"Mission: Possible" Kicks Off Cruise Planners' Conference

Michelle Fee (l), founder and CEO, and Vicky Garcia, co-owner and COO, Cruise Planners kick off the 2019 Cruise Planners Conference, themed "Mission: Possible."

Launched with the theming, “Mission: Possible,” the annual Cruise Planners conference kicked off Monday afternoon with a razzle-dazzle laser and light show, spy-focused language, lots of "Cruisitude" and James Bond-themed music. 

Also relaying personal stories to show that success doesn’t just happen, Michelle Fee, founder and CEO, told the audience that she was married at 17 years of age, became a mother at 18 years of age and lived in a tiny apartment for a decade. Vicky Garcia, co-owner and COO, told the audience she dropped out of high school, much to the horror of her parents, and then played a video clip of the “Ellen” segment, which showed the difficulty during that era of telling someone you were gay.

Today, both successful ladies urged franchise owners and CP agents in the audience to think: “Mission: Possible,” to seize opportunities and to see the positive in every negative. “We wanted to show agents that we didn’t start out as CEO and COO,” said Fee, while Garcia added: “There’s no golden spoon. Everything we’ve done has been hard work and grit.”

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What’s New, What’s Ahead?

In the past five years, Cruise Planners – founded in 1994 and today the nation’s largest home-based travel advisor network -- has doubled its sales. Today, the CP Home Office team serves 2,500 franchise agencies in all 50 U.S. states.

Speaking in the opening session to a "sea of green" (advisors wearing green CP shirts), Fee, Garcia and Brian Shultz, CIO; Theresa Scalzitti, senior vice president of sales and marketing; and Scott Koepf, vice president of strategic development, outlined what’s happened in 2019, what’s new, what’s next and how 2020 is shaping up.

“We’re front-loading really well,” said Fee in looking ahead to 2020. The top three destinations for sales are the Caribbean, Europe and Alaska.  All posted big sales increases for CP franchisees this year, and 2020 sales are looking good too. 

  • Alaska sales were up 20 percent in 2019 and are up 19 percent thus far for 2020.
  • Caribbean sales were up 15 percent in 2019 and are running 22 percent ahead for 2020.
  • Europe sales are at their highest level ever – up 34 percent in 2019 and up 32 percent thus far in 2020.

Tackling the growth in society's 24-7 pace of life, Cruise Planners recently instituted seven-day-a-week support hours so the home office team can assist agents during the weekends and evening hours, periods in which clients often have questions or are considering a vacation booking.

Now weekend support is provided to CP agents from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., Eastern time on Saturdays and Sundays, for both emails and phone calls. And Cruise Planners also now has extended support team hours three days a week.

Franchise Owner Performance

Showing sales-wise just how far some Cruise Planners franchise owners have come, in 2020, the organization will have 20 percent more agencies reaching Millionnaires Club status.

In fact, overall each sales level within the organization is seeing strong growth.

  • Shooting Stars are up 34 percent in sales;
  • Rising Stars are up 15 percent;
  • Rock Stars have had a 16 percent sales jump;
  • Mega Stars are up 7 percent;
  • The Millionnaires Club franchise owners have posted 15 sales growth.   

Cruise Planners also has 40 percent more Mega Stars this year versus the previous year. 

One area of strong sales growth across the board? That’s river cruising, and Cruise Planners' franchisees posted a whopping 40 percent increase in river cruise sales this year. For 2020, growth is 19 percent.

Loyalty and Retention

Coming soon is the new Cruise Planners Rewards Program, in which clients and prospects can earn points for all travel purchases and use them for up to 60 percent savings on high-quality merchandise such as luggage, home goods, handbags, electronics, wine, gift cards and more.

Marketing Enhancements

Also coming soon is the addition of Marketing Plans to the CP Marketing Hub. Travel advisors can enter marketing initiatives and create an annual marketing plan. That’s combined with marketing campaigns the head office sends on advisors’ behalf.

This new tool will also allow advisors to send co-op proposals to suppliers. It also systematically connects bookings to those marketing efforts so advisors can ensure they are meeting their marketing goals as the year progresses.

