FBR ViewPoints: Debbie Fiorino, CruiseOne & Dream Vacations

Debbie Fiorino, the Senior Vice President of CruiseOne and Dream Vacations, talks to FBR about the travel industry and why they chose to create a new brand, Dream Vacations, to give their franchisees a choice of banners to operate under.

Listen to the full interview here or download the mp3 version.


FBR: Can you give us a background on the CruiseOne brand and how it got started? And what the origins of that company are?

Debbie: CruiseOne was actually founded in 1991 and actually started franchising units in 1992. We’re celebrating a big 25th anniversary this year which is exciting for the brand. It was acquired by Brad and Jess Tolkin 11 years ago in 2006 in the company World Travel Holdings, which we are now a part of.


M: I know World Travel Holdings has a number of brands under their umbrella and that you guys have added the Dream Vacations brand to CruiseOne. Could you describe those two brands and more specifically, what Dream Vacations in itself is?

D: Absolutely, Dream Vacations is another brand within the CruiseOne franchise. We have CruiseOne and Dream Vacations and we officially announced the launch of the new brand in November of 2015 at a national conference, but it actually launched in April of 2016. Our franchise network had a choice to either stay branded as CruiseOne or to move to Dream Vacations and the same is true as new people come in. Now we have about 70% operating as Dream Vacations.

The name was inspired by the tag line we have with CruiseOne which is, “Dream vacations start here.” Really, the origin came from listening to our franchisees. Franchise owners said that they needed a brand that spoke to more than just cruises. There was a common misconception among consumers and even long term customers that they had, including family and friends, that they only sold cruise vacations because the name was CruiseOne. They were able to and they continued to sell more than that. We are selling a significant amount of resort vacations now as part of our portfolio. We’ll always sell a majority of cruises, but the growth in our resort vacations, or our land product, has been significant and not because we were pushing it, but because that’s what consumers want. They want to be able to have choice.

A Dream Vacation is a cruise or a land vacation. We launched the brand and we’re the only one in the franchise space that added a brand that spoke to more than just cruises.


M: Just to clarify, are the two brands offering the exact same products and services? Or is there more of a focus on non-cruise vacations with Dream Vacations?

D: Both are offering the same. A CruiseOne agent can still book and service a resort vacation customer. A lot of our Dream Vacations franchisees tend to have a little more focus on resort vacations in terms of some of the products on the website; they definitely have more of a blend, but many of our CruiseOne agents have a mix of cruise and land vacations.


M: Since Dream Vacations is the more prominent brand, what can you tell us about the customer perspective and the benefits they receive working with you as opposed to a competitor?

D: For the vacation consumer, there are many things we offer that we believe make a big difference and are benefits to working with a Dream Vacations franchisee. We offer a 100% best price and satisfaction guarantee.

Because of our buying power with WTH, we have that support and we have the support of preferred pricing from belonging to WTH as well as the largest distributers of cruises. We offer exclusive promotions that they can’t get anywhere else that we negotiate with the cruise lines. WTH funds 100%, over one million dollars a year of the cruises promotions to the franchisees, which is something you don’t typically see in a franchisor relationship.

We have a loyalty program. They can select one of four cruise perks, including credit towards shore excursion, a resort for a day experience, an on-board credit, or a hotel stay. Again, something you don’t see from many other travel agent providers in this arena.

The one thing I think makes the biggest difference is the support that we give the franchisees that we have the back office support to ensure that they look like vacation heroes quite honestly. From a consumer perspective, I think that’s what makes the difference. We pride ourselves on our mission which is to deliver a remarkable experience and in doing that we see the repeat rate with our consumers and a low turnover rate with our franchisees.

When I talk about delivering a remarkable experience, I mean how we do it for the franchisee, because that will result in them creating a remarkable experience for the consumer. The biggest benefit from working with us from a franchisee customer perspective is working with our back office support. We have a 1:10 ratio of support from a dedicated HQ team which provides the most complete and ongoing support in the travel franchise arena.

We’re innovative by launching Dream Vacations and taking risk and going out there and creating a brand that speaks to more than just cruises. Lastly, we also have a lot of great innovative ideas for marketing; we have a couple different promotions that we’ve launched over the course of last year.

The biggest thing that we’ve done is that we made a multi-million dollar investment in technology and now have one of the largest teams in technology in the industry and we work closely with the franchise owners to get their feedback to develop the tools that they need, and we’re setting a new standard in technology.


M: It really sounds like you’re focused on both your franchisees and your vacation consumers in providing that high level of satisfaction. You have the satisfaction guarantee with the consumers and you also scored highly in the surveys that we do with you for Franchisee Satisfaction.

Some of the areas you mentioned; support, marketing and technology – those are some categories where companies tend to score worse than others. They’re the areas where companies often struggle in a franchise system. Could you give more detail on the training and support and technology that is helping you stay ahead of the curve?

