How Cruise Planners’ New Alexa Artificial Intelligence Tools Work

Cruise Planners Conference
Left to right, Vicky Garcia, COO and co-owner, and Michelle Fee, CEO and co-founder, Cruise Planners addressed agents at the 2017 annual conference, themed "CP Ignite.

Artificial intelligence, the power of Amazon's Alexa and the coupling of new technology with “big data” will revolutionize the way Cruise Planners agents run their businesses moving forward.

This week, initial details were laid out for more than 600 travel advisors attending “CP Ignite,” the annual Cruise Planners convention at The Grand Moon Palace in Cancun, Mexico. 

“CP Ignite is really to help agents re-ignite themselves, get themselves back on track, as well as for those agents who are really ‘on fire,’ it’s just coming and learning and continuing to build upon their business,” said Michelle Fee, CEO and co-founder, Cruise Planners.

Cheers for Alexa 

Agents jumped to their feet and cheered as they learned that all Cruise Planners franchises in attendance would receive one Amazon Echo Dot, a personal virtual assistant that will integrate seamlessly with Cruise Planners’ new CP Maxx reservations system. 

Technology impacts the way people buy travel, and, “if we couple our technology with some business intelligence and we mine the data [then] we maximize those results,” she said, adding that with Alexa, travel agents can interact with clients in a new high-tech way, secure information quickly and respond intuitively. 

After an initial set-up, which Cruise Planners will assist with if needed (although Fee describes it as “super simple”), the agent will be able to secure client trip details from Alexa. For example, an agent could be at home over the weekend, cooking dinner for a family gathering, when a client sends a text asking about final payment details on a specific booking.

The agent can keep stirring a pot on the stove and simply ask, “Alexa, ask Cruise Planners when is the final payment due for John Jones - booking number 099330291.” In turn, Alexa will respond, “there are 42 days before final payment is due and the balance due is $950.” 

Fee said the franchise group has provided Amazon with hundreds of different requests/commands that a customer could ask of Alexa. 

If the customer wishes to use Alexa in talking to their Cruise Planners agent or for travel information, they simply go to their CP My Trips account and sign up; they’re then logged into a portal that has precise information on their trip and knows who their agent is. 

From then on, they can just say, “Alexa, ask Cruise Planners to call my agent ..,” and they’ll be connected – not just to any agent in a nondescript call center, but to their local agent. 

Or, they can say, “Alexa, ask Cruise Planners about a cruise to Hawaii” and they’ll receive travel suggestions.   

Photo by Cruise Planners

Newly Enhanced Reservations System

The Alexa technology will run in tandem with CP Maxx, the group's newly enhanced reservations and customer resource management system, which has vastly improved performance and gives agents new ways to add bookings. 

One new CP Maxx tool, CP Buckets, allows agents to drag and drop information into online “buckets” for individual clients. So, if a client discusses several kinds of trips but hasn’t yet booked, the agent can drag the suggested itineraries into a bucket – easily found for a subsequent discussion.

Or, the agent might drag in the client’s “wish list” for travel the next two years. Agents also can send a bucket link to clients via email, if they so choose.  

The new reservations system also will deliver improved performance, show profitability, offer a currency converter and weather forecast tool and much more.  

Conference attendees got a sneak peek at the new system with guided virtual tours and assistance from home office staff. Many of the enhancements were created upon recommendations made by the CP Technology Advisory Board. 

Firing Up, Blazing a Path 

“We realize the importance of ‘big data,’” said Fee. “Can you imagine getting in your car and driving with a dirty windshield? You can’t see anything ahead of you…and it takes tremendous effort to keep the car on the road. You can’t stop as you have places to go.”

Cruise Planners wants to be the solution for that, she said: “We’re going to clean those front windows, and we think ‘big data’ can help us see through them…. If we mine it, we can see out the front window, as now we know where we’re going…We want to drive our business by looking out the front, not out the back.”

For example, “we know that we have a luxury client,” said Fee. “We know that they like to travel in a suite. We know where they like to travel to. But what we don’t know is there lifestyle. Are they golfers? Are they shoppers? Do they like to go to museums?

So that’s why the organization is upping its efforts to capture more data. For example, if a Celebrity Cruises itinerary that calls in the U.K. has opportunities for a client to play golf, “who are we going to market that to if we don’t know if our customer is a golfer?”

