ask questions."  Marla understood him, but I didn't.  So what?  I sure enjoyed the results they were cooking up together.   

For his part, Courtne enjoyed the success Marla had recruiting customers for him to process. She definitely made his job easier by boosting his numbers.   

One of Courtne's jobs was to create more space in the cheaper cabins.  These upgrades typically go to the group agents, not to the many anonymous individuals who sign up "on-line". 

Because Courtne respected Marla's work, he enjoyed rewarding her by giving her the Lion's Share of these opportunities to hand out among her passengers.  Due to her special status as the Agent in charge of the single largest Group on this particular sailing of the Rhapsody, Courtne offered Marla frequent upgrades.

As a result, I would guess 90 people among our group were promoted to better cabins simply due to the "Marla-Courtne" connection. 

Who received the upgrades?   Marla chose evenly between the first people to sign up on this year's trip and people who had sailed on previous SSQQ cruises.  This quiet upward movement is one of the unwritten rewards for traveling within our group.  I might add Marla was deeply appreciated for these favors.  Some people traveling on a limited budget said these were the best cabins they had ever seen.

Marla's relationship with Courtne paid off in several other important ways as well.  Marla negotiated a group rate far below any price an individual would get by signing up solo.  Typically she had two months to sell cabins at this discounted rate.  After that the price is free to rise.  However, because our SSQQ Group performed so well this year, Marla was able to get RCCL to extend that rate far beyond the original cutoff date.

As a result people signing up through SSQQ were able to get a significant discount over the price listed on the RCCL Internet web site practically up to the last minute.

Things weren't always this positive. In the process of her work, Marla learned a lot of things the hard way.  There is a real Dark Side to the cruise business. 

Marla discovered there is a campaign in the cruise industry to bypass travel agents whenever possible. This would allow the cruise line to save money on commissions if they could get passengers to book directly with them. If they didn't have to pay commissions, then they could lower their prices. By lowering their prices, people would abandon their travel agent. Get the picture?

In other words, by cutting out the middleman, they would save money plus gain more direct control over their customers.

Never was this point more clear than an incident that happened on the last day of the cruise.  Someone made a ship-wide announcement, that every person who "signed up today would receive a $50 off" bargain that the ship was offering. 

Soon Marla was besieged with SSQQ passengers trying to take advantage of this offer.  She quickly explained to each passenger that the offer was $50 per cabin, not $50 per person.  Divide by two. $25 was not nearly as impressive. 

Then Marla explained that the Group Discount that SSQQ receives is significantly greater than $25. 

In other words, for those people aboard this cruise who were not in our group, this was a nice bargain. But for members of our group this promotion offered no savings at all. 

However, without Marla's explanation, this was a difficult concept to understand.  She had to work overtime to explain to people that the ship's offer was nowhere near what they would get if they stuck together as a group.

Here was a simple example of how RCCL tries to bypass the travel agents. I can't say that I blame them, but it does make Marla's job harder because she has to explain the truth behind each promotion. 


Marla's Credibility

Although Rhapsody 2004 was only Marla's second trip as a solo travel agent, I noticed that the SSQQ passengers were quickly beginning to learn to take her word at face value. Although it is true I have an outspoken wife, I can also tell you she speaks the truth even when it may not be to her own advantage. It is her nature to be candid.

And believe me, her credibility was tested time and again on this trip.  A major headache was the onslaught of phone calls regarding various web sites that appeared to offer a better price than Marla's listing. 
Marla received calls from at least a dozen people who said they had seen a better price somewhere else on the Internet or in the paper.

Due to the ease with which both outside travel agents and potential customers can comparison-shop the Internet, it is almost always possible to find a cheaper price somewhere.  Generally these bargains are $10 less here or $20 less there.  The problem is that the Internet hosts more con men and swindlers since the snake oil salesman days at Dodge City.  Only the most highly experienced travelers can detect the difference between genuine bargains and the nonsense promises laced with hidden costs.

For the record, Marla negotiated an extremely good price for this trip.  However due to all the cruise double-talk, there were numbers that appeared to beat our price from time to time. Marla would patiently look up the prices herself and explain what was going on.  Not once did she turn up a site that truly undersold her price.

