Robyn Basso

Rob Huffman, Vice President Sales, USA. Scenic Luxury Cruises and Tours, Scenic Eclipse and Emerald Waterways

MailPound: What is your professional background?

Rob: Believe it or not, the only industry I have ever worked in, has been the travel industry. Been in the industry from the time I got out of college until now, just a little over 30 years, believe it or not. Of course, I started when I was three years old, joking of course; my entire career has been devoted to travel.

I started on the travel agent side. I managed an agency in Memphis, Tennessee for about five years. I always knew, as I was managing the agency and sales reps that would come in and call on me from different airlines, hotels and cruise lines, that I always wanted to be on the other side of the desk.

I got my break in 1993, I went to work for Carnival Cruise Lines as a business development manager. I was with Carnival for 20 years. The first fifteen years, as I mentioned, was business development manager. The last five years I was with Carnival, I was a regional vice president. I had half the country in the Caribbean at the time, and about 18 to 20 reps were reporting to me.

Before 2013, I couldn’t help but notice the terrific growth and opportunity that was taking place within the river segment of the industry. In 2013, the opportunity arose, and I left Carnival, then I went to work for Viking.

I had a great run at Viking. I was at Viking for about five years, I was the Director of Business Development, I covered the southeast. About six or seven months before I left Viking, I was promoted to Director of Trade Sales. The sales team reported to me, by the time I left Viking, back in November of 2017.

I joined the Scenic Group in 2017 as the Vice President of Sales. I’ve been with Scenic, going on close to five months. A lot of people were asking me, “What were you thinking? Why would you leave Viking? It has such a recognized brand, such a terrific audience, and a great product as well.”

The thing that appealed me to most about the Scenic Group, was the opportunity. At Scenic, we’re comprised of Scenic Luxury Cruises and Tours, which is five-star luxury river cruises. Emerald Waterways, which is our deluxe river cruise brand, fantastic new ships providing a mostly inclusive experience.

In August of this year, we launch the Scenic Eclipse, the world’s first discovery luxury yacht. August 31st of this year, we’re really excited about the launch of the Scenic Eclipse. It’s going to be a game changer in the industry; it’s something we’re anxious for the arrival. Based on the wonderful feedback, the sales and the anticipation for the Scenic Eclipse in August, we announced about a month and a half ago, that we will add a second ship to the Scenic Eclipse fleet, debuting in 2020.

We’ve got a lot of growth and a lot of opportunity here at Scenic Group, and I’m excited to be part of the organization.

MailPound: Could you tell us a little bit more about the Scenic Eclipse?

Rob: Absolutely! The Scenic Eclipse is primarily geared for the polar regions. She is built to a Polar Class 1A rating. If you’re like me and you’re not into the technicality of the ship build – what that basically means is she is built to the highest standards to sail in the polar region. The Scenic Eclipse herself will accommodate 228 guests, at max capacity - that’s about 18,000 gross registered tons.

Even with 228 guests, we’re going to have over 10 different dining options, for our guests on this yacht. Everyone will have their own private veranda and balcony when it comes to the state-wings. When it comes to the smallest accommodation, on the Scenic Eclipse, is just under 350 square feet. The largest, the owner’s suite, is in excess of 2,500 square feet, with its own plunge pool. Fantastic accommodations.

If you know anything about our Scenic rivers, you know that we are truly all inclusive. 95% of the guests that Scenic rivers, we never even see a credit card from them when they step aboard the ship. Scenic Eclipse will be no different! On the rivers, the only thing the guests would pay for would be salon and spa services.

On the Eclipse, there are a couple of other things our guests might pay for, but they’re exciting items. It will have two seven seat helicopters that will take our guests places that very few men have walked or experienced before! Can you imagine hopping on a helicopter going inland into the Arctic, or Antarctica, or for that matter, even Patagonia.

In addition to that, we’re also going to have a seven-foot submarine! It’s rated for 300 hundred meters. That’s a significant depth on a submarine.

