The “American Dream” may have lost its luster for some. But not for Ricardo Pruneda. He’s a veritable embodiment of it, after only six months in travel.
In August 2016 Pruneda opened a new branch of Expedia CruiseShipCenters in Mill Creek, WA. It marked the 200th North American location for the cruise and land-based vacation seller. For Pruneda, it marked a new life path.
Born in Mexico City, Pruneda came to the U.S. at the age of four.
“When my dad moved us here we didn’t have anything. But, my dad was able to start his own business. My parents instilled in me the importance of hard work in service to the customer. They’re my inspiration,” Pruneda tells Travel Agent.
After spending 20 years in sales management, Pruneda decided to venture out on his own. He explored several franchise-based options and industries.
“I looked at food-based concepts, but the types of regulations you have to contend with are a bit much. Travel seemed a much better option. I wanted the chance to build something with others, and a retail center seemed the way to go. You do have start-up costs to get your location up and running. But otherwise, you have no labor costs other than commission splits. Overall, it’s a much better investment,” said Pruneda.
Though he’d never been on a cruise, the sector intrigued him.
“I looked at the projected growth of the cruise industry and the new ships being built. All of that presented a win-win scenario from a business standpoint,” said Pruneda.
He explored other cruise franchises before deciding upon Expedia CruiseShip Centers.
“I was invited to meet with others evaluating the franchise model. I kicked the tires from May 2014 to the end of 2015 before I decided to do it,” he said.
Along the way, certain things came together.
“My wife and I discussed the top locations to set up shop and Mill Creek (a Seattle suburb) was on the list. The town center is a gathering point where people come to shop, eat, buy groceries, go to coffee shops and walk along the sidewalk. It has an affluent feel to it. There happened to be a storefront available right on Main Street. It was meant to be,” said Pruneda.
He signed the franchise agreement, signed the lease and hasn’t looked back.
Expedia CruiseShipCenters training brought him quickly up to speed on the cruise industry, and how to market its appeal. Pruneda spent a week in Vancouver meeting with other new owners. Since then, he’s reached out to fellow owners in Washington state for helpful advice.
“You have a green light to call other owners. It’s great to be able to talk to 20-year veterans. It lets you know you aren’t in this alone. We don’t look at each other like competitors, but partners,” said Pruneda.
He opened shop in August with five consultants. All had responded to a poster in the window that said, “join our team.”
“I sat and talked to them and explained the independent contractor nature of the business. They were all from different backgrounds and different life stages. But they couldn’t wait to be a part of it,” said Pruneda.
The business has now grown to eight independent contractors.
“Each agent has a unique website and email set up. Potential clients sign up for the Seven Seas Club, and we send them emails and direct mail. We also send out newsletters and two glossy magazines per year. It’s pretty much a plug-and-play business model. There wasn’t anything I needed to do on my own, “said Pruneda.
He has set up a Facebook page for the first time. And, he’s hosted events to introduce a new product or destination.
“Being in the community is the biggest marketing factor for us. We’re near restaurants, grocery stores and doctor’s offices so we’re interwoven in daily life. We still get double takes when people see a travel agency. But folks are getting to know that we’re here. The community support has been nothing short of overwhelming,” said Pruneda.
The clientele thus far includes avid cruisers, some with more than 20 voyages under their belt. They’re drawn by attractive pricing and extras Pruneda can provide.
And, he’s already built up a book of repeat business.
“We had one couple where the husband wasn’t sure he was going to like the cruise. But he came back raving about it. They’ve already booked an Alaska cruise with their family this summer,” said Pruneda.
New cruisers are a favorite segment.
“The ones who’ve been thinking about a cruise but don’t know what to look for. They’re the ones we love having come in,” said Pruneda.
He himself is no longer in the “never-cruised” category. He sailed on Harmony of the Seas last fall. In April, he’ll take his dad on Celebrity Reflection.
He’s “100 percent sure” he made the right decision about opening the franchise. Admittedly, though, the payout period is on the long side.
“It’s a tradeoff. If you opened a UPS store, you may be able to earn income from moment one. But people tend to book cruises far into the future. You don’t really earn a commission until the sailing. Realistically, it will take a few years to build up the volume you need. Until then, there are very few levers I can pull if I need last-minute income,” said Pruneda.
He estimates he’ll do $1 million in sales this year, which isn’t bad.
“It’s all about the mini mission of helping families spend time together. The people I’m working with and the customers we’ve met have been a joy. Everyone is so appreciative and we’re forming great bonds in a community center,” said Pruneda.
And he can’t help but circle back to his dad.
“He came here, plugged into the U.S. system and along the way developed his own business. For me to be able to follow in his footsteps is a super proud moment,” said Pruneda.
He also hopes his wife may join the business someday.
“It’s my dream to do this as a family. My daughter is six, and she’s already talking about our family store. As she gets older, we want her to have a love for travel. We want her to have a family business that involves work, travel and helping other families. For right now, she’s just happy that we’re next door to an ice cream shop,” said Pruneda.