Received wisdom indicates that the high-street travel agent is on its way out, as more of us choose to book online.

Recent figures would appear to corroborate this. In the US, there are approximately 13,000 travel retail outlets; down from 34,000 in the mid-1990s. Similarly, in the UK, travel agent closures rose by 45% in 2014 alone.

Yet, these statistics don't paint the full picture, especially for the cruise sector, in which 70% of bookings are still made through agents.

So what makes the cruise industry different to other fields, in which the role of the travel agent has become largely defunct?

The first aspect to consider is that the very nature of cruise itinerary – which can include multiple destinations – is far more complex than that found with point-to-point voyages, such as air travel.

The second relates to the rise of luxury cruises. Travellers – honeymooners, for example – wishing to make once-in-a-lifetime journeys are more loath to book trips without seeking out prior advice and weighing up their options.

According to Cindy D'Aoust, executive vice-president of membership and operations at the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), travel agents can also play a significant role in attracting first-time cruisers, who are unfamiliar with what a cruise might entail.

"Customers need help and advice in finding the right kind of product, and they don’t always get that from the cruise provider."

"Choosing among cruise lines, style of cruise, choice of cabin and dining, not to mention destinations, can be a little intimidating, especially for those who have never cruised," she says.

"Travel agents provide the knowledge and expertise to guide their clients through this process, through considering budget and interests, identifying special offers and matching travellers with the right cruise vacation – essentially taking care of all the details."

Sage advice

For Lars Thykier, president of the European Travel Agents and Tour Operators Association (ECTAA), travel agents still provide an invaluable source of objectivity for potential cruisers on the lookout for best-value products. For obvious reasons, that degree of impartiality is unlikely to derive from the website of a cruise operator looking to steal a march on its competitors.

"Customers need help and advice in finding the right kind of product, and they don't always get that from the cruise provider," he says.

"Instead, you need to have someone who is considered to be objective in the evaluation of these products – as it's sometimes quite difficult to understand what these products actually contain. That's where the travel agent comes in."

As aforementioned, a cruise travel itinerary can be convoluted – especially to the eyes of a first-time customer. Just as the industry continues to invest in training on-board personnel, travel agents need to have sufficient knowledge of the products they are selling, particularly as it bids to appeal to a more diverse range of consumers.

CLIA currently offers its affiliated agents a number of programmes, online and in person.

"Around the world, CLIA has many training opportunities, through conferences, expos and workshops," says D'Aoust.

"For example, destination is the number one reason people choose to cruise, so we have destination training modules, which are designed to help travel agent members better understand the options available to their clients.

"Other online training courses, webinars and events cover some of the key cruise sectors, including expedition cruising, luxury cruise, family cruising and river cruising.

"The opportunity to participate in ship inspections, such as at the annual cruise3sixty conference, and invitations for familiarisation cruises are other ways through which CLIA travel agents are able to increase their knowledge of cruising and cruise ships, and provide expert guidance to their clients."

Friend or foe?

One would assume that strong relations between cruise companies and travel agents are also necessary if the industry is to continue to benefit from the services bestowed by the latter. D'Aoust believes these foundations are already in place, with incentives on both sides.

"The strong partnership between cruise lines and travel agents is a key ingredient in the cruise industry's recipe for success," she says.

"With 62 CLIA cruise line members, travel agents have a vast choice of operators to partner with, and the ones that will be most successful will be those that appeal to that travel agent's customer base.

"Travel agents respond to different styles of partnership and look for different attributes. It could be marketing support, access to good cruise line training, invitations to familiarisation trips, ship visits or special promotions. Whatever is important, this match of product to the customer, and match in business style, will help build a strong relationship."

However, back at the ECTAA – which represents the interests of national associations of travel agents operating in the EU – Thykier is far less upbeat in his appraisal of the operator-agent dynamic.

He counters that "one-sided contracts in favour of cruise lines" mean agents are often short-changed, and cites the case of operators procuring further custom from travellers, while on board a ship, but then neglecting to pay commission to the agent through whom the original trip was booked.

"Some cruise lines are simply not willing to pay for the business that the travel agents render," he says. "That's very much a 1980s approach, but we are in 2015. So my first and foremost concern is whether they really want agents, or not. I think they see us as a necessary evil, because if they could do away with us, they would."

Thykier's lament also focuses on liability. For instance, a cruise liner may fall foul of a category-five storm in the Caribbean, which disrupts the passenger experience and renders the cruise product 'mis-sold' and worthy of compensation. In many cases, he says, it is still the agent who foots the bill.

"Only the other day, I was speaking to a medium-sized cruise seller, that, just this year alone, has had to payback £50,000 to customers that were hit by various storms, and for the services they weren't able to get from the cruise lines. That's a lot of money.

"My first and foremost concern is whether they really want agents, or not. I think they see us as a necessary evil, because if they could do away with us, they would."

"Of course, I understand that no cruise liner deliberately sails into a storm or hurricane, but you need to ask the question: 'whose problem is it that the customer didn't get what they bought?'. Cruise operators are still completely uncommitted to covering what they haven't delivered, so it becomes the travel agent's responsibility.

"Basically, cruise groups are saying, 'if something goes wrong, it's not our fault'. That, to me, isn't fair."

D'Aoust disputes Thykier's argument over one-sidedness.

"The cruise industry supports the travel agent community at a level that other travel sectors simply do not," she says. "Agents are offered advice and support, incentives, training and opportunities to see and enjoy the product by all cruise lines. In addition, cruise lines are behind the work that CLIA does to further support and engage the travel agent community with training, unique resources and award-winning events."

Mutual benefits

Casting these clear differences aside (Thykier claims to have already approached CLIA over his misgivings, but says it remains "unreceptive"), there is still one unmistakable fact: cruise line revenues continue to play a major part in sustaining leisure sector travel agents.

But as operators look to expand their distribution networks, and appeal to younger markets, how can the industry go about attracting new agents who don't currently sell cruises?

D'Aoust believes the ongoing growth experienced by the global cruise industry over the last decade – which, according to CLIA, has increased by 77% – will be enough to attract tour operators keen for a piece of the action.

"The cruise industry is at an incredibly exciting phase of development with new ports and destinations, and tremendous on-board innovation in entertainment, facilities, dining and accommodation," she says.

"That, for travel agents, makes cruise a dynamic sector to be involved with. The industry is working hard to support the trade, and to forge new partnerships that will help the industry grow even further."

Thykier, unsurprisingly, is rather less positive, citing the need for the establishment of a firmer "value proposition" between operators and agents, "if the relationship is to be truly mutually beneficial".

Time will tell if Thykier's vision of harmony will be realised. In the meantime, travel agents can be expected to remain an indispensable distribution tool for the cruise industry – whether they like it or not.