“This feels so dang good, I don’t even know how to control my emotions,” Dondra Ritzenthaler, senior vice president of sales for Celebrity Cruises, said to nearly 800 Dream Vacations, CruiseOne and Cruises Inc. franchise owners, independent sales associates, suppliers and World Travel Holdings employees attending the franchise company’s annual conference onboard Celebrity Apex.
It was a sentiment that was echoed time and again by attendees and presenters. After two years since the company’s last in-person conference, everyone was thrilled to be “together.”
Togetherness was also the theme for this year’s conference, which focused on reflecting on the past and lessons learned and preparing for the future, which is shaping up to be brighter than anyone expected.
“We are heading in the right direction and we are on a speeding train moving forward,” said Debbie Fiorino, COO of World Travel Holdings, the parent company of Dream Vacations, CruiseOne, and Cruises Inc.
Advisors Travel Market Report spoke to throughout the conference agreed. Business is booming, whether it’s cruise sales or land-based vacations.
Mara Hargather of Hargarther, Thaler & Associates, a Dream Vacations franchise in Ponte Vedra, Florida said she’s already surpassed her best ever year, and she wasn’t alone in saying so. Laurie Shuss of Laurie and Greg Shuss and Associates in Bonita Springs, Florida said their sales are booming.
TMR heard it over and over again, cruise and land bookings are way up.
“Our resort vacation business has surpassed a nine-figure milestone, the highest volume we have ever seen,” said Fiorino.
Most importantly, she added, it’s the home-based agency side of the business that’s driving bookings for World Travel Holdings, which also operates DTC websites like Cruises.com and CheapCruises.com.
“When we look within our own company, this division has outperformed our direct-to-consumer business, and not by a small amount,” she said.
It was a message reiterated by several cruise lines including Norwegian Cruise Line, who said NCL has seen five straight months of industry bookings outpacing direct bookings.
The move to sell more land vacation wasn’t the only lesson many travel agencies learned during the cruise shutdown.
Besides the need to diversify, advisors learned the importance of staying in front of their customers. They learned to lead by doing, which meant traveling and sharing their experiences online to show that it could be done. And done safely.
“I started embracing [Facebook] posting,” said Jerry March, franchise owner of Bean-March Travel Group/Dream Vacations in Clayton, North Carolina, and the incoming 2022 chair of the Dream Vacations/CruiseOne Advisory Council. “I’ve been out on ships four or five times since the restart and every time I come back I have people waiting to book. It might not be what I was posting about, but they got excited about traveling and they saw it was safe and they were booking.”
Some travel advisors focused on beefing up their product knowledge during the pause. Others took the time to become better business owners and brush up on their financial planning skills. Some niched down and only worked with the partners they found to be the most supportive during a difficult time.
And some learned to value their own time in a way they’d never done before, which for them meant implementing fees.
“I realized that my time is valuable,” said Stephanie Charboneau, owner of Travel Creates Memories by Dream Vacations in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. “I’m not charging my past clients fees but Google My Business has brought a lot of people to me recently. And those people are the ones I’m telling, ‘I have a $250 plan-to-go fee.’”
March said he’s doing the same, except he charges his past clients a fee and waives the fee for first-time bookers. “I have to compete with direct bookers… but after they understand what value I give them, on the next booking when the fee is there, they never question it.”
Ready for Growth
After reflection comes action and Dream Vacations isn’t sitting around waiting for growth to happen. Instead, it’s investing in growing its franchisees’ footprints through a new Associate Recruitment Program.
Launching in January 2022, the program will give franchise owners the means to grow their business by expanding their workforce.
“We want to help our small business owners in the franchises grow their business, not just by the great deals, promotions, and prices but also by helping them build their team,” Drew Daly, general manager and senior vice president of Dream Vacations/CruiseOne, told Travel Market Report. “We want to grow their sales and not just grow sales. There’s a difference.”
“For those who want to grow their footprint and want to grow their business, they need to grow with help,” Fiorino said. There’s only so much time in a day, and therefore a natural cap on how much a franchise with a single travel advisor can grow.
And that’s how World Travel Holdings, and its nearly 40 years of experience recruiting contractors for the Cruises Inc. brand can help.
Owners who participate in the for-fee program will have access to a vetted group of potential ICs, as well as to training courses, contract templates, associate websites, and more.
“Franchising is about being a business in a box, so we’re giving them the tools they need,” Fiorina said.
“Our franchise is looking forward to this program to help grow our business,” March said. “It is like having our own recruitment department helping us find independent contractors. One of our biggest obstacles is having the time and resources to recruit. The Associate Recruitment Program will help us overcome those challenges.”
Fear of Change
While travel advisors cheered the news of the new recruitment program, talk of the company’s upcoming merger of Cruises Inc. with Dream Vacations and Cruise One, was more somber
The decision to end Cruises Inc. the main independent contractor piece of World Travel Holdings’ business, has led to the loss of some Cruises Inc. agents. But not as many as Dream Vacations had feared, Fiorino told TMR.
In fact, twice as many Cruises Inc. agencies decided to purchase a franchise than they had anticipated. Fiorino wouldn’t give exact numbers but said the merger affected more than 500 Cruises Inc. agents in total.
Despite Cruises Inc.’s long-term success, Fiorino said transitioning its Cruises Inc. agents to franchise owners or associates makes the most business sense for everyone.
“We believe in this new strategy,” she said. “We know that going down this road will not change the success we have had, but will enhance it.”
For one, merging the two pieces of the business into one allows World Travel Holdings to focus on how to serve one business unit instead of splitting its resources between two.
It also gives advisors more control over their future. They get to keep more of the money they bring in, and as small business owners, they’re more vested in growing their own business.
“Companies that don’t stay at the cutting edge of their industry go out of business,” Fiorino said. “When you’re an industry leader, you’re looking toward the future and not just living in the present or in the past.”
Daly agreed. “The merger of Cruises Inc. into CruiseOne and Dream Vacations, the launching of our new associate program is all about the changing landscape of the travel franchise system. We want to provide the best tools, the best support system and this is just one layer of that.”