Her role got much more involved when, in 2012, Cruise Planners’s investors sold their shares back to Michelle Fee (who founded the company in 1994 and remains CEO) and Garcia, the current COO (they now share ownership with Chief Financial Officer Tom Kruszewski). The executive team’s travel background and drive to share knowledge is key to their success. Actually, it may be essential, considering that the corporate structure relies on helping its stakeholders elevate their franchises.
“It’s a very different mentality than most others in the travel industry,” says Garcia, who alternately uses the term “franchise owners” and “agents.”
“For the most part, we bring on more entrepreneurs than existing travel agents, and we teach them the business. Our agents love to travel, which is what made them look at us as a business opportunity. But we teach them the travel business from soup to nuts so they can hit the ground running.”
For an upfront startup fee of under $11,000, Cruise Planners helps a new franchise operation get up and running. That amount provides a “business in a box” for the new owner, with marketing strategies and client-development tools, plus business coaching and technology add-ons.
“We provide all of the tools, and we do the marketing for our franchise owners; they don’t have to pay extra. From day one we’re showing them how to build their own ‘lead tree,’ if you will, to get out in their communities, and become that travel expert,” she says. “They can walk in on day one with tons of resources and professional materials with their name on them, and it’s always under the nationally recognized Cruise Planners brand.”
Don’t let the name mislead you, though. Garcia is quick to note that with thousands of travel agents in the network, land travel is just as big as cruising. Cruise Planner agents are located in all 50 states, and many of them own a particular specialty whether land, sea, or a combination thereof.
For queer travelers, a site search can lead to agents who cater to LGBTQ interests and help customize itineraries for destination weddings and honeymoons, charter and group trips, festivals, family travel, and more.
On a personal level, Garcia is a devoted advocate for the LGBTQ community. She and her wife Carol Alexander, together 17 years, were among the first to legally wed in New York state. They renewed their vows in 2015 in their home state of Florida at Fort Lauderdale’s celebratory “Love is Love” group wedding.
Beyond its dedicated LGBT travel webpage, Cruise Planners is a longtime member of the International Gay and Lesbian Travel Association (www.iglta.org), on whose board Garcia has served. She now volunteers her time with other philanthropic organizations and sits on several advisory boards, including Celebrity Cruises, to consult on LGBTQ policies.
At Cruise Planners, Garcia says, “We have some agents who align very well with the LGBTQ market, either because they are, or they are allies of the LGBTQ community.” One of the company’s agents, Francisco Vargas, even earned headlines last year when he and his husband became the very first same-sex couple to wed at sea aboard the Celebrity Equinox.