Cruise Planners Conference Introduces New Programs, Agency Tools


Londi Romero, Terri Burke, Tom Kruszewski, Vicky Garcia and Michelle Fee unveil the new Cruise Planners University

Despite a tough economy, Cruise Planners has navigated through the rough waters nicely this year. As 300 franchise owners gather this week at the Cruise Planners conference in Fort Lauderdale and prepare to board Royal Caribbean International’s Oasis of the Seas on Friday as part of that program, they’re part of a bigger organization than in the past. They also have new cutting edge learning tools to assist them in selling cruises in 2010 and beyond.

An American Express Travel Service Representative, Cruise Planners now fields 700 franchises -- up 180 franchises from just a year ago. “We’re having the best year in franchise history,” emphasizes Michelle Fee, CEO/Co-Founder, who – with her executive team – is presiding over this week’s conference event at the Embassy Suites near Port Everglades

Interest in Cruise Planners franchises is up due to a number of factors. For example, retirees are buying new Cruise Planners franchises. Professionals laid off from their previous jobs are seeking new careers. Stay-at-home moms are seeking a home-based profession. And Cruise Planners has continually enhanced its services, tools and training programs making it more attractive to potential franchise owners. 

As the organization grows, Fee says it’s also hopefully sailing into smoother waters in terms of the economy. “In October we [our franchisees] sold 44 percent more than the same month last year,” Fee notes. “I think we’ve hit bottom [in terms of the national recession].” The residual challenge ahead is still low ball cruise prices, she acknowledges, but says that in another year she hopes that prices will be closer or at to pre-recession levels. 

New Programs and Tools 

On the opening day of its “Cruisitude”-themed conference Wednesday, Cruise Planners unveiled an upgraded Cruise Planners University (CPU) educational program, which now integrates Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) and select cruise line and tour company universities with Cruise Planners’ core training modules.  Graduating agents will be Certified Cruise Planner Experts (CCPE), which Cruise Planners officials describe as the new platinum standard in travel agent accreditation. 

Simply put, the online educational platform provides access to robust training courses, social networking opportunities and the ability to complete the CCPE certification. “It’s really a unique model in that it brings many Cruise Planners core learning practices together,” according to Terri Burke, senior vice president of relationship marketing, Cruise Planners. 

“Higher learning leads to higher earning,” Burke said. Agents will move through six levels (with more than 40 courses per level) to attainment of the Certified Cruise Planner Expert (CCPE) certification; the levels include freshman, sophomore, junior, senior, B.A., and Ph.D. 

The freshman part of the curriculum went “live” online this week. Other levels will be rolled out over the next two years. Cruise Planners also plans to add continuing educational units online for additional training. 

Cruise Planners says its other training efforts will continue as normal; this program is simply yet another option for franchise owners and their agents. “Throughout my 30 years in this business, I’ve never seen a training program like this [new online] one,” Burke stresses. Various CLIA and supplier certifications are imbedded within the requirements for attaining the CCPE certification; agents have mandatory testing along the way. 

For example, agents will go online to view videos by cruise and tour industry executives as well as non-travel executives who are experts in business operations, sales, marketing and management. Utilizing what Burke terms a “very visual format,” the platform includes not only the training courses but also such features as social networking with a CPU Facebook group; a reference library for students; one-click access to business development managers at major cruise lines; a CPU yearbook with seminars at sea; and a campus blog.

In addition, agents go to a “student union” for motivating online games to help people learn in a fun, easy manner. “There’s even a FlowRider game and even Royal Caribbean doesn’t have that,” Burke quipped.  

“At Cruise Planners we pride ourselves on having the highest percentage of CLIA accredited agents [33 percent] in our franchise category,” Burke noted.  “We knew we needed to raise the bar and create a career learning path for all of our agents that will set us apart as the most highly-trained in the industry, which was the genesis of the virtual CPU concept.”

Mirrored after user-friendly social networking sites such as Facebook, the online program manages courses taken, videos watched and testing scores so agents have the convenience of continuing their education at their own pace.  While CPU is all about access to earning industry accreditations, the main objective for the program is for agents to graduate as a CCPE, the highest certification currently attainable.   

“The CCPE certification will be a strong indicator to consumers that they can book through Cruise Planners with extreme confidence,” said Joel M. Wilder, Cruise Planners advisory board member and master cruise counselor.

Conference Week

“We’re looking forward to having the best conference yet,” said Fee, stressing that it was a record sell-out in about six weeks when offered earlier this year. Some of that certainly is attributable to having a portion of the conference onboard the most talked about ship in years – Royal Caribbean International’s new Oasis of the Seas.

Fee said this year’s conference will elevate the level to which Cruise Planners is going to serve its franchise owners with specific marketing tools and strategies. Other highlights of this year’s conference include a trade show with 53 vendors, training programs, break-out sessions related to home office operations and member-to-member chats between owners. 

Cruise executives making presentations to the franchise owners include Dondra Ritzenthaler, Celebrity Cruises; Edie Borstein, Azamara Cruises; Lee Robinson, Princess/Cunard; Andy Stuart, NCL; Adolfo Perez, Carnival; and Vicki Freed, Royal Caribbean, among others.

Social networking will be a big focus of conference discussion this year, said Fee. The agents will also learn how to work most effectively with cruise line business development managers and top marketing techniques. 

The CP Cares program, Cruise Planners’ annual conference charitable effort, raised $10,000 last year for breast cancer prevention and research. This year’s targeted charity for donations is Voyages for Veterans; Cruise Planners staff, franchise owners and agents will raise money by selling t-shirts and through raffles. 

In addition to Fee and Burke, other Cruise Planners executives participating in today’s conference presentation were Tom Kruszewski, CFO, and Londi Romero, senior vice president of strategic development. Cruise Planners corporate style is a bit more laid back than some other agency organizations as you can see by the slide show on this page. 

Thus, Fee says agents won’t see talking heads but rather a team of extremely committed people determined to work one-on-one to assist franchise partners become top sellers and successful business owners.