Bob Levinstein is the CEO of CruiseCompete and CEO of Compete Ventures. He’s also the founder of ExpertTravelAnswers.com. Levinstein founded NationJob, which was one of the first online job search engines in the 90s. Levinstein tells us about Cruise Compete and Resort Compete, and how both sites help travelers find the best vacation packages. He also explains the the most popular consumer trends in cruising. Levinstein then discusses how publishers can effectively utilize ExpertTravelAnswers.com.
Levinstein co-founded CruiseCompete.com in 2003 and continues to serve as its CEO. Since that time, registered users have received over 10 million quotes from the site’s 300+ travel-agency members. CruiseCompete took top honors in Travel + Leisure Magazine’s “Top 60 Best Apps and Websites for Travelers” (September 2012) with an honorable mention. The Wall Street Journal praised CruiseCompete as “Best Cruise Travel Site,” The New York Times says, “… independent travel agents compete to offer you the best deal,” and follows similar praise from Travel + Leisure, Kiplinger’s and The Washington Post. The Street says, “Score luxury cruises at bargain prices.”
Levinstein has been with working with electronic exchange concepts since 1988, when he co-founded National Employment Wire Service Corporation in California. This company became NationJob, Inc., one of the first online job websites in 1995. Clients have included Bechtel, Blue Cross/Blue Shield, Boeing Aerospace, Dow Corning, Ford Motor Company, the Mayo Clinic, Michelin, Wyeth Pharmaceuticals and many other household names.
He was the first to implement such now-common employment website features as automatically e-mailing out new jobs to job seekers based on stored search criteria and generating niche employment sites from a master general database. Levinstein served as President and COO of NationJob until April of 2007, and remains a member of its Board of Directors.
Levinstein holds a BA in Organizational Behavior from Stanford University and has completed two Ironman triathlons.
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JASON HARTMAN: It’s my pleasure to welcome Bob Levinstein! He is CEO of CruiseCompete, and this is a very unique business model that allows consumers to shop for the best cruise deal, and I’m looking forward to hearing more about it. Bob, welcome. How are you?
BOB LEVINSTEIN: I am doing very well, Jason. Thanks for having me.
JASON HARTMAN: Well good, good. Since we do talk about travel, I always like to give our listeners a sense of geography; where are you located?
BOB LEVINSTEIN: I am actually located in Des Moines, Iowa, about as far as you can get from a cruise port. When I go to travel conferences, I am always the person who is furthest from the ocean.
JASON HARTMAN: [LAUGHTER]. That’s funny. Well, let’s not have it be that way for our listeners. So, tell us about CruiseCompete. What inspired the idea?
BOB LEVINSTEIN: Well, you know, I had taken a number of cruises, and what I had learned in shopping around for them and being on the boards where people discuss things, is that the same cabin on the exact same ship—you might be able to get for a different rate, for a lower price, or you might be able to get additional benefits and amenities, like onboard credit, or a cabin upgrade, or even something as simple as a bottle of champagne in your cabin; it all depends on which travel agency you book with. And at the time, I was running another company called the NationJob, which was one of the first online job listing services. And it just really occurred to me that it was really a very similar type of application, to be able to, you know, one company was about people want to find jobs, and they go on, and they can search to find them. Another company, people want to be matched with travel agencies to find good deals on cruises. So, with a couple of partners, launched CruiseCompete back in 2003, and we just had our 10 year anniversary, and more than 11 million quotes have gone through the site in that amount of time.
JASON HARTMAN: And so, you were saying before we started recording that these are all through travel agencies, rather than directly through the cruise lines. Now, why is that?
BOB LEVINSTEIN: Well, you’re always gonna get a better deal booking with an agency than booking directly with the line. The cruise line has a lot of incentive—the travel agents actually sell anywhere from 70 to 95% of the cruise line’s inventory. They’re not selling directly, for the most part. In fact, there are even a couple lines that will not sell directly at all, a couple smaller ones. And depending on the relationship they have with the agency, whether or not they have group space reserved, just how smart they are about the codes and, you know, the fare codes and coupons and ways to get you deals, the travel agency—the travel agents can get you more for your money.
JASON HARTMAN: Now, isn’t that a little—don’t we have to be a little counterintuitive there? Because one would think, let’s disintermediate the travel agent, and save the commission. They’re probably only getting maybe what, 5% or something, right?
