Q: How did you start Cruise Planners? Michelle: I've been in the travel industry for years first with my own agency in 1981 in partnership with Lynn Korn. Our goal was to produce a good outside sales staff through continuous training and support. The outside sales staff became one of the largest and most successful in Coral Springs. After several successful years and with the help of the best colleagues in the travel industry, Cruise Planners was born. What started with five people in the first training class has become the largest home-based travel franchise network in the cruise industry with more than 700 franchise owners across the United States.
Q: What was the opportunity you saw in this industry that made you feel that selling cruises represented a real opportunity?
Michelle: It started many years ago when we first saw the decline in the relationship between the airlines and the travel agencies. We felt that the travel agencies were becoming dinosaurs. Cruises were going to be the only form of travel left for which people definitely needed the advice of a professional. With airline tickets, the travel arrangements are often ruled by the person's particular schedule, so that limits the airline choices. As a result, people book directly and the airlines have seen to it that agents are excluded. We saw this coming before most of the agents would admit to it. We realized that the strength of travel agencies was going to be in the cruise industry and we wanted to be there.
Dinosaurs we are not. Although now you can basically book anything online, travel agents are becoming more and more valuable. Sure, you can click-and-book a cruise or all-inclusive resort but you'll need to accept the risk too. Our travel advisors are equipped with the best knowledge and the best values that travelers cannot get on their own. They know of all the new ships being introduced, in fact they probably have experienced it already. Plus, with a click-and-book method, once a vacation has been booked, it's been booked. Our travel advisors create relationships. So if little Maria will soon celebrate her sweet sixteen during a family reunion cruise, you bet she'll be receiving so much more from a Cruise Planners Travel Advisor before, during and after. Consumers deserve a great vacation and they look for the expertise of a reliable, honest person to help them plan the right vacation. And that's what we are.
Q: What attracts people to your group? Tom: It's simple. When someone works for a travel agency they typically get a 50/50 split. Our deal is much better. We only take 3% and that's only on the first half million dollars. After that we're down to 2% and after $750,000 in sales, we take 0%. We also have bonus programs and incentives that ensure that when you hit certain levels, we begin to pick up the costs of mailings as well as some of the cost of advertising and promotion.
Q: What were the factors that led to your success? Vicky: I think the main factor is the accessibility that we give our travel advisors. It's a philosophy we practice every day. We are a family and we truly believe that. It doesn't matter who calls - whether it's a top producer or a new person - any one of us will pick up the phone and help walk them through their business. We have a dynamic Home Office team to walk a new travel advisor through their business plus great top producers who are willing to help because someone else in the company has helped them. They want to give back to the company. I've heard them say, "You helped me get to where I am so I feel I should help someone else."
Q: What does Cruise Planners bring to the table in this business?
Michelle: We bring marketing and advertising expertise. We give our travel advisors the ability to maneuver through the minefields of the travel industry by walking them through the process, and by bringing all our experience and contacts to bear on their situation. What most of our new advisors lack is marketing experience. Most of the people who join us have had 9-5 jobs and very few have owned their own business, so we really teach them how to market. We help them understand how to create a marketing plan, how to set goals and work towards them. We provide materials that small agencies cannot. They don't have the staff or the capabilities or financial resources to put together award-winning marketing materials like we do.
When I started in business I didn't have anybody whom I could call and get help from. If a problem came up with a group booking, I had nowhere to turn for advice. I had to figure it out myself. What we give them is the ability to pick up the phone and get help.
Vicky: We also have a Business Development team with many years of travel experience. They are always available to help our travel advisors with something as simple as customizing their website to helping one of their customers with a traveling need. As a company, we have buying power. We negotiate special pricing, special deals, and special amenities so that they can pass it on to their customers. For example, we can bring over 1500 group dates to them, something a small independent agency could never get. We believe our travel advisors are making sales because we give them some very real advantages over their competitors.
Q: Don't people who are working out of their houses have a harder time getting motivated and keep going?
Tom: Yes, some of them do. We make sure to help them in this area. For example, part of what we teach is that, even though they're working out of the house, they should get up in the morning and dress as if they were going to an office. Working out of the house is much more difficult than going to an office because you can't come in to an office in a robe. At home there's the temptation to turn on the television or to do something else that takes you away from your business. We cover all these issues in our training. We want them to take a business approach.
In fact, we try to help them prepare for all aspects of their business. We include in the franchise fee the ability to receive a start-up stationery kit complete with business cards, take home manuals, and everything else they need at home to start their business. We go so far as to provide them with tips on creating the right voicemail message to Social Media postings.
Michelle: We give them a monthly marketing calendar that outlines day-by-day how to grow their business. When they leave us after five days of training they have a step-by-step process for starting. After two or three weeks we then call them to follow up. We ask, "Have you taken step one?" If they're not self-starters, we're going to make sure that they are following the plan we've set out for them.
Vicky: We are in constant contact with our travel advisors. If we have advertising dollars from the cruise lines we offer it to them directly. We help them design their ads, and we tell them where we've had our successes and where we've had our failures. We're trying to give them every marketing advantage that we can.
Tom: Our technology is completely web-based and built with them in mind. There is a Customer Relationship Management tool, a complete business management system and the ability to create live bookings anytime anywhere from their computer, laptop, or smartphone.
Q: Do you continually hone your processes so that you improve them?
Michelle: We do that every day. We have our own weekly management meetings to examine where we might be having particular challenges or if there are areas that we haven't covered. Are there things we can improve upon? We also have Advisory Board meeting consisting of our top producers to go through everything from the state of the business to new and exciting tools on the horizon. The answer to the question about what has brought success to our business is that we listen. We hear what they need and try to put a program or tool together to help them.
We communicate with everyone over our intranet site. We put cruise specials, home office news, group news, and cruise industry news - everything to keep them up to date. We also sit on numerous advisory boards so we always have a pulse on the industry.
Q: What kinds of people do you feel make the best Cruise Planners Travel Advisors? Vicky: Anyone and everyone who wants to be their own boss. You can be an experience travel professional who wants the power of a company like ours. Or you can be a veteran who is just returning home and looking for a new career path. One of our number one producers was a car mechanic. We have a proven system so you don't have to be a travel professional to become a successful Cruise Planners Travel Advisor. We teach you everything from day one. And you never feel like you're alone because we offer continuous education through CPU- our online Cruise Planners University and our annual convention and seminar at seas. Everything can be learned from selling techniques to marketing yourself. You just need the desire. The entrepreneurship. A positive Cruisitude. We also have the best relationships with all the cruise lines and tour companies so our Travel Advisors are always top of mind when it comes to local training and invitations to experience a new ship or resort.
Q: What does entrepreneurship mean to you? Michelle: I believe in entrepreneurship and I love being able to offer people a way to be their own boss and strive without boundaries. My team and I have created a unique business model that gives our Travel Advisors the right tools for success. Building solid clientele and utilizing the innovative marketing tools we create, they can be successful regardless of the economic outlook, and that is the drive I hope influences Cruise Planners Travel Advisors to stay with us.
Q: Have you got Cruisitude? Vicky: More than you'll ever know! We believe, love what you do. And do what you love. Our company motto is to continually create cool stuff, deliver great service, have fun and provide what it takes for our travel advisors to be successful and make money. The travel industry is exciting and we want to share it with our friends, families and colleagues. The cruise lines are constantly re-inventing themselves with bigger and better ships. They have become destinations within themselves. And resorts are popping up everywhere with awesome deals. It is our job to give our travel advisors the best tools to create the most memorable travel experience for their customers.