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Cruise Planners' virtual hug e-card (1).jpg
Travel advisors can personalize the 'virtual hug' e-card for their clients. The response has been very positive

Cruise Planners' home-based channel staying whole, taking bookings

'Massive layoffs' at call centers have made home-based travel advisors more important than ever, according to Cruise Planners' senior management.

The giant US home-based network is keeping in touch with clients throughout the COVID-19 crisis with gentle messages like 'virtual hug' e-cards and handling rebookings using future cruise credits.

'The golden ticket'

Cruise Planners internally refers to FCCs as 'the golden ticket,' said Michelle Fee, CEO and founder, adding: 'There are thousands and thousands and thousands of FCCs out there that have not been rebooked.'

Cruise Planners is getting information from the lines about who's holding FCCs and cross-matching with its database to create an automated email campaign that's going out every two weeks to touch base with those clients.

Fee said many people are applying FCCs to 2021 sailings and some new bookings are coming in, too, with Cruise Planners pacing at 15% ahead in terms of 2021 sales versus this time last year.

There's a lot of uncertainty and the numbers change daily, Fee cautioned, but for 2021, Europe is 'strong' and river cruise business is up by 50%, since Cruise Planners had been building an early base of advance sales prior to COVID-19.

Throughout this crisis, the franchise never stopped marketing — as many travel sellers have — it just changed the message along the lines of 'We're thinking of you. Hope you stay safe.'

'Not all doom and gloom'

'It's not all doom and gloom,' insisted Vicky Garcia, COO and co-owner, Cruise Planners.

To encourage positive thinking, the franchise started a Facebook contest, 'For the Love of Travel,' that invites people to post favorite vacation photos for weekly prizes and the chance to win a grand prize cruise for two in 2021. It's gotten a great response, Garcia said.

Cruise Planners advisors also have the capability to send clients a 'virtual hug' e-card. The subject line is 'Sending you a virtual hug,' and the text provided can be personalized.

'That has truly paid back,' Garcia said. Advisors have received appreciative responses and some clients have even sent a $200 check, candy or other gift in recognition of the service provided at this difficult time.

Home-based channel shines

According to Garcia, home-based agents really stepped up during all the cruise schedule changes. They're calling the lines and waiting on hold 'forever,' whereas comments on some online travel agency sites indicate people have felt 'stranded,' on their own to figure things out.

'After that, the home-based channel comes out ahead because they were there to (figuratively) hold clients' hands,' Garcia said.

With some OTAs cutting call center staff by 50%, according to Fee, they'll need to ramp up when the situation changes. In contrast, the home-based network remains 'ready, just waiting for the ban to be lifted. We are in a good place.'

If there's a cure or a vaccine for COVID-19, 'people are going to flood back to cruising,' Fee predicted. 'We're hearing from die-hard cruisers' eager to go back to sea when that becomes possible, she added.

Supporting the network

Meanwhile, Cruise Planners is supporting agents with three times a week video updates, training and continued personalized business development coaching.

Supplementing the regular Wednesday CP Live via Facebook Live briefings are video updates from Fee and Garcia on Mondays and Fridays, with special senior-level guests. Sessions are stored in the company intranet for viewing on demand.

Cost-cutting

Administrative fees for franchisees were waived the past two months. Ninety percent of the home office team — which now numbers 126 — has been kept. People were asked to volunteer for furlough.

Fee and Garcia aren't drawing salaries, and the rest of the home office team took pay cuts. The company is tapping into the CARES Act's payroll protection plan.

Cruising's image

'I don't think people are afraid of cruising,' Fee said. 'It's a virus.' Hopefully, she said, a vaccine will be developed and antibody testing will ensure people are safe to travel.

Garcia would like to see cruise lines and Cruise Lines International Association band together on messaging that helps counteract the notion of coronavirus as a 'cruise ship illness.'

'It's not,' she said.

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