BOB LEVINSTEIN: Well, travel agency commissions are actually around 15%.
JASON HARTMAN: Oh, 15% for cruises, okay.
BOB LEVINSTEIN: And it can go up from there, depending on things like overrides, or what they call coop advertising. But, cruising—it’s a much more complex travel to buy than just booking a hotel room. There’s a lot more to understand, and the guidance of the travel agent really means a lot to a lot of people.
JASON HARTMAN: Mhmm. Okay, fair enough, fair enough. And you know, but, it’s complicated to book multi-leg airplane trips too, right? I guess the cruise is just even more complicated than that, right?
BOB LEVINSTEIN: Well, you really have to have more understanding of the market, and when you have a growing market like the cruise business, you constantly have to bring new people in. If you’re on your third cruise, your fifth cruise, your tenth cruise, you could probably know enough to make most of the decisions yourself. But it’s really nice to have somebody who’s been trained, who’s been on different lines, and can really—has been around the industry and can really give you some good advice.
JASON HARTMAN: Okay, good, good. Okay, well, you know, I certainly see the need for travel experts and agents and so forth, so I’m not doubting that.
BOB LEVINSTEIN: Well, and the cruise lines do too. So that’s why they give them the opportunity to offer some better rates. And so, the way our site works is, as a consumer, you come in, you have all kinds of tools to help you find the cruise that’s right for you, and when you put in a quote request, that request is immediately available in the account of actually hundreds of travel agencies. We have about 500 agencies on the site. They can focus on the lines that they know the most about. Somebody may be an expert on Royal Caribbean. Somebody may be an expert on a luxury line like Oceania or Silversea. And so, they can very easily find those requests and offer quotes and offer their expertise. As a consumer, then you can go in, you can see—you can compare the offers; one might be a little less money, one might have more—sometimes the quotes, the price quotes might be the same, but you can get more onboard credit, or different amenities, and you can also read about the agencies. You can see consumer reviews, the agencies can communicate to you, I’ve been on this ship, and I can tell you a lot of things about it. There’s a lot of value they can provide. But as a consumer, you remain anonymous. You have the contact information for the agents. They don’t have your contact information. And if and when you decide you want to contact somebody directly for more information or to book, you pick up the phone or you email, or you can even chat live with the agents to get more information or to book your cruise.
JASON HARTMAN: And, what’s the rationale behind the agent not having your information? Is it just so they won’t follow up, and they won’t bug you, you know, unless you want them to?
BOB LEVINSTEIN: I think that’s a way. You know, that’s—when we started this, we really looked at, how would we like to be treated? You know, how do we like to do business? Or, how do we like to shop? And I think that’s exactly right. You know, you don’t—you’re not making a commitment when you put in a quote request that oh gee, I’m gonna get 19 emails from different people, and my phone’s gonna be ringing off the hook with somebody trying to sell you something. The consumer should be in charge of the process. And you know, that goes towards the anonymity. It goes toward the ability to, you know, read about the agency, and read how previous customers have rated that agency, before you even decide to talk to them.
JASON HARTMAN: Okay, good, good. And so, is there any type of metric that you track, in terms of actual savings? Or is it more about amenities, onboard credit, the things that you mentioned? Or room upgrades?
BOB LEVINSTEIN: It really varies line by line. Sometimes, you know, some lines allow looser—allow the agents to do more for the consumer to get their business. Some lines will have less. But you know, sometimes the savings can be, you know, in the 10% range, in the 15% range on certain lines. On other lines, you’re maybe only saving, you know, 5%. But you’re talking about 5% on a very expensive purchase. So, you know, it’s definitely a benefit, especially over going to the line, or just paying retail.
JASON HARTMAN: Okay, cool. Good. Any thoughts on the different cruise lines out there? You know, beyond what you do specifically on the site? You know, any tips on cruising, any thoughts about different cruise lines and what they’re offering? Who’s good, who’s bad? And you know, I want to ask you about the one thing plaguing cruises too, which is these infections you keep hearing about. But, you know—
BOB LEVINSTEIN: We could start there if you like.