New for advisors is Enhanced Smart Select, which builds on CP’s current proprietary tool to allow advisors to target clients for marketing initiatives. Recent enhancements include the ability to send emails and direct mailers using geo-targets, past travel preferences and information about whether clients are repeat customers or new to the brand.

New Travel Financing

Cruise Planners is introducing travel financing through Uplift. Fee noted that major suppliers are already offering Uplift options to consumers, and this will help advisors stay competitive. Having this consumer financing option can also help agents close a sale or even upgrade it.

For example, if the client wants to book the cruise and pay for an inside cabin, he or she could then finance the upgrade to a suite. The new Uplft program is free to CP agents.

More New Technology Perks

Recently introduced is Vacation Wizards, a recommendation engine created to assist CP agents in finding the right supplier for a specific client’s vacation needs.

Saving time for advisors, a new tool called Client Lead Forms allows agents to digitally capture prospect information at travel shows or other events. The tool also allows CP to send customized digital marketing campaigns to new prospects. Biggest perk? It avoids the advisor having to manually enter hundreds of names and contact information for prospects.

Coming soon is Live Planner, an enhanced way that agents can collaborate and plan the vacation with the client, as some like being involved in the process.

Also upcoming is a new Where2Next tool that collects information on those destinations that clients want to visit in the next one to three years. The list is then used to send the right marketing offers to clients.

“We think this is pretty cool and that agents are really going to love it,” said Fee. It makes particular sense if agents are paying to send clients direct mail or postcards – assuring the right clients are targeted.  

The Cruise Planners Mobile App is now revitalized. It connects the client to their CP agent but also includes a cruise search engine, Yelp integration, a chat feature, online payment options and more.

New to assist agents identify their top clients is a Top 20 Client List, which can be based on number of trips or total sales.  The goal is to allow agents to identify their top clients and put their primary focus on these clients. 

A new business analysis tool, the enhanced Franchise Snapshot, measures Cruise Planners’ franchise owners' key business metrics, such as sales growth year over year, average customer spend, top destinations, insurance sales analysis and more.

One new technology update that received cheers and applause from the audience when announced on Monday was Groups Tool Enhancements. Most notably, agents can now send an email to all members of a group with email addresses auto-populated, or send a group proposal form to all potential members of a group.

Actually, the Cruise Planners' Advisory Board Task Force was deeply involved in creation of the groups tool, as well as the CP Marketing Hub, Franchise Snapshot and other programs to assist advisors and franchise owners.  

Recently introduced consumer-facing websites that allow Cruise Planners' franchise agencies the choice of three different website styles -- a contemporary site, a luxury site and a land site -- are posting good engagement statistics.

Average session duration is up 26 percent, average number of pages viewed per session is up 32 percent and direct website traffic is up nearly 10 percent. Plus, the "bounce rate" has reduced.  

Training Opportunities

A sampling of the many training opportunities for Cruise Planners franchise owners and advisors in 2020 includes these:

In 2020, Cruise Planners’ Boot Camps – designed to help agents set goals, build a marketing plan and take action - are planned for Chicago, February 9-11; Orlando, February 16-18, Atlantic City, March 8-10, Dallas, March 29-31; and Las Vegas, April 8-10.

Regional group coaching calls also are helping the advisors learn about such topics as the CP Marketing Hub, how to set goals, how to create a marketing plan and more.

Land sales for Cruise Planners were up 21 percent in 2019 and are tracking at a whopping 39 percent increase in 2020. So, the organization’s Land Symposium is planned for September 12-17, 2020, at El Dorado Royale in Riviera Maya.

Interestingly, it’s split into two different areas of specialty – September 12-15 is all-inclusive sales and September 15-17 is escorted tours and destinations. Fee told the agents that they can sign up for either just one of the sessions or both, depending on what works for their agency.

Also, a Luxury & River Cruise Forum is August 5-9, 2020, at the Hyatt Ziva/Zilara in Cap Cana

Just how much does good training count for an agency's sales potential? Some 718 Cruise Planners advisors have completed the group's Travel Insurance Specialist program in 2019 thus far, and insurance sales are up 44 percent year over year. 

Stay tuned for more from the Cruise Planners 2019 Conference this week. 

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