Owner of fast-growing travel franchise shares his insights, lessons
When Chris Meyer of Orange County, California, decided to leave the newspaper industry after 30 years as a professional journalist, he began looking for an opportunity that would improve the quality of his life. He found it as an Expedia CruiseShipCenters franchise owner in Orange County. Meyer’s location broke sales records during his first three years in business. This is his story.
What did you do before you became an Expedia CruiseShipCenters franchise owner?
I started in journalism when I was in junior high school by creating a sports page for our teams. I continued newspaper work in high school and college and then spent 30 years as a professional. I was running the Orange County Register’s local news and business news coverage until I left in 2011. At one point, I was interested in moving into upper management, so I returned to college to earn an MBA. While I was in that program, the bottom really fell out of the newspaper industry. When I came up for air at the end of the program, I figured that rather than manage the long decline of a newspaper, I should do something else. I saw a targeted ad on my LinkedIn profile and started investigating.
I had not been planning to become an entrepreneur, but I was impressed by the business plan — the idea of a big digital company also doing brick-and-mortar locations to appeal to every segment of the market. I thought it was very forward-looking compared to what was happening in the newspaper industry.
What was the process like, learning about the company?
There were many web pages, webinars and learning modules. I could see how the company was structured. I placed many phone calls to the folks at corporate, as well as to franchise owners.
What made you want to open an Expedia CruiseShipCenters location?
I had covered business in my area for a long time, so I knew about Orange County’s economy. I also knew who in the county would be likely travelers. I knew the location I wanted was near a huge senior citizen community. I crunched numbers to figure out how many vacations I would need to sell each year to survive and how many I would need to sell to do really well. The numbers didn’t seem unfathomable, and I decided to roll the dice. I’m a risk-averse person, but I was again facing the task of laying off several members of my staff.
What was your startup like?
We opened at the beginning of 2012. We’ve done well — significantly better than the average. I had looked at the averages and decided that I wouldn’t be happy with that. I started talking to people about what I would need to do to beat the average significantly, and I convinced myself that it was possible. In the first four years, we have significantly exceeded the averages.
What sets Expedia CruiseShipCenters apart from competitors?
I think the Expedia name is huge. It is a household name that has instant familiarity and instant credibility. The headquarters team is focused on continuous improvement. Most of our competitors don’t have a big brand for people to connect with. Some of our competitors are affiliated with American Express, and we all remember travelers’ checks. But that seems a little yesteryear. Expedia is now. Our folks are committed to technology. It is at our core, and that gives us a competitive edge. Our online software, CruiseDesk, has a very good CRM that saves administrative steps and enables us to be more efficient.
What have you done to get off to such a strong start?
Like anything else, there are multiple pieces to success. People are always important in any business, so attracting, motivating, and retaining the right Vacation Consultants is critical. Having the right macro-location and micro-location is important. We are next to a Trader Joe’s and a senior citizen community of 18,000 people — a community of people with the time and money to travel. Then, it is mostly training and motivating my people.
How do you win over customers?
Expedia does a lot of web marketing that includes contests to win a free trip and encourages people sign up to receive our free e-newsletters. These develop customers. We also reach out into the community to make sure people know about us. I encourage consultants to develop simple business plans.
You get best of both worlds with the power of brand to attract customers and the buying power of the brand to put together great travel packages. And since we work with all the major cruise lines and land-based travel companies, we are able to help customers get the vacation they want at the price they can afford.
We’re a like a travel version of the Apple store. When you go in, you already know that you want a computer, but you don’t know how much RAM you need, or how big your screen should be. It’s a big purchase, so you want to be able to ask an expert three or four questions. Similarly, many people know the type of vacation they want to take, in general terms, and come in to talk about exactly what is available. Customers may learn about a trip offered by one cruise line, and we help them understand the options available from competitors.
What do you enjoy the most about the business, your staff and your customers?
I enjoy talking about travel. I enjoy it when customers return from their vacation grinning, telling stories and hugging their travel agent. And we all get to go on vacations from time to time.
How often do you get out for a cruise?
I travel three to four times a year. It’s not always cruises. Cruises account for about 60 percent of our sales. We also book many land packages to Hawaii and land tours in Europe. I try to travel strategically to visit new places and experience new cruise lines, tour companies and vacation styles. Each trip gives me new insights to share with consultants and clients. I was not a cruise enthusiast when I started with Expedia. I had been on a couple of cruises, but I also had backpacked Hawaii and driven through Europe. I have now cruised on a variety of ships from the South Pacific to Alaska to the Mediterranean. I love variety!
How does the Expedia CruiseShipCenters headquarters team help support your business?
Their mantra is that the franchisees are their customers. My mantra is that the Vacation Consultants are my customers, and the travelers are the consultants’ customers. I’m focused on helping others succeed, which helps me. Expedia has the same attitude. They provide systems and support that give me the ability to be more successful.
Do you talk with other franchisees?
I communicate with a core group of colleagues regularly. Some are veterans, others a few years ahead of me and others joined at the same time as me. We share good ideas and troubleshoot problems as we all try to grow our businesses. I catch up with a wider group at our two annual conferences.
What does a typical day look like in the business?
It’s essentially a management job. I focus on working with consultants, working with our travel partners and working on marketing. A big role is business development.
What kind of people do you hire as consultants?
Our Vacation Consultants are independent contractors. Some are committed to it as a full-time job and want to travel to the ends of the earth. Others are hobbyists — they get their aunt and uncle on a cruise. My goal is to invest in the hard chargers and not let the hobbyists take up too much of my time.
What sort of training do you get?
I have received lots of sales training. When you are searching for a storefront for your business and going through the process of negotiating a lease, you have time to take advantage of a lot of training.
Has the business met your goals so far?
My goals were pretty lofty. I always like to stretch myself, and I am pretty satisfied with where we are going.
What do you do for fun when you’re not working?
I like the outdoors. I like to work out. I like to have experiences. I do lots of things. I enjoy time with my grandkids.
What are some of your favorite customer stories?
A customer agonized for a long time about the cost of the Alaska cruise she was taking with her sister. The cruise offered a wide range of excursions and wide range of prices. For example, on the low end for the Alaskan cruise, you can go to a U.S. Forest Service center and look at a glacier. On the high end, you can take a helicopter to the top of the glacier and walk on it. This woman came in multiple times, discussing whether to go big or go small. She finally decided to go big, because “I’ll probably never get back to Alaska.” After the trip, she brought in a photo with her sister on top of the glacier. She told me that going big was the best decision she made.
Another time, a woman in her late 20s came in to plan her honeymoon. She previously had horrible experiences with a travel agency near her home; she couldn’t get her questions answered. She Googled us after deciding to give the travel agent experience one more shot and wound up booking her honeymoon with us. She wanted to go around the island of Britain with her fiancé to see the big scotch distilleries. Very few people want to do this, and very few brides on their honeymoons want to do this, but one of our consultants designed a custom trip complete with car rentals and tours of distilleries. This woman wrote a very complimentary Yelp review about how this trip worked out perfectly, and how she never would have been able to plan it out on her own.
Would you recommend Expedia CruiseShipCenters franchise?
For a person who finds travel interesting, it’s a relatively low investment, which is attractive. You need to be willing to follow the system while integrating your own special qualities into it. You need to work hard with a must-win attitude.