Karen Devine, 3D Cruise Partners

When it comes to booking cruises, Karen Devine doesn’t just book a ton of rooms. She and her team of 8 literally charter entire ships for some of their corporate clients! Your immediate reaction may be that her agency sales of $30-40M are way out of your league. But fear not! The head of 3D Cruise Partners has tips for agencies of all sizes and experience levels that are looking to level up their business. 

With a combined total of 40 years of experience spanning the cruise side, the hotel side, the supplier side, and the customer side, Karen brings a deep perspective that’s rare to find in the industry. She shares how she’s mastered converting clients who haven’t cruised before to considering cruising as an option by using a travel comparison everyone can relate to.

Most leisure cruise advisors are familiar with the cruise line’s leisure groups department, but take some time to get to know about their corporate groups from the leading agency in the charters, meetings and incentive space for Royal Carribbean, Norwegian, and Celebrity Cruises. We’ll also let you know a secret about how your agency can successfully help corporate clients with their meetings/incentives/charters and make FULL commission . . . without having cruise expertise on the meetings and incentives side.

We discover what a cruise brokerage company is, how she finds clients, why she doesn’t charge fees and the depth of customization she goes through for her clients. We also find out which vendors help her execute the unique customizations and how she streamlines the process to make it easy for her clients. 

With a remote team spread across the US, we discover how Karen keeps her team motivated and engaged. And while Karen credits her team with a huge role in the success of the company, Karen is the first to say that there is one other person that is the key to her success. Find out who it is and why she suggests every business owner invests in this person and why.

This episode is a firehose of information for any agency ready to go full steam ahead and learn from the best.

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Show Notes

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Special thanks to today's sponsor: International Driving Authority

  1. HAR's 2024 Host Week Call for Speakers is open! Closes Sept 18th, 2023
  2. Check out the new course options for HAR's 7 Day Setup Accelerator Course
  3. Tax write offs and expenses: Learn more about cruise write offs.
  4. Incentive Travel Associations: Incentive Research Foundation (IRF), Society for Incentive Travel Excellence (SITE), Meeting Planners International (MPI), Financial and Insurance Conference Professionals (FICP)
  5. Karen's favorite events: IRF and SITE's conferences, Cruise360 (check out HAR's full calendar for 100+ travel industry events)
  6. List of business coaches: Coming soon!
  7. Update on incentive cruise ranking pre-pandemic: Coming Soon!


[00:01:07] Steph: You're listening to Travel Agent Chatter, Volume 27. Travel Agent Chatter is an audio series produced by the team here at Host Agency Reviews, each and every quarter, and we have a real treat in store for you today. So today's guest plays in the meetings and incentive corner of the industry where she does an outstanding, no astounding 30 to 40 million in crew sales a year with her team of just eight, she has been in the business.

Since 1982, when she landed a summer job at an incentive travel company. So she has worked on the supplier side. She's worked on the customer side. She's worked in the luxury hotel space and she's worked on the crew side of the industry. So I think I'm almost positive. She is officially the most seasoned interviewee yet on TAC.

And as you'll soon find out, she is a wealth of knowledge when it comes to cruise ship incentive travel with her agency being awarded. Norwegians, Celebrities, and Royals, Charters, Meetings, and Incentive Partner of the Year in 2019. No matter what your agency size is or your niche, you're going to find a ton of valuable information in today's shows.

And if you have ever wondered how to break into the meetings at SEAS or Incentives, this episode is going to be great for you.

If you have ever felt alone as a business owner, Are not sure who is suppose your business grows this episode is for you. 

If you have wondered how to build a long lasting team and keep them motivated, this episode is for you, especially if you're thinking remote.

And if you have ever wondered why people send emails in all caps, I cannot help you there. I am equally as confused. 

So lastly, today's episode is going to include a very helpful tip. If you've ever been approached to put together a corporate meeting or a company has ever asked you about a travel incentive.