When it comes to the Eclipse, our guests will pay for the helicopter and submarine; salon and spa services, as well as scuba diving. I can imagine what you and others might be thinking? “Gosh, how much is that helicopter and that submarine going to cost to experience?” When you look the ultra-luxury category - that the Scenic Eclipse is certainly a part of – we have some friendly competitors that offer kayaking excursions. They charge upwards of $800 for a kayak excursion. Scenic Eclipse has a number of kayaks – guess what! – they’re included. We’re not going to nickel-and-dime our guests when it comes to kayaks. When it comes to a helicopter and submarine, we’re still in the process of finalizing the price point. I’m anticipating the price to be around $400, if not, less per person for the helicopter. I’m speculating the submarine will be even less expensive than that.

It will positively be ultra-luxury, truly all inclusive, the multitude of dining venues. The staff ratio is one-to-one. I certainly think it’s going to be a game changer. We are very excited – highly anticipating her arrival in August.

MailPound: How has your professional experiences changed your perspective on tourism?

Rob: That’s a great question! As I was sharing my background, one thing that I failed to mention, was the fact I was raised in the travel industry. My parents owned a travel agency in the Memphis area, in the 70’s and the 80’s. I mentioned earlier I managed an agency for five years. By the time I went into the agency side of the business, my parents had already sold their agency.

I can remember, at a very young age, stamping brochures. I want to say I was paid either a penny or a nickel per brochure. I don’t know whether to laugh, cry or call the Labor Board! One of the things that impacted me at a very young age, we were very fortunate to have had the opportunity, based on my parents’ profession, to travel and to experience some of the fantastic destinations that our world has to offer.

Some people prefer to have things. Whether it’s cars, jewelry, clothes, or homes – things of that nature. What I’m finding is, personally, people are more engaged with, more so than ever before, the opportunity to create memories. There’s nothing out there, like the opportunity to travel. When you look at the fantastic products that we have and offer at the Scenic Group – whether you look at the rivers, the Scenic luxury rivers, or Emerald Waterways, it’s all about true cultural immersion. It’s the opportunity to really wrap your arms around and immerse yourself in our world’s most historic, beautiful destinations that are out there. So, if you’re interested in the history, the culture, the cuisine, what better way to take advantage of that than with a river cruise.

As we segue way into the Scenic Eclipse, we even expand the opportunity to a much broader, much greater spectrum. We’ll certainly have the Arctic and Antarctica, but, we’ll also be in the Mediterranean, we’ll be along the coast of South America, through the Panama Canal.

When we launch the second vessel, you’ll have the opportunity to go through the Northwest Passage, the White Sea, Greenland, and places like that.

In my humble opinion, I think tourism really is, the opportunity to create meaningful and long-lasting memories.

MailPound: What trends in the travel industry do you foresee in the near future? What about the long term?

Rob: When I was working for Carnival Cruise Lines in the early 90’s, there was very little differentiation among the ocean lines at the time. You certainly had your contemporary, premium and luxury brands, but everybody was trying to determine where exactly they fit in, when it came to those individual segments of the market. From a river (cruise) perspective, you’re going to see river cruise lines are really going to work to differentiate themselves, in the market.

Some brands will snorkel toward the contemporary field. I don’t like using the term, “mass market,” it’s more about the deluxe experience, the basic experience. Then you’ll see the premium products as well. You will have some brands look to differentiate themselves when it comes to their shoreside offerings from an excursion perspective, or to provide more inclusive items aboard the ship. Then with the luxury angle, you typically skew more towards the all-inclusive like our Scenic Rivers and specialize in exclusive excursion opportunities. When it comes to the ocean aspect, I really don’t think that there is anything more prominent on the horizon than the discovery and the expedition opportunities that you’re going to see in the market place in the near future.

I mentioned the Scenic Eclipse will be the first of its kind, from a luxury meets discovery perspective, in 2019. We’ll be the only one out there for a year, a year and a half. After that, then you’ll see other products enter that arena as well. Those are some of the things that I see coming and are already in the market. I think from the discovery / expedition, you’re going to see more differentiation as well.

MailPound: Having grown up, literally, in the industry, what was your first job like?

