Facebook Strategy Is Key to Startup's Growth
by Dori Saltzman /

It’s not often that a 20th high school reunion changes one’s life. But for Michael and Renee Gerber, that’s exactly what happened. Their reunion put them on a path to success.

But not because they got the chance to reunite with old friends. The reunion organizers created a Facebook page for the event, and that prompted the two to dip their toes into the world of social media.

The Gerbers realized quickly that Facebook could be a powerful medium for their business, a CruiseOne franchise in Woodstock, Md., that they opened in 2008, just a few months before the reunion. Today, social media is an integral part of how they do business. 

The Approach
“Facebook is not some supplemental thing we do. It’s a natural way of interacting with many of our customers and one of the primary ways we go about marketing. Being able to establish relations with people you’ve never seen, opening the door to potential clients that you never would have reached – that’s a major capability of social media.”

The Set-Up
Renee: “We have a business Facebook page and other Facebook pages for the different cruise groups we do.  We post videos on Facebook and YouTube.  We also use WordPress to blog throughout the year about specific group cruises that are very important to us.”
“On Facebook, we post what ships we’re going on or ‘we’re at this port right now,’ just to give people the idea that we actually go on these cruises and experience different ships – to show them that there’s knowledge here. We also post if we’re running a special and every Friday I do a travel-related quote. We try to not always look like I’m trying to sell because you have to be careful of that.”

No hard sell
“You really have to avoid the hard selling because it’s just going to turn people off and they might block your posts. With social media, when people go there they want to be social; sometimes they want to be entertained; they want something that’s engaging.”

Facebook friends/fans
“A lot are clients or people that we know are thinking about booking but haven’t booked just yet. Then we have a lot of clients who refer their friends to us. And then there are the fans – people from different countries. I have no idea who they are; they just found us somehow. So it’s a big mixture.”

Communication tool
“Facebook is a significant communication means for us. It really hits on that need for on-demand information. We interact with a lot of our [current] customers on Facebook.

“We might get a question at 11 o’clock at night because we happen to be online. People want information on demand, so we provide that. We really use social media to keep in touch with our customers. We use social media far more than traditional means of advertising and marketing in keeping up with customers.”

Renee: “I’ve been upstairs on my laptop at night and someone, a follower that I’ve never met but that we’ve talked to a couple of times, they hit my chat button and say, ‘I’d like to talk to you. Can we schedule a meeting two days from now?’ Or I have group leaders that I talk to through Facebook because it’s immediate and they may be doing something else and don’t want to pick up the phone.”

Wider net of prospects
“Some of our biggest clients are people we knew many years ago and haven’t seen for years and years, and then they found us on Facebook. You’re hooking up with so many people that we would never have reached out to if we were just doing traditional marketing.”

“We decided to start making cruise videos. We’ve done about 20. We take our camera with us on cruises, and we do a review of the ship, some ports, anything interesting we see along the way and we post it. That’s our way of keeping ourselves in front of the customers in a very natural and casual way – rather than loading up their mail boxes with flyers. We upload when we get back after some post-production. Everything we do is in high-def, so it’s good quality.”

Name recognition
“I think over time we’ll continue to see more and more people say, 'I know you from Facebook, or I know you from seeing your video. Can you help me put together a group cruise?’” 

Thinking ahead
“As younger age groups come more and more into the target cruise market, I think over the next five to 10 years, social media is where the bulk of your customers are – at least ours. Many others are getting comfortable with using social media, where that’s basically their way of life. When you look at all those Gen Xers and Ys, and even the Gen Zs, they’ll be a big part of the cruising segment. We really feel we’ve perfectly positioned ourselves.”

They created an app for that
“We created an application for Facebook and mobile devices to build business and enhance our service, to build relationships with people in new ways.”

Michael: “Our new application, Cruise Puppy, is a cruise price tracker with stock market-like indicators. It helps to quickly identify upgrade opportunities at a lower rate than what was originally available at the time of a client’s booking. Some users just find it rewarding to watch the price of their cruise go up after they’ve made the booking.”

Return on investment
“Sales are up year over year. We entered into this business in 2008 with no travel background. We started with zero customers. Social media helped us get things off the ground, to get out there immediately, and network with people. What’s very rewarding is when you get clients, people you never dreamed you’d be doing business with because you haven’t connected with them in 20 or 30 years.”

Success story
“Somebody I hadn’t seen since elementary school close to 30 years ago re-connected with me on Facebook, and he’s become a really big client.”

Insight and advice
“Be judicious about what you post. Avoid the hard sell because you don’t want to turn people off. You don’t want to overload people’s Facebook walls with every single sale you’re running or they’ll block you. You don’t want to post 10 times a day. Keep it social, keep it personal. You want to be engaging – something that people come back on. It’s okay if you really have truly special incentives [to post them]. Also, you’ve got to be passionate about it. Don’t do it just to do it.”

Some of our biggest clients are people we knew many years ago and haven’t seen for years and years, and then they found us on Facebook. You’re hooking up with so many people that we would never have reached out to if we were just doing traditional marketing.”

Michael Gerber, CruiseOne