Because I have got news for you, even if you don't know how, or you don't care to know how meetings and incentive works, today's guests can assist you with those groups if they're open to doing it on a cruise. And the best part is you get to keep a hundred percent of the commission. You get to keep the sales credit. You get to keep the gap points, the TC's. Everything. 

So before we jump into our interview, two quick HAR announcements. So first is our Starting a Travel Agency course that we launched this week during Host Week has had a facelift. Here is the deal. We now have two tiers for the course, which has now been renamed the 7 Day Setup Accelerator.

Now, the two tiers give people the flexibility to choose a program that best suits their needs. We have the Core program, which is the base program, and that gives you access to the full course on how to start your agency. It opens up the private course community to you, where the HAR team is very active in it, and it awards you a certificate of completion after finishing and passing the quizzes at 80% or better.

The pricing on that is 199, and that includes 12 months of access. So that is the Core program. 

And then next up is our All Access Pass. So the All Access Pass gives you all of the previously mentioned aspects. Plus, it gives you access to two twice a month live Buzz Sessions . They are really our small business consulting calls with the HAR team and other students.

You also get a VIP email so that you can get priority support from the HAR team and you get complimentary access to HAR's three annual travel advisor reports. That is like a 297 savings or something like that. 

But the pricing on the All Access Pass is 3 99. And if you are looking for more information or you are interested in becoming an affiliate and earning 20% on any sales, you can sign up at https://har.news/7ds.

That's for seven day setup, seven Ds course. And we will put a link to that in the show notes. 

And the last thing to mention is Host Week! So the HAR team is starting to work on Host Week 2024 and our call for speakers is officially open. So if you are interested in speaking at Host Week or if you have an idea for a panel or an EduSpot session, we want to hear from you.

So you can apply to speak by going to https://hostagencyreviews.com/speaker and get lots of information on it. And if you've got a great idea for an EduSpot session, let us know what you want to learn about. We want to deliver it to you. So you can drop a note with your ideas to stephanie at hostagencyreviews. com. 

And I know there are some of you out there that have great things to share, but you have a fear of public speaking or you're worried you're going to screw up and it'll be really embarrassing. And I want to tell you that first of all, I was deathly afraid of public speaking at one time in my career.

It is possible to overcome it and it all starts with doing one. And if your fear is screwing up, do not worry because the EduSpots can be recorded. So if you're worried that you're going to freeze out or you won't sound eloquent, the pre recording is a great way to ease into this public speaking. You don't actually have to be looking at your audience and here at HAR, we love to cultivate new voices in the industry.

And so if you've got a great idea for content, we want to hear it. I was given the opportunity to start speaking in the industry a long time ago, and it has done so much for my career for me. And for my public speaking abilities. So we want to help open those doors for you too. So give it some serious thoughts. 

And kiddos that is enough inspirational talk about speaking. Let's get onto the show.


[00:06:49] Steph: Well, top of the afternoon, morning and evening to all of you. I am Steph Lee, the founder of Host Agency Reviews, and I am just pleased as can be to be your host for today's show. So the interview has been a long time coming, and I am so excited to be able to pick the brain of Karen Devine, the owner of 3D Cruise Partners.

So the depth and the breadth of her cruise industry knowledge and the meetings incentives. just second to none. So you'll be hearing about how, um, she built her business up and who she turns to, to get motivation and insights to continually improve your business, because as we all know, when you're the head of the company, it can be challenged to find somebody with an outside business in mind that can help you stay on track and really formalize your vision. 

So we'll also learn the ins and outs of the meetings and incentives ship side, tips for managing a remote team and what it looks like to book the largest charter operation and cruise history. In 2020, Karen did that with two Royal Oasis class ships. So we'll hear about that! 

And really quick we're going to go over some boring stuff, but important business. So links and resources that we talk about today can be found in today's show notes, which you can find by visiting hostagencyreviews. com slash T A C and clicking on episode 27. Now for today's agenda, this is what we're going to be cruising towards.

So first is beginnings. 