However not everyone was convinced that the SSQQ price was the best price out there. 
Marla finally decided not to argue about the price anymore. The price was competitive; let's leave it at that. She pointed out that if each person went for a $10 bargain here or the $20 bargain there, two bad things would happen. First, if the $20 was that important, then go for it, but don't expect to be part of the group.  Second, none of these people would count as part of our group when RCCL got around to counting up how many perks our group was due. By signing on elsewhere, the person would be sabotaging the overall group. Marla had to make these people see that we had to work together in order to maximize the benefits for the group. 

Marla's leadership paid off.  Slowly but surely everyone came around to Marla's thinking.  Marla discovered that none of these people meant any harm. They simply did not understand the big picture until Marla cleared it up for them.  As the result of Marla's patience, with the exception of only one couple, 120 people signed up with us directly. 



The Bully

It wasn't always easy for Marla to earn the group's confidence.  She received her fair share of lumps and abuse in the first two years. 

For this particular trip, one of Marla's customers treated her with complete contempt. 

The argument began over an aspect of cruising that confuses everybody known as Port Fees.  

Everyone who sails pays a port fee. Marla pays a port fee and so do I.  I promise!  The City of Galveston has built a very expensive dock for RCCL, Carnival, and other cruise lines to use.  Similar the concept of a Toll Road, Galveston gets that money back by adding a "Port Fee" to the ticket of each passenger. 

The "Port Fee" issue causes rampant confusion, especially with people who are new to the cruise game.

Take this classic example: One Travel agent says he or she will put you on the Rhapsody for $400 while another agent promises to put you in the exact same cabin for $560.  The first agent simply has neglected to mention the $160 Port Fee.  He or she isn't lying, but you aren't getting the whole picture up front either. 

Since it is human nature to call the less expensive offer first, you phone the $400 person and give them the first crack at your money. To your great regret, once you make the call, you find out the bottom line is the same as the more expensive offer.  You realize you won't save money by going anywhere else.  Since you are on the phone anyway, why waste any more time by calling someone else?? 

So the agent with the less expensive offer gets the sale. Is it any wonder that most agents prefer not to list the actual price up front??  If you think this racket sounds similar to the come-ons you hear from the car dealers, you would be correct.

Like I said previously, all the cruise discount double-talk led to constant inquiries from people phoning or emailing Marla to ask why so and so charges this but Marla charges that.  These daily headaches over at most 20 bucks quickly taught Marla that Travel Agents have to work very hard for their money. 

These frustrations were minor, however, compared to the way she was raked over coals by a man who openly questioned her intelligence.  This particular SSQQ traveler was so rude to Marla that she began to cry. 

This man had paid for a single cabin. A cabin on this trip sold for $800.  This translated into $400 a person.  So he paid the entire $800.  Since he was traveling alone he only had to pay one port fee of $160.  $800 + $160 = $960.  In his mind he had paid for the entire cabin including his port fees. 

Then a couple months later our passenger invited a young lady to join him in the cabin for FREE.  "
Won't cost you anything! Cabin's all paid for!" he promised. 

However when the lady inquired about the free cabin, Marla disagreed - someone would need to pay another $160 Port Fee.  The man called Marla and told her she was wrong.  "
I already paid the #$%* port fee!  You told me the cabin was completely paid for!"  

Marla tried to explain why he or the lady still needed to pay a second port fee, but he wouldn't listen. He called her a liar on the phone and questioned her intelligence using very unattractive words including the word 'stupid'.

I know this for a fact because I listened to the message he left on her answering machine.  Marla was right all along. Someone - either the man or the woman who joined him late in the game - would need to pay the extra $160.  Marla didn't appreciate being insulted, but she held her ground until the man quit blustering and started to listen. He eventually paid up another $160 to get his woman on board. For her trouble, Marla ended up with nothing more than extra gray hair for her trouble.  Marla never gets any commission on port fees, just headaches and a stiff neck.


The Weird Travel Agent Bypass

Another maddening incident was the couple that signed up on-line through another travel agency, then turned around and asked to be included in the group. 

