Travel Franchise Review: Q&A with Shawn Friesen of Expedia CruiseShipCenters

With 10 years under his belt as a Franchise Partner, Shawn Friesen wouldn’t trade a single minute

Expedia CruiseShipCenters multi-unit franchise owner, Shawn Friesen and his wife Tammy on holiday in Budapest.

From the day he got his first contract to sign, Shawn knew his life was going to change forever. Now with four locations, and over 100 Vacation Consultants, and plans to keep growing, he hasn’t once looked back.

What were you doing before becoming an Expedia CruiseShipCenters franchise owner?

Shawn: For 20 years I was a front-store manager with Shoppers Drug Mart. My store was a 24 hour store, 365 days a year, and after many years of chasing down shoplifters, or getting robbed, I decided I needed a change. I decided on the travel industry, as it’s very nice, and the clientele is wonderful to work with.

What lead you to consider franchise ownership? In particular, why a travel franchise?

Shawn: When I was looking to make a move, I bought the Canadian Franchise Association booklet. Inside there was a travel section, and I thought to myself, “Wouldn’t that be cool, to run a travel agency!” Plus, building your travel clientele is just like building a prescription clientele as it is very relationship-based. Whether it’s prescriptions or travel, when you leave your customer feeling well taken care of they come back and buy from you again and again.

Having worked for Shoppers Drug Mart, which is the number one drug-retailer in Canada, I knew I wanted to join a best-of-class company, and Expedia CruiseShipCenters was exactly what I was looking for.

What lead to your decision to open multiple Expedia CruiseShipCenters locations?

Shawn: There are some similarities across the different towns in northern Ontario, and I noticed that it was very underdeveloped cruise-wise. After opening up Thunder Bay, I began looking at the Sudbury market as it was larger and made sense geographically to open a Center there. Plus I believe that size gives you more advantages. There are economies of scale in this business. Whether you are paying your accountant to take care of one center or four, it’s the same price. I am a sales-driven guy, and I believe that bigger is better.

Looking back, do you remember what the experience was like opening up your first center?

Shawn: Not coming from a travel background was a little bit intimidating. So I focused on following the system that Expedia CruiseShipCenters lays out for you, and I tried to figure out the best way to get the absolute most out of it.

Shawn Friesen and his team at the opening of Expedia CruiseShipCenters in Sault Ste. Marie, ON.

Now comparing that experience with opening your fourth center, how is it different?

Shawn: By the fourth center, I had our systems and procedures down. I now have the knowledge of the suppliers, the destinations, and the cruise lines. We are getting better and better at starting up each new Center and can do a better job because we know what we are doing.

With Centers in Thunder Bay, Sudbury, Woodstock, and Sault Ste. Marie, is there anything in particular about these communities that you identified as being ideal for your Expedia CruiseShipCenters locations?

Shawn: In the northern Ontario market, there’s only enough space for  four Centers – Thunder Bay, Sudbury, Sault Ste. Marie, and North Bay. Those were basically the only choices that I had for northern Ontario. One thing about Northern Ontario, people vacation. Vacation is not a luxury, it is a necessity, and so people will always find a way to travel.

I purchased the Woodstock Center as a re-sale. I saw an opportunity to purchase an existing location that was struggling and then turn it around to make it profitable.

How do you find your customers?

Shawn: We do a number of things: Follow the system, send out flyers, build our 7SEAS Database, attend tradeshows, and host cruise nights, to name a few. But I think the most important and powerful way to find customers is by building your consultant team because they bring family, friends, and friends of friends, to your agency that doesn’t cost you anything. As our team grows, our client list grows because our consultants talk to people. Travel is one of those topics that is very easy to talk about, and because we are Canada’s largest cruise retailer, it’s easy to encourage others to come and talk to us before they book or go on a trip. It’s important for us to remember that we can’t just live off our past passengers, so our team is constantly growing our client base.

What do you do to drive repeat business and Customers For Life?

Shawn: What we’re really working on right now is never being more than 120 days without contact. Our clients may only travel once every 24 months, and they will make a buying decision once during that period. So if my consultants are not in constant contact during that time, they won’t be top of mind when their clients go to book their next trip. Setting up the next call date is probably the most important way for getting repeat business.

What has your experience been like recruiting and leading a team of Vacation Consultants?

Shawn: I love it. My team is so varied. We have part-timers, full-timers, brand new moms, retirees, and professionals. I even have a lawyer but she sells travel because she loves it and has a passion for travel. One of the biggest joys that I get is being able to let people be travel agents who would probably never get a chance to do it without joining my team.