Then we'll talk about MICE or Meetings Incentive. Conventions slash conferences and, uh, oh, I don't know what the E is for all of a sudden. I'll ask Karen when that comes on.

Mice at Sea, remote teams and employee retention. 

We'll move into sales and marketing. 

Then we'll hear some wisdom from her for being in the industry for such a long time.

And then we'll finish it out as always with our indispensable segment. 

There is a lot to talk about today, so let's go ahead and bring on Karen. Karen, welcome to Travel Agent Chatter. 

[00:08:52] Karen: Thank you so much for having me. I'm so excited to be here.


[00:08:55] Steph: I am too. So before we got on to recording, I was telling Karen how I'm leaving for the Galapagos this week, and She has me super excited for the Galapagos trip, very excited. Yes. So Karen, you have a really impressive track record in the industry. You've worked on various sides all across the aisle or aisles. So walk us through how you started in the industry and then how. That ended up where you started your company 3D Cruise Partners.

[00:09:24] Karen: Thank you. I sure will. So I'm sometimes hesitant to say I'm hitting just about 40 years in our fabulous industry. Amazing. I was very lucky to start out right out of school with an incentive travel company. And at the time learned the customer side of the business relative to meetings and incentives.

And that led me to an opportunity to become a national sales representative for Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts, where I learned the supplier side initially then went on to Rosewood Hotels and Resorts and ran their regional sales office in Chicago. And then a lady that I had the pleasure of working for many years ago on the incentive side, drafted me into the cruise industry working for Regent at the time it was Radisson Seven Seas and then became Regent Seven Seas Cruises, where I learned the ins and outs of the cruise side of the industry.

Then fast forward to that, and I'm now in my about 25th year in the cruise industry. I've had my company for almost 20 years, but I opened my company because there was an opportunity to help people figure out cruise. And what was really interesting to me is that people, advisors all over the world are responsible for the globe.

But when it comes to cruise, sometimes they might have their one or two go tos that they know really well, but there's so many products out there sailing in so many different places. So suddenly it became an opportunity to work as a middle person between the cruise line and the customer because of the model I was allowed to put together by the cruise lines.

And if I'm getting ahead of myself, just stop me. But the net of that was, I found a really cool opportunity to be a subject matter expert exclusively for cruise and there was such a need for that because as the cruise industry has been growing so rapidly, even with the unfortunate pause, we all had a couple of years ago.

Ships are building like crazy and redeploying like crazy. So there's a wonderful opportunity to be and continue to be that subject matter expert for people as a. one stop shop for whatever floats. So that's where I got started and how and I've never looked back. I love the cruise industry. It continues to evolve like crazy, particularly coming out of the last couple of years.

So pretty excited to have the chance to talk about it today. 

MICE at Sea

[00:11:36] Steph: Yeah. This is a great opportunity to dive into the niche that you're in. which is really the corporate meetings and incentives at sea. So we're going to switch over to our first segment and you can enlighten me about all things MICE, which now I remember the E stands for events.

I just totally had a, I don't know. Sometimes my brain disappears. Now— it's really bad. Now this is not the norm, but you did book the largest cruise charter operation in history a few years ago. And I thought it'd be fun to start out the episode. So can you like talking about it? So can you tell us about like how many people it was, the biggest challenge that came with it?

Tell us the exciting things that come with. 

[00:12:16] Karen: It was the most interesting, challenging frustrating piece of business ever. It's not every day that you have the opportunity to charter a cruise ship first and foremost. And we do a lot of that from small to river to large, all of, charters happen particularly pre COVID.

And now they've come back like crazy. So this particular company had the need to travel. 8, 000 plus people. And they needed to, they had done conferences on land for many years. The travel advisor that I work with on that particular program came to me and said, Hey, could we do this on a ship? So the only thing large enough was.

 Two Oasis class Royal Caribbean and Royal Caribbean is phenomenal as is the cruise industry in general. When it comes to customizing for clients to take over their ships, they came to the table with a great idea, gave us the opportunity to look at 2 Oasis class ships in tandem Perfect Day, which is their private island had just opened in January of 2020 and this program actually operated in January or February of 2020.

