Michelle Fee co-founded Friendship Travel, a full-service travel agency, in 1981 with friend Lynn Korn. After several successful years in business, Michelle and Lynn joined forces with industry veteran Marvin Davis to co-found Cruise Planners in 1994. What started out as a small business with only five students in the first training class has now grown into the nation’s largest homebased travel agent franchise network in the cruise industry with more than 700 franchise owners across the nation.
Under Michelle’s leadership, Cruise Planners/American Express has been named No.1 Cruise Tour / Travel Agency by Entrepreneur magazine for the past nine years. Cruise Planners positions franchise owners for success by providing them with innovative marketing, booking and lead-generating tools as well as professional development and hands-on training with the industry’s top executives.
Headquartered in Coral Springs, FL., Cruise Planners, an American Express Travel Services Representative, is the largest home-based franchise travel network in the cruise and travel industry with more than 800 franchise owners across the country that independently book cruises and associated travel.
MO: Can you talk about your entrepreneurial journey of first launching Cruise Planners in 1994 to how it has become an award winning company with more than 800 franchise owners across the country? Did you ever dream it was going to get this big?
Michelle: Believe it or not the number one question I’m frequently asked is “Did I ever dream Cruise Planners would get this big” and my answer is emphatically “No”, We hoped that we would sell about 100 franchise agents and that would be the magical number where we felt that we had reached success. However, with the growth of the industry, it was not realistic to stop at that number, in fact if we did, we probably couldn’t compete in the market place today. As one of the pioneers of being a host agency, that was a bit naïve of us.
MO: As a Certified Travel Counselor, what advice would you give to someone considering taking a cruise? What questions should they be asking? What recommendations would you give to a single traveler, a couple and a family when it comes to choosing the perfect cruise package?
Michelle: The BEST advice I could give is – USE A TRAVEL AGENT! Find an agent in your local area that can help you find the best cruise at the best price for your needs and the needs of your family. There are so many choices and just because you see a deal online or in the newspaper, doesn’t mean it’s the right ship for you. And if you are going direct to a cruise line to buy, you are definitely paying more than you should. Most all larger agencies run promotions which might get you an upgrade, or ship board credit or maybe even a free shore excursion, something the cruise lines don’t offer themselves.
MO: What are some trends in the cruise industry that you’re excited about?
Michelle: The hottest trend this year was Alaska… Most people think it’s your grandmother’s cruise, but really that’s so far from reality. Envision yourself helicoptering to a glacier and then actually getting out and walking on it? Or maybe go dog sledding with the same dogs that run in the Iditarod challenges. You can also whale watch and kayak in one of the local ports of call… If that doesn’t suit you, maybe you would like to go on a River Cruise where it’s a slower pace and much smaller atmosphere. The ships are actually right in the center of towns along the rivers and easy access to local sights, restaurants and pubs. It’s a fabulous way to get up-close and personal.
MO: Can you talk about how you are launching some really cool business intelligence tools for your agents?
Michelle: Our franchisees are typically a one man show, so we need to make sure that they are “larger than life” and that we supply them with all the means to do business. As part of the franchise they have access to many cool tools, such as a Client Management tool- this allows them to not only keep track of their bookings and payments, but it’s also a marketing tool which allows them to email brochures with a few click of a button, send weekly e-card to alert their customers about special promotions. They are also extremely mobile, they can access all of this information via their smart phone and if a customer calls and the agents in the grocery store, they can actually send a confirmation right from their phone, or if they are sitting at their sons little league game, they can quote a cruise price with real time pricing. That is just a few of the cool tools we have available for them, we have so many more to allow them the efficiency they need to run a business along with flexibility.
MO: Both you and your company have received an impressive amount of awards and recognition throughout the years. Which accolades have been the most meaningful to receive? Has your definition of success changed throughout the years?
Michelle: Thank you, we are proud of each and every one of our awards… However the ones that we are most proud of are- Royal Caribbean’s Agency of the year award- this award has been given out to the best Home Based Agency model for the past 5 years… and we have won all 5 years.
Also winning the American Express Agency of the Year award made us proud – there are over 250 members, so winning this award with such a prestigious company was exciting to say the least.
I know that Cruise Planners is a leader in the industry and that I am truly proud of. My definition of success is more about personal happiness than money, as long as I enjoy what I’m doing, I work hard, my family is healthy… I’m a HUGE SUCCESS!
MO: I like that one motto that you always try live by is:”It’s nice to be important, but more important to be nice.” Can you provide any examples of how being nice has put you ahead of the competition? Or is your emphasis on being nice more of a personal mantra than business strategy?
Michelle: Both… I truly live by this motto. I believe that just because I might be the CEO of Cruise Planners, I am not any better than the receptionist that answers our phones. I have an open door policy for all employees as well as franchisees, I am blessed to be successful and I know that it’s because of the people I surround myself with.
We also have a program called “CP CARES” and each year we sell items (Shirts, hats, etc…) on a company store and ALL proceeds go to the charity of the year that we choose. This year we are working with the LLS foundation (Leukemia, lymphoma society). We raise thousands of dollars each year and are proud to give back to those less fortunate.
MO: Thank you so much for joining us today!
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