This incident baffled me because they paid $170 more by signing up elsewhere!

The woman had phoned or emailed Marla on several occasions with inquiries about the trip.  She had been on one of our previous cruises.  Marla told her that she and I would be delighted to have her join the trip.  Imagine Marla's shock when she found out the lady and her friend had by-passed her and signed up for the same cruise using another agency. 

Marla received an email saying they had signed up elsewhere "in order to save her the trouble" since Marla had mentioned being very busy planning her on-ship wedding.

But the couple didn't think Marla was too busy to do their seating arrangements for free.  

The same email that explained why they had not used Marla's services also requested that Marla make sure they were seated at our group dinner tables.   Their online travel agent was unable to do this for them.  So they paid $170 extra for less service.

Marla had not only lost 2 commissions, now she was being asked to act as their travel agent for nothing.  She went ahead and scheduled them with our group, but it still made no sense.

Not only was Marla hurt by this bizarre action, the entire Group was sabotaged as well.  There are "perks" granted to each group based on the size of the group.  The number of cabins necessary to receive these perks changes from trip to trip.

While the number may vary by peak season versus slow season, anyone can figure out "the higher our number, the more the goodies". 

By signing up on-line, this couple cost the SSQQ Group two spots because they were not registered as part of our group. 

What if the magic number had been 90 but we only had 88 who counted as part of the group?   Tough.

Stand Up and Be Counted!

Don't laugh; as they say, every man counts.  On the six trips SSQQ has taken, twice we have missed a cut-off and once we barely made it. 

On our first cruise in 1998 we needed 35 for a party, but only had 30. They gave the party to us anyway, but they reduced the time of the party and cut out the hors d'oeurves entirely.

In 2001, we magically crossed the Magic 100 barrier at the very last minute. This qualified us for a huge bash courtesy of the Carnival Celebration.  And Celebrate we did!  The 2001 trip was a fabulous success. 

Earlier this year we missed out on a party.  On last February's Mardi Gras Trip we took 39 during the off-season only to miss the 50 cut-off.  It might seem like we missed the number by a wide margin, but in truth there were several nibbles right up to the last minute. Had one or two of those inquiries gone our way, maybe the others would have joined the crowd.

Mardi Gras 2004 was the trip where I learned that every little bit counts.  As anyone trying to recruit for a college football team will tell you, the faster everyone stands up and gets counted, the easier it is to recruit the "undecideds" to join us. 


It Helps to be Big

On the 2004 Rhapsody Trip I learned first-hand the advantages of why it is useful to travel in a group. Despite meeting all our "perk" numbers without breaking a sweat for this September trip, we needed all the muscle we could muster!

A perfect example of the benefits of size developed when Marla had to fight to secure the Shall We Dance Lounge for our wedding reception on the first night. 

Typically Shall We Dance is used for "Kids Orientation."   In the summer several hundred children come on any given cruise.  However in late September it was time for kids to be in school.

Without bothering to actually count, the Rhapsody Cruise Director automatically penciled the kids in for Shall We Dance and stuck us in the tiny Viking Crown Disco. 

I was furious.  I expected our group would outnumber all the kids on this particular cruise by a significant margin.  Marla did everything she could, but this issue seemed to go nowhere. The Lounge issue stayed on the table for a month.  It still wasn't a done deal till the final week before the cruise.

Finally, I decided I had no choice but to use a threat.  I hate being a jerk, but sometimes that is what it takes. I emailed that I intended to bring our entire group into Shall We Dance whether the kids were in there or not. Then we would let the actvities coordinator explain to 120 adults who wanted to dance why a bunch of kids deserved that room more than we did. 

In other words, someone either wasn't thinking or couldn't have cared less.  But we got the room shortly after my tirade. 

Do you think we would have won our argument if there had been 50 of us?  Probably not.

Size counts!
  If you are going to act like a bully, it helps to have a big gang backing you. 

Now you can see why the twin concepts of Stand Up and Be Counted and United We Stand, Divided We Fall are real issues when we organize our group trips.