More precise data can help the franchise organization target the right clients for the right promotions and better serve customers. In the CP Insights program, which began in January, Cruise Planners began buying third party data on behalf of its franchisees to tell them precisely who their clients are. 

At the outset, some agents didn’t “get it,” Fee acknowledged, but now said they absolutely do, as 500,000 client names have been coded or inputted to CP Insights. 

“We now know who they [the clients] are and what their propensity is to buy travel,” said Fee. So Cruise Planners now knows who’s in the luxury or the family market, or the single segment. It also knows demographics, such as the client’s age and income bracket.

Luxury Travel Update 

Coming off its first Luxury Forum for agents in South Florida this past summer, Cruise Planners now sees strong growth -- 72 percent annually – in the luxury sector.

In fact, this year it’s tallied 942 additional luxury bookings for 1,833 clients, beyond what it normally would have in a given year. 

So it’s introduced luxury business cards, e-cards, luxury flyers and other upscale marketing materials. Now more than 1,600 agents are participating by sending luxury e-cards to their 35,000 luxury clients. The luxury e-card open rate is 30 percent, well above the business norm.  

Starting December 1, the Cruise Planners home office also will start doing luxury Facebook posts for its agents. Agents can access them on the CP Social Dashboard. 

More CP News  

Typically, watching travel videos results in a 70 percent greater chance of a travel booking materializing. Cruise Planners is helping its agents via a new video network, where the agents can make their own customized videos to share with clients or place online. 

It will also do more video marketing and beef up video content in a library, so they put it on their web site and link to Facebook and other social media.

Also new will be the ability of consumers to see if their travel advisor speaks another language including Spanish, Chinese or other several other languages on www.cruiseplanners.com, the consumer website.

In addition, Cruise Planners will be printing more brochures and other materials in Spanish. 

One of the strengths of the Cruise Planners’ business model, says Fee, is that it has a robust home office staff to support agents. A new tool, Coach’s Dashboard, will allow home office staff to assess an individual agent’s business and provide helpful customized tips and best practices advice. 

Cruise Planners now has 330 courses for its agents, who completed nearly 27,000 training sessions in the past year. Coming soon? Bob Becker, executive vice president of Norwegian Cruise Line, and Larry Pimentel, president and CEO of Azamara Club Cruises, are developing new Webinars for Cruise Planners’ use. 

Selling More Land 

Sandals Grande Antigua will close for maintenance later this month and reopen in mid-December.

Cruise Planners isn’t just a cruise organization. “We’ve made huge strides in the luxury segment and in the land segment,” Fee said, also pointing out that it is a top producer not just for cruise lines but for many land-based groups.

She noted that Cruise Planners is among the world's top producers for Sandals bookings. (The Sandals Grande Antigua resort is shown above).

In fact, the organization has seen a 31 percent growth in land sales year over year. Fee said that for some Cruise Planners agents, land is 80 percent of their business. 

Cruise Planners is talking to its agents, telling them “we are the total package; we want to be that one-stop shop.” To help out, 32 new land venues are being added to Cruise Planners’ e-card library for agents to send to clients. 

Twelve new land postcards are being added this year. Also coming soon is a new enhanced trip summary that’s can be either digital or printed. It personalizes the trip with such details as where the client plans to have lunch or what tour is scheduled for a particular day. 

Would Cruise Planners thus consider a name change, as some other groups have done, to better show the land focus? Fee doesn’t see that coming, as “our brand has equity.” 

Mining the Opportunities 

Average salaries in the U.S. for all industries have increased 2.8 percent in the last year, and within the travel industry, that increase was 3 percent. 

In contrast, Cruise Planners agents had a 7 percent increase in their salaries/earnings (not gross revenue) last year. Sales too are up -- 26 percent this year, versus last. 

Advance bookings for the first quarter 2018 are 36 percent ahead of where they were at the same time last year for first quarter 2017. 

“And Q2 is off the charts…73 percent,” said Fee. 

The new techie programs, the power of Alexa, support from the Cruise Planners home office and plenty of "Cruisitude" will help Cruise Planners agents soar to even higher heights in the coming year, said Fee, who says more is yet to come. 

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