JASON HARTMAN: Okay yeah, start there. Let’s not end with that one. I mean, of course—I just want to make the disclaimer that media plays this stuff up, and they make it seem like a bigger deal than it is, probably. I understand that. There’s zillions of people cruising every year, and you only hear about a couple of stories. But anyway, go ahead.
BOB LEVINSTEIN: Yeah, I mean, norovirus, it’s not the first time it’s hit a cruise ship, and it won’t be the last. The reason you’re hearing about it is because of a quirk in maritime law. And maritime law, it basically says that if 3% of people on a ship have the same disease, have the same issue, you have to report that to the CDC in this country. So, norovirus is actually an incredibly common virus. If you’ve had the 24 hour flu, the stomach flu, most of the time, when you think you have food poisoning, it’s not actually food poisoning; it’s actually norovirus. On average, Americans get it about once every three, four years. If 3% of the people at a hotel had it, you wouldn’t hear about it. If 3% of people at Disneyland had it, you wouldn’t hear about it. If 3% of people at the stadium had it, you wouldn’t hear about it.
JASON HARTMAN: Yeah, oh, that’s interesting. Yeah, they pick on it because all the people are corralled in one place, and they can quantify that easier, can’t they? They don’t disperse as quickly?
BOB LEVINSTEIN: I think that’s part of it. And there’s certainly, you know, there’s certainly arguments to be made that in close quarters it’s likely to be transmitted more. But that’s not the only place where it gets transmitted; this is an incredibly common—after the common cold, this is the most common thing people get. So, yes. It can happen, and the cruise lines do not do a very good job, I think, on PR, helping people understand that look, this is something that happens. Mostly people—often, people have it before they get on the ship. So. But, it’s an element of the cruise game, and it’s something they have to deal with. On the plus side, though, bad PR, and there’s been an awful lot of that over the last two years, generally means better deals. And there’s some deals out there right now that are really just incredible. Especially, you know, for February and March, there’s been a lot of the cruise lines have increased their—they didn’t quite have enough capacity in the Caribbean last year, and they overcorrected. And there’s just a tremendous amount of additional capacity. And prices are very, very low for this time of year.
JASON HARTMAN: Yeah. So the consumers can definitely work that to their benefit, right?
BOB LEVINSTEIN: Oh, no question about it.
JASON HARTMAN: Okay, okay. Good. Good to know.
BOB LEVINSTEIN: Talking about offers for $650 per person for a 7 night cruise in a balcony cabin.
JASON HARTMAN: That’s amazing!
BOB LEVINSTEIN: On a new ship, like the—
JASON HARTMAN: And, yeah, in a new ship, too! Like what?
BOB LEVINSTEIN: Like the Norwegian Epic, or the Breakaway. Both of those are—in fact, I’m looking at the Epic myself at these prices. These are brand new, very highly rated ships, and they’re just under capacity. So they’ve got cabin space, the line’s cut prices, and you know, you have a lot of opportunity there. Carnival, too, has taken quite the beating PR-wise. Most of it not—
JASON HARTMAN: As maybe they should. No, you’re gonna say not deserved. I thought after—
BOB LEVINSTEIN: Some of it. I mean, you know, if an incident happens, and—well, part of the problem for Carnival was, this incident in the Gulf last year got so much PR that any time any little thing happened, it popped back into the news, and you heard about it again, and you heard about it again, and you heard about it again. But I’ve been on, I don’t know, four or five Carnival cruises, and I never had a problem. I never saw any norovirus, never saw any safety issues; it’s generally an incredibly safe vacation.
JASON HARTMAN: And tell us, maybe, a little bit about the characteristics of—you know, maybe some of the bigger cruise lines. Back when I took my first Carnival cruise, quite a while ago, that used to be known as the party ship. And you know, a lot of singles wanted to go on Carnival cruises. Now they seem to have changed their image quite a bit. Who’s known for what, nowadays? Luxury—I mean, I’ve been on Crystal Cruises, that’s a luxury, a higher end cruise, obviously. But, give us some of those characteristics, if you would.
