Cruise Planners Conference Highlights the Power of 'Change'


Cruise Planners' Michelle Fee, CEO and co-founder, and Vicky Garcia, senior vice president of sales and marketing

Nothing ever stays the same. So helping franchise agency owners see that change is good and brings new business opportunities was the goal of Cruise Planners/American Express when the organization selected “Change” as this year’s annual conference theme.

Four hundred Cruise Planners franchise agency owners attended this year’s conference at the Westin Fort Lauderdale Beachfront — participating in conference workshops, listening to executive discussions and interfacing with franchise staff and peers, before boarding the new Celebrity Eclipse for a short preview cruise from Port Everglades.

Michelle Fee, CEO and co-founder of Cruise Planners, said the conference slots “sold out” in May, based on a maximum number of 200 cabins available on Eclipse.

Adapting to a Changing Marketplace

Most of the organization’s 800 franchise owners have adapted well to a “changed” cruise selling marketplace in 2010. And many new franchise owners are discovering the joy and profitability of selling travel.  “We’re having a phenomenal year,” said Fee.

She noted that the economy is now working in Cruise Planners’ favor as people need that extra income and feel like they want to command their own career destiny so they’re interested in becoming a franchise owner.

Eighty-five percent of those buying a Cruise Planners franchise are not from the travel industry, but rather people in other walks of life – many with entrepreneurial or business experience. “They’ve lost their jobs, or feel like it’s time for a change in their life,” Fee said.

What’s the top accomplishment of Cruise Planners agency owners throughout the past year? “They’ve educated themselves,” Fee said emphatically. At last year’s conference, the franchise group launched CP University and most of the franchise group’s owners have availed themselves of the training – completing more than 50,000 online training sessions this year.

“We really get behind that concept,” said Fee. “Higher learning equals higher earnings.” Agents who really know how to grow their businesses and how to be better sellers are going to do much better financially than the agent who fails to engage with the training and organizational tools, said both Fee and Vicky Garcia, Cruise Planners’ senior vice president of sales and marketing. 

Cruise Planners works closely with both the cruise lines and CLIA, and “we were told that we are one of the highest accredited agents as a unit,” said Fee. Many agents have earned CLIA’s various certifications.

One agent’s perspective on the conference and its learning opportunities? “The absolute best part about convention was the people themselves….making new friends and visiting with the ‘old ones,’” said Nancy Yoffe, ECCS, who owns a Cruise Planner franchise in Spartanburg, SC. “There is nothing like learning from your peers.” That’s priceless, Yoffe noted.

Cruise Planners agents predominantly sell cruises but also tours, all-inclusive resorts and other travel products that their clients might want to do occasionally, perhaps every third or fourth year as a change from a cruise.


Fee fields questions to cruise executives during a panel discussion at the annual Cruise Planners conference

To assist them, “this year we actually created a tour department,” said Fee. “We’ve always sold tours, but we’ve never really focused on it. We have to make sure our agents have the opportunity to sell [a land-based vacation as needed] to their customers.”

“The theme of our convention is change, and change is challenging,” said Fee. “But we’ve tried to give them examples and show how to adapt.” On the cruise side, she mentioned the development of solo inside cabins and the advent of blockbuster onboard entertainment, both now creating potential new audiences for cruise travel.

“If you don’t change, business will change without you,” Fee stressed. While many of the cruise lines have adopted new agent focused policies these year – some liked and some disliked by agents --  Fee said “some lines do it better than others and they stay connected” in handling their relationships with agents.

She would really like cruise lines to evaluate the give-and-take a bit more. “You can’t always take away,” Fee said. “You also have to give something back.”

To assist agents, Garcia said “we’re launching some really cool things over the next few weeks and months.” Cruise Planners added web-based bookings on the eREZ platform this past June, so agents can put a booking in the system right now from their iPod, a very mobile option to help agents book on the go.


Garcia speaks to the audience at the Cruise Planners conference

Next, Cruise Planners is going to be upgrading eREZ including launching an off-line version. If franchise owners don’t have an Internet connection, they will still be able to go on their laptop or PC without Internet access, and at least see their client information and call the cruise line right there to book.

“We’re also going to be integrating ‘live booking’ within the next two months, so they’ve be able to do live booking, look at inventory and block it, plus ‘live’ connection to our CPpod print-on-demand portal for marketing,” said Garcia. “So right from their CRM, they’ll be able to say ‘what mailers have I sent to my client?’ and will be able to look at everything that touched the client on the marketing side.”

And, when the agency owner goes to market, they’ll be able to click on a button to see that a certain client has cruised with the agency three times on Carnival on a family reunion. It will also give psychographic information about that client’s personal lifestyle, hobbies and tastes to help better position future marketing pitches.

This type of information will look beyond normal client database information and provide an intelligent approach to sales, according to Garcia. For example, the system will let an agent know that a particular client they’ve had all along may be the perfect client for a Crystal cruise.

But both Fee and Garcia stress that nothing on the technology side replaces the human touch and the importance of networking in their local community. “They’ve still got to be out in the community shaking hands and kissing babies,” Garcia noted.

Fee, who co-founded Cruise Planners 16 years ago along with Marvin Davis and Lynn Korn, both now retired, reflected on her organization’s change over the years. “We started with just the three of us and we taught every class. We had five people in our first class and I think the first year we sold 27 units.” 

Today, the organization has a headquarter’s staff of more than 40. The big challenge for both staff and agency owners, Fee said, is to take the significant amount of marketplace information and put it into buckets.

Garcia said her group “demystifies that as much as we can” for franchise owners through training in different types of channels.  “We do our best but we never sit on our laurels,” said Fee. “But we never say ‘we’ve arrived.’”

The Cruise Planners corporate mantra? Fee puts it this way: “To continue to create cool stuff, to deliver great service, have fun, make money and change the world.”