How one veteran travel agent took her business to a new level by making the leap from agent to agency owner.
With over 24 years of experience in the travel industry and a willingness to learn something new every day, Tracey has a passion for people and a drive for results that allowed her to open three travel agency franchises in her first year. Tracey shares her experience transitioning from agent to owner and what it’s like when work doesn’t feel like work.
Here’s Tracey’s story:
What were you doing before becoming an Expedia CruiseShipCenters franchise owner?
Tracey: Prior to my entry into the travel business I was a school teacher where I taught kindergarten and tutored 8th grade algebra. Though I loved shaping young minds, the call to the travel industry was strong for me.
In late 1992 I took my very first cruise where I met the man who would turn out to be my first boss in the travel industry. He and his wife had a small travel agency in Englewood, FL and after a brief conversation, their passion for the industry was clear. Although I didn’t admit it at first, I knew that I would go to work with them. Everything fell into place and I joined their team in January 1993. It’s amazing to sit back and look at 24 years in the industry, where I’ve held many positions (each more challenging than the previous) and I still get up in the morning and want to go to work! I’ve I almost feel guilty when I go to work, because it doesn’t really feel like work to me!
What inspired you to make the transition from agent to owner, to franchise owner?
Tracey: In 2005 I decided to open my own independent cruise travel agency in Port Charlotte, FL after a large merger resulted in the closing of the agency in Englewood, FL where I had worked for 12 years. I phoned an old friend and industry veteran with my idea and within 3 months we were open and I was running my own location.
About 5 years after we opened, we connected with Expedia CruiseShipCenters and started to think about transitioning our independent agency over to an Expedia CruiseShipCenters franchise. At first I was reluctant having experienced a corporate merger however the challenges of recruitment and technology were heavy for us and were preventing us from growing the way we wanted to. We decided to take our list of challenges (that had grown to about 25 items in length) and fly to Vancouver to meet with Expedia CruiseShipCenters and see the potential of their answers to our challenges.
By the end of the meeting, I had gone from sitting back arms folded to leaning over the table. I was immediately in. It became almost instantly clear that Expedia CruiseShipCenters was the solution for not one or two, but every single one of our 25 challenges. We needed the support of the corporate office, access to the technology, and we saw the opportunity to leverage the Expedia brand.
Eventually the partnership with my old colleague dissolved and we went in different directions. I knew it was time to start off on my own. I found a retail space in Venice, FL and I converted it to my very own Expedia CruiseShipCenters.
Can you tell us about your experience building and leading your team of Vacation Consultants?
Tracey: I am always recruiting. My team says I have a “vibe” – I’m sizing up everyone I come in contact with. You could say that I live the brand and the business. Then there’s the recruitment marketing that Expedia CruiseShipCenters offers on my behalf that generates recruitment leads for me! Even my Consultants are out there promoting and recruiting for us, they believe in the brand and our team. Your vibe attracts your tribe right?
With each of my Consultants, I always start by asking them “what do you want to get from this business”? First we get clear on what their goals are. Then, I work with them to map out a plan to get them there in a realistic and manageable time frame. I’m very honest with them about what I think they need to do. Once they help me understand what their goals are, we make a plan of engagement and I tell them, “If you use and follow the system, you will be successful. In fact I guarantee it.”
My team is a great mix of Consultants that have previous experience in the travel industry, and those who are brand new to it. Having both in the Center is fantastic because they each bring different things to the role, and they feed off of each other. We are a family.
How would you describe the culture at your Centers?
Tracey: Fun and rewarding. We love to celebrate everything, including every holiday and the Consultants love it! One morning after dropping my children off at school (it was pajama day) I arrive at the office to find the entire team dressed in pajamas. I loved it! We recognize that we are together more than we are home at times, so working together to keep that vibe strong is important. We respect each other, and we loooove to have fun.
We love adding the extra to the ordinary; recognizing and rewarding. I believe the little things that are important to my Consultants are–and should be–important to me. In the same way that we build relationships with our customers, I continue to build and strengthen relationships with my Consultants. I do my best to help them remember what we’re here to do and to have fun. If we’re not having fun in this business, then something is wrong!
What do you believe sets Expedia CruiseShipCenters apart from our competitors, including travel websites?
Tracey: Where do I begin? When you become a Franchise Owner, you are buying a system that works – I am living proof! You are backed by a powerful brand. Who hasn’t heard of Expedia? We have customers who come into a Centers simply because they’ve seen the sign outside and recognize the name. It’s also powerful in helping us build relationships with our suppliers as they see Expedia CruiseShipCenters and they know that the company has integrity and that we’re here to build relationships and do business.
The CruiseDesk technology that comes with the system is second to none. To have your CRM and booking engine all in one is just amazing. We have a strong relationship-building culture in our office, and the technology allows us to excel in a very organized fashion at that. Our Consultants are able to use their 7SEAS customer database, to support them in strengthening their consumer relationships with special personal touches. For example, we can send reminders to customer if their passports are expiring, or phone them to wish them a bon voyage or welcome home from their vacation. All the information to support that relationship is right there at the click of a mouse. CruiseDesk allows our Consultants to show their customers what it means to be a navigator of spectacular vacation experiences!