As far as I can tell, for the 2004 trip only the "Marla's too busy to help" couple broke ranks. I went ahead and included this couple in our group. I did it for the simple reason that I liked them. I didn't understand their actions or their reasons, but I didn't see what good it would do to cry over spilt milk.  I was pleased to note they seemed to have a good time. 

However for future trips I think all of our passengers need to understand this issue more clearly. From now on, if someone does not book with Marla, that person cannot be part of the group.

So what does all this have to do with Champagne??  

Once we crossed the 90 threshold, we were able to qualify for our next group perk. 

Courtne gave Marla the option of converting the perk into commission or giving it away in the form of a Champagne bottle to be given to each cabin. 

Marla decided she wanted to thank everyone in her own way for coming along on her Honeymoon Cruise.  So as a result each cabin received a complimentary bottle of champagne.  Let me add many people acknowledged her gesture with plenty of hugs and thanks. 

However there was one very peculiar problem  - no one seemed to be drinking their bottles!   

The problem with a bottle in a cabin is that you have to share it with your roommate.  Bottles are tough to cut in two.  A lot of these roommates had just met.  For example, two guys who barely knew each other weren't as excited about sharing a bottle with each other in the wee hours as you might think.

Therefore many bottles were left sitting in the rooms unopened.  Such a terrible waste!!

Then Mara Rivas had an idea.  Why not have everyone pool their resources for a big 6 pm bash on Thursday Formal Night before our group picture at 7 pm?  Such a Smart Girl! 

This idea was well received.  Lots of people signed on for this concept. Mara doesn't drink much herself, but as you will soon discover she is excellent at getting other people drunk. 

Several of the people on the trip do not drink, so they thoughtfully contributed their bottles to this party. 

Talk about adding fuel to the fire!  There were Champagne bottles everywhere, probably close to 50 of them! 

The rate of Champagne consumption varied dramatically from one person to the next.  I heard some people took a couple sips. That sounds okay.

But what about the others who poured their champagne into the buckets the bottles came in and used straws!?!  Why not just chug the bottle?  Or lay on your back and turn on the faucet? 

Unfortunately Marla and I had a meeting with the Captain at this same time. This meant we had to miss the significant Champagne event.  Therefore we have no "insider stories" to share. However I do have in my possession some very interesting pictures. I will let them tell the story.

One thing I noticed is you could use pictures to guess the amount each individual had to drink.

For example, study carefully the pictures below of Zeke from Cabin Creek and Gina Lollobridgida.  These portraits will serve as an up-close study on the effects of alcohol. 

Both woman are strikingly attractive in their red dresses and black hair.  Both also appear to be under the influence. You job is to see if you can tell which Lady in Red has had the larger intake of champagne. 

Speaking of red, note the rosy cheeks on Lolo.  She is a Royal Flush.  Or is that a Royal Lush?  Whatever.

My, what rosy cheeks!  And don't you love those bedroom eyes?

They say every picture tells a story.  Here are two final looks at Champagne Night.

In the picture above, Mara is sipping while it appears Leroy takes his Champagne a little more seriously.
Doesn't Leroy know that drinking too much Champagne makes you sleepy?


6. FIRING CUSTOMERS!

 


Written by Rick Archer
April 2008

NOTE: THIS ARTICLE FIRST APPEARED IN THE MAY 2008 NEWSLETTER WEEK ONE

T
he adage as we all know is that the customer is always right. That said, this sentiment seems to in question these days.  For example, I have a friend who tells me she fires her customers occasionally when they stand her up for appointments.  She does it in a nice way, but makes it clear it is time for them to find a replacement for her.

That said, if truth be told, I don't fire very many students. I would estimate maybe one person a year gets excommunicated from SSQQ.  There are a couple I would like to strangle, but by and large the people who come to the studio are friendly, honest, and decent people. The vast majority of our customers are marvelous human beings.

SO WHAT DOES A STUDENT HAVE TO DO TO GET FIRED?

In the past, most of the complaints have been directed at me. But today, I am going to do the complaining. I am upset with a student whose name and identity will remain confidential.

One really easy way to get fired as a student is to be rude to my wife Marla.

