A Covid-19 Success Story: Michelle Fee of Cruise Planners on How They Leveraged Marketing to Stay Afloat

A Covid-19 Success Story: Michelle Fee of Cruise Planners on How They Leveraged Marketing to Stay Afloat

Interview by Maja Skokleska
Published: November 21, 2022

Who Is Michelle Fee?

Michelle Fee is the founder and CEO of Cruise Planners and a corporate travel veteran who has a deep understanding of emerging travel trends. Since 1994, she has been leading the nation’s largest network of home-based travel agents and has been supporting Cruise Planners franchise owners with hands-on training, advanced tools and unique marketing programs.

The pandemic has caused a significant shift in global expenditure. Ironically, marketing spending saw an increase during the COVID-19 pandemic despite companies’ revenues dropping. While there were some companies that also decreased their spending, most budgets were redirected to video (35% increase), paid ads ( 31%) and broadcast (28%), data from Wyzowl showed.

The ability to adjust to the rapid shift to digital was key for businesses to survive. While many struggled to find ways to bring value to their customers, others embraced technology to be able to deliver excellent experiences and keep their clients engaged.

Such is the case with Cruise Planners. The travel agency showed how businesses could take the global crisis and use it as an opportunity to innovate.

DesignRush spoke with Cruise Planners CEO Michelle Fee to learn how the company managed to stay afloat during these difficult times and which marketing strategies they used to overcome the challenges.

Cruise Planners logo
[Source: Cruise Planners]

Spotlight: Cruise tourism was one of the most severely affected sectors during the COVID-19 pandemic. Research suggests that a whopping $77 billion was lost between March and September 2020 alone. How did you manage to stay afloat during these times?

Michelle Fee: It definitely wasn’t easy. From our headquarters side, we were lucky to take advantage of the PPP loans offered. We also give a lot of credit to the major cruise lines for protecting commissions on canceled sailings. For our advisors, it was most important to help them weather this storm, so we waived fees initially, and have since heavily reduced our fees for over two years to help them.

When cruise sales were down, Cruise Planners focused on all-inclusive and close-to-home hotel stay travel. By turning our focus to training and technology to help advisors sell those types of travel products, we were able to pivot and grow this segment of our travel business which proved to be beneficial to us, especially when ships were not sailing.

In particular, what impact did the pandemic have on your company? Please share how these challenges became a learning experience for Cruise Planners.

It’s no secret the travel industry came to a standstill during the early days of the pandemic and cruising especially took a hard hit because of the negative press. I think the hard part was not knowing when this would end. But, for us, we took the approach that we had to continue to work on the business and move forward one step at a time.

We never stopped marketing, even from the beginning. At first, it was the “Stay safe, we’re here when travel resumes.” Then by the summer of 2020, we thought, “Let’s get back to real travel marketing, let’s give people something to look forward to,” and that seemed to do the trick.

No one was traveling and advisors were in legitimate panic mode but what we did was regroup and see how Cruise Planners could help allay fears and reassure our franchisees that there was a light at the end of the tunnel. I realized that communication was key, and by holding Zoom sessions and speaking directly to our franchisees, it kept them engaged. We weathered the storm together, and by doing so, the Cruise Planners franchise network had the highest satisfaction rating than ever before (survey conducted by Franchise Business Review).

We have a stellar in-house marketing team. And it’s our technology combined with our stellar marketing team that creates what we call our “marketing machine” that churns out multi-faceted campaigns in print, digital and social. Our motto is that we take the heavy lifting off of our advisor’s plates to give them the extra time to sell instead of creating marketing pieces.

When this crisis hit, our advisors were able to focus on canceling and rebooking tasks for their clients and providing the service they needed during difficult times. One of the silver linings of the pandemic was the use of Zoom and other video conferencing tools.

We created a virtual consumer series called Where2Next that showcased bucket list destinations. But the best part was, it was completely turnkey so our advisors didn’t have to do anything to participate. We experienced record-breaking sales (all during the pandemic which was unheard of). This is a program that we will continue due to its massive success.

You recently launched Where2Next with virtual events and social media campaigns, as well as the Virtually Yours forum. What was the idea behind these marketing efforts and what results did you achieve?

When everyone was stuck inside and everything was shut down, we did the next best thing and created a space for people to travel “virtually” through our WHERE2NEXT series. It was a resounding success and it gave travelers a space to imagine and plan their next vacation — when the time was right. We created many campaigns regarding the “safe return” to travel and that helped clients be informed.

Earlier this year, you launched an automated SMS program tool. What is its goal and how are clients benefiting from it?

Texts have a 209% higher response rate than a phone call. So taking this into account, it was imperative to create a way to easily text important reminders to clients. The best part is that we built this to be turnkey and hands-free for our advisors.

Their clients can receive texts for several different reasons such as final payment due, bon voyage messages, welcome home messages, group texts and much more. We are always innovating and updating our technological offerings to our advisors and at the crux of it, is giving them tools to help them showcase their expertise and be more efficient.

You also reported that Cruise Planners’ sales have bounced back despite the many cancellations you’ve faced over the pandemic. What would you advise other travel businesses regarding crisis management?

We are ending up the year at 98% of our 2019 final sales year.

It's crazy! When the first quarter tanked, we thought, “Oh no…This can’t be happening again.” But by Q2, things just started to roll. Again, we never stopped marketing, so I think we had a big head start from those who decided to wait it out.

When we were turning the year in 2021 to 2022, we were 26% ahead of our 2019 sales, but that obviously took a hit when Omicron was at its highest peak. So we are very proud to end the year at 98% to our 2019 numbers.

When it comes to travel, the industry is incredibly resilient. We saw this after the Ebola outbreak, the 9/11 tragedy and other events in our history.

Our advice is to stay the course, don’t stop marketing (although your message may change), and continue innovating and staying ahead of the competition. That way, you’ll be prepared and one step ahead when the time comes.

It’s also important financially to be prepared for the unexpected. We were lucky that Cruise Planners went into the pandemic debt-free and I’m happy to say, we came out of the pandemic debt-free too.

Now that travel is going back to normal, what can customers expect from you and are there exciting plans they should look forward to?

The demand for travel is at a fever pitch and after being cooped up so long, travelers are ready to make plans and explore. And in a bigger and better way also.

We’ve seen an explosion in luxury travel itineraries and expanded our offerings for land vacations and all-inclusive resorts. We’re already outpacing 2019 numbers (our best year to date) and we’re hoping it will continue on this trajectory for a full recovery of the travel industry.

We are announcing a few new programs at our convention starting this week… so stay tuned.

Thank you for your time, Michelle Fee. Best of luck to you and Cruise Planners!

Keep up with Cruise Planners on Instagram @cruiseplanners and read about other successful businesses here.

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