Rob: When I was in college, whether it was summer or spring break, “Hey Dad, can you help me find a job?” It was hotels, airlines, and call centers. My very first job when I was in college was as a bellman in a Holiday Inn Hotel; I moved up somewhat quickly to the front desk. When came back in the summer, having had that experience at Holiday Inn - living in Memphis at the time, Holiday Inn Worldwide was based in Memphis – I worked at the call center in the reservations department. It takes a special person to work in a call center environment. It’s obviously not easy, and you have to follow through with everything you do. You have to learn the computer and reservation systems.

I have very close friends of mine that are in the commercial equipment business. They sell piping, large basins, and I’m in the travel business. I’m selling dreams and memories! I was attending a convention on a cruise back in October. I was sitting around with some other colleagues in the industry, and we were lamenting the fact that, “gosh you know, can you believe we’re having to do all this?” then we all went, “wait a minute, what in the world are we complaining about? We’re on a beautiful ship, attending a convention having a great time! How much better does it get than this?” We really are fortunate to live and work in the travel industry.

MailPound: What are the benefits of working with a travel agent?

Rob: I think the benefits of working with a travel agent are truly unlimited. My wife and I continue to use a travel agent to this day. When I have somebody who comes to me, says to me, “Hey Rob, I want this type of cruise and this type of vacation, I send them to our travel agent. We absolutely believe in the benefits a travel agent offers. A travel agent is there to be a valuable resource, to guide the consumer – not necessarily to what they want – but what best fits their needs. He can answer questions, provide you with different options, can work within your budget.

The best part is if something goes bump in the night, if there’s a problem, if there’s a geopolitical issue, if there’s a volcanic issue, a weather-related problem, that travel agent is there to help the consumer with anything that they might need.

Can you imagine one of those things taking place and trying to call the supplier or the actual product directly? Hold times more than an hour or two, or busy signals. When it comes to travel, a travel agent is the most valuable resource out there.

MailPound: What has been your greatest accomplishment in your career?

Rob: I would say the reputation I have in the industry – what I like to think I have in the industry. I’m one of those people who puts all their cards on the table. I’m not someone who tell someone what I think they’ll want to hear. I’m a very honest, a very open, a very candid person. I embrace working with travel agents. I left one of those other jobs because I wasn’t happy with the direction the company was taking as it related to travel agents. I’m most proud of the dedication, working closely with travel agents, throughout my career. I am proud to receive some accolades along the way, without question. My reputation is something I truly value. When people talk to me, when they deal with me, they’re going to get someone who is honest and truly wants to engage with them.

MailPound: Are you involved with any volunteer or industry organizations?

Rob: My wife, my family and I are involved with charitable organizations. I live in the Charlottesville, North Carolina area, we are part of the local community in that respect. I’m delighted to have in the past participated with Tourism Cares. We spent a day planting trees along the Mississippi River, in the Minnesota area.

We always look for opportunities to engage in a meaningful manner. Not just where our home base is in, in Boston, not just in the U.S., but across the globe. If we had the opportunities, we would certainly entertain those, and look for the opportunity to support charitable organizations, it makes for a common interest that we have. I think you’ll probably see us as a company, look for opportunities with the regions we travel to when the Scenic Eclipse launches.

MailPound: How has volunteering affected you personally and professionally?

Rob: I went to the University of Tennessee, if you know anything about the University of Tennessee, we’re all about being a part of the Volunteer State. I take great pride in volunteering, with my family, on the local level, as well on a professional level. When it comes to the impact, my wife and I try to instill these core values into our children. We’re fortunate to have the things in life that we do, and to have the opportunity to experience what we have. We always look for opportunities to give back or impact those that are not as fortunate as we are.

One organization that is very near and dear to my heart is the National Down Syndrome Association. My 22-year-old son has Down Syndrome. He has touched more people than you could ever expect, we are very proud of his accomplishment. Even though I went to the University of Tennessee, he goes to the University of Georgia – that’s an internal strife that we deal with as a family. But we’re very proud of his progress and the things he’s been able to do. People that have children with special needs, it really does impact the unknown. It’s the fear of the unknown. How is my child going to be when they’re 10? When they’re 20? What is the impact on my life? These are things that we look to share our experiences and give back as well.

