Last updated: 04:05 PM ET, Thu November 29 2012

Cruise Planners Launches Annual Conference with New Programs

Features & Advice | Cruise Planners | Theresa Norton Masek | November 29, 2012

Cruise Planners-American Express Travel opened its annual conference Nov. 29 with about 500 agents in attendance at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Hollywood, Fla. Executives heralded the growth experienced by the franchise operation this year and said they expect 2013 to be even better. The company also announced new tools, including a mobile app and a system to track fare reductions on booked cruises. “I really think our future is exciting,” said Michelle Fee, CEO and co-founder of Cruise Planners.

Tom Kruszewski, CFO of Cruise Planners, told attendees that advance bookings have surged for 2013 cruise departures. “You are front-loading faster than ever before,” he said. Advance bookings for first-quarter 2013 are up 27 percent compared to 2012, while second-quarter bookings are so far up 50 percent.

Even more positive, land tour sales increased 33 percent from 2010 to 2011 but more than doubled—107 percent—from 2011 to 2012. Cruise Planners started its land vacation program in 2010.

Late last year, CP Vacations was launched with more than 300 packages that combine cruises with hotel stays, air and car rentals. “We got so much great response; we had no idea it would be this popular,” Fee said. “This program was a huge success in 2013, and we will continue to improve on it and build on it.” The most popular destinations for the CP Vacation packages were Hawaii, with 43 percent; the Caribbean, 34 percent; and Alaska, 9 percent. In 2013, the focus will be on those three destinations and Europe, with less emphasis on the less-popular destinations, she said.

Brian Shultz, vice president of technology, announced that a consumer smartphone app for iOS and Android has been developed. Cruise Planners asked attendees to help name the app with a contest and once the name is finalized, it will be submitted for approval to the app stores with the expectation that it will be available in January.

The number of users researching travel via mobile devices is expected to grow by 51 percent in 2012, he said, adding, “If we aren’t adapting, we’re going to be left behind.”

The new Cruise Fare Reduction tool, available now, allows agents to easily see if a cruise fare has dropped since it was booked. With the information, Shultz said, agents can choose to reduce the rate and pass on savings to their clients, although that usually will mean a reduction in commission. Or, they can call the cruise line to negotiate an upgrade based on the price difference or an onboard credit. Or, advisors can do nothing. “We’re not changing the bookings for you, we’re just telling you so you are aware,” Shultz said.

He also announced new features to agency websites, including MyTrips, a client portal where anyone authorized can log in to view upcoming trips and share them with friends and family via social media. Users can also directly purchase shore excursions that are commissionable to the agent. The franchisees also can use the new Client Snapshots, which lets them view of their clients’ buying and travel patterns.  

Much of these new developments stemmed from regional meetings conducted by Fee and Vicky Garcia, executive vice president of sales and marketing, who listened to advisors’ needs and responded with the new technologies and programs.

In her opening day speech, Garcia reinforced the importance of using social media to stay current and engage with clients.  She also announced the company’s new social media platform, CPSocial, which will now allow the home office to post content on behalf of travel advisors weekly. The social media platform will provide a user-friendly dashboard for managing Facebook pages with suggested content and a calendar setting so posts can be scheduled to coincide with promotions and other news—and even when the agents are on the road. The new platform will also incorporate Twitter, LinkedIn and Flickr to the dashboard system in the first quarter of 2013.

Changes are also being made to Cruise Sheets, which detail particular cruises and are emailed to clients. Now, the Cruise Sheets will feature live pricing that will automatically readjust if rates change before a client books. Also, clients will be able to book right from the Cruise Sheets now.

Cruise Planners also highlighted its fund-raising efforts on behalf of the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society this year by CPCares, the company’s corporate social responsibility program. The company is on course to raise $150,000 through events, auctions and selling the Cruise Planners’ signature “bling” clothing and accessories. As part of the CPCares presentation, the company named guest speaker CJ George, cancer survivor and LLS Boy of the Year, as the official Cruisitude Youth Ambassador. 

The conference runs through Dec. 1, when attendees will board the new Celebrity Reflection for a two-night cruise-to-nowhere.

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