25 Years: On Site at the Cruise Planners Convention

Playing "The Greatest Showman," Scott Koepf, vice president of strategic development, Cruise Planners, commanded the stage at the Diplomat Hotel in Hollywood Beach, FL, on Tuesday -- attired in a ringmaster’s costume that would have made P. T. Barnum proud.

In fact, actor Hugh Jackman, who played Barnum in the recent movie, had nothing on Koepf, who imparted Barnum’s philosophy about risk-taking, opportunities and a can-do attitude.

The fun-filled drama unfolded as Cruise Planners, an American Express Travel Representative, jointly kicked off both its 2018 convention, aptly titled, "The Greatest Show for 25 Years," and also the beginning of its 25th anniversary, which continues for all of 2019.  

Looking Back

More than 600 Cruise Planners agents listened as Koepf then introduced Michelle Fee, founder and CEO, Cruise Planners, who took the stage dressed in a CP green sequin dress.

Back in 1994, Fee, Marvin Davis and Lynn Korn – all working for different agencies at the same time – dreamed up the franchise agency concept of Cruise Planners.

How different was the travel business back then? Let's just say that there was a travel agency on just about every street corner of America and the Internet wasn’t a household name.

The trio spent about a year developing the concept, all while still working at several local travel agencies.

Finally it was time to take the financial risk. Fee's husband, Mark, told her to go for it. So she took the family's $2,000 savings and invested in the dream, as did Davis and Korn. 

The owners' master plan was to meet up once a week at the local Embassy Suites and see what was accomplished that week, how agents could make more money and how the owners could help them do that. There was no office.

They had enough money for only one advertisement in one magazine, and with the response of five checks in hand for $1,995 each, they set up their first franchise owner's training program.

“We put our money [in] and invested in the new business,” said Fee. “I was really nervous but I knew I had to take the risk and follow my heart.”

It started small, with just five Cruise Planners agents, including Mike Gelman, in the first training class. He's still with CP today. 

Fee said the owners really didn’t really get paid for three years. They kept working their regular jobs.

But the concept took off with much hard work and creative input, despite the changing business model for agents.

In the 1990's, travel agents who were solely order takers began to disappear, many airlines sacked the trade – instead opting for their own reservations offices – and the Internet took over the universe, so to speak.

But through it all, Cruise Planners not only survived, but thrived. One reason? “We saw the industry changes and if we didn’t change along with it we were going to be extinct,” said Fee.

But now, she says, “I couldn’t imagine being part of anything else. It’s been a fabulous 25 years.”

The journey wasn’t without risks, but as P.T. Barnum would say, “Think big, think beyond and never accept the status quo,” Fee told the agents. “No one ever made a difference being like everybody else,” she added, showcasing another Barnum belief.

“I have to thank Mike for the early years,” Fee told the audience. She also gave credit to both Davis and Korn, who were in the audience and they received a lengthy standing ovation. 

Travel Agent caught up with Gelman, Fee and Davis, shown left to right in the photo above, at the trade show after the opening session.

In looking back, Fee stressed that she was a young mother with a family and there was always a thread of doubt, as she asked herself: "What if I lose the money? What if this doesn’t work?"

Measures of Success

When the group as a whole hit $2 million in sales, they were thrilled. “Now some of you do that single handedly,” she remarked to the audience, many top producers. 

Today, overall departures for the entire Cruise Planners franchise organization are up 20 percent this year over last, and for 2019, they're trending up 28 percent.

Many of the agents attending the conference will board the new, 2,918 passenger Celebrity Edge later this week. Sister line Royal Caribbean International has the biggest ship in the world now, Symphony of the Seas at 228,000-plus-grt.

That’s a far cry from the biggest ship in the world when Cruise Planners was in its infancy. During that era, the title of biggest went to Royal Caribbean’s 73,000-grt Sovereign of the Seas.

Fee remembers that the new ships back in that time frame were Carnival Fascination and Holland America’s Ryndam (no longer in service for that line). Plus, “Uniworld was the only major river [cruise] company,” Fee added.

In the 1980's, there were 40 or so cruise ships. Today, in contrast, there are 470 cruise ships, with another 100 on order for delivery in the next five years.

“More than 27 million passengers are projected to cruise this year,” she said.

Then Fee called “my Bailey” to the stage. She was referring to Vicky Garcia, co-owner and COO, the modern day version of P. T. Barnum’s business partner, James Anthony Bailey. 

In 2012, Fee, Garcia and Tom Kruszewski, now co-owner and CFO, bought 100 percent of the company, as the torch was passed from Davis and Korn.

Garcia laid out the litany of top awards that CP has won this year, giving credit where it’s due: “You guys are the ones that rock.”

In 2008, the group started with just six members who made over a million dollars a year. Today there are 100 or so members in that Millionaire's Club, or about 17 times as many.

Looking to the future, the executives urged agents to set lofty goals, don’t stick with the status quo as that’s never enough, always progress and move forward.

Cruise Planners is doing just that as a headquarters team. It's moving to new offices across the street from the current building in Coral Springs, FL. Look for a ribbon cutting in January 2019.

Fee, Garcia and Brian Shultz, chief information officer, Cruise Planners, then gave agents a look at what Cruise Planners home office introduced for franchise agencies this year, and the portfolio of new tools, programs and initiatives planned for 2019.

We'll outline all those in our next story, “Rundown on Cruise Planners: What’s New, What’s Next?”  Check back later this week. 

“Looking back, we did have the vision that we were going to be the greatest show on Earth, “ Fee emphasized. “We weren’t going to let anything stand in our way. We were going to change the travel world.”

And, in many ways, they certainly did. 

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