As I write this article, SSQQ currently enjoys one of the happiest Eras of my 30 year career. There are so many people who contribute to this Era that the list is practically endless.

If I name a few, I insult the ones I leave off.
If I name a lot, this 15-page Newsletter doubles in length.
So for now I will stick to one person.

At the top of the List is my wife Marla.

Thanks to her hard work, I have a special name for this particular Era:
It is known as the LOVE BOAT ERA.

Not only does Marla keep a steady hand on the business details of SSQQ, her work with the two SSQQ cruises each year is phenomenal.  No one but me sees the daily work Marla puts in answering the phone with both current and potential Cruise customers, interacting with Royal Caribbean and Carnival booking agents, and typing endless replies to an endless number of email questions. Add to that her interaction with her host travel agency, her constant review of the travel possibilities on the Internet, and all the paper shuffling she handles, you have one very busy woman.

As I am fond of saying, "Many of you, few of me."

Well, when it comes to the Cruises, Marla operates under the same conditions. There is only one Marla, but this year (2008) there are nearly 200 cruisers (many of whom are brand new and feeling intimidated)!

Not only does Marla patiently answer many of the same questions day in-day out for different people, there are some cruisers who seem to make a hobby emailing Marla practically every other day. One person has emailed Marla 38 times regarding one cruise. Nor is he/she the exception. There are two other people with over 30 emails. Many of you/ Few of Marla.

When I ask Marla if it gets old, she nods yes, but then she quickly adds that every job has its good sides and bad sides. She understands that diligence in regards to correspondence is part of making sure that each cruise is well organized and that new people feel they are going to sea prepared.

IN APRIL 2008 MARLA RECEIVED AN EMAIL THAT CROSSED THE LINE. HERE IT IS:

From: ANONYMOUS
Date: 04/15/2008 5:38:49 PM
To: marla@ssqq.com
Subject: Cruise in August

"Good Afternoon Marla,

I was looking at the Cruise you are putting together in August but the prices seemed high.

When I went onto the Carnival Cruise site, I found the attached rates. (RA's NOTE: NO RATES WERE ATTACHED)

Also, I know that for every 8 or 10 people that sign up, there is one free cruise for the person putting it together.

Am I mistaking? Is there something added into the price of the cruise for the SSQQ people that is not included in the price listed on the Carnival website? My friend and I would like to go but not if we have to pay more than Joe Nonssqq - hahaha

Kind Regards,

PS - If you search the Internet, MANY of the travel agents are offering $100 per person discount and/or double class upgrades. Certainly SSQQ wouldn't charge their people more just to make a couple of bucks."



RICK ARCHER'S NOTE:

"Certainly SSQQ wouldn't charge their people more just to make a couple of bucks... ha ha ha"

This email upset Marla. Not only did this individual have their facts WRONG, Marla didn't appreciate the insinuation that she marked up the price.

For the record, Marla received an average of about $25 a person in commissions for last year's 2007 dance cruise. This is no one's business, but I thought I would share it with everyone nevertheless.

From the start, Marla has organized these cruises as her way of making a special contribution to our studio. She has a natural ability for this job. Marla also puts her heart into it.

Marla could make more money at this, but she generally returns her perks to our passengers in the form of cocktail parties, champagne parties, and upgrades.

As the Almighty is my witness, if you divided the hours Marla puts into these cruises into the commission she receives, her rate would be well below the federal hourly minimum. She does this work from her heart, not for the money.

Despite the pleasantries, the innocent little questions and the joking banter, this email from ANONYMOUS should be read for what it is: a poorly veiled innuendo that Marla marks up the price. I counted 7 different passages that called into question the price tag in one way or another.  

This was the email equivalent of a slap in the face. I was angry when I saw that email. This person crossed the line and now I had something to say.


RICK ARCHER REPLIES:

From: dance@ssqq.com
To: ANONYMOUS
Subject: Cruise in August
Date: Wed, 16 Apr 2008 06:26:31 -0500

SSQQ has been doing these cruises now for eight years.

You have the distinction of sending perhaps the least polite initial email regarding the cruise trips we organize that I have seen yet.

