State of Cruise Planners: Fee and Garcia Are Upbeat

Despite the challenging business environment, Cruise Planners, a travel-selling franchise organization with 123 employees in Coral Springs, FL and 2,500-plus franchisees throughout the United States, is upbeat about the future of travel and cruise sales.

The franchise organization has taken many steps to adapt to the current crisis. It’s steadying its financial picture, continuing to market but with different messaging, retaining 90 percent of its home office team members (now working remotely) and giving franchise owners emotional support, business guidance and tools that are helping them weather the tough times.  

In a presentation Thursday to reporters, Michelle Fee, CEO and co-founder, and Vicky Garcia, COO and co-owner, stressed that Cruise Planners hopes to position the organization and its advisors to jump right back into vacation selling when travel opens up again. 

Tracking Sales – Still Up for 2021: When looking at what’s on the books for 2021, compared to what the organization had on the books at the same time in 2019 for 2020, cruise departures are trending 15 percent higher.  Europe is the top destination, account for nearly 38 percent of the mix, with European river cruising comprising half of that business. The Caribbean is the second most booked destination at 23 percent of the mix.

But how much of that business consists of future cruise credits (provided to customers who have opted for that option when their cruise this spring was cancelled) compared with new bookings? Fee says it’s a combination of both, and that a large volume of them are not necessarily future cruise credits; the clients simply might have opted to go ahead and book. That said, Fee says, “I don’t think it’s the bigger percentage, but we are seeing people book for 2021."

Slashing Home Office Costs: “Obviously, we’ve all had to look at every single line item on our financials,” Fee says. “We had to be very sure that we were cutting all those unnecessary costs. We did a very small layoff, but we kept 90 percent of our home office team members. So, we think again, we’re in a better situation than most.”

Cruise Planners also has applied for the government’s Payroll Protection Plan, she said: “So, that will help us, carry us for at least a couple of months. We just think we’re in a good position—because we know that others are going to have to ramp up to where we are and, as you can see, we’re full mode at this point. We’re running our business, albeit from home but we are running our business.”

Getting into the nitty gritty, Fee notes that she and Garcia are not taking any salary right now; the executive team has taken sizable pay cuts; other employees still on the payroll have also taken cuts; and the company has temporarily suspended certain employee programs. It’s also offered the headquarters team voluntary furloughs and some people with children now at home have taken advantage of that in order to take over “teaching” those kids while school is suspended.

“I must say that our team has been so appreciative,” she says. “They’re sitting here looking at the TV. They see the unemployment numbers. We just feel that at this point, we’re doing the right thing for our company and our team members.”

Helping Franchise Owners and Advisors: To assist advisors in recovering from the current business fallout, Cruise Planners “waived our administrative fees for the last two months, which covers all our technology, websites, business development support, training, everything we do,” says Garcia. Cruise Planners also has given franchise owners some free travel magazines (to send to clients) that advisors might typically pay for; ptroviding those magazines without charge can help the advisors to continue to market and get out their messages to clients. “That way, they don’t have the added expense for that, because we want to make sure they are successful,” Garcia says.

Because advisors aren’t as busy in many cases, Cruise Planners is suggesting advisors take more virtual training. Cruise Planners has increased its training webinars, offers new Monday and Friday video messages from both executives and Theresa Scalzitti, chief sales officer, and also continues its regular CP Live and Facebook Live presentations on Wednesdays. Often, cruise line executives participate to talk about policies that can support advisors right now.

“So, this is kind of like our emotional counseling services,” Garcia says. “We have business development coaches who are there and who are there to talk them off the ledge sometimes or just to [address] potential problems.

Focusing on the Good News: “We’re in tough times right now,” Garcia says. “There’s no doubt about it. We all know it. I think every industry feels it; it’s not just affecting travel. But you guys know us and, in true Cruise Planners fashion, we’re trying to keep things positive … [by] focusing on the good news stories because there are good news stories out there.”

She says Cruise Planners is encouraging its advisors to share those good news stories and the organization is using its internal site for franchisees and their advisors to share positive stories. One advisor said, “I just booked three cabins on Crystal.” There were others who have booked European sailings. "So, it’s not all doom and gloom, and I think we all need to focus on that,” she says, “because it makes our heart feel better and the clients feel better about that.

As part of a CP Social Program, Cruise Planners advisors asked their clients to post their favorite travel photos in a 30-day contest called “For the Love of Travel,” using hashtag #cruiseplannerslove. Cruise Planners Is giving out gifts and seeing a great response, Garcia notes. 

Pivoting the Marketing: Many travel companies have stopped marketing last month and this month, but Cruise Planners hasn’t. It’s just changed the messaging—away from selling and to supporting, encouraging and contacting the consumer with thoughtful messaging. It's trying to stay connected, to keep clients engaged, to say in messaging, “we’re thinking of you. Hope you’re staying safe—you and your family.” Fee says that in the coming weeks, hopefully, the news will shift; the organization, she adds, is gearing up and “we plan to perk up the marketing a bit.”

Tapping Into Future Cruise Credits: Most cruise lines have offered refunds or, alternatively, future cruise credits, often with an incentive such as 25 percent more value and/or an onboard credit, for example. But Cruise Planners’ executives now have another term for those FCCs.

