There’s nothing like an industry get-together to pump you up, ease your worried mind, and remind you how much we have to be thankful for. So this Thanksgiving, I will be counting my blessings for the bounty of good news and good people I have come across in the past two weeks.
At CruiseWorld in Miami and then aboard the gorgeous new Celebrity Apex, where 800 Dream Vacations and CruiseOne franchisees gathered for their annual conference, the travel advisors and suppliers I met were uniformly hopeful and optimistic, excited about the future and, above all, happy to be together again.
If there’s just one story to tell, make it that a cruise ship is the safest place on earth, says Celebrity VP Dondra Ritzenthaler. “I love how the whole industry came together to promote health and safety. We compete fiercely, but we’ve never ever competed on safety; those are the table stakes. And now, in addition to talking about how beautiful the ships are, we need travel advisors to talk about safety—and how we deliver on both promises. You have to give your clients the confidence to go; you have to go yourself, and then say, ‘I was just on Apex and it was just extraordinary.’”
(So let me say, I was just on Apex. And it really was extraordinary.)
On Apex, World Travel Holdings co-CEO Brad Tolkin said business, particularly business that departs in the next 90 days, has returned to pre-pandemic levels.
I had lunch with Laurie and Paul Bahna, independent contractors at Cruises Inc. for 11 years, who are excited about the idea of a future as Dream Vacations franchisees. “The idea of discontinuing Cruises Inc. is a very smart business move on part of WTH, and will only advance Dream Vacations as a leader in the travel industry. And adding the associate recruitment program will open more doors and help the franchise owners,” Laurie said. “It pushed us to make a decision we probably would have made anyway.”
As a potential agency owner rather than an IC, Paul said, they have felt the difference in the attitude of suppliers with whom they have met. The suppliers realize that you have more of a vested interest with them in the travel industry.
“I like the team camaraderie; we’ll be part of the team of owners,” Laurie added.
I met Eddie Diaz, DreamVacations franchisee and corporate meeting planner, who said he sees incentive travel starting to awaken. “I was just at IMEX and the energy is there,” he said. “The optics aren’t right for legal groups and insurance companies, but we are seeing smaller incentive groups, 20 or 30 people.”
I met Rhonda Day and her 26-year-old associate, her daughter Raven Guess, who says her career as a travel advisor “has been more successful than I could have dreamed.” Day and her friend Carol Nunnery, meanwhile, told me a tale of how they and 10 other Dream Vacation franchise owners are part of an informal support-and-friendship group called The Traveling Agents, who together have visited Cancun, Punta Cana, Cabo. When the Dream Vacations conference was canceled last year due to Covid, they put together their own group of 40 travel advisors and headed to Unico. “The point was to show our clients that it’s okay to travel—but it’s become a great support system,” Day said.
Also traveling together, as usual, were The Four Chicks, four Dream Vacations franchisees who bonded at their training class in 2016 and have covered for each other, befriended one another and traveled together ever since. In their Facebook chat group, Julie Vowell of Houston, business partners Jodi Denney and Barbara Linebarger of Marietta, Georgia, and Lisa Merutka of Bentonville, Arkansas, have their own little “informal consortium” to sort out business issues, handle one another’s clients when someone is on the road, and generally offer anything from business advice to a shoulder to lean on. “I can’t imagine my life without you all in it,” Vowell said.
I met Melissa Cohn of Melissa Cohn Cruises Inc., a former attorney for Nassau County on New York’s Long Island, a top seller for five years in a row, who is planning a new focus on new-to-cruise customers.
I met Alicia Linden, who’s heading the marketing of World Travel Holdings’ (WTH) recruitment program for new independent contractors. Her message? “This is a fun and exciting and thriving industry, there’s a ton of pent-up demand and travel advisors are more important than ever.”
WTH is seeing applicants with backgrounds as former lawyers and physicians, the vast majority with no prior travel industry experience; “they love travel and they enjoy working with people.” The biggest change of late is in the demographics, she said. “Ten years ago the average age was 60, now it’s 50 and we’re seeing more in their 30s and 40s than ever before.” And of course the best advertising, for independent contractors as for customers, is testimonials from existing travel advisors.
And I met serial entrepreneur Linnore Gonzales, for whom the travel business is her fifth franchise, the one she plans to grow into as she prepares to retire. Sailing her first-ever cruise, she said she was drawn by the low overhead of a travel franchise; unlike her previous bath design franchise, this one requires neither a storefront nor inventory. “I didn’t really want the stress of a business tied into large overhead, rent and payroll. This is the perfect business for when you are slowing down and retiring. Why not do something you also have a passion for?”
So as I stuff my turkey and gather my family in my house for the first time since the pandemic began, I give thanks for my many blessings—and among them, the blessings of travel and fellowship and friendship, of travel advisors who reach out to speak to me, of work that is meaningful and perhaps in some small way helpful to the industry I love so much.
Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.
Cheryl’s 40-year career in journalism is bookended by roles in the travel industry, including Executive Editor of Business Travel News in the 1990s, and recently, Editor in Chief of Travel Market Report and admin of Cheryl Rosen’s Group for Travel Professionals, a news and support group on Facebook.
As an independent contractor since retiring from the 9-to-5 to travel more, she has written regular articles about the life and business of travel agents for Luxury Travel Advisor, Travel Agent and Insider Travel Report. She also writes and edits for professional publications in the financial services, business and technology sectors.