If you have so little initial confidence in us, I doubt things are going to get much better.

I will remove your name, but rest assured this email is hitting the newsletter later this week.


ANONYMOUS REPLIES:

-----Original Message-----
From: ANONYMOUS
Sent: Wednesday, April 16, 2008 6:58 AM
To: Rick Archer; marla@ssqq.com
Subject: RE: Cruise in August

Mr. Archer

Might I suggest that you re-read the email and see that it was not written as you have interpreted?

I regret that you have taken such a defensive position, and while I do not believe that you have meant a threat of trying to defame me or damage my name and reputation, how else am I supposed to read your email.

Having met you, I would not believe you are one who treats a simple question with such defamatory remarks. If you have such strong feelings, might I suggest a more professional action, such as a phone call or personal confrontation?

I have been coming to your facility for XXX and have brought dozens of new clients. Do you really think it is my attempt to intentionally harm SSQQ? Certainly not but my question was valid and just, based on current information available.

Mr. Archer, the email was sent to Marla with reasonable expectations of privacy. I do not give permission to broadcast it through your newsletter with any reference to my name or being, and I would encourage you to contact me to discuss this matter if you so feel inclined.

With Business Regards, ANONYMOUS


RICK ARCHER'S SIDE NOTE:

I said, "You have the distinction of sending perhaps the least polite initial email regarding the cruise trips we organize that I have seen yet."

Last time I checked:
1) To be defamatory, you have to identify the person
2) To be defamatory, you have to say something false.


RICK ARCHER REPLIES:

From: dance@ssqq.com
To: ANONYMOUS
Subject: RE: Cruise in August
Date: Wed, 16 Apr 2008 09:55:43 -0500

No one said you were trying to harm SSQQ, but the tone of your first email clearly insinuated that Marla was inflating the price (which is not true). I believe Marla has already replied to you with the facts of the matter.

Now as for your second email, since I have been publishing student emails in my studio's Newsletter now for the past ten years, what gave you the impression you could write us "with a reasonable expectation of privacy?"

I previously told you I intend to publish the letter with your name omitted, but now that you have bullied me into submission, I will again promise to omit your name. I will also omit your name when I publish your follow-up letter as well.

Don't worry. You have my word on that as you did the first time. I have no doubt your pristine reputation will be maintained.

Out of curiosity, if you think your initial email was harmless as you so claim, why do you feel so compelled to lawyer-up?


ANONYMOUS REPLIES:

-----Original Message-----
From: ANONYMOUS
Sent: Wednesday, April 16, 2008 10:59 AM
To: Rick Archer
Subject: This is not the correct manner / media for these communications.

My email was directed as a personal correspondence to Marla and in no way was intended as a student email regarding SSQQ. If I was aware of the fact that others beside her would be reading the message or if that it was open to possible publication, it would have been written with this in mind. Is it SSQQ policy to hold all correspondence open to publication? Is that posted somewhere?

Of course it is your decision as to what you decide to publish but might I suggest that as you read my email and interpreted it in an incorrect manner, I read your email also equally as offensive and as an attack and threat against posing a reasonable question about one of your products. If that was not your intent, then I too might have incorrectly reacted as you did.

I did smile with your "lawyering up" comment. Although I am not licensed, it appears my training over the years is starting to show through. As a XXX in many companies, I am constantly amazed at the manner in which we are forced to communicate. Also, at $250 - $400 per hour, my legal staff is always willing to make mountains out of molehills. No wonder there are so many derogatory lawyer jokes.

I again extend the offer of a phone call or face to face (I am there 3-4 times a week) as I am sure you will agree that there is no benefit to each of us escalating this relatively minor annoyance or damaging relationships.

Regards


RICK ARCHER'S NOTE:

I did not respond any further. However, I did go ask Marla what the truth was regarding the initial email from ANONYMOUS.

