How a married couple that met in the Air Force created a new career as travel franchise owners in Northern Kentucky
Veterans Chris and Larry Dettmer just celebrated 30 years of marriage and are nearing their first year anniversary as Expedia CruiseShipCenter franchise owners. The couple had high expectations for the first year and has exceeded their original growth goals.
The Dettmers met and fell in love while they were both in the Air Force, stationed in Arkansas, in the early 1980s. Several years of military service created a lasting love of travel that led them to their new lives in the Expedia CruiseShipCenters network of travel franchise owners. In the Air Force, Larry rose to the rank of Staff Sergeant and traveled to far off destinations such as Korea and Philippines, while Chris rose to the rank of Captain. Their service to their country instilled in the couple a shared commitment to excellence, which they’ve applied to operating their franchise.
Expedia CruiseShipCenters is seeking veterans with the entrepreneurial spirit to open travel franchise locations in their communities. Veterans are a great fit for franchising since they often have the skill set necessary to run and manage a streamlined and efficient business, and they have the drive to translate our tested business model into a successful business. Qualified military veterans receive a 15% discount on the initial franchise fee.
This is Larry and Chris’ story:
What were you doing before becoming Expedia CruiseShipCenters owners?
Larry: We met in 1983, when we were stationed on the same base in Arkansas. I did a four-year stint in the Air Force, while she did six years. My experience in the service is something I look back with a lot of fondness now, though, at the time, I knew that I wanted a career in the corporate world. I entered the sales industry, and I spent the next several years working for a few high-profile companies. In the summer of 2013, I was a sales director running a team of seven people. I got word from corporate that I could keep my job, but they were going to be moving me elsewhere. I decided to look at that situation as an opportunity. Luckily Chris and I were in a financial position where we could take a little risk, so we decided to try our hand at owning our own business. This is something that we’ve both wanted to do.
Chris: When I left the Air Force, I started working in the health insurance industry, but I chose to become a stay-at-home mother when we had our two children. I work part-time for a health insurance firm. Now that the children are older — our youngest is a senior at Northern Kentucky University — we decided that we if we were to open our own business, we could be active owners, which is very appealing to us. We have the time and the energy to devote ourselves to becoming successful.
What made you want to open an Expedia CruiseShipCenters travel franchise?
Larry: When we knew that we were going to go forward with going into business for ourselves, it didn’t take us long to discover that Expedia CruiseShipCenters was going to be a good fit. I casually looked at a number of businesses and toyed around with a lot of ideas. I thought, “Maybe I’ll go into the restaurant business,” or “Maybe I can find a business that lets me work with my hands,” but ultimately we decided that travel was a passion of ours. Seeing how popular cruising has become, we thought it’d be a smart business to get into. When I was on the internet doing research, I stumbled upon on the Expedia CruiseShipCenters franchise, and I immediately filled out the franchise application to get the ball rolling.
Chris: Once we did visit the corporate office in Vancouver, we were both struck by their vision for the future and the pathway to growth. It was a great fit for us.
Larry: Their vision for the future was ultimately what sold us. When we were meeting the executive team, both parties are there to get a sense of the other — to find out if this will be a good match. We left that meeting with a sense of confidence in the brand, as well as their very pragmatic growth strategies and attainable goals. Of course, we did our due diligence before we signed the franchise agreement. We spoke to a lot of the franchisees, and we liked what we heard.
Once you signed the franchise agreement, how fast was the process of opening your new center?
Larry: Once we signed the franchise agreement, we focused our attention on finding the right location. We had initially thought that our center would be in Cincinnati, but once we looked at the demographics of Northern Kentucky, we thought, “This is an area where we could be very successful.” The hardest part of the entire process for us was finding the right location. We looked at a lot of property, and we delayed our target opening date a bit until we found the space that we’re in today. We held a soft opening in December 2014, and we officially opened in February of 2015.
Chris: It worked out better for us that we held out. We’re in a great location — right in front of a major shopping center here. The “Expedia CruiseShipCenters,” sign serves as a giant billboard for us, which helps to attract people to our store who may not have heard about us before.
What do you enjoy the most about the business?
Larry: I really enjoy the challenges this business presents every day. Even though this is a small business, it is complicated in that you have to put a lot of things together and make them work. I don’t see a big difference between what my demands were in a leadership position as a sales director and what I’m doing now. I find that I have to use all of my leadership skills all of the time. This is a good fit for me. All of the different kinds of work that has to get done on a daily basis keeps me from becoming complacent.
