How Cruise Planners Continued to Grow Despite a Travel Industry Standstill
Pent-up demand for travel combined with innovative support is creating opportunity for new franchisees and maintaining engagement among existing franchisees
The travel sector took a major hit during the pandemic, but that’s not stopping Cruise Planners. Michelle Fee, founder and CEO of Cruise Planners, talked with us about the innovative programs they implemented to drive business for their franchisees, and how they were able to continue bringing new franchise owners on board – even with the travel industry at a standstill. Cruise Planners has been named a Top Franchise every year since 2011, and Michelle explains what the awards mean to their company.
Watch the interview:
What It Means to Be an FBR Award Winner
Michelle Rowan: I’m here today talking with Michelle Fee who’s founder and CEO of Cruise Planners. She is going to talk with us about how her team uses FBR, and what it means to be an award winner.
I wanted to start, Michelle, and I don’t know if you’ll remember this, so I looked up when we started with you. It was back in 2010.
Michelle Fee: Wow.
Michelle Rowan: It’s been a while. Do you remember if you got involved to be part of the awards, or if you got involved to get the information back for your operations team?
Michelle Fee: We definitely got involved for the information. There’s no doubt, but it’s always good to be an award winner.
Michelle Rowan: Yes. We usually have the operations team come in, or the development team comes in wanting to make the award. You have hit our awards list every year since you’ve surveyed. Tell me what it means to you to be a Franchise Business Review Franchisee Satisfaction Award winner.
Michelle Fee: These awards mean the most to us. It’s based on the fact that they are from a survey of results from our franchise owners. Knowing that they’re satisfied, that makes us know that we’re doing something right. You guys give us that baseline of growth each year.
These awards mean the most to us. It’s based on the fact that they are from a survey of results from our franchise owners. Knowing that they’re satisfied, that makes us know that we’re doing something right. You guys give us that baseline of growth each year.
We keep our eye on it. We want to make sure that we continue to be in the award circle every year. You guys elicit that feedback, but we also have to make sure that we’re listening and we’re taking the feedback, and it helps us progress forward. It means a lot to us to be an award winner.
Michelle Rowan: That’s awesome. Can you tell us, when you get the results back, how does your team use it to either respond to it, or how do you share it within your internal teams, or with your franchisees? How are you using that data internally?
Michelle Fee: It helps us because it allows us to take a look at our business from the eyes of those franchisees. It allows us to say, “Where do we need to improve?”
In our model, there’s different levels. We’ve got that brand new agent who has just come on board this year, to those who have been with us, could be throughout – I think we’re celebrating our 27th year in business – so some people could have been with us for a long time.
We have to make sure that we’re taking this feedback and look at it based on where that franchisee is in their business, and then it allows us to make those improvements. It also allows our agents to feel like they’re very connected and empowered.
Maintaining Growth and Keeping Franchisees Happy
Michelle Rowan: I like that. You guys are a fast‑growing system. What we tend to see in our information is that when a system is growing quickly, sometimes the existing franchisees get a bit of that older child syndrome, like, “Hey, they’re just focused on the shiny new baby and not me.”
Michelle Fee: Our business too, is based on growth. We need to make sure we’re bringing new people in. Those agents have been with us for 20 plus years, we’ve got to make sure that their businesses continue to grow in the travel sector, and not just worry about bringing people in. It’s not sink or swim. It’s, bring you in and help you grow.
Those agents have been with us for 20 plus years, we’ve got to make sure that their businesses continue to grow in the travel sector, and not just worry about bringing people in. It’s not sink or swim. It’s, bring you in and help you grow.
Michelle Rowan: Let’s talk about it. We know travel cruise companies were hard hit in this last year. Understanding how the pandemic impacted your business, did you guys make any changes to your marketing efforts, or your strategy to bring new candidates to the brand?
Michelle Fee: Yes, we did. Obviously, like you said, we’re in travel. The fact that a cruise ship has not left the port since mid‑March 2020, nor has international travel – it’s been non‑existent this year – we’ve been hard hit.
We’re starting to feel that little bit of encouragement that travel is going to make a comeback. Yeah, we had to look at it differently, because those brand‑new agents that are looking to buy into a franchise are thinking, “Well, maybe I should just wait before I decide to jump two feet in.”
Although we did bring a substantial amount of them on, it’s not the numbers we’re normally bringing in. We brought them on and we said, use the year to learn the business, which helps because there’s so much pent‑up demand.
When that pent‑up demand starts booking travel, you’re going to be ready to do so. If you wait until that period of time, which we now know is about now, now you have to learn the business and deal with the pent‑up demand.
We also look within our industry, because there’s a lot of home‑based travel agents that are with other companies that didn’t fare as well as Cruise Planners. We worked hard to keep our entire home office team intact, and look within ourselves, which I know we’ll talk about things that we’ve done throughout the pandemic differently than we have done any other year.
There are a lot of agents out there looking for a new home. We were also trying to bring them on board as well.
Finding the Best Leads
Michelle Rowan: I like that. Besides your own website and referrals from your existing agents or franchisees, where are your best lead sources? What’s working the best for your team right now?