Here are Marla's responses:

STATEMENT ONE

ANONYMOUS SAID:

I was looking at the Cruise you are putting together in August but the prices seemed high. When I went onto the Carnival Cruise site, I found the attached rates. (RA's NOTE: NO RATES WERE ATTACHED)

MARLA'S RESPONSE:

As of the day that I received the initial email from ANONYMOUS, the rate on the SSQQ site was absolutely identical to the prevailing rate on the CARNIVAL site. However, Carnival did not bother to list the fuel surcharge ($35) or taxes ($80). This is a common practice in the industry used to make the prices of the cruise seem less than they really are.

STATEMENT TWO

ANONYMOUS SAID:

Also, I know that for every 8 or 10 people that sign up, there is one free cruise for the person putting it together.

MARLA'S RESPONSE:

The long-time industry standard is that every Sixteenth person goes for free. This is a deeply misunderstood rule. The reality is that Cruise Fare Only is free .  Port Fees ($160), Taxes ($80), and Fuel Charge ($35) must be paid regardless.

If ANONYMOUS brings me 15 completely new passengers who have never been on an SSQQ cruise before, I would be more than happy to comp the Cruise Fare, but ANONYMOUS would still be responsible for the remaining $275 for port fees, taxes, and charges.

STATEMENT THREE

ANONYMOUS SAID:

Am I mistaken? Is there something added into the price of the cruise for the SSQQ people that is not included in the price listed on the Carnival website? My friend and I would like to go but not if we have to pay more than Joe Nonssqq - hahaha

MARLA'S RESPONSE:

For the record, there is absolutely NO MARKUP in the SSQQ price. I get paid a commission and that's it.

I would like to point out something else. Here is a list of past perks provided by SSQQ as our way of thanking people for becoming members of our group:

1. SSQQ pre-Cruise meeting
2. Free Admission to the SSQQ Saturday Party prior to departure the following day.
3. Private cocktail party
4. Free dance lessons
5. Champagne party
6. Chocolates delivered to cabin
7. Group dining
8. On board credits
9. Upgrades
10. Organizing Group photo (and posting it on the Internet)
11. Rick's Cruise Writeup
12. SSQQ Cruise After-Party

If ANONYMOUS were to sign up directly through Carnival's Website, he or she would receive none of those twelve benefits.

And let me add, if ANONYMOUS had come to me prior to our Group Registration Deadline on April 10th, he or she would have received a discount of $95 to $135 off the prevailing rate offered at that time by Carnival.

Thanks to our Group Discount, we were a hundred dollars below market price.  There were several warnings of the upcoming deadline well in advance, both on the website and in previous newsletters. You can't wait forever!

STATEMENT FOUR

ANONYMOUS SAID:

PS - If you search the Internet, MANY of the travel agents are offering $100 per person discount and/or double class upgrades. Certainly SSQQ wouldn't charge their people more just to make a couple of bucks."

MARLA'S RESPONSE:

The same day I received the initial email, I visited Travelocity, one of the largest Internet Travel booking engines, to check on this claim made by ANONYMOUS.

Their rate was identical to Carnival's prevailing rate. There was no offer of $100 discounts whatsoever.

If ANONYMOUS thought there was a suspicious discrepancy, Travelocity chose not to list Taxes ($80), and Fuel Charge ($35) in their posted fare. Since this adds up to $115, perhaps this caused the $100 misconception on the part of ANONYMOUS.

Let me add I saved an entire document worth of comparative shopping I did that day in response to the email from ANONYMOUS. If anyone - including ANONYMOUS - wishes to see that document, please email me (
marla@ssqq.com ) and I will forward my research on the spot.

You have my word that everything I have said is correct to the best of my knowledge and I can prove it too.

STATEMENT FIVE

RICK ARCHER'S NOTE:

While ANONYMOUS and I were exchanging emails; ANONYMOUS also wrote to Marla one more time.

-----Original Message-----
From: ANONYMOUS
Sent: Tuesday, April 15, 2008 9:28 PM
To: Marla Archer
Subject: RE: Cruise in August

"Do we want to go?" Of course we do! Who wouldn't want to join the rag tag miscreants of SSQQ? It looks like a blast.
I'll just need to see if I buy through you guys or online. Would we still be allowed to play with the group if we bought our tickets online?

MARLA'S RESPONSE:

The simple answer is: NO.  YOU ARE NOT WELCOME.

