Cruise Planners Hits $1 Billion Sales Mark, Announces AI Initiative

Celebrating its 30th year, Cruise Planners kicked off its “CP World: Limitless” annual conference in South Florida this week with big news. For the first time ever, the network—consisting of more than 2,500 travel agency franchises—has soared above the $1 billion mark in 2023 sales.

During the conference’s opening general session this week, Michelle Fee, founder and CEO, Cruise Planners, also reported that future departures in 2024 are up 38 percent compared to this time last year. “If we continue this strong pace, I predict that each and every one of you are going to have a record-breaking year again" next year, she told the audience of more than 1,000 travel advisors.

Theresa Scalzitti, chief operating officer, Cruise Planners, said that “we have never ever experienced this level of growth" and that the Cruise Planners network is up 39 percent in overall 2023 travel sales compared to the previous year. “In 2023, our departures will end up a whopping 44 percent over 2022,” Scalzitti said. “That pent-up demand has turned into just pure demand." 

Breaking Out the 2023 Results

Breaking the 2023 growth into segments, Scalzitti said cruising has come back stronger than ever, and Cruise Planners has exceeded all expectations with 2023 cruise sales growing by 63 percent over 2022. “This just shows that your customers are making up for lost time,” she said.

Destination-wise, in Europe, which she described as “always a fan-favorite,” this year’s departures are up 48 percent versus 2022. Scalzitti also reported that Alaska has also made a great comeback after a few hard years and is ending the year very strong, also at a 2023 sales increase of 48 percent. “But there’s one clear winner,” she emphasized. “This year, the Caribbean is ending up 80 percent over last year. And we think next year is going to be another phenomenal year for the Caribbean.”

Looking at the luxury side of travel selling, “Cruise Planners has really focused on training for our advisors as well as marketing to your luxury clients, and that’s really shown in our bookings,” she said. “This year we saw an incredible growth in the luxury travel segment. We’re finishing the year up by 36 percent over last year.”

Even more amazing, “our world and exotic cruise bookings have grown by 295 percent,” Scalzitti noted. That’s $13 million more in sales for 2023 versus 2022. “River cruising, too, has been hot, hot, hot for years, and this year you guys are on fire. We are seeing our sales for river cruises grow by 20 percent over last year.”

In another tidbit, Scalzitti noted that in 2023, “land continues to grow, which is really exciting. Even the cruise-selling advisors have embraced selling land to expand their overall sales base.” So, sales grew double-digits over last year, with record-breaking land sales—up 13 percent from last year. 

Still, cruising remains a prime business for many Cruise Planners' franchise owners. The good news is that the cruise industry’s capacity will grow 19 percent by 2028, according to Scott Koepf, chief strategy officer. “That is fabulous news for all of us because it means a lot more to sell," he told the advisors.Consumers are also increasingly recognizing the value of using a travel advisor. Koepf explained that when Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) recently sent out a survey asking how likely someone is to use a travel advisor when booking their next cruise, 63 percent of consumers said, “Yes, I would use a travel advisor."

Demand = New Millionaire Club Members

Looking ahead to all 2024 sales, Brian Shultz, chief information officer, Cruise Planners, said that because there was so much consumer demand the executive team thought that, at some point, sales would start to dip. But that’s not happened. “People are not waiting for those vacations any longer, so those ‘bucket lists,’ those are now ‘to-do’ lists,” he explained.

Earlier this year, 20 percent more Cruise Planners franchisees popped into the company's Millionnaire’s Club—posting at least $1 million in annual sales. Later, the executive team thought that the organization would end the year with a 50 percent higher level of Millionaire Club members. But this week, Fee updated that projection, noting that the network now expects to reach "72 percent more Millionaire Club members this year."

That said, Fee acknowledged that different franchisees have different objectives. Not all have multiple associates, for example. Some are smaller agencies with a smaller footprint. In talking to the advisors, she stressed that "our goal is really to help you meet whatever your goal is." That said, nearly half of the Cruise Planners network grew their sales by 50 percent or more this year.

Embracing Artificial Intelligence

Hunter Hotel Investment Conference logo

One top highlight of the first-day’s discussion? While many travel advisor groups tell us they're evaluating or looking at artificial intelligence (AI), Cruise Planners has actually moved forward to now offer Maxx Intelligence. That's a new tool within the CP Maxx platform. It’s designed to enhance content creation for travel advisors through the power of AI and ChatGPT programs.

With Maxx Intelligence enabled, advisors can gain access to a content generator that empowers them to effortlessly create new content by using artificial intelligence. By inserting a prompt, advisors can request AI to generate responses that can be inserted into content and message fields.That can create ecards, blog pages, cruise sheets, lead forms and more.

Other New Initiatives 

Generating applause from the audience, Cruise Planners also announced that it's introducing LivePlanner Group Sessions. What that means is an enhancement within the CP Maxx LivePlanner program will now allow advisors to complete interactive LivePlanner sessions with multiple clients at one time. That will benefit advisors who would like to present vacation options to families, groups or clients traveling together from different locations, as it allows more clients to participate in the vacation-planning process. More details will be available in 2024.

