It’s Full Speed Ahead for Cruise Planners-American Express Travel

written by | Posted on November 5th, 2013

COO Vicky Garcia, CEO and co-founder Michelle Fee, CFO Tom Kruszewski and VP of Technology, Brian Shultz at Cruise Planners' opening session.

COO Vicky Garcia; CEO and co-founder Michelle Fee; CFO Tom Kruszewski; and VP of Technology, Brian Shultz at Cruise Planners’ opening session.

Over 500 travel agents gathered together at the Westin Diplomat Resort & Spa in Hollywood, FL, for the sold out Cruise Planners-American Express Travel 2013 convention. This year’s theme, Power in Partnerships, focused on the partnerships made in the cruise and travel industry; partnerships between an agent and their client; and the strong partnership between Cruise Planners and its 900+ travel agents.

This year marked the 20th anniversary of Cruise Planners, a franchise-based host agency that began back in 1994 when the cruise industry only offered 40 ships that has grown to 167 ships—and when Uniworld was the only river cruise company offering what is now the hottest cruise vacation for the 55+ demographic.

Recommend’s associate editor, Deserae del Campo, was there at opening session ceremonies and had a chance to sit and chat with Michelle Fee, CEO and co-founder of the franchise company, about what’s next for Cruise Planners and how the company has changed over the past two decades.

Deserae del Campo (DC): It’s been 20 years and a lot has changed in the cruise and travel industry. What do you think is key to the company’s overall success in terms of its franchise structure and how do you think it’s maintained that success in the last 20 years?

Michelle Fee (MF): I think it’s because we changed with the times. People don’t mind being a part of something, especially if they get a benefit from it, and a benefit with Cruise Planners is that we help travel agents out there in the marketplace be larger than life with the technology, marketing and support we offer them. They couldn’t go out on their own and pay, or buy, what we provide them…. We are out there on their behalf going to cruise and tour vendors negotiating promotions so they can do what they do best, which is sell travel. We are their business in a box—while they are out selling, we are trying to find the next promotion, the next best deal and continuing to help them build their business. I think we’re successful because we continue to ask ourselves, “What else?” We never sit on our laurels; we never say, “Oh well, now that we have done all of this we are set.”

DC: In regard to building a business and business growth, is Cruise Planners actively marketing to the younger travel agents?

MF: I don’t know if we’re reaching out to the younger Cruise Planner agent. I think we go out there with the business and if it appeals to them, then it works. We are getting younger people and we don’t know why it’s happening now more than before because we are still out there marketing in the same places to drive in leads, so I’m not sure why we are getting a bit of a younger crowd.

DC: When it comes to Cruise Planners’ reservation tools and marketing materials, how important is it to keep your travel agents ahead of the game, which in turn, helps their bottom line?

MF: I think you have to help the agents be more efficient, and being more efficient makes you more effective. We want them out there selling cruises, so the more technology that we can build to make their lives easier and create less work for them, the better. At Cruise Planners we try to communicate to their customer, so we try to build tools to help them do that. For example, we created My Trips for the travel agents, which is a tool on the agents’ websites, or the Cruise Planners travel agent app, made for their clients. When the agent’s customer is already booked on a cruise, they have access to this tool so they can see their itinerary, what shore excursions are offered, how much they owe for their cruise and their confirmation information.

COO of Cruise Planners, Vicky Garcia, blows out the candles to celebrate the franchise company's 20th anniversary.

Cruise Planners’ COO, Vicky Garcia, blows out the candles to celebrate the franchise company’s 20th anniversary.

DC: Tell me a bit about Cruise Planners’ Home Office team. What is their purpose and how does Home Office assist travel agents?

MF: At Home Office we have different departments. We have a marketing department responsible for creating and generating mailings and pieces that get to their customers; a business development team that is two-fold, so it’s both inbound and outbound. If you have a question you call in and we’re there to support you, but we also call out too. There’s a coach that is there to help the agents with their business whether it’s doing well or not. The coach is there to help you fine-tune your business, this is a real-life person, something that I wish I had when I was an agent. We say that when you buy a Cruise Planners franchise, you hired Home Office as your support staff.

DC: Tell me about how you and the team came up with the theme for this year’s convention, Power of Partnerships? 

MF: We started by throwing out different ideas and someone suggested it and we knew that was it. We wanted travel agents to understand that the partnership goes three ways: the partnership between the franchisee and their customer; the partnership between Home Office and the franchisees; and finally the partnership between the vendors and Cruise Planners. Because of these three different types of partnerships we all to have to be in sync in order to have power.

DC: What’s your message for an independent travel agent, that is home-based, and may be looking for a host agency?

MF: As I said, I think that we are that business in a box and 100 percent of what we do every day is help people grow their business. Also, we don’t sell travel from Home Office and that’s important because there are some host agencies that do sell travel and in essence they are competing with their own agents and we don’t. All we do is focus on finding more ways to help our travel agents.

DC: What’s next for Cruise Planners in 2014?

MF: I think we are on the right path and we should continue to keep doing what we are doing. Next, we’ll sit down in the beginning of the year and figure out what else needs to be done and what else we should focus on. Our team has a lot of ideas for the first quarter but again, we want to help our agents communicate with their customer and in turn we want the customer to think that we are the end-of-all-ends. When they come through us, they are getting the best deals, the best support and the best trip.

For more information, visit cruiseplanners.com.