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Cruise industry mourns 'gentle giant' retailer Wayne Heller

Cruise industry mourns 'gentle giant' retailer Wayne Heller
Updated with details of the services.  Wayne Heller, who founded Cruises Only, which blossomed into North America's largest cruise agency in the 1990s and went on to become part of an early roll-up, Travel Services International, died Thursday at home in Florida. He was 58.

Heller and his wife Judy recently were inducted into the Cruise Lines International Association's 2015 Cruise Industry Hall of Fame. 

'He made such a difference in our industry. He was a gentle giant,' said Vicki Freed, svp sales and trade support and services for Royal Caribbean International, who introduced the Hellers at their Hall of Fame induction during cruise3sixty in April.

'Early on he was one who raised the bar for how to sell cruises,' said veteran senior cruise executive Maurice Zarmati who, as vp sales for Carnival Cruise Line, went to see Heller as soon as Cruises Only opened in 1984.

'He had an excellent ability to sell cruises and a very highly trained staff. In most instances, he trained them himself.' Heller also was 'true to his word when he made a commitment to you,' Zarmati added. 'He was every cruise line's friend.'

Growing up in Miami, Heller loved to watch the cruise ships go by. After graduating from Florida State University, he got a job in reservations at Norwegian Cruise Line and held various positions in passenger services and sales. As the story goes, when he was passed up for a promotion, he and Judy moved to Orlando and realized their dream of starting a cruise-dedicated travel agency.

They launched Cruises Only in a 10 foot by 10 foot office, Freed said, and by 1997 had built it into North America's largest cruise agency. The Hellers, along with four other companies, co-founded Travel Services International. By 2000, TSI had purchased more than 20 companies and generated sales of more than $500m, making it the largest seller of cruises in the world.

'They were the first agency to go public on the New York Stock Exchange before others were even thinking about selling cruises,' Freed said.

'They had remarkable humility. They never forgot the people who helped them get started.'

Freed noted that several people the Hellers trained went on to become high-profile retailers. 'And Wayne and Judy wished them well,' she said. 'They helped others be successful.'

'They paved the way for agencies like to mine to grow and thrive,' Uf Tukel, co-president and founder of WMPH Vacations, told Freed in an email. 

'[Wayne] worked hard and he played hard,' Zarmati said. The Hellers 'brought a new meaning to the world "fun."'

After leaving TSI in 2000, the Hellers concentrated on business ventures, including creating Origin Cruise Group. In 2008, they acquired the Orient Lines brand name and planned to buy and operate smaller ships that were 'rich in history and character,' starting with the 650-passenger Marco Polo II (ex Maxim Gorkiy). It was to start sailing in Europe in 2009.

That venture fell victim to the global economic crisis.

In 2011, the Hellers restored the 130-year-old Riverview Hotel & Spa complex in New Smyrna Beach, Florida.

In addition to his wife Judy, Wayne Heller is survived by their sons Robert and William.

Services are planned for 10:30 a.m. at Palm Cemetery, 1005 North New York Ave., Winter Park, Florida.