Editor's Note: Headquarters Happenings is a regular feature from Travel Market Report that helps keep you updated on the marketing and technology programs of major travel agencies, host agencies, travel agency consortia, cooperatives, travel networks and franchise groups. Top executives from these groups detail how they grow their businesses and how their programs and initiatives can help travel agents succeed in selling more travel.
Over more than two decades Cruise Planners (CP), an American Express travel representative agency, has built itself into a formidable cruise-selling powerhouse, using a classic franchise model that motivates its independent travel agents to enthusiastically sell using the latest in new technology.
CP agents also are motivated by “bling,” everything from T-shirts to sneakers to jewelry, always in the host agency’s bright green color, given out and sold to franchisees at CP conferences. It’s all part of the master plan developed by CEO and co-founder Michelle Fee, and Vicky Garcia, chief operating officer and co-owner, and the rest of the veteran CP team, to get their franchisees to sell more cruises and other travel products using “Cruisitude,” a trademarked word and concept.
Coral Springs, FL-based Cruise Planners now has more than 1,500 franchisees (agents), making it the nation’s largest home-based travel agent franchise network in the travel industry, though not necessarily the largest host agency. The company has been named the number-one travel franchise by Entrepreneur magazine for 13 consecutive years; has been consistently named one of the top women-owned businesses by the South Florida Business Journal; and is on the Inc. 5000 list as one of the fastest-growing private companies in America. CP consistently is ranked among the top sellers of nearly every major cruise brand in the business.
At its most recent sold-out convention in Miami in November, with more than 600 agents in attendance, Cruise Planners launched new travel agent booking tools, enhanced its automatic and strategic marketing programs, and increased its focus on both land and luxury travel sales.
“Our goal is to ensure that Cruise Planners agents are the most successful travel agents in the industry—for both land and cruise travel,” says Fee. “We create the best tools in the industry in order for agents to be the go-to experts as they hone their individual talents and strengthen relationships with customers and suppliers.”
This year’s convention included multiple days of seminars and general sessions designed to train CP agents in new technology tools and let them engage with the travel suppliers they sell. Overall, CP agents increased their year-over-year sales in 2016 by 24% due to the company’s commitment to top-notch technology, innovative marketing and business development coaching. Among the programs introduced this past year are:
In order to help all its agents, CP is working to share the secrets of its most successful franchisees, who on average increased their business by $200,000 in just three years. These agents worked closely with the company’s business development coaches, frontloading their sales by an average of 30 days longer, and used upselling to increase their revenues using CP’s proprietary tools.
“When we were developing this we wanted to delve into what the best agents within CP were doing. We’re going to run a bunch of boot camps and regional meetings this year to help our agents understand this,” says Fee. “Everyone from our CIO to Vicky Garcia and myself will be there. We want to make sure they know that from the top we are supportive.”
More Land & Luxury Sales
CP says its travel sales mix continues to grow in all sectors, including river cruising, luxury travel and land vacations, such as all-inclusive resorts and tours. It has committed to adding more land and luxury promotions while still maintaining its focus on cruise vacations.
“We do about 66% to 70% of our sales in cruise,” says Fee. “The rest is land and other. But the pie keeps growing. We will always focus on cruise, but we are going to focus a little bit more on land and luxury, because there are some customers that like more land-based vacations. We also have to keep evolving—as our customers are evolving. They may have started out on three- or four-day cruises, but now they want more exotic, luxury itineraries.”
CP says it has invested a lot in mining data to make it easier to reach the right client at the right time with targeted promotions, sales and marketing pieces. But now it’s partnered with Cohorts, a third-party database company to get new insights into its customers.
“We might know their age, whether they travel with a family or travel in luxury…but what we don’t have is their propensity to buy,” says Fee. “We are working with Cohorts to get not only the demographic but the psychographic information, so we can market to our customers in the right way….and send the right piece at the right time to the right customer.”
Another new tool introduced at last year’s conference was CP View, a way to automatically help agents market a certain cruise based on customer data, sales trends and consumer behavior. The goal is to serve up clients that would be ideal targets. With just a few clicks in the CP system, a sales lead is created to generate new business.
“We’re trying to view a particular sailing to find out in our database who the customers are and do we have any possibility of serving up other possible customers to our agents,” says Fee. “Our agents literally have to push a couple buttons and off goes a client cruise sheet, basically an e-brochure, to more potential customers. We’re looking at what we can we do to make our agents’ lives just a little bit easier and better, and drive sales.”
Also at last year’s conference, CP debuted a new Itinerary Builder, a way for CP agents to put all the elements of a trip in one document that customers can view on a PC, in written form or on any Smart device. On a cruise, for example, that would include daily activities, shore excursions, restaurant reservations, flights, car rentals, pre- and post-hotels, etc. That itinerary also can be changed by an agent before or during the trip and is automatically updated for the customer.
Updated Res Platform
CP also unveiled plans to launch eRez 3.0, a new version of its reservations platform where CP agents can book using their desktop or mobile devices. “We want to make sure we’re on the best platform to make sure the speed is quick and everything is there for agents to work efficiently, effectively and run their business,” says Fee. “This will be launching late 2017, but we wanted to show our agents we are forward thinking.”
“All of these tools and announcements were designed with the travel agent in mind,” says Fee, who began as an agent herself. “We specifically create innovative technology and marketing programs to enhance each travel agent’s business.”