Michelle Fee: Within the travel sector, that was a great place for us to look. There’s places where we can market ourselves out in the industry saying, “Here’s things that we’ve done. Maybe your host shut down completely, or maybe you’re with a host that decided to hibernate instead of attacking at this point in time, these challenging times, in being your partner.”
We did look a lot within the industry. Those home‑based type places for us to market are exactly where we put ourselves, because it’s those people that are looking for the small, maybe lower cost franchises that are interested in going on.
Michelle Rowan: You guys are using our validation program, and are more about using your data to find additional candidates or to share with candidates that are looking at the brand.
Can you talk about why you decided to do that, or how you’re using it with candidates, or any feedback on the types of conversations you’re having with people that find you through our site or through that data?
Michelle Fee: The fact that you really give good information about who we are, when we do get a prospect that calls us, we have a higher closing ratio than most.
The fact that you really give good information about who we are, when we do get a prospect that calls us, we have a higher closing ratio than most.
Some of the others, it’s more broad. Somebody looking for something in a certain sector will get sent information about all of us, and then we get their name. Sometimes you call and it’s not the right fit for the right prospect. With you all, it seems that when we do get a lead, they are very qualified leads.
Michelle Rowan: We’re hoping that we’re at least connecting you to the right people. We hear a lot of that – tire‑kickers online, or they don’t return calls – so that’s good.
You talked about the work that you did through this last year supporting your franchisees. Do you have a specific success story or something that you want to share about a change that you made, or something that you are doing with your franchisees within the network?
Michelle Fee: Yes. I think our favorite word this year was pivot, and then pivot, pivot, pivot, and then pivot some more. It felt like we never knew when it was going to end. The little finish line kept moving and so we kept thinking, “Okay, we only have to deal with this for the next few months.” Then the next few months moved into more months. Our word this year, we claimed it. It’s pivot.
One of the things that we did was Zoom events — a virtual event series. We called it “Where To Next?” What were people doing when they were home? They were dreaming. “Where am I going to go next? I’m a traveler. I can’t wait to get my vaccine, so I’m ready to go.”
What we basically did was take a Zoom meeting and put it on steroids. We decided that our agents were doing it locally, maybe with a local business development manager from a cruise liner to our company.
What we thought we would do is animate the entire process from the beginning to end, and we’d pick out a popular destination, and then we’d work with some travel suppliers. It could be Alaska. It could be Europe, and then we’d bring some travel suppliers on board.
We’d build a presentation that included exclusive offers, then we’re able to invite their past guests. Then, we did all the follow‑up afterwards.
Our agents – and anyone who knows who booked travel during this time period – there’s been so many changes and cancellations that our agents have been tied up doing that.
To drive new business in their door, we decided that we would do this “Where To Next?” virtual event series. Our franchisees didn’t have to do a thing.
To drive new business in their door, we decided that we would do this “Where To Next?” virtual event series. Our franchisees didn’t have to do a thing. We did all of this for them. We know this is something that is definitely one of those silver linings; that after the pandemic, we’re absolutely going to continue to do this.
We did one event to the Galapagos and we sold more in 10 days than we had sold in all of 2019 to that destination. You had a captured audience. People were tired of maybe watching “The Tiger King” or whatever it is that they were watching on Netflix. It gave them this place to go. It was something to dream about or look forward to once the pandemic was over. That’s been a huge success for us.
Michelle Rowan: Keeps you guys top of mind too, just that.
Michelle Fee: Yeah. We’ve been doing them. We’ve done six or seven already. They’ve all been successful. This is something we’re going to carry on post-pandemic.
It’s All About the Cruisitude
Michelle Rowan: Let’s end the questioning with: How would you describe the culture of the brand? How do you foster that culture both among your corporate team, but also too, within your franchise team?
Michelle Fee: We have a word. Our word is cruisitude. We’ve actually trademarked it. What it basically is, is we talk about that passion, about having a great attitude, about life itself. We foster that throughout all of those, throughout our employees which we don’t call employees. We call them team members. We have franchisees and even the leadership team.
We all have to feel and have the cruisitude. We just try to immerse that through everything we do. A lot of our meetings could be in‑person, like I said, at these various bucket list destinations around the world.
When you’re traveling with people, you get to know them personally. It’s not just a major conference or some boot camps that we have all over the country. It’s fostering these relationships, that we know about their families, and their children, and their children’s children. We get to know each other and we foster. It’s such an incredible culture in Cruise Planners.
We’re also called The Green Team because our color is green. It’s a little unique. We stand out. Wherever we go, we make sure, and our agents do as well, that we’re all in green, and you can tell who we are, and where we came from. We’re totally different from everyone else in our industry.
Michelle Rowan: We appreciate you talking about the work that we do with you each year. We know you guys are a big organization. Glad to be part of your feedback loop and how you check in with them. Congratulations, again.
Michelle Fee: Thank you so much.
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As the Marketing Director, Ali’s role is to educate franchise companies about and inspire them to participate in FBR’s research in order to grow and improve their brands. Ali's previous experience includes senior marketing communications roles in the employee benefits, data privacy, and publishing sectors. She lives in Maine with her husband and two sons.
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