There’s also the appeal of being in the travel business. During my time in the military, even though I knew it wasn’t going to be my career, I always volunteered to go places. I went to South Korea and the Philippines, for example. One of our goals for my wife and myself is to travel more.
Chris: We’ve always worked with people, and we enjoy that aspect of it. It’s a lot more fun to talk to people about travel than it is to talk to them about health insurance.
What customers does Expedia CruiseShipCenters draw?
Chris: One of the reasons we chose this location is we knew we would attract a lot of customers organically. Just now today, a young couple walked in, and we were fielding their questions and providing them with information on how we can improve their vacations. We get all kinds of people of all ages as customers, which is another reason we chose the Northern Kentucky location.
Larry: One of the benefits of franchising with Expedia CruiseShipCenters is that the corporate marketing team is really on top of things. As franchisees, we contribute to a marketing fund, which we are able to customize to attract our local demographics. It’s far more sophisticated than I had imagined, and the fliers and mailers we have access to are of a very professional quality. Being that the Expedia brand is so big, they have a great relationship with the U.S. Postal Service, so for example, with our last mailer, we were able to get our message to 7,000 people in our area.
How do you recruit Vacation Consultants to support the growth of your business?
Chris: We do use traditional outlets for recruitment. We’ve also had several of our customers become our consultants. We’re in the process of onboarding a retired school principal, which is great because she has the time and resources to make for a successful consultant. That’s a big thing: typically, consultants are women between 40-60 years old, who are passionate about travel and don’t have to rely on us to make ends meet.
Larry: We’re building our team. We have about 15 Vacation Consultants at the moment, and we are trying to get to 18-20 consultants by the end of the year. Of course, our consultants have different levels of engagement, but over the long term we want to have a team of about 30 consultants who are very engaged with this business.
What are the key activities that drive results for an owner, and what are the biggest challenges?
Larry: The most important role that I have to fulfill in this business is to ensure that I support my consultants. I not only have to make sure they are properly trained, but I have to support their personal goals. As a former sales director, I recognize that each consultant is here for a different reason. In a normal work environment, people are working for a paycheck. We’re different because we don’t pay our consultants until after our customers return from their vacations. It’s also important to ensure that a new consultant makes a sale in their first 30-60 days. I make sure to build a pipeline of leads for new consultants to work so that they aren’t starting from scratch. The more success they have, the more they are going to be involved. Their success is our success, and that is very important to remember.
What does a typical day look like in the business?
Larry: There isn’t a typical day. Today I was planning on spending most of my time onboarding a new consultant. However, a client walked in, and he was in our store for three hours. As an owner, you have to be flexible. The one thing that I do on a daily basis is check in with my core group of consultants. They are my first priority, but I am always working my own book of business to keep things going.
What are your goals for your business and how it will affect your life?
Larry: My goal for the first year was to meet or exceed the benchmarks set by the corporate office. We’re on pace to do both, and we will have a strong first year in business. Our franchise performance coach visited our location yesterday, which is the great thing about the level of support that Expedia CruiseShipCenters provides for its franchisees. Our coach keeps us on track to hit our sales goals and helps us to grow the business. We speak to him at least once a month, and he visits with us every six months or so. We need someone who can be in advisory role, who can see our business outside of the day-to-day perspective. Expedia CruiseShipCenters is genuinely interested in our success.
My five-year plan is to grow our travel franchise to the point where I have to hire a bookkeeper. In five years, I want to be at the point where I can work 30 hours a week and travel more. One of the things that the corporate team really stresses is that you want to build a business that has equity. This means that as an owner you can’t be the top producer. So our entire focus is in developing and growing our team of consultants. We want to be 75 years old and have a thriving business that I can hang my hat on.
What do you do for fun when you’re not working?
Chris: Travel! That’s why we’re in this business.
Larry: I like to play golf in the summer and like to play basketball in the winter. I love to watch the Reds, and we’re also Bengal season ticket holders. Of course, we love to travel. We just got off a cruise where we went to five ports out of San Juan, Puerto Rico. We hope to travel more going forward and hopefully lead some group tours.
Would you recommend Expedia CruiseShipCenters to a veteran thinking about starting a business and if so, why?
Larry: Veterans typically come out of the military with a deep passion for service to their country and a commitment to excellence. An Expedia CruiseShipCenters travel franchise owner will use these characteristics to build a successful business that services the local cruising community, helping them to plan the vacations of their dreams.