The Expedia CruiseShipCenters system is what’s going to support a brand new person as a Franchise Owner in this industry and help them be successful. With the support you get from the corporate team, you can truly work on the business and focus on growing your sales – and still have time to make your kids’ field trips or plays at school
How does the Expedia CruiseShipCenters headquarters team help support your business?
Tracey: “With you every step of the way” is part of the Expedia CruiseShipCenters Promise, and it starts from the top with the Corporate Support Team. I honestly don’t know if the Technical Support team members sleep, because they are amazing! One of them even returned my support call from the elliptical trainer at the gym – on a Saturday! This might not have been a big deal to them, but it meant so much to me.
How do you find your customers?
Tracey: As a company and a team, we strongly believe in relationship marketing. Our 7SEAS database grows daily either because someone walked into a Center, or they call in on the phone because they have received some of our direct marketing, or someone signs up online to receive information from us. When that happens, either myself or one of my Consultants picks up the phone and gives them a call. A simple “thanks for signing up” is an opportunity to tell them a bit more about us and to start building that relationship. Providing that personal touch really makes a difference. The customer wants to hear from you. They want to chat, hear about promotions, and have their questions answered by a real person.
Referrals, recommendations, participating in promotions – each aspect of the Expedia CruiseShipCenters brand and system attracts new customers. From there, the ongoing marketing and CRM technology supports our Consultants in keeping those Customers For Life.
What do you do to drive repeat business?
Tracey: As a team, we constantly reflect on everything we do and what we could have potentially done better. We like to ask our Vacation Consultants, “what can we do today to make our customers know that we love them?”, and they come up with some amazing feedback! One of the things I love most about this business is that I am always learning from our customers, Consultants and fellow Franchise Partners. In fact, I was at an Expedia event the other day, and another Franchise Partner shared that when he has a customer who sets sail for 21 or more days, he sends them a personal, home cooked meal when they return from their trip. What a great personal touch!
What lead to your decision to open multiple Expedia CruiseShipCenters locations?
Tracey: It wasn’t a difficult decision for me and I’m not done expanding. The Expedia CruiseShipCenters system allows you to easily manage multiple locations remotely, so spreading our passion throughout multiple locations is fun!
We opened our second Expedia CruiseShipCenters location in Punta Gorda, FL, which has been my hometown since 1979 and more recently announced our official third location to open soon in the Villages, FL. The community and demographics of The Villages area are amazing. There is plenty of business up there for multiple travel agencies.
What would you say makes a community an ideal fit for an Expedia CruiseShipCenters franchise?
Tracey: I’d have to answer that by saying “If you build it they will come”. I love unique locations, where there’s plenty of character, or it has something scenic about it. I believe that once you build your database of prospects and customers, it doesn’t matter where your location is. The Expedia CruiseShipCenters brand attracts customers of all ages – from a retirement community, to a large city, or even a rural area with a storefront that has decent walk-by traffic – these are all great options. As long as you’re participating in the national promotions offered by corporate and the systems that Expedia CruiseShipCenters offers, you’re marketing to your people, and they know where you are.
We had an event in January, and we had over 1,000 people attend that day. Considering this is our first year, and our Center in Punta Gorda, FL, had just opened, that kind of turnout and our cruise bookings that followed, were amazing! Our customers come to us – they make it like a field trip for themselves
What do you love about cruising? Any memorable trips you’ve taken?
Tracey: I love cruising and believe it is the absolute best way to vacation – multiple destinations, no packing and unpacking, being pampered, and doing everything or nothing at all! Honestly, what more could you ask for?
I’d have to say one of the most memorable cruises was with my family, shortly before my mother passed away. To have family from across the country come together and make happy memories prior to such a loss gave us all strength to face what was to come.
Then there was the first time I took my three adopted children on a cruise. WOW! Talk about getting a whole different view of cruising. Who knew you could sail on the exact same ship two separate times, and have completely different, fantastic experiences? We focus a lot on family travel at our locations, because no matter where in the world that you are traveling to, it’s always better with friends and family.
Where do you see your business in 5 to 10 years?
Tracey: My goal has always been to have 5 centers. I love this industry and I would love to find key personnel who are as passionate about this business as I am. I would love to place them at 4 of my Centers where they can love it like it’s their own and let it be their own. Then I can work with them and develop them into leaders.
I do not see myself retiring, but “rewiring” and doing something different. What do you do when you retire? You travel and spend time with family… but I do that now!
Learn more about starting your own travel agency franchise
Expedia CruiseShipCenters is a retail travel agency franchise backed by the largest travel brand in the world with more than 230 retail locations open or under development across North America. As the cruise industry grows larger each year, customers are seeking the expert advice of a travel agent who can create customized travel plans and provide personal service.
Whether you’re an industry veteran like Tracey, or brand new to travel, we can help you leverage our proven system to build a successful business doing something you love. If you’re ready to learn more, we invite you to continue exploring the Expedia CruiseShipCenters franchise opportunity by downloading our Free Franchise Report by completing the form below.