So we were planning it a year or more before. So the bottom line was they had the need to travel that many people. They've always used multiple hotels, so they were open to the ships. And it was super cool because we had to bring one ship was in Fort Lauderdale and the other one was in Miami. We brought them together and sailed them to the Bahamas.

So it was super, super cool, very complicated as you can imagine to work with both. Ports port operations in two different ports, departure ports in Florida, two different ships running in tandem on the same itinerary. But they came away from that with something unique and different, and they actually have just come back yesterday to look at a future one as well. So fingers crossed that they may do it again. But worth every bit. 

And every time we charter a ship, we learned something new because you're working on so many different aspects of cruise when it's your ship, what do you want to do with it? How do you want to program it?

Where do you want to take it? Et cetera. So yeah, it was super, super cool. And it's to my knowledge, the only time so far things are, records are always meant to be broken. But it's the only time so far that two Oasis class vessels were actually in Cocoa Cay Perfect Day at Cocoa Cay at the same time.

The only reason that works is because neither ship was completely full. So I don't want travel advisors out there going, Oh my gosh, what would you do with that many people on the Island at one time? It's because the ships were not full that we were able to do it. So huge success for the customer, huge success for us and huge success for the cruise line.

[00:14:58] Steph: Let's take a moment then to talk about your business model, because the first thing is that you work while you book groups, you work with a different department at the cruise lines than what most retail agencies booking groups. So your point of contact isn't the groups department. It's the meetings incentives and charter side of the cruise lines.

[00:15:17] Karen: That's correct. So every cruise line has a meetings and incentives or conference and meetings and incentives or whatever they call it CMI and I something like that division. Some bigger than others, depending on the size of the cruise line. But, yeah they focus. They have a person or persons or departments that handle nothing but the incentive group side of the business meetings and incentives and that's entirely different.

Buy if you will, then the retail group is because we have done that as well where you're looking at a could be a family reunion, it could be a wedding. It could be just a social group of any kind. That's a very different buy than we do on the incentive side of the industry. 

[00:15:57] Steph: So you're a travel agency in many ways, and that you sell these cruises to clients, but you consider yourself more of the cruise broker, which—

[00:16:06] Karen: correct.

[00:16:07] Steph: There's only a handful of people doing what you do and especially at the volume that you bring in. So could you explain to people that aren't as familiar with cruise brokers, what they are, the concentration structure you work from, because it's different from travel advisors. 

[00:16:22] Karen: Absolutely. And this is why When I opened my business, I, and I came from the client side.

So having that background and understanding was crucial to putting a model together that I knew would work because all of my contacts in the industry were travel advisors, third party incentive travel companies for them or travel agencies or whatever that do. Group in charge. Yes. And incentives.

Those were my relationships and customers. So I went to the cruise lines and asked them to put a model together with me that worked so that the cruise line commission is always intact to the 3rd party. Yes, I am a broker. which I've never loved that term, but I came into this after other brokers were already here.

So that's what we're stuck with. But I like meeting an incentive cruise advisor better or something. I've never come up with a better title, but that's okay. So —

[00:17:14] Steph: you're working on it. 

[00:17:16] Karen: I'll come up with something. So we're in the middle of the. Customer in the cruise line, but in a really good way because I will qualify.

So when a customer calls me, I can qualify their request. What are they looking for? When are they looking for it? How much do they have for budget? How many cabins are they looking for? Etcetera. Etcetera. The cruise lines. No. For 1 thing, I save them bazillion hours of time because I can qualify something like that and know immediately what cruise line or cruise lines it's going to fit because this is the only space I'm in.

And I have mad respect for the travel industry because my colleagues out there are responsible for the globe. As I mentioned a little while ago, my job is only cruise. So it's a really good position to be in because on any given day, my customers know they can call me and say, Hey, Karen, I've got this, that, or the, or anyone on my team for that matter.