Franchise owner, Shawn Friesen and his team on a familiarization trip.

We totaled it up, and my team have personally gone on over 1000 cruises. I really believe that we are the most knowledgeable travel team in northern Ontario and Woodstock. We have likely cruised on every cruise line, been on every ship, and been to almost every destination. They know what their clients are looking for, they want you to make their trip better. We know things you can’t get from Rick Steves, or Cruise Critic, just from having been there and having that first-hand knowledge.

How would you describe the culture at your Centers?

Shawn: My number one rule is that everybody has to play nice in the sandbox, and there is lots of sand for everybody. This has to be a fun place to work because we’re not selling Tupperware or funeral plots, we’re selling travel, which is fun! One of my consultants just booked a 26 passenger group on Disney for a grandfather who is gifting this trip to his family. It’s a $100,000 sale. That’s a fun sale because that client is going to create memories for the grandkids, and the kids, and they are going to have that for the rest of their lives.

Flexibility is also really important. Northern Ontario is big, and I have 25 consultants who do not live close to one of my Centers, so I have lots of remote consultants. With my local ones, some of them will work full time from the center, or part time, and some will only pop in to work on files or to meet with a client. Even though we’re spread out, we are still extremely supportive of one another, and have a private Facebook group where the consultants can post pictures, ask questions, share travel stories, and give recommendations to each other.

What do you believe sets Expedia CruiseShipCenters apart from competitors, including travel websites?

Shawn: First, there’s the Expedia name. They are the world’s largest travel company, and with that comes tools that nobody else can offer like our CRM system, CruiseDesk, and the groups program. Plus, with a franchise, you have a local owner, who is invested in the community, and who develops a team that brings real passion to the business. I like to think back to our first year in business. We had a client come in and inquire about booking a trip to Alaska. We walked them through all of the options. They went away, and after three days they came back and said, “We want to book with you. We talked to Sears. We talked to Marlin Travel. You were the only one who seemed excited about our trip.” That’s when I realized that if you have that passion, and excitement for your customers, price doesn’t matter. We have so many great things going for us, but I think the fact that we care about your trip and want to make it better is probably the biggest advantage.

How would you say that Expedia CruiseShipCenters headquarters team help support your business?

Shawn: There is nothing that I have needed or asked for, that headquarters has come back and said no to. For example, I have a lot of consultants, and I was struggling to find a way to collect all the information about them in one centralized location. So, I asked corporate for a consultant database, and about 9 months later there was a brand new tool! They are very responsive to good ideas, and they listen to their Franchise Partners.

What aspects of this business do you enjoy the most?

Shawn: I love working with my consultants, and I love my clients too. One of my favorite bookings of all time was a couple that came in with their two small kids. They had a dream of taking their family to Disney World. They didn’t have a lot of money, so we booked them the very cheapest package. They would come in once every two months or so, with $5 bills, and wrapped loonies. They were scraping dollar by dollar just to be able to go. They went and had amazing time, and were so thankful. It was a very low-price booking, but priceless to be able to help a family fulfill their dream.

Where do you see your business in 5 years, or possibly 10 years? And how do you see your lifestyle changing as a result of your business growth?

Shawn: In the next 5 years, I plan to acquire 3-4 more Centers. I feel like in the first 10 years of my business, I put in the time and work to build an amazing travel company, and now it’s time to build the support team, and size gives you the ability to do that. I would eventually bring on a general manager, who would watch over the company and a person to handle all of the marketing for each of the Centers. Plus, I would start to bring on program specialists, like a person who deals only in flights, or someone who specializes in groups or hosted cruises. Building up my support team would allow me to work on the entire company, while also not needing to work so hard.

What do you love about cruising? Any memorable trips you’ve taken?

Shawn and Tammy Friesen in Bora Bora.

Shawn: Cruising, to me, is a slice of heaven. I sleep so well at sea. I love how a ship is a floating resort that will take you to places that you would probably never get to by land. My favorite trips, well I’ve gone to Tahiti twice. Talk about heaven! It’s like the Caribbean, but not as crowded.

One of my funnest trips was on a cruise through the Mediterranean where I spent 4 nights in Israel. I got to go to Jerusalem, Nazareth and Galilee, all the places you learn about in Sunday school. St. Petersburg, Russia, was amazing, as I got to experience a radically different culture. And then there’s Venice! Everybody needs to sail into Venice once in their lifetime.

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