BOB LEVINSTEIN: Sure. I’d be happy to lay it out for you. Carnival, the—Carnival does still strive for a lower, a younger—sorry, not lower, younger audience. Younger crowd. Although it really depends a lot on the ship, and on the itinerary. If you go on a three night cruise, you’re gonna see a lot more younger people and a lot more singles than you would on, say, a two week cruise. Carnival has been really instrumental in bringing a lot of people into the industry, because what they’ve done, is they’ve taken their older and smaller ships, they put them in ports you can drive to, and they tend to do three night, four night, five night cruises. It’s cheaper to get on them, so that, you know, younger people can often afford less expensive things. And it’s less of a commitment.
So you know, it’s three nights versus seven. Maybe you’re not—you know, you’re not spending all of your vacation days in one place. So, it’s a way to get people introduced to cruising. Carnival, Norwegian, and Royal Caribbean tend to be the more, you know, the more mainstream lines that are referred to. Or contemporary, which frankly means nothing to me, but that’s just one of the categories they like to use. And you know, they tend to be more active crowds. A little bit younger. But, see, one of the nice things about going on a very large ship, is you can have whatever kind of vacation you want. I’ve had vacations on very similar ships where, you know, one trip we closed down the disco at 3 AM every night, and another one, I worked out twice a day, and spent a lot more time relaxing.
There’s plenty of, you know—see, you can really find the types of folks on board that you want to be with. You know, I’m going with—I’m taking my son on this next trip, who’s seven. We’ll be doing different things, and focusing on different things. But there’s so much available on these ships in terms of entertainment, in terms of relaxation. You can do what you want. You can find the vacation you want. It’s one of the reasons why cruise ships are a great choice for family reunions, or a multi-generational vacation; there’s stuff for the grandparents to do, and there’s stuff for the teens to do, there’s stuff for the adults and kids. A step up generally from those three lines would be Princess, and then a little bit of a half step up from there would be Holland America and Celebrity. So these are just a little bit more upscale lines.
There’s a little bit more of a focus on the food and the service. There might be a little bit less going on in the evening, because you’re gonna cater to a somewhat older crowd. But those are a couple of very nice options. Again, it doesn’t mean that a younger family isn’t going to enjoy sailing on those lines. It’s just gonna be a little bit of a different experience. It depends what’s important to you. You may go into the restaurant on a Carnival or a Royal, the main restaurant, and think everything’s wonderful. If you are maybe more focused on the food, you may decide that you like something else better. It really just depends on personal preference and what’s of interest to you.
Going a step up then from Holland and Celebrity, which are known as premium lines, Princess is sometimes classified as premium, sometimes it’s classified as mainstream. It just depends on who’s doing the counting, I guess. There are smaller more boutique luxury lines; these [unintelligible] smaller ships, they tend to sail longer itineraries; they’re often more all-inclusive, in that you’re not—the drinks, you know, drinks may be included, for example. These would be lines like Azamara, which is Royal Caribbean’s entry into the upscale market. Seabourn, which is owned by Carnival Corp. Lines like Oceania and Regent, which are owned by Prestige, or Silversea, which is an independent. At least for the moment. There’s some talk that there might be some acquisitions in the works out there. But these ships are more of a country club type of an atmosphere, up to a, depending on the line, Crystal is a little more formal, fancies, slightly older, same with Silversea, whereas Oceania is more just sort of kind of affluent adults you see around the—you would meet at a—you know, on the balcony at a country club watching people play golf. That kind of a thing. And those lines tend to be a little more destination-oriented.
You’ll spend a little more time in port, being able to explore there a little bit more, rather than just sort of the fun in the sun, or the see Alaska kind of a cruise. Then you also have river cruising, which is a very hot sector, and it’s growing—it’s much, much, much smaller than the ocean’s part of things. But it’s growing pretty rapidly. And in these ships, you’re mostly sailing on the rivers, cruising the rivers of Europe. They’re much smaller ships; they may only take in from 24 – 200 people on board. But the neat thing about it is, you’re docking right in the center of the city. So, the boat stops, and you’re there. So you can get off and do a lot more cultural things. It’s much more—it’s more intimate, in terms of getting to know the people on board the ship. You have a lot fewer amenities.
JASON HARTMAN: How many passengers on those?