D: From a support perspective it’s interesting. Every year we give away five franchisees to veterans and yesterday I had the opportunity to interview ten of them and narrow it down to five. I asked what the one thing they thought, after researching Dream Vacations, that was going to make the biggest difference in how we support them was the support. I asked them, “How do you know that?” and they said whether it was through calling other franchisees, what we tell them about our 1:10 ratio which is the highest in the industry in terms of franchisee to headquarters personnel ratio, or reviews online.

That’s the one thing we pride ourselves the most on. When we see a customer in the headquarters building no one actually thinks about the consumer first; they think about the franchisee first and that makes the difference – knowing that our only success is when they are successful. Everything is geared towards if I can help them, they’re going to help our vacation consumers. That’s what makes the difference.

And to your point our scores and our satisfaction surveys have never been higher. When we go to conferences and our CEO’s walking around or I’m walking around we never hear anything negative about us so I think it’s a mindset. It’s understanding that they’re not here to bother you, they’re calling because they need help and we know we’re going to get them the help that they need.

From a technology perspective, the multi-million dollar investment has been made multiple times in the past couple years that I’ve been here because we know that technology is so critical and moving so quickly and we want to make sure that we are on the forefront of that. The reason why we score high in those areas is because we don’t just do it behind the scenes. We bring the agents on a technology committee and in a circle of excellence and we ask them what’s the most important thing that we should be working on and we work together to make sure that we’re giving them the tools because they know what they need for their customers even more so than we do.


M: Certainly that mentality of knowing that when franchisees are successful, you’re successful is really a key in franchising and growing a brand and keeping it successful. You did mention that one of the things franchisees do is call other franchisees and I was wondering if there’s any more you can talk about in terms of your franchisees relying on each other for support in addition to the corporate office. Is there any way you facilitate that?

D: They tap into each other and we encourage it. They don’t view each other as competition. One of the senior executives from WTH came to our conferences last year and he said the one thing he was most surprised at was how they don’t see each other as competition and they’re so willing to help each other.

We have several members who put themselves out there and reach out to the new people coming in. Our advisory council has classes for the first couple months to make sure if they need help they can reach out to them. We have a business center where we foster communication and connect them together and they can interact with each other, there are also in-person events – regional conferences, training events – where they’re always together.

Yesterday, when I was talking to the prospects for the Veterans promotion that came up as well, they said they were surprised at how willing they were. They were saying, “Even if you are going to be in my region, I welcome it and we can work together.” It is very unusual I think to see that but it is another thing that makes us different.


M: Having those franchisees able to tap into each other and not feeling like there’s competition among them but cooperation can certainly make it easier for them. When you’re looking for a new franchisee to come into your system what are some of the things you are looking for in terms of experience, personality, culture… anything like that? Who is your ideal franchisee?

D: What’s great about Dream Vacations is that you don’t necessarily need to have experience in travel. We have the system to train you and to get you up to and running. There are so many success stories for people who have never been in the travel space and they have extremely successful franchises. We are looking for people who love to work with other people. They’re go-getters, they love to be out in the field, you have to get out there, you have to put yourself out there.

You have to find ways to market yourself; people want to do business with people they like and people they know. You have to get out there and expand your range of people. You don’t necessarily have to have travel experience but you have to have a passion for travel, and that’s what we find the most. A lot of people when asked why this business they say they were looking for a business opportunity and wanted to combine that with what they are passionate about. These people may have been planning travels for their family and friends and so now they want to turn it into a business.


M: What are your goals in the next 5-10 years? Where do you see brand going? Where do you see the travel industry going? What are you going to do to stay successful in that space?

D: It’s never been a better environment for luxury travel. We’re having one of the best years that we’ve ever had; not only as a company but as an industry. Which is important, we have a lot of friendly competitors out there and we want to see everyone doing well. We are doing well as a company, the competitors are doing really well, the cruise lines and resort destinations – it’s a really great environment to be in.

Consumers are more into experiences than things these days. They want to bring their families and share these experiences. Vacations are no longer a luxury but an expectation. We’re able to now capitalize off that. At the same time, there are high expectations from these consumers. They want a remarkable experience and there’s no one better than a travel agent to be able to deliver on that.

Things can go wrong, but the consumers that can overcome that are the ones with travel agents that can hold their hands even when the cruise lines are shut down. Our goal is to continue to grow the network at a steady pace, but not so fast that we can’t support them. We like to say that we are large enough to lead the industry, but small enough to care about every single franchise owner.

When I talk about growth I talk about recruiting new people, but more important to me is the same store sales and the unit economics of each and every single franchise. There are two ways to franchise. One is to grow your network really large and to worry about your economics as a franchisor, and then there’s the idea to grow your network at a steady pace but really worry about the economics of each franchisee which will result in both being more successful.

That’s our goal for the next 5-10 years, continuing that pace. With Dream Vacations we are going to continue to focus on how we express to everyone that we sell vacation experiences, all types of them. Also making sure we are continuing to give the technology and the product that the agents need. We are actually knocking down walls to expand our building and double the size of our technology team. So there’s a lot of investment there and making sure we stay a head of the game and we’re the leader here.