“In our world, we call them the ‘Golden Tickets,’” says Fee, who says thousands of these Golden Tickets are sitting out there in the hands of clients who have yet to rebook. “This is one way our agents are able to get paid now,” she says. “We know that if we can get our agents to get their clients to commit, they will get paid on both ends.”

Cruise Planners has spent weeks concentrating on those credits, and is now receiving information directly from the cruise lines about which guests (booked by its Cruise Planners advisors) are holding those credits. In a series of emails—one every two weeks—the clients are receiving a personalized message created by the Cruise Planners home office team about the future cruise credit. The goal is to make it easy for advisors.

“We’re doing this on behalf of our agents,” says Garcia. “We’re not asking them to upload their list or figure it out. We’re getting the list direct from the cruise line, we’re creating the e-card, we’re sending it on their behalf, all personalized from them. Hopefully, over the next couple of weeks in the third message, we can really blast it out there to say, 'Hey, it’s time now. It’s time to rebook.'”

Personal Support, One-on-One Messaging: In addition, Garcia says the organization has tools that give the advisors an opportunity to communicate with clients on a bit more personal basis, too. So, advisors can send a virtual hug, for example, to a client right now. Cruise Planners offers sample copy for advisors to use. It might say, “Hey, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, I know you can’t wait to go on that Alaska cruise, but it’s not really about that. I just wanted to reach out and see how you’re doing.'"

Celebrating Home Based: Garcia points to the Facebook pages of big OTAs and big-box retailers, where consumers have taken to posting "complaints galore" about problems in reaching employees and such issues as seven-hour hold times. She says that's where home-based advisors have stepped up. “They’re the ones that called the cruise lines and sat on hold forever,” Garcia notes. “They’re the ones that navigated through the cancellation policies and some of them that changed, at the beginning, by the day, They helped reroute [clients] to get them back home. They really worked with them to hand-hold them, versus them having to deal with waiting on hold for a call center agent to help them.”

Cruise Planners’ executives said that their franchise owners and advisors have received everything from wine, candy and even a $200 check from clients, appreciative for all the hard work in handling their recent travel changes. “And we’ve seen several of those,” she adds. “It’s not just a one off. So that’s a great thing. “

Cruise Versus Land: Certainly, screaming headline about cruise ship issues have taken their toll on the public’s perception of cruising, to some extent. But now, “the ships are out of the headlines [for the most part],” said Garcia. The cruise industry, though, was too long in the headlines, she believes, “as it’s not a cruise ship illness. It’s a global pandemic, unfortunately. This is kind of a little bit of a new normal.”

Still, some industry experts believe land-based travel will return faster than cruising. So will Cruise Planners change its positioning to focus more on land? “I don’t know if many of you know but we’re really strong land-sellers, as well,” Fee says. “We’re the number-one seller of Sandals in the world. So, yes, we will market, and pivot and shift our marketing to promote those efforts that we see are selling. We, obviously, will never pivot away from cruising.”

That said, she also doesn’t think people are going to be afraid to cruise. “If anything comes out, there’s a cure or a vaccine, people are going to flood back to cruising.” Plus, she added that die-hard cruisers—as the organization is already hearing from its agents—are saying, “as soon as this is over, I’m getting back on a ship. I’m not afraid.” Plus, she believes even tests for anti-bodies (making the traveler safe from catching the virus) could make a big difference in how quickly people return to cruising. 

Fee says, “We will always continue to be cruise advocates,” but, yes, at least for the immediate time frame when travel begins to open up again, “we will pivot some of our market. “ One reason? Even if the cruise lines begin sailing again in May, June or whenever the ships return, “it’s not going to be with the full breadth [of itineraries and ships] that they have," Fee notes. In other words, it’s likely to be a measured response—coming in phases, such as half or one-third of the fleet returning.

So, Cruise Planners’ advice to its advisors? “At this point, just get the people back to traveling.”

Thinking of Recovery: Both Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) and the International Franchise Organization are working with Cruise Planners in assisting advisors with staying the course and keeping their businesses on the right track during these tough times. 

Garcia also said that Cruise Planners is looking now to cruise line representatives and CLIA to come out soon with “the recovery” plan. What are they doing to clean the ships more? Are they planning to take temperatures? What will happen to the buffets? Garcia believes, “buffets as we know them are going to change.”  She also wonders if passengers over 70 might need to bring doctor’s notes, and who knows for how long that will be? 

But the organization itself is certainly doing its part, including #CPStrong. “We want to stay positive,” says Garcia. “We know it’s one day at a time. We can’t fast forward this thing, although I wish I’d go to sleep and wake up in June or July.” To which Fee, added, “I just want to get all the way to 2021, noting that, quite honestly, she's never worked as hard as she has right now. 

But that's just fine considering the task at hand, she says: "It’s all based on 'How do we keep this machine moving forward?'” she says, adding “I think we are in a good place." While the organization still sees much concern and uncertainty in the marketplace and high unemployment across the nation, it also knows those future cruise credits are out there.

So, many consumers holding those credits are in a wait-and-see game. Cruise Planners’ view is that its franchise home-based advisors are ready, waiting for the ban to be lifted and, as Fee emphasizes,“then they can get back to doing what they can do best, which is to sell travel.”

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