In addition, Shultz and the other Cruise Planners executives spoke about the value of many new technology enhancements just introduced or in progress. They include:

Traveltek: Cruise Planners' real-time booking engine (eConnect) has integrated with a new Cruise API from Traveltek. So, advisors can get pricing, make live bookings and retrieve cruise reservations. Significant advantages will be available soon for advisors, such as making live bookings with more cruise lines than ever before and the ability to book into Cruisetours and group space.

Maxx Creator: This new tool within CP Maxx enables advisors to create visually appealing emails based on one of three layouts provided to them. They can add in banner images, messages, call-to-action items with links and content blocks with or without images. The goal is for advisors to “rev up” their client communications with more visually appealing and content-rich, newsletter-style emails. So, they'll have the ability to create new templates, reuse templates created and shared within the network or utilize home office templates.

Email Capture: A new email capturing ability within CP Maxx will give advisors an efficient and convenient way to store, track and view their client email communications in that platform. This will apply to emails that are sent to clients outside of the CP platform.

CP Maxx Video Library: A new Video Library tool within CP Maxx will give advisors the ability to upload a video file or record their own video directly in CP Maxx via web browser. When recording a video, advisors will have the option to create a script to assist with the recording process and ensure a smooth recording experience. Uploaded videos can be presented to clients during an interactive LivePlanner session.

Where2Next Virtual Series: Launched during the pandemic, the Where2Next Virtual consumer series has proven highly successful. So, in 2024, Cruise Planners will enhance that to become an interactive experience for clients to choose their own journey of learning and discovery for specific destinations, travel suppliers and more. The series will also include a limited time exclusive offer.

LivePlanner Collections: These are curated assets—links, images, videos and documents—sourced between Cruise Planners Home Office and the company’s supplier and tourism board partners. Using the LivePlanner program, advisors can present the Collections to their clients during an interactive LivePlanner vacation planning session. This will help advisors understand their clients’ preferences and help in planning their next vacation.

Training Highlights

More than 25 in-person training and networking opportunities are on the books for 2024. Those include two Cruise Planners' Bootcamps; three Sales Academy sessions; three Tech Days including some on the road in Las Vegas and Orlando; Land Symposiums, a Luxury Forum, 6-Star University Training; the annual convention; two Elite Summits; and events, conferences and fam opportunities with Signature Travel Network.

Separately, new at the convention this year was a Destination Welcome Showcase, shining the spotlight on several destinations and countries through tourism board representatives. In addition, the conference’s trade show was the largest ever with 170 partners and included cruise lines, tour operators, hotels, resorts and destinations.

30 Years: An Evolution

During her opening day General Session remarks, Fee told the advisors that “sometimes the future can be really scary because evolution is happening so fast.” Simultaneously displayed on the stage's humongous screen were "back in the day" photos and graphics that visually reminded advisors of the late 20th-century era. The audience chuckled in looking at imagery of the 1980s women’s hair styles, AOL as the new email/Internet provider, and workers physically being “glued” to their office computers and office phones all day long.

But change is inevitable and “the only reason I am here today is because I kept changing,” Fee told them. "I kept asking, I kept growing, I kept evolving, I kept succeeding, I kept moving forward." Fee also told the audience that when she started in the travel business 42 years ago most of the travel agency offices were storefronts, as that’s how travel was sold. “But I’m proud to say that we had a vision that selling travel could look different, and we led the way and we paved the road to redefine what a home-based travel agent would look like,” she says. In 1994, Cruise Planners started in one small room and its “North Star” goal was to bring on 100 advisors. “But, of course, that would have been limiting ourselves and if we did [only] that, I certainly would not be here today,” she added.

Breaking the Boundaries

“But looking at you—all of you—it shows how we’ve broken all the boundaries," Fee continued. "In fact, we’re celebrating 30 years of 'Cruisitude.'” She noted that, of course, when CP was founded 30 years ago, there was no Internet or email in the way we have it today, and “there was no social media.” But there were many tipping points along the way, she said, which is “a series of small changes, which then become significant to cause a larger and more important change.”

"The good news is that we always look into the future," said Fee. "But to do that we do believe it’s important to look back, not only to see what people accomplished but how did we get here. And although change can be hard, we’ve always embraced it.”

CP World Limitlessis the theme of this year's Cruise Planners conference
The theme of this year's annual Cruise Planners conference is "CP World: Limitless." (Photo by Susan J. Young)

When searching for a conference theme, “there was one word that kept jumping out at us and that word was 'limitless' because it has no boundaries," said Fee, and that concept applies to the group’s past, present and future. “We knew years ago that we had to adapt to change, because you either evolve or you’re extinct." Then, she credited the advisor group for the organization’s success. “I thank you for making Cruise Planners the company that it is today.”

The Cruise Planners annual conference, "CP World: Limitless" started this week from November 26 to 29 at the Broward County Convention Center in Greater Fort Lauderdale. Today, most of the attendees then continue for the second part of the conference programming. They board the new Celebrity Ascent at Port Everglades, FL, for a two-night inaugural cruise. 

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