Travel Franchise Review: Q&A with Larry Mahan of Expedia CruiseShipCenters
Former IT entrepreneur shares insights on joining the booming travel industry
Experienced entrepreneur Larry Mahan wanted a career change and found the perfect fit in the travel industry with Expedia CruiseShipCenters. He and his wife are in their third year of ownership of Expedia CruiseShipCenters in Bear, Delaware.
This is Larry’s story:
How did you hear about Expedia CruiseShipCenters?
Larry: I launched a couple of businesses in the 10 years prior to getting involved with Expedia CruiseShipCenters. I was looking for a new opportunity, and my wife and I went to a travel franchise expo in summer 2013 in New York. I was standing in the aisle, and Franchise Development Manager Jeff Warkentin tapped me on the shoulder and asked, “Have you ever thought about opening a retail travel agency?” I said, “Doesn’t everyone do that all online?” I gravitated toward the business opportunity and was excited about it.
Why were you excited about joining the Expedia CruiseShipCenters family of franchises?
Larry: One, it’s just a great product. Almost everyone loves cruising, and if they don’t love cruising, they have a passion for travel. Most people work 50 weeks a year so they can have a great vacation. It’s a happy conversation that adds quality to their lives.
I was intrigued by the fact that Expedia, which everyone knows as an online travel agent and technology company, was serious about putting brick-and-mortar neighborhood travel agencies back into business in a big way. Expedia knows the travel industry, and it meant a lot that they saw this as a concept the market needed.
Then there was the opportunity to get in on the ground floor of a new franchise backed by a company with nearly 30 years of proven success.
Tell us about your career before becoming an Expedia CruiseShipCenters franchisee?
Larry: I have a master’s degree from Princeton University in computer engineering. I worked in R&D with computers and software for a few big companies, and then in 1998 I left with a couple partners to start up an IT company. I sold the second company in 2012 and stayed on to help with international business development. I loved traveling, and pretty much every place I visited I thought, “Wow, I’ve got to get back here for vacation.” Once I sold that business I was looking for something new. I’d started a few businesses from scratch, and I wanted to do something different. The franchise concept made sense; you can launch a business without a steep learning curve.
What was appealing to you about opening an Expedia CruiseShipCenters?
Larry: There were a lot of things at the emotional level that I really liked about the opportunity, but at the end of the day I am an engineer. I ran the numbers, and it looked like a solid business model.
Why did you feel your location would be ideal for an Expedia CruiseShipCenters?
Larry: We are just south of Newark, Delaware, which is home to the University of Delaware, in a relatively large population area. We are in the northern part of the state, just 10 miles from Wilmington and 35 miles south of Philadelphia.
I think any area is a good area for this business, so long as there is enough population. Expedia has a lot of understanding of what types of demographics and populations are sufficient to support the business. I really didn’t want to move. I live here and have roots in the community going back 30 years. All that is positive when you are starting a retail business.
What sets Expedia CruiseShipCenters apart from competitors in the travel planning industry?
Larry: Firstly, I don’t know of any other company that is establishing retail travel agencies. There are probably a dozen or more franchise operations, but none are opening retail centers as part of their business model. I like what this says about Expedia’s commitment to having a physical presence in the community. We’re not going to be here today and gone tomorrow.
Secondly, the Expedia brand name sets us apart. There is no other travel brand that I would have spent money on, because no other travel brands have the consumer value or brand power that Expedia has. That is a huge differentiator.
We also have the best technology tools and systems. Expedia’s technology is completely superior to anything I saw while I was doing my due diligence. I looked at other travel opportunities, but they didn’t have the brand name, the physical presence or the crispness of the marketing Expedia offers.
How does technology set Expedia CruiseShipCenters apart from competitors?
Larry: The back-end technology makes us more efficient and effective, benefitting our customer, but it’s not in the foreground like on Expedia.com. Our business is a people business, and it’s about relationships. The technology is all for naught if the travel agent doesn’t do the people part and create relationships. We have so many fantastic tools for franchisees, such as our Customer Relationship System.