On a professional basis, I think more than anything it gives us an opportunity to be caring, and be a little more patient, and take things into consideration on a one-on-one basis. Not simply broad brush them with a very broad stroke – but look for opportunities as every situation is unique and different. It’s an opportunity to embrace with a very caring mentality of look for ways to move forward, and still reach that ultimate goal that we need to, from a professional perspective.

MailPound: What advice would you give to someone considering membership within a professional organization?

Rob: The number one thing I would recommend is, make it something that you have a passion for. There are a number of fantastic organizations out there, I mentioned from my family, the National Down Syndrome Association, that for obvious reasons, is very near and dear to our hearts. There is another organization here in the Charlotte area, it’s called the Sandbox. It’s fairly new charitable organization, my wife and I have a friend that is particularly active in that organization. Had us come out to an event. Again, this is geared towards children with extreme disabilities – in many cases, terminal. This is something that’s growing, and obviously, he’s passionate about these children.

I’m very proud, I have a 14-year-old son – he has become a volunteer. He went through the interview process. He’s a mentor in this organization. At 14 years old, he’s going to be engaged with these children, four, five, six and maybe younger than that, that don’t have the life that he has. He’s going to have the opportunity to really make a positive impact. Him having an older brother with special needs, is going to give him a whole different perspective as well. Make sure it’s something that you have a real passion for, and you can really get behind and support.

MailPound: In the classic saying, “I wish I knew what I know now, when I was younger,” what are some things that you wish you had known ahead of time?

Rob: Gosh, the easy answer to that is, I wish that Google’s stock was going to go up! (laughing) I think it’s one of those things that we all say to ourselves on a regular basis, “gosh, if I had known this beforehand I may have handled it a little bit differently,” or looked at it through a different lens if you will. I’m a believer that good judgment comes from experience. I believe that experience comes from, call it, “bad judgment.” As long as you learn from what’s taken place in the past, you continue to grow as a person. Especially today’s world, you never stop learning. You always want to continue to embrace change. And that’s the one thing I’ve noticed about our industry, more than anything else. It is continually evolving and changing. I wish I could point to and say one thing, “I would I had known then, what I know now,” I think it’s all about that experience, and learning along the way as you go.

MailPound: What publications, blogs and materials about the travel industry would you recommend?

Rob: There’s so many! I think everybody enjoys Travel Weekly. Travel Pulse is one. Insider Travel, I look forward to seeing James Shilling on videos. Not many people are doing that. I think that’s something unique, and really sets those guys apart. Travel Research Online. Travel Market Report. Vacation Agent at Home. Travel Agent West. Passport.

I’m of the philosophy that the more information the better. There’s so many! I set Google alerts, what most interesting me – cruises, rivers cruises, particular brands. In addition to these daily newsletters I receive, I want to make sure I’m not missing something out there. It really depends upon which agent, or which niche, a person in the industry might specialize in.

MailPound: What are some fun facts about yourself?

Rob: I love my family. My wife and I are both in the travel industry – we’ve been in the travel industry our entire careers. We love the travel business. Our children are very fortunate that we’re in the travel business. Our kids have probably been on more cruises than most adults.

I am a sports freak! Anything that has to do with sports, I love! I’m a diehard, season-ticket holding Carolina Panthers fan.

I went to the University of Tennessee, so my blood runs orange when it comes to my volunteers.

I’m very proud to work for a five-star luxury product like the Scenic Rivers, and certainly the ultra-luxury, Scenic Eclipse.

At the end of the day, there’s nothing this guy loves more than a good cold craft beer and some great wings.

MailPound: I was not expecting that one. (laughing) So what is your favorite craft beer? Just curious.

Rob: I’m an IPA guy, definitely an IPA guy. If I’m being honest, I tend to snorkel to the imperial IPAs. Here in the Charlotte area, we have a number of craft breweries, just popping up like crazy. There’s one called Triple C. Triple C has one of my favorite beers, it’s a double IPA, called “Babymaker.” I guess you have a few too many, the name kind of speaks for itself. It’s fantastic beer.

MailPound: (laughing) Thank you for such wonderful and entertaining interview.