Editor's Note: Headquarter Happenings keeps you updated on the marketing and technology programs of major travel agencies, host agencies, travel agency consortia, cooperatives, travel networks and franchise groups.
Big Data, artificial intelligence and a new back office system topped the agenda at this year’s annual conference of Cruise Planners, an American Express Travel Representative, held in Cancun earlier this fall.
“When it comes to technology, hands down, we are the big dogs, and we’re going to prove that to you today,” CEO Michelle Fee told the 600 agents who had gathered to network, hone their skills, and learn what the home-based agency franchise group has on tap for the year ahead.
“We want to be your high-tech solution, and we want you to continue to be our high-touch solution. That’s a winning combination, and that’s going to set us apart in the marketplace,” Fee said.
Alexa, call my travel agent
The sexiest news at the conference was the rollout of artificial intelligence tools for Cruise Planners agents and their clients. Cruise Planners’ IT team has developed two skills for Amazon Alexa-powered devices like Amazon Echo and Echo Dot, and starting Dec. 4 Alexa will be integrated with the agency group’s booking and CRM system.
That means that Cruise Planners agents will be able to ask their voice-activated Amazon devices to do things like provide details on upcoming departures or update them on the balance due for client bookings. And clients who enable the Cruise Planners skill will be able to ask Amazon Alexa to perform tasks such as retrieving details about upcoming trips.
Cruise Planners capped off the news by telling attendees that every franchisee at the convention would receive a free Amazon Echo Dot.
New back office solution
The other big technology initiative for Cruise Planners is a major overhaul of its booking and customer relationship management (CRM) system, which has been renamed CP Maxx.
Two years in the making, CP Maxx will be three to eight times faster than its predecessor, said CIO Brian Shultz. The revamped system will handle complex reservations more efficiently, standardize data entry regardless of travel type, and streamline invoicing and groups management and registration, he said.
Many enhancements are aimed at making it easier for agents to use client profiles to target their marketing. In just one example, agents will see a “hot list” of clients who purchased trips within the past year but never rebooked, so they can reach out to them with customizable e-cards designed for that purpose. “It’s a way of serving up customers to you that we think are ready to take another vacation,” said Shultz.
CP Maxx is “a completely reimagined new tool,” Fee told attendees. “We know it’s going to help you maximize your business and your efficiency, but most importantly your profits.”
Leveraging big data
Another new program in the spotlight was CP Insights. The opt-in program, which launched in April, mines and analyzes clients’ demographic and psychographic data, assigning each client a code that indicates their propensity for buying different types of travel products.
Agents can use CP Insights, which will be integrated into the new CRM system, to identify customers by segment so they can better influence their buying decisions by showing them relevant products and promotions.
“We want to make sure you know as much as you can about your clients, so when an opportunity presents itself you can pounce on it,” said Shultz.
Strong sales in cruise, land and luxury
As it is, business for Cruise Planners agents is healthy. Last year, Cruise Planners’ sales were up 19 percent over the previous year, and so far this year sales are up 36 percent over 2016. The outlook is strong, as well. Advance bookings for 2018 were up 36 percent in the first quarter, and a whopping 73 percent in the second quarter.
A continued focus on land vacations continues to pay off, with year-to-date land sales up 31 percent over last year.
In 2016, Cruise Planners invested heavily in upping its luxury game, rolling out new high-end marketing materials and, in August, hosting its first Luxury Forum for agents. This, too, has paid off. “Your luxury sales have exploded,” Fee told attendees. So far this year, luxury revenues are up 72 percent over the same period in 2016.
To build on its success, Cruise Planners continues to add marketing tools, including a new series of customizable videos and radio spots, new Spanish language collateral, and even new wallpaper for agents’ smartphones.
Agent training and coaching
Most Cruise Planners agents are new to the industry when they purchase a franchise, so the organization makes business support a priority. Over the past four years, Cruise Planners has doubled its headquarters staff from 50 to 100, with most of the new positions in business development and technology, according to COO Vicky Garcia.
“We want to make sure our agents are productive, so we’re investing a ton in our BDMs, who are almost like business coaches,” Garcia said. She noted that BDMs are rewarded for their success in getting agents to use Cruise Planners’ various tools rather than on sales growth.
On the training front, this year Cruise Planners launched Cruisitude™ Academy, a mobile-friendly online learning platform, as well as a virtual associates training program designed to make it easier for franchise owners to bring new independent contractors up to speed.
In 2018, Cruise Planners will host four regional boot camps, each with a specific focus. The group will also repeat its successful Luxury Forum and is considering hosting a mid-year conference in May. Next year’s annual convention will be held in Miami in December, followed by a two-night sailing on the new Celebrity Edge.