I've got this, that, or the other. What do you think what fits and because I'm not selling a cruise line, a specific product, I am 100% unbiased. So my job is never to put a square peg in a round hole. My job is to help a customer find the right cruise for their guest or their company or their meeting or incentive program, whatever it may be.

So that's where I found a wonderful opportunity to help. a customer without having to be a layer in between them from a financial perspective or knowledge perspective, frankly, and the cruise line. So it's just a win. And it has been from just about day one because the cruise industry allowed us to set up a model that worked financially for the third party market, the travel advisors out there, but also allowed them to have.

A subject matter expert in their pocket. The cruise industry, of course, I don't work for free. They pay me, but out of a separate bucket. So it doesn't have to affect the client's price ever or not, and I'll say not, our volume of buy also passes through. So all of our travel advisor friends out there know what cap points are and they know what TC credits are and they know what all those.

All of that. 100% of that still passes through to the customer. 

[00:19:22] Steph: Yeah. And the sales credit too. So it's not as if that. 

[00:19:25] Karen: That's correct. And whoever they're, if they're on the meeting and incentive side, they'll know who their person is in any given cruise line. We are never interfering ever with their relationship with the cruise line already.

So it's a wonderful position that we've been allowed to sit in because of the value that we bring on both sides. And frankly, it's why I named the company 3D Cruise Partners because we're a partner. To our customer, of course, but we're also a partner to the cruise lines. Because again, they know when we're bringing them an opportunity, it's properly qualified.

They know it's a fit and they know they have a genuine opportunity to win that business. 

[00:20:02] Steph: And it's what I think is neat is that your company can be this booking resource for agencies, even though you're like a travel advisor as well, but if they get someone that approaches them on the corporate side that's looking for a meeting and incentive and they have no experience, don't want to touch it ,they can get in contact with you. 

And like you said, they'll keep the commission, whatever commission level they're at. They'll keep the credit for the sale, which I know is important for people. But the 1 thing I think we should stress is this isn't You know, if you're getting the girlfriend's cruise or a 50 person family reunion.

So when you're talking about the parameters for the retail agency that you work with, what would it be like? Who's a— like it needs to be corporate? Is that kind of the parameter or—

[00:20:52] Karen: the easiest way to explain that is with a a corporate meeting incentive or even can be a social group.

It's one entity paying the bill. That's the difference. So a lot of times with retail groups, individuals pay with their own credit cards and you have a group block that you buy into on this side. We contract the space. Actually the meeting and incentive side of the business has. More amenable terms most of the time on deposit cancellation and attrition.

So charter is a different animal that we won't even talk about, but on the meeting and incentive group contract, that's really aggressive terms and conditions, and they're very amenable to the customer. But it means that you get a contract and one person is signing that contract.

I'm working on one right now. I have a company that I work with that is very well known for booking land programs and hotels around the world. I'm their cruise source. So whenever they have a customer that comes to them to the point, you just made this opens up for folks out there and opportunity

you might have a huge client you've been working with and booking their family vacations for years. Maybe that client works for X, Y, Z company and has a board meeting or a retreat or some sort of a small incentive or a big incentive. If this gives you the opportunity to open up another area for conversation, that's what we do.

Okay. So I come in as that partner and they bring me in and say, Hey, here's Karen, our cruise expert. Talk to her. They get the benefit, they get the commission, they get the credit. I do the work and it's a win because I'm helping them win that business that they might not have had the expertise to do otherwise, if that makes sense.

[00:22:27] Steph: Yeah. And you said that the terms and conditions are more flexible and then what you can find on the retail group side. What does it look like pricing wise? Is there any difference between the two? 

[00:22:38] Karen: It depends. It depends on if the cruise line is published. Right now, if we're booking at 2024 or 2025, what I love about our structure is whatever we're contracting at is held, it's firm, it's done, it's secure, so once we contract, our rates will not change, not to say they do necessarily on the retail group side, either that depends on the type of group and may depend on the cruise line, frankly, but we're locked in.

