It’s been just about a year since American Express (Amex) announced it would discontinue its franchise agency model because of changing travel booking environment. The model gave agencies with the Amex affiliation benefits when dealing with their clients and with some suppliers, including the ability to pay with points and other card member perks like membership in Amex’s Fine Hotels and Resorts Program, another membership benefits program, and more.
While Amex leaving the franchise industry was a big change, the news was a major turning point, in particular, for Cruise Planners, the only travel franchise with an American Express Travel Affiliation.
In a conversation with TMR this week, Cruise Planners’ Michelle Fee reflected on the change a year since Amex broke the news.
Fee told TMR that she and her team weren’t surprised when the news came down from Amex and that the “writing was on the wall” for probably about a year or so during COVID. Still, it was a major shift for Cruise Planners, which had been with Amex for 18 years and helped build the agency into what it is today.
“We had a great relationship with Amex for 18 years,” Fee told TMR. “When we first joined them, they were a true consortium—they had all the bells and whistles like everyone else. They really gave us instant name recognition.”
Cruise Planners did whatever it could to make the transition seamless for its members—Fee said that she and her executive team had a six-month heads-up from Amex, which gave them enough to time figure out their next move. Immediately, that team started research in order to find out where they fit in the rest of the industry.
“We wanted to see the glass half full. We said, ‘That’s okay, that’s behind us, let’s move forward and figure out where do we go,’” she said.
Eventually, Cruise Planners would land with Signature in October last year. Going from Amex, which Fee said is a bank more than a travel company, to Signature did bring with it a loss of some benefits, mainly card perks that come from being affiliated with Amex.
However, Fee said that after integrating, including building APIs to Signature, operating with a traditional consortia has brought way more good than harm to Cruise Planners, including more group space, and more marketing support (which Amex hasn’t focused on anymore, Fee said), and more.
“My eyes opened out, there were a lot of things that I forget a consortia did that we are now able to take part in,” she said.
“We look on our internal communication board and a lot of our agents are saying they’ve gotten an additional credit or were able to get into a group date or save clients X amount of dollars,” she said. “At the end of the day what we feel like we lost was the ‘blue box,’ but we’re such a strong brand out in the marketplace, we feel strongly we’re going to have our best year ever.”
Speaking of a strong brand, going from a consumer-focused brand (Amex) to a consortia that is industry-focused, also allowed Cruise Planners to maintain its own identity, which has been one of the perks of the move, Fee said.
“What’s kind of interesting and works in our favor is that Signature is not a consumer brand. As much as Amex has one of the top 50 brands in the world, it also confused people somewhat at times. Without Signature having a consumer brand, it made Cruise Planners somewhat stronger.”
The move has worked out for Cruise Planners, who are riding the travel demand wave just like the rest of the industry. The host has a Millionaire Club for those advisors who sell a millionaire dollars in travel per year, and this year, Cruise Planners has 50% more in that club than at the same time last year.
There’s also been a significant boost in its same-store sales—“numbers aren’t up by 3% or 5%, they are up well into the double digits,” Fee said, adding that the trend “really shows us that travel is back and people are looking for advisors to help them.”
That increase comes in longer, more complicated, higher-end cruises, too, with upper premium type cabins leading the way for consumers.
“We aren’t looking to churn and book short, cheap cruises, cheap vacations, our advisors truly are advisors,” Fee said.
It is also coming not just for this year, but for 2024, too.
“When we look at 2024, we are up well into the double digits. One out of every three bookings we’re seeing is for 2024,” Fee said.