Not every travel agency has a dedicated person who focuses solely on shore excursions. As with most things, this devotion is what sets Cruise Specialists apart from the rest. Heather Visser is the Shore Excursion Manager responsible for taking an ordinary cruise and transforming it into something extraordinary. She was happy to sit down and speak with us about the full range of benefits that she brings to the table for all of the Cruise Specialists clients.
Can you tell us a little about your role and what you bring to Cruise Specialists?
Previously, I worked in the tour office of Holland America for six years. I was also a port lecturer during my last year there. I would dive into the uniqueness of a place and share the things to see and do with passengers. When I joined the Cruise Specialists team, I started the tour program in 2006 and have been working here ever since. Many of our tours are better compared to those provided by the cruise lines as the independent operators focus on showcasing their towns out of pride.
Where do you get your ideas for new shore excursions? Do they come from interested suppliers? How do Cruise Specialists’ team members and clients reach out with their thoughts?
I’ve been to a lot of the destinations, so, for the most part, I can come up with ideas for shore excursions or where I see an added opportunity for excursions. Cruise Specialists also uses feedback from clients. We have comment forms that clients can fill out. Our voyage hosts also ask about the tour from the clients after it’s over. Cruise Specialists uses that feedback to continue to bring fresh ideas when it comes to planning next year’s tour. We know there are a lot of eyes on the shore excursion program, so Cruise Specialists is doing the best it can with this information.
When it comes to how we choose the tours that we do, we try to pick out the ports that we think are the highlights and have something important for the clients to do, and then we narrow it down from there. We also factor convenience when it comes to transitioning in and out of the port, to keep things running smoothly.
If I have been to the destination, then I know it well, but I talk to the voyage hosts for their ideas, too. I also speak to a lot of clients to get a general idea of what the audience is interested in. Local tour operators will also send ideas and proposals, which gives me ideas for things to do and see, as well.
Do you have an example of one of your more unique shore excursions?
Because I work with smaller groups, I can manage more niche opportunities for more authentic experiences. A recent shore excursion I arranged to Cusco had the clients stay in a sanctuary lodge at the base of the Andes Mountains overnight. Then, they were able to wake up early and see a magnificent sunrise before spending the day at Machu Picchu. They enjoyed seeing the sunset at the mountain base, then returned to the ship. This experience really spoke to the cultural value that Cruise Specialists can bring to the table for their clients. When everyone boarded this ship and talked with other passengers about their day, many new clients were recruited just by word-of-mouth.
Another shore excursion I arranged was one to the Taj Mahal. This destination is one I’ve been to many times, so I booked a hotel near the site. One of the biggest highlights is being able to see the sunrise hit the jewels of the Taj Mahal in the morning—something that is often unable to be appreciated by visitors who work with other companies. Fortunately, those in my group were able to see and value this beautiful sight.
What’s something unique about these shore excursions versus those offered by a cruise or by other travel companies that you want clients to know?
Cruise Specialists makes a point to stay away from anything that interferes with nature. We pride ourselves with giving our clients the best experience without impacting the area. We always make sure that our groups are respectful of the local culture on behalf of the company, country and our guests. After all, anything clients say or do in these countries is going to give them the impression of our country. We make the best impression we can and continue to get invited back year after year.
Can you about some of the more popular cruise destinations?
Iceland is a big hit, so much so that tourists and cruise stops have tripled in the country over the last few years. People are always excited about safaris. Whenever a cruise stops in Africa, clients practically break down my door asking if there will be safaris for stopover tours or shore excursions. When it comes to historical sites in Europe, Normandy always seems to be the hottest destination, as clients like to visit places that were significant to World War II.
What’s new on the 2022 horizon?
There are new overland tours. But I can’t speak to them just yet, as nothing is finalized. However, I can say that we’re planning on going to the SOS Children’s Village Pietermaritzburg in Durban. These smaller tours are more intimate and include drinks and meals, which are expenses that other overland tours don’t provide. With our Cruise Specialists Cares initiative, part of the proceeds from this tour will be donated to this organization which supports families and children. The great news is that clients who aren’t going to the destination can still donate, which we’ve found to be very successful in the past.
On one Taj Mahal tour, the tour group went to an underprivileged school, where they donated and enjoyed a performance put on by students. During our Angkor Wat tour, clients made contributions for a local family’s well—a significant cause as safe drinking water isn’t always accessible. Another time we donated to a safe house for children who were abused or orphaned. We know that these causes are essential for the well-being of local populations, and Cruise Specialists is eager to help, however possible.
What are some of your other significant responsibilities or client services?
I want more people to be aware that I facilitate FIT tours—fully independent tours—that clients can experience outside of the group. My specialty is custom tours through-and-through. If a well-discerning client wants a custom tour, Cruise Specialists agents can approach me for help fine-tuning the details.
I’ve done quite a few FIT itineraries, including one for a couple who wanted a private car in Singapore. They were picked up by the driver and escorted around. The next day, they went to Panang and then to Myanmar. The tour operators will give them inside scoops for the best things to do.
In some places, say Ho Chi Minh, for example, many of the cruise ships are too large to make port, so it can be a drive into the city from wherever they dock. If you want a full experience in a region where it’s difficult to walk around in, the best thing to do is book a private driver or tour operator. Additionally, if you have a reliable tour operator or driver who has a relationship with the ship, they can call ahead to the ship and tell them to wait until you can reboard. For this reason, it’s advantageous to have a driver who has a relationship with the ship.
I love arranging FIT travel and working with these FIT jet setters one-on-one. I take time to get the most for these clients, and I especially love doing FIT itineraries if I’ve been to the destination. These are the clients who get to see me in action, and they’re usually the ones I get the most referrals from. Knowing I helped make their vacations memorable is satisfying to me.
Is there anything else you want Cruise Specialists clients to know about your role?
A unique thing about what I do is that I’m not on a commission. I’m here to make our clients happy so that they book another cruise with us, not to get as much money out of them on their current cruise. If our offered tour is too expensive for the client’s budget, I’ll tell them how they can do the tour on their own. I work with whatever budget the client has, and I will answer any question. I’m honest with my clients. I want them to have an enjoyable experience with us throughout their voyage.
Let’s wrap this up on a fun note! If you could travel anywhere, where would you go?
If I could visit anywhere, I would probably go to Africa. There’s just something magical about the continent, and the local cultures are so friendly that you feel incredibly safe there. I’ve traveled all over Africa alone, to Johannesburg, Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe and, on the night of their general elections, Zaire. As a woman traveling alone in my thirties, I felt totally comfortable and safe.