BOB LEVINSTEIN: Anywhere from, you know, 25 – 170, 200. But it’s a really interesting way to see Europe. Or, and also they have, you know, they have sailings in Asia as well, and Russia. Just a very interesting way to see things that you wouldn’t see just stopping at a seaport and getting off. Another bonus with that too is, depending on, I don’t—the Euro’s not as strong as it was, but for a while, the Euro was so strong compared to the dollar, it made it very expensive to vacation there. But if you buy your cruise in dollars, you know, all your food and your lodging is taken care of in dollars. And often it’s, not only is it a unique vacation, but it’s a cost-effective one as well.
JASON HARTMAN: Are Windjammer cruises—what are they doing nowadays?
BOB LEVINSTEIN: I don’t think they exist anymore.
JASON HARTMAN: Oh, they’re gone, huh? Okay, it didn’t even take them over? Is anyone running those? Because—I ask you, because I haven’t heard of them lately, and I never went on one of those barefoot cruises, as they say. Someone probably purchased them, and is running all of the ships, I would assume. Right? Or maybe it didn’t pencil out.
BOB LEVINSTEIN: Yeah. September 2007 it was suspended from further operation.
JASON HARTMAN: Suspended?
BOB LEVINSTEIN: Assets were auctioned off….
JASON HARTMAN: Oh, bankruptcy.
BOB LEVINSTEIN: The ships they operated were all laid up, and were left in a neglected state of condition, according to Wikipedia. I’d like to tell you I had that memorized.
JASON HARTMAN: Yep, that’s the beauty of the Internet. You don’t have to know anything nowadays. You just search it.
BOB LEVINSTEIN: There you go.
JASON HARTMAN: It’s awesome. But, you know what I wanted to ask you, is also about different routes and so forth, if you had any opinions on—and you did allude to it a couple times, but you know, any other thoughts on different routes? You know, you covered—unless you have anything else you want to say on cruise lines. But I think you—
BOB LEVINSTEIN: Yeah, well, personally, I think a couple different things to look at. First off, you can take a look at what cruises leave close to you. Wherever you happen to be located. Being in Iowa, of course, nothing leaves close to me.
JASON HARTMAN: Well, that makes them all equal.
BOB LEVINSTEIN: There are of course now cruise ports all up and down the east coast, and the gulf coast. So, you have some options there in terms of being able to drive and cruise, which saves a significant amount of money, especially if it’s more than a couple people. So, that’s the first thing to take a look at. I think—I like going out of Miami, because there’s a lot of choice. It tends to keep the prices down a little bit. You’re starting with relatively warm weather. Because for example, at one point, I cruised down to New Orleans, where your first day—you know, your first day and your last day, it was pretty chilly. This was, you know, this was New Orleans in early March, I believe, a number of years ago. Cruising out of San Juan is a really nice option to go and see some islands, because you’re starting in the Caribbean, and you go south from there.
There are just some really nice places down there, like Saint Kitts, Grenada, and just a little bit more of an exotic part of the Caribbean, I think. And that’s nice. You can get some really good cruise fares, but that can be offset by the flights cost more, because you’re off—you’re generally, you’re probably flying to Miami, and then having to go another two or three hours to Puerto Rico, which is, I think a bit of a negative. Unless you’ve got, you know, frequent flyer miles, or some way to get there cheaper. So, I like—you know, I like to try to keep the travel days relatively short getting there. Try to start someplace warm. If you’re going in winter and your goal is to get away from the cold, and I think this year that’s what everybody’s looking to do, almost, no matter where you are in the country. It’s unbelievably cold out there.
JASON HARTMAN: Right, right. Yeah. Good. Good advice. Well, the website is www.CruiseCompete.com. CruiseCompete, like competition—www.CruiseCompete.com. And Bob, any final words you want to say before you go?
BOB LEVINSTEIN: Nope. I’ve enjoyed being on and chatting with you, and I hope to see some of your listeners on our website!
JASON HARTMAN: Yeah. Happy cruising everyone! Thanks Bob, great show.
BOB LEVINSTEIN: Thank you.
ANNOUNCER: This show is produced by the Hartman Media Company. All rights reserved. For distribution or publication rights and media interviews, please visit www.HartmanMedia.com, or email [email protected]. Nothing on this show should be considered specific personal or professional advice. Please consult an appropriate tax, legal, real estate, or business professional for any individualized advice. Opinions of guests are their own, and the host is acting on behalf of Platinum Properties Investor Network, Inc. exclusively.
Transcribed by David