NAME: Sanjay Goel, president
LOCATION: Vancouver, B.C.
AFFILIATION: Ensemble Travel Group
YEARS IN BUSINESS: 24
Curating vacations is not just about making a sale for Sanjay Goel, president of CruiseConnections. This cruise industry legend has built a business on treating each guest like they’re the only one, and offering unique experiences along the way.
It’s hard to know whether people want to cruise with Sanjay Goel or if they just like the deals to be had if they do, but either way, the owner of Vancouver-based Cruise-Connections really knows how to fill a ship.
In fact, Goel is known as somewhat of a legend in the industry, having revolutionized the way in which guests are introduced to the cruise experience; so, it’s fair to say that he’s earned the right to host a few President’s Cruises each year. In fact, about 190 guests are confirmed to join him on a trip to Singapore from Abu Dhabi in January (a number he expects to hit an even 200), and he’ll be sailing again in Tahiti a few weeks later onboard the Oceania Marina with a similar group.
Goel says that the wave of interest he’s created in cruising comes down to offering One guest at a time extraordinary experiences, from the sales process through to the trip itself.
“These are substantive purchases; they are substantive commitments in terms of time for the guests, and our job is to make them really extraordinary,” Goel says. “And to do that, you need much more than cocktail parties, booze and food. You need things that are sensible and memorable, which means you have to put some extra work into it.”
Make no mistake – we’re not just talking an extra tour here or a special meal there; Goel thinks big. Like, ‘a private meal on the Great Wall of China,’ big. Or, ‘starring in a Bollywood film during a trip to India,’ big.
“I start most of these venture experiences with a blank sheet of paper in the sense that I don’t restrict myself as to what I think can be done,” he explains. The exclusive event on the Great Wall of China, for instance, took two and a half years to come together, but he made it happen. “I just said, ‘This is what I’m going to do, and now I have to figure out how to do it.’ I think it’s really important to aim for the sun, moon and stars, because without those aspirations and goals, you won’t get there. You can’t get there. If getting to second base is your goal, you’re often going to be happy with first. You need to figure out how to hit a home run.”
It’s a philosophy that he’s taken to heart with his business, putting the interests of guests at the centre of all his team does, one guest at a time.
“The only way it works is if you treat each guest like they’re your only guest,” he asserts. “You’ve got to listen. They’re not always right, so to speak – someone who says you should put horseradish on everything, well, not everyone is going to agree with that. But it’s right for them. And rather than say, ‘You’re unusual, Mr. Passenger,’ I have to figure out how to have horseradish at all meals. That’s the approach we take as much as we can, as much as practical.”
As a “blank sheet of paper” type of thinker, Goel applies the same no-limits approach when pondering how to entice prospective travellers into booking their next vacation. So, years ago, he came up with an idea to host a ship event, but (long story short), when he met with executives at Oceania Cruises in 2011 to propose said brainchild, he didn’t get the response for which he was hoping. That didn’t stop him from making a quip that if he sold more than $1 million of their cruises in a month, the event would happen. As luck would have it, the cruise line was launching a special deal only days later (“historic savings,” as it were), which the Cruise-Connections team quickly pushed into the market. Sure enough, they managed to sell more than $1 million worth of cruises in less than 30 days.
And, Goel got his wish.
It paid off, for Goel and for Oceania: At his very first event, he had 330 guests on the ship for a lunch while it was docked in Vancouver, which resulted in selling 140 cruises – that’s more than $1.2 million in a day.
Of course, it’s not always possible to do such things onboard a ship, so Goel has since hosted a number of cruise events on land, each structured in a way that showcases the service and quality of a cruise. There’s wine, there’s food, there’s Goel.
“We’ve completely re-contextualized the cruise night,” he says. “Over a weekend, we’ll put 500 people in the room each day – so 1,000 people. And out of 1,000 people, 650 to 750 people will make a deposit… Everyone thinks they’re smarter than us; they think they’re going to figure something out and escape. But it’s a very compelling presentation and they’re with me for anywhere between five and six hours. In that time, I do a reasonably good job convincing them that this is a deal too good to pass up.”
And so, the deposits roll in.
Granted, there are people who get buyer’s remorse and cancel afterwards (some blame the wine), but that doesn’t take away from the fact that over the past six years, the team at Cruise-Connections has introduced 10,000 customers to Oceania Cruises.
“We’ve done this show now in Vancouver, Victoria, Calgary and Toronto a number of times over the last six years, and a couple of times once or twice a year on the ship,” he explains. “In a weekend, we’ll generate literally millions of dollars’ worth of sales. No one’s ever done it the way we do.”
But as he’s mentioned, the job of his agency extends beyond just booking a trip; it’s about creating memorable experiences for clients that will keep them coming back.
“The days of being a successful travel agent purely by being an intermediary are fading. Success in the future is going to require some form of putting your mark on the product,” Goel says. So, we circle back to the idea of curated events like those mentioned earlier. “You must have some sort of ownership of product,” he continues. “You have to build product. You have to build a departure, where you can control all those pieces and as part of that control, deliver a unique experience… because those can command a premium.”
As another example of Goel’s success in this vein, he mentions a trip he’ll soon be taking to Barcelona from Rome, during which time Chef Massimo Capra will be joining the group, there will be cooking classes, and guests will also have the opportunity to go truffle hunting in Alba. “It’s not cookie cutter,” Goel says, admitting that if he were just starting out in the business today, “I would hate to compete with a guy like me.”
Unless, perhaps, the newbie valued authenticity, was a convincing salesperson, and could see the writing on a blank sheet of paper.
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