Hoover, Alabama, franchisee Jon Harvill is making his own travel dreams come true
When Jon Harvill was ten, his parents took him on his first flight from Orange County to Northern California. The experience changed his life.
“I remember packing a bag, getting in the car and going to John Wayne Airport. It was thrilling, and on the way back, we flew over Disneyland,” says Jon, who now owns the Expedia CruiseShipCenters franchise in Hoover, Alabama. “I knew right away I wanted to travel and see the world. Ever since, I’ve traveled as much as I can and I’ve always had a passion for travel.”
He continued to travel as a teen with his family and as a young musician early in his career. “I had the opportunity to travel throughout the United States, as well as Canada, Europe, and in the Mediterranean area — playing for various situations. Overseas I played for the military through the USO, so that kind of solidified my passion for travel.”
After school, Jon went to work at a travel agency in Mobile, Alabama, where he helped establish an outside sales department, hosted groups, and booked travel. This experience gave him the lasting impression of the travel industry he still maintains. In the 1990s, the rise of internet-based travel caused a slump and his agency scaled back. He assumed — like many in the travel industry at the time — that the retail travel agency was fast becoming a dinosaur.
He left his agency and spent 15 years in the pharmaceutical sales industry as a successful sales rep. He never lost the itch to travel and began researching franchise ownership. When he came across Expedia CruiseShipCenters, he was hooked. He dove right into the research and traveled to Vancouver for a franchise Discovery Day.
Even though the Discovery Day was a two-day event, he texted his wife after just an hour and a half and said, “We’re in!”
“When I saw the concept of brick and mortar, the brand, the name — I’ve been in other industries in corporate America where a name opened a lot of doors and gave us an edge. I saw that with Expedia CruiseShipCenters,” Jon says. “The combination of the internet presence — where the customers go to the internet and search and purchase to whatever extent they wanted to — with our location where they can walk in the door and have us assist them with those complicated itineraries — that is exciting.”
Expedia CruiseShipCenters launched in 1987 and is a top seller of cruise travel in North America. Our travel agency franchise is rapidly expanding, with more than 235 locations open or under development. Our growth is driven by three overarching realities: our proven business model is affordable to start and extremely scalable, our focus on cruise vacations makes us a trusted resource among cruise customers who overwhelmingly prefer to book with a travel agent, and the cruise industry is growing quickly.
As cruises have skyrocketed in popularity, customers have become frustrated with the limitations of the internet, creating a comeback for the retail travel agency.
Pursuing a lifelong travel ambition
Jon says being an Expedia CruiseShipCenters franchise owner has helped him mesh his lifelong love of travel with his daily work.
“At least once a week I have somebody come in who says: ‘I’m overwhelmed. Can you help me? I’ve been online looking at vacations and I’m just worn out,” Jon says. “People ask us: ‘Why should I use you? Why should I use a travel agency?’ In a sense, we are reinventing or re-acquainting our community with travel services. I knew it could work. When we opened our doors in June 2, 2014, it was the middle of vacation season. So there were some quiet days.”
Before long, those quiet days turned into a series of busy ones. The increase, he says, was due at least in part to his location. His Alabama-based travel agency is on the path to a multimillion-dollar year.
“I think this is an underserved area,” he says. “There have been travel agencies that have been here throughout the years. There is a lot of discretionary income here, a lot of travelers. We’ve benefited from the immediate community.
“Cruising continues to be the fastest-growing segment of leisure travel,” Jon explains. “People have connected with the concept that you can visit multiple destinations on a single itinerary. When you look at cruising as an all-inclusive vacation, it’s hard to beat. You unpack once, all your meals, entertainment, and excursions can be included. There are dozens of new ships that are scheduled to be built between now and 2020. The demographics are expanding, too. Baby Boomers took their Millennial children on vacations, so the Millennial children are very comfortable with traveling — and they have surpassed Baby Boomers in number. Things are bright on the horizon for the industry.”
Structure and stability from a lasting, proven brand
“The Expedia CruiseShipCenters concept and the support they provide is great,” Jon says. “They have a wealth of knowledge in the industry. The power of the brand, the recognition — everybody knows Expedia — that’s a big draw. Our concept of how we market travel is we like to ask better questions to get a better foundation, more detailed information so that we can make the appropriate recommendations as opposed to giving you a brochure and saying, ‘Hey, if we can help you, give us a call.’”
As for guidance and support, Jon says that Expedia CruiseShipCenters stands by franchise owners from day one. “Expedia CruiseShipCenters provides turnkey training from the first keystroke all the way to making your first booking,” he says. “With our relationship with all of the major suppliers globally, we also have training available on individual products. All of that combined with the buying power that comes with billions in annual sales — we take advantage of great relationships with all of our suppliers. Our cruise department in Vancouver negotiates more than 2,000 sailings a year, and that gives us an opportunity to provide deeper discounts and additional amenities.”
Jon says he also has an opportunity to regularly evaluate the franchise support he receives.
“Another thing I like about it is that the people, the corporate folks, are asking how they’re doing,” he says. “They are always seeking to improve on their systems, their response, their support. They are constantly evolving for the good, so that helps me to be comfortable as I learn the business side of this thing.”
Advice for potential Expedia CruiseShipCenters franchise owners
“If you have a dream to own a business and you love travel as I do,” Jon says, “you can have the full support of a prudent system, the backing of a great name, and the buying power that comes with a huge brand. You can offer a great product to your community. That, in a nutshell, makes it an attractive opportunity — especially combined with the statistics about the future of travel. It’s very compelling.”
Like any diligent franchise owner, Jon takes what he learns from his customers and applies it to his business to help ensure that guests are not only happy, but receive the exact sort of travel package they expect.
“We contact everyone when they come back to find out what they liked, what they would do again, what they wouldn’t do again,” he says. “Sometimes they will write us letters, and we will publish those on our website or use stories of their experiences to share with other customers.
“We create spectacular vacation experiences and help our customers navigate those spectacular vacation experiences. We have customers come in with a sketched-out dream and we use our resources to put that together. Then we get to see them come back with memories of a lifetime. What’s not to like?”
Learn more about Expedia CruiseShipCenters
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