How a former teacher and a former sales executive fashioned a second career out of their desire to own their own business
Kevin and Jennifer White of Fort Lauderdale, Florida, wanted a career that combined their passion for travel and their desire to run a business together. They discovered the opportunity by partnering with one of the world’s largest travel brands — Expedia — to open an Expedia CruiseShipCenters travel agency franchise. This is their story.
What were you doing before becoming an Expedia CruiseShipCenters owner?
Jennifer: I taught special education in Broward County for 13 years before coming to this business. I took some years off to raise our kids. I received a master’s degree in education from Florida State University and came down here to teach. I have always loved travel, and truth be told, teaching has changed a lot and I wanted something different. As a special education teacher, the paperwork was ungodly.
Kevin: I worked for a charter airline called Miami Air. Our offices were across the street from the airport. I have been in sales most of my career. At Miami Air, I worked as director of marketing and sales and as an account executive. I did everything from supporting the sales staff to going out and knocking on doors for new business. I worked for all sorts of neat customers — NBA and MLB teams, the Rolling Stones and Paul McCartney. To be clear, I wasn’t rubbing shoulders with celebrities, I was just arranging their travel! It was neat, but I was ready to get out of the corporate world.
I came across Expedia CruiseShipCenters and being that it was in the travel industry, I thought it would be something I would enjoy doing. I had always wanted to try something on my own. I didn’t want to get to retirement and say that I wished I had tried something when I was in my 30s or 40s, only to reach 70 years old without ever doing that. I also liked the franchise system because I wanted to have someone I could lean on and who could help with issues. Also, I liked that the business plan and marketing plan was in place, as well as Expedia being a well-known brand.
How did you first learn about Expedia CruiseShipCenters?
Kevin: I had been interested in the franchise for a while. During the summer of 2013, I began doing some research. I had been with my previous company for 14 years and felt that it was time for a change. No job seemed exciting, which pushed me to research business opportunities. I stumbled across Expedia CruiseShipCenters through travel-related internet research. I was armed with a little bit of sales and marketing knowledge, and I have an MBA. I thought “maybe I could make this work with hard work, hope, and a prayer.”
What made you want to open one?
Kevin: I think it was the support that we would receive from the people at the corporate office. Jennifer and I flew out to Vancouver to meet with them. They were genuine people who I thought would be there to support us.
What sets Expedia CruiseShipCenters apart from competitors?
Jennifer: The fact that we are not a dot-com. So many storefront travel agencies from when we were kids have gone away. Shopping for travel online isn’t very fun — it’s almost choice overload and option overload. A lot of people don’t have time to sift through it all, especially if they are looking for something that is tailored to them. Our customer service is a big advantage.
Tell me about your customers.
Kevin: They are generally families and retirees. Most single folks go to the web. Families are looking for more of a structured vacation — especially retirees. They like things that are planned for them, and they like knowing what they are going to do.
A lot of our customers like that when they are talking to somebody, they know who they are speaking with. Most travel agencies rely on call centers, and the person on the other end of the line won’t know your preferences or what you like to do. We are able to provide personal service, and we are already starting to get people coming back. The phone call I was just on before this interview was with a repeat customer, and I am working with her on a trip to Greece. It’s a relationship. She calls me to talk to me.
Jennifer: We call those customers for life. Expedia CruiseShipCenters’ training program has taught us how to implement a system that will create customers for life from the first time we reach out to a prospect to the time they get home from their trip and are ready to plan the next one.
How is the training?
Jennifer: It is amazing. You go through a week of training at the corporate office in Vancouver, which is a lot of information. It’s like, “open mouth, insert firehose.” However, both before and after, you get amazing support with calls and internet meetings. Also, the International Cruise Academy can take someone without prior knowledge all the way through the program and have them ready to start selling. It helps people get up to speed quickly.
Is it hard to get Vacation Consultants?
Jennifer: It depends. We have advertised and discovered that people who are looking for a job don’t work out well. We advertise on Craigslist and get a lot of inquiries, but we have to see how qualified they are. Word of mouth is some of the best marketing, and we have hired some people who love to travel. Simply being here is a big draw, and for us to get out in our community and talk about the opportunity is very powerful.
Kevin: The most challenging part is that our consultants are paid 100 percent on commission, and it takes a while to start making some money. The way it works is that they get paid once their customers start their trip. You are really looking for the right person who is looking to do that. The demographic we are looking for is mainly women between 40 and 55 — either empty nesters or moms whose kids are at school and are looking for something to do during the day. They love travel and love to talk about travel. When you post any type of ad, no matter how well you word it, you get some people who are looking for a job to pay the next month’s rent, and that’s the big challenge. Also, sales is not easy for some people. We have a great training program for our consultants, though, and we can train anyone who is willing to learn. Anyone who is willing to follow the system can do well. Someone not willing to use the system or learn from our sales training (or those who have a hard time talking to people) is going to struggle. The hardest part of the job for us in the first year has been recruitment and onboarding.
Tell me about your location.
Kevin: We’re on the north side of Fort Lauderdale in an area with a fair amount of retirees and families, which is one of the reasons we chose this location. We stayed away from more transient areas. We are in a strip mall, and we have some pretty strong stores neighboring us — Panera Bread and a FedEx Office. Our business is not based on walk-ins, but visibility helps. We do get people walking in after just discovering us.
What do you enjoy the most about the business, your staff and your customers?
Jennifer: It’s nice to make people happy. I like coming into something we own, and we can ask consultants to cover the office if we want to go have lunch with our kids. Then again, when the phone rings at 10 p.m., it is us answering and not our consultants.
Kevin: I think the main thing I enjoy is helping customers. It’s fun for people to go on vacation. We just had a couple that went on a cruise, and the gentleman proposed on the cruise. It was neat to know that I helped play a role in a proposal! I have another customer who is planning a proposal on his cruise, too.
What’s the best vacation you’ve ever taken?
Jennifer: Our favorites have been an Alaska cruise and a trip to Costa Rica. They each had their own charms. The scenery and the outdoor activities were amazing.
What are the key activities that drive results for an owner?
Kevin: Since we’re only about a year in, we’re not experts. However, I think I can say that the number one thing is recruitment. The more sales consultants we have, the better chance we have of reaching our sales goals. You don’t always know how people are going to do when you bring them onboard, so a constant focus on recruiting is key.
The next most important thing is marketing. We frequently go out into the community and attend networking events. As a new franchise owner, from a marketing standpoint, the name of the game is letting the community know that we are here. That loops back into recruitment. The more sales consultants we have, the more our name gets out there as they talk to people and do their own marketing. We look for consultants who are very active in a circle of influence, whether that is a tennis club, a country club or church.
One of the nice things is that it’s always easy to strike up a conversation at networking events. As soon as you tell people you are in the travel business, they’ll start asking questions. It’s easy to ask anyone you meet: “Where have you been? Where do you want to go next? Australia?” From there I can say, “Let me put you on our mailing list and send you interesting stuff about Australia!” That’s how we’re building our business.