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Sporting neon suspenders and ties and plenty of sparkling accessories, the executive team of Cruise Planners/American Express welcomed more than 500 owners to its sold-out annual convention in Atlantic City, N.J. Michelle Fee, CEO and co-founder of Cruise Planners, said that five years ago, the company had set up a new strategy to grow the franchise, a combination of cutting-edge technology and practical education. The plan has been very successful: Cruise Planners remains the nation’s largest home-based travel agent franchise network.
“Companies in dominance change with the times,” Fee told attendees.
During 2014, Cruise Planners made 87 significant improvements to its in-house information technology programs, enabling its travel advisors to achieve success. Brian Shultz, vice president of IT, noted that there has been a 113 percent increase in website traffic to the sites year over year and a huge spike in eConnect bookings.
Cruise Planners was the first in the industry to launch a mobile app and has now upgraded with push notifications; sales promotions with strong calls to action; and photo albums so consumers can upload travel pictures to the Web.
Among the new features Fee sees as especially productive is a very sophisticated triggered email tool. This tool automatically sends a series of messages — as many as eight — to clients throughout the life cycle of a booking, but it adjusts, acknowledging what has already been purchased.
“So if the client has already purchased travel insurance, he won’t get that email,” Fee said. “The agent doesn’t have to lift a finger, and clients get very personal service with branded emails and calls to action."
The Smart Select Tool was launched in June and has shown an increase in sales in double digits. It allows agents to automatically target clients within their databases, based on predetermined data for a specific marketing campaign, consumer purchase habits, demographics and more. The team also gave agents services to pass along to customers, such as the ability to upload their passports into a vault where the information is secure and available in an emergency.
Agents cheered at the announcement of Cruise Planners direct booking engine that offers extensive online content (made available through a direct relationship with Orbitz) and arrangements that do not go through American Express, which means quicker payment.
“All of our proprietary technology tools are designed to help Cruise Planners travel advisors work smarter, not harder,” said Vicky Garcia, chief operating officer and co-owner of Cruise Planners. “We design our user interface with all generations in mind — from millennials to baby boomers — and our websites, mobile app and online tools for consumers and advisors are always evolving.”
Clearly, the tools are productive. Executives rolled out an impressive set of accomplishments in the past year, with both cruise and land-based businesses growing. They reported that the average Cruise Planners franchisee grew his or her business by 26 percent based on departures in 2014. Also, the company has projected a 44 percent increase in bookings for 2015, based on front-loaded revenues.
Exclusive offers and promotions have paid off, too. When the company ran such offers, revenues would increase by more than 163 percent.
“We have been building the technology and beefing up our in-house support so each Cruise Planner travel advisor can efficiently work on growing his or her business and focus on selling," Fee said. “We do all the heavy lifting in the background in an effort to support each franchise. Franchises have a 65-plus person team behind them — focusing on marketing, technology, training and strategic development — which gives them a competitive advantage.”