With the rate and we have really aggressive attrition schedules and our job is to protect the client. So we're watching those trigger dates when they sign a contract, we know exactly that they can release the entire program up to X amount or whatever, or portions of it. We're constantly protecting their interest from the contractual perspective.

But overall, it's the attrition cancellation deposit. The rate may be the rate and sometimes, the incentive rate contracted if it's for 2025 or something like that May appear to be a little bit higher even than what's online, but we all know and everybody out there knows that works in cruise It's just like airlines as inventory depletes prices go up.

Our rate will never go up ever. So and I will neversay never but i'm gonna never have we had a situation where our price at the end has been higher, never, because cruises, as many people know, I hope that are listening to this go out at 100 plus percent because of triple quad, right? So the cruises do sell out, especially those big ships and the 3 and 4 night market and 5 and 7 night market with the big cruise lines.

So we have a great opportunity to always ensure we're getting— sometimes I'll say worst case scenario will have the same rate that's published, but we get all these extra amenities because that published rate doesn't include a T. C. credit. It doesn't include free cocktail parties. It doesn't include GAP points.

So we have all of that good stuff value add that's on top of the rate. So again, every single time we take the rate and break down with our value add, we're always a winner. Always. I'm not saying we 3D. We as in the group side. 

[00:24:44] Steph: Yeah. And then I think when we spoke last time, you said like the minimum for someone that would be looking for a group would be... it's going to vary by cruise line, but eight to 10 cabins. Is that correct? 

[00:24:57] Karen: That's correct. 

[00:24:58] Steph: Okay. And when we spoke earlier too, you said that your job isn't to sell cruise. It is it's helped a customer find a cruise if that meets the specs that they're coming with you. So I imagine that you run across companies that aren't familiar with having events at sea. So how do you approach them and educate them to see if a cruise is going to meet their specs and if that's something of interest to them?

[00:25:24] Karen: Yeah, so one of the things that, that I'm responsible for in the industry through several different organizations that I'm part of and and speak to.

So I have speaking opportunities often for educational purposes only. So I'll consider myself an educator of the industry because again, at the end of the day, we want people to understand what is available on a cruise ship. And as importantly, maybe what isn't, but what a lot of people find interesting and don't know is there is actual dedicated meeting space on board some ships.

So what is the program? What does it look like? Can we translate that to a cruise ship for that customer who has traditionally only done a hotel program? For example. The answer is maybe, and that's why I said listening to the specs is really important because the last thing we want is to force feed, a meeting or space intensive group onto a ship and have them be unhappy.

It's better that they understand. Yes, there's a conference center that we can take over. Yes, we can have the main theater for certain hours of the day for a big meeting. Yes, we can do private cocktail parties. Yes, we can take over certain dining rooms on some ships. There are so much flexibility now, more than there was in the past, but it all comes down to the client giving us information that we can then respond to and address exactly how the space can look.

Most of the time, if they've been doing a hotel program, We're going to have to tweak it a little bit because if they have that awards dinner, for example, in a private ballroom, can we do that on a ship? Maybe it depends on if they've always done 4 seasons and they need a 4 seasons level of ship. We may or may not have that kind of space. It just depends on the specs. 

So my job is to what hotel product best works for you client because the cruise industry breaks down and coming from the hotel side really helps me every day because hotels resonate with everybody. Cruise lines don't necessarily. So I'll always start the conversation with what's the history?

What's their preference? Are they, and I'm a four seasons girl, right? Is it a Four Seasons level of customer? No offense to Ritz cause they're right there too. And several others are also, but where do they fit? Are they a Marriott resort hotel? Are they a Grand Hyatt high in Weston? Are they a boutique?

Are they a Four Seasons Ritz Carlton? What do they like? And then we associate that exactly to the cruise or cruise line. 

[00:27:45] Steph: Yeah. Like the comparison with hotels, I think is something that everyone can relate to. 

[00:27:50] Karen: Yeah, for sure. 