How do you market your business?
Larry: We do a lot of direct mail, such as postcards and coupon books, as well as a lot of neighborhood customer promotions. We are very active in community events. If there is a festival, a bridal show or a home and garden show, we’re there. People see us, and it’s their opportunity to have a conversation with us — we do a lot of that personal networking. We do email blasts, web banners and popup advertising and some newspaper advertising. We try to hit everything that is affordable and makes sense to ensure people know who we are, what we are and where we are.
Do you get a lot of customer referrals? What about repeat customers?
Larry: That’s the way this business grows, organically. We’re still fairly new, but we are seeing last year’s customers come back – and they bring their family and friends.
What is your customer demographic like?
Larry: Our customer demographics essentially mirror the general industry demographics. It used to be mostly about boomers and empty nesters and retirees, but we are really starting to see a shift as millennials become a major force in the marketplace. People are starting to cruise with families, and multigenerational cruising is increasing in popularity – especially as our suppliers make cruising such a great experience for parents and kids. Our demographic is kind of across the board, from ages 35 to 80, and we are located in a family neighborhood environment – so we see everything from young families on up to the boomers and retirees.
What do you enjoy the most about the business, your staff and your customers?
Larry: I enjoy getting to travel more. It’s fun. I also get to meet a lot of new people and make a lot of new friends within Expedia CruiseShipCenters. The Franchise Partner network is very close; we talk to each other by email or Facebook or phone or in person weekly.
How often do you get out for a cruise?
Larry: We cruise about three times a year. A few places were new to me, such as Alaska. I’m kind of a beach-and-island guy, so Alaska wasn’t on the top of my list – but after my first trip to Alaska, I totally get it. It’s so beautiful and so different. I also got a chance to cruise off the West Coast down to some of the Mexican locations, such as Cabo San Lucas, Puerto Vallarta and Mazatlan.
How does the Expedia CruiseShipCenters headquarters team help support your business?
Larry: I can’t imagine getting better support. It’s support that is there when you need it, but when you don’t need it they aren’t taking up any of your time. I’ve been very happy with it. Because of my background in owning businesses with other partners, I felt like when you go into a franchise, the franchisor is your partner, and it’s important to feel that chemistry. When I was doing my research, I asked myself, “Are these the kind of people I can see myself working with?” I certainly felt that they were when I went to Discovery Day in Vancouver. The technology is great. The marketing is great. And then of course Expedia CruiseShipCenters fosters and maintains very strong industry relations with our suppliers, which really works to our benefit.
Our mantra is that we’re Stronger.Together and it is evident that it’s a great partnership. The corporate folks supply everything that we need at the local level to run the travel businesses, and they rely on us to do a great job of running the travel business locally – that way we all continue to do well.
Do you speak regularly with other franchisees?
Larry: We have two franchisee meetings a year, which are required for franchisees to attend. One is a cruise. The highlight of the cruise is the chance to talk in-depth and network with other franchisees and learn about their experiences and how they handle things. We also have Facebook channels and an online community where we can post questions.
What kind of people are you looking for as consultants?
Larry: We look for people who are experienced cruisers and love to travel. We are consultants. If you don’t have travel experience, it’s really hard to quickly get enough of that to be of value to our clients. Secondly, a passion and excitement for travel is so important to being a good travel consultant. That’s first of all what I’m looking for; I’ve found that most good travel agents are people who like to help people. Then because of their being independent consultants, they need initiative, a reason to want to do this and problem-solving skills. We have tons of opportunities and travel options, but sometimes it’s not possible to give customers exactly what they want, due to time or budget constraints. Then it comes down to options, and having a problem-solver mentality is beneficial.
What are some of your favorite customer success stories?
Larry: What mostly sticks out are the people who come in and ask, “Can you meet this price?” I love our ability to surprise them by helping them get a better price — or giving them an even better experience and deal. It’s great seeing the lightbulbs go on as customers realize they should be using a travel agency. Being able to delight people with that kind of service is what I like to see.