It never ceases to amaze me the number of people who book elsewhere, then expect Rick and Marla to welcome them into the Group with open arms.  Why do people suspend their innate sense of decency in order to save $10 here or $20 there?
 
If I read between the lines what ANONYMOUS is saying to me, it goes something like this:

"Marla, I heard you organized a marvelous rag tag group of miscreants.  By the way, I just signed up for that same trip online.  That means I took $25 out of your pocket so I could save $10-20 out of my pocket, but now I want to hang out with you guys.  Surely you won't have a problem with me joining your miscreants?"

Where do people get this kind of nerve?   ANONYMOUS wants to get something for nothing. This attitude is so irritating I almost wonder if it was said deliberately to provoke me!  If so, nice shot. You scored a bull's eye.

'Crashing the Party' is an industry-wide headache.  Not one group organizer would permit such a thing.  Every website I visit has some sort of prohibition against people joining without an invitation.

Throughout the Travel Industry -Vacations to Go and Sundancer Cruises are two examples - everyone who organizes group cruise trips has to deal with this problem.


HERE IS SUNDANCER'S POLICY:

"Dances & Workshops will be "Private Parties" only available to our group!
You must book with Sundancer Cruises to participate in Workshops and Dances."


HERE IS VACATIONS TO GO'S POLICY:

Q- "Can I book with my local travel agent or directly with the cruise line and still join your singles group activities?"

A- "Sorry, no. To be part of our singles group, you must book the cruise through Vacations To Go. Any singles onboard who did not book through Vacations To Go will be denied access to our special events, cocktail parties, shore excursions and dining."


SSQQ has an almost identical policy to Vacations to Go.

Known as the 'Book it or Hook It' Rule, we were forced to institute this policy after several abuses.

Our policy states: "You must book your cruise with SSQQ in order to be part of our group."

In the case of ANONYMOUS
("I'll just need to see if I buy through you guys or online/ would we still be allowed to play with the group if we bought our tickets online?'), ANONYMOUS has been fired from the trip so it is a moot point.


MARLA'S CONCLUSION:

As we wrap this story up, there are some things I would like to say to everyone who has taken a cruise with us, be they past, present, and future.

I do not want anyone on my trip who distrusts me to the degree expressed by ANONYMOUS.

I tell the truth. Always. Whatever I print on the web site, that is the truth as I know it when I print it. You have my word on that.

If you think I am gouging people I consider to be personal friends to line my pockets, please find another agent or book on the Internet. Just leave me alone and don't ask to join the group!

I have chosen to defend myself this time, but from now on I won't bother. I will simply post this document on a permanent spot on the SSQQ travel web site. Then if anyone doubts my word, I'll just email him or her the link.

Of course people have a right to ask questions about pricing!  I answer questions all the time. But please ask in a respectful manner and try checking your facts first.

I have now successfully organized eleven cruise trips over a period of six years. My work is published on the SSQQ web site for anyone to review. I know what I am doing and I stand by my record.

Our cruise numbers grow every year for a reason - people have learned to trust me. And I am grateful for your confidence.

But I do not appreciate having my reputation challenged, especially by someone as ignorant as this customer!

Nor do I appreciate having sarcastic, demeaning people challenge my integrity or my competence. This is exactly the kind of condescension that takes the fun out of my work.
 
If you will treat me with respect, I will organize the best trip I possibly can for you and I will answer your questions to the best of my ability. But please don't question my word. That is all I ask.

Thank you,
Marla Archer

 
   

LETTERS TO THE EDITOR

-----Original Message-----
From: K P
Sent: Monday, February 05, 2007 3:18 PM
To: dance@ssqq.com
Subject: Book It or Hook It story

Thanks, Marla, I am really looking forward the Conquest cruise.

By the way, I just read "Book It or Hook It" stories from ssqq.com, and I just want to tell you, out of the $492 for the cruise, I wouldn't care if you made $491 in commission.

I don't even consider your commission any of my business, I just look at the great price and whether we have the time to go on the cruise.

Thank you and keep up the good work. K

 

2008:

2009: THE LADIES WITH THE RED HAIR

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