[00:27:52] Steph: When you're chatting with someone again, a new client and you're saying, What about doing a meeting at sea?

What's the rough cost savings that they could expect versus if they did it in destination? 

[00:28:05] Karen: So the rule of thumb is typically around 30%. As you compare apples to apples of land versus cruise, bottom line. And that's where I take people to all the time. Because if you have just a room rate on a hotel, that might be EP.

It might include this or that or nothing. Who knows? And then you've got an all inclusive. So cruise pricing compares better to an all inclusive resort because it's a per person total price for the number of nights of the cruise. But here's the differential. There is no F and B minimum. There is no meeting room rental.

There is no audio visual rental that in and of itself is a huge savings as it compares to hotel if they do private events or need audio visual of any kind. And that's why I take it basically to that bottom line because we can use the theater and if you think about some of these cruise ships that have these incredible production shows on board, we can use their green room.

We can use their sound booth. We can use all of the screens and technology, everything they've got in lights and sound and so forth at our disposal. And it costs a Nothing because they already have it. So we're not renting it from them. We can use it because it's on board. Huge cost savings. 

[00:29:18] Steph: Yeah. And then one question on kind of the tax benefits.

Cause when we were digging around on the site, when we wrote an article about travel, like tax write offs when it comes to travel, there was some limitations when it came to cruises. And I'll link to that article in the show notes for anyone that's interested. But do you know anything about that and how your clients handle that?

[00:29:39] Karen: Yeah, a little bit. So I won't pretend to be a tax expert for sure. But I will tell you many of our customers have figured it out. I don't know exactly the intricacies of it. But they will put their meeting together with proper signage, proper documentation, proper photos and videography of it.

And somehow they are able to submit that. And again, it's their business, not mine on the tax side, but they have not. Double negative not booked the cruise because they didn't have a tax advantage. Also, often what will happen when you hear that 30% differential, the cost savings on the cruise offsets the tax.

So there's two different ways to look at that, and that's what our customers tell us. But very rarely, if ever, lately, has anybody told me they're not cruising because they don't have a tax advantage or a tax benefit. 

[00:30:35] Steph: Yeah. And one last thing to touch on before we move on to the next topic.

So you're on the board of trustees at the IRF or the Incentive Research Foundation. Yes. Would you mind explaining what that is and how an advisor that's interested in incentive travel, how they could benefit from that company? 

[00:30:54] Karen: Oh, my goodness. Yes. So the Incentive Research Foundation is exactly what it sounds like.

It's research for the incentive industry. The research is free. You can go on to the IRF website and pick so many different things about how to design an incentive program, what it can look like, different testimonials from people that you can reach out to and get information from. It's all about research surrounding not just travel, by the way, but also merchandise.

It's non travel incentives as well. So there's a ton of information on there. And I'm grateful to be part of this amazing group of people, which is hoteliers, customers, DMCs I'm the only cruise representative to date, which is great. And I'm grateful. They asked me because they knew I represented the entire industry, but it's a wonderful organization to obtain information from they do all kinds of surveys of customers and suppliers to gain information.

What's booking? What's trending? What's hot? Where are people going? What's the thought process on this place versus that place? What's travel versus non travel doing? What's happening post COVID? So the IRF is a wonderful resource for education for the industry. If you're ever putting together or looking to put together or just interested in what's trending and what people want, that's a really good resource to go to.

And again, it's free. 

[00:32:16] Steph: That's amazing. And it's just to clarify again, it's on the travel side. It's not just cruise. It's any type of incentive. 

[00:32:23] Karen: Correct. It's all kinds of travel. It doesn't matter what it is. And then none. Non travel incentives. 

[00:32:29] Steph: It also sounds like it's a may, it would be amazing networking on your end.

If you're doing incentives, you're meeting with the exact right people you're looking for.

[00:32:37] Karen: Yeah. And the people that go on, there's a couple of organizations. SITE is another one, but there's a couple of Society of Incentive Travel Excellence. So there's a couple of organizations for incentive travel and group travel that is made up of just quality people, just really good people.

And you get a lot of good information from either one of them. 

[00:32:56] Steph: Perfect. We're going to link to those in the show notes, both the site and the IRF for anyone that's interested.

Remote Team + Employee Motivation/Retention

[00:33:02] Steph: But let's change gears and we'll move into the next segment where I want to talk about your team. So first off your team is a hundred percent remote and they have been remote since you started the company 20 years ago.

So how many members are on your team?

[00:33:16] Karen: We have a mighty team of eight. 

[00:33:17] Steph: That's amazing. Especially when you consider the volume that you do, cause it's between 30 and 40 million. Eight people doing that is amazing. 

[00:33:26] Karen: We're busy. 

[00:33:28] Steph: And you have, the other thing is you have great retention with your team members.

So you, do you attribute that retention and engagement to anything specific that you're doing purposely doing, or what. 

[00:33:41] Karen: I'm a very humble person. I think if you ask any of them they will attribute some of that to just my belief in family. My belief in personal everybody has to have family time, personal time.

We all work super hard, but I respect we're all, it's a group of women. We all work super hard, but I feel like. Everybody is empowered to do what they need to do. And as a result, they are just, I don't know, they're just what's the word I want? I'm just, it's a humbling conversation for me, but it's just it's a wonderful environment to work in.

And what I wanted to create here was. Everything I learned through the industry, I worked for various people, obviously, throughout my career until I started my own company. When I started my own company, I was able to put it together the way I would want to be treated and that's exactly what I did. I'm lucky and I'm blessed that these, these women have been with me for so long.

And nothing, we've certainly would hire gentlemen too. It has nothing to do with that. I'm just, happens to be a group of women at the moment and has been for some time, but yeah, it's just a good environment of work hard. But never, ever put anything in the way of family. 

[00:34:52] Steph: And I, when we spoke about this earlier, you had said something specifically about when you were working for someone else, you learned what you didn't want to be as a leader.

[00:35:05] Karen: I you know, I worked for a

lot of different people and I learned what I would love to do and what I would never do through that process. So part of that was a demand on on me. And frankly, at the time, not to get too personal, but I was a young mom and the demand on me was ridiculous, in my opinion. I ended up leaving that company and flourished.

And flourished because I found someone to work for who had the same respect for that, that I did. Didn't take a moment away from my devotion to my job and my career. Not a moment. And I still am, but at the time I was in sales and I'm like, gosh, I'm very trackable. I either book or I don't. Clients just want to make sure they can reach you, which is why I liked the virtual platform way before COVID.

All individual and we're empowered to work and answer customers. And, it's a reflection on me and my reputation and my company. And I'm immensely proud of that because that's what we're known for is great service, great people, great expertise. But we all have a life outside of 3d and that's critically important to everybody.

[00:36:12] Steph: It's so true. So when you're looking for someone to hire for your team, is there anything specific that you're looking for? Like that they need to have experience in sales or —

[00:36:22] Karen: no, I will take the right personality and the right energy. Any day over the right experience, for example I am actually in the process right now of talking with someone who crossed my path and I was incredibly impressed with her and she doesn't have an ounce of cruise industry knowledge.

None that can be taught. I learned. Yeah, it's right. It's the right personality and the right drive. 

[00:36:47] Steph: Yeah I think that's great advice. Because yeah, hiring on their experience, sometimes that doesn't work out so well. 

[00:36:57] Karen: Yeah. And I've had that not work out so well over the years. Again, I also learned through the last 20 years of, different people and as the company evolved and changed and things happened like 9 11.

2008 and this last horrific situation. We all learn and evolve and I'm forever grateful that we came out the other end of all of that. And I hope it's because of the culture that we have here and people talk about their culture all the time. And it's hard to create a culture, if you will, on, eight people working West coast to East coast and everything in between.

But we have, because of the way we talk with one another. The way we respect one another, it just has worked out and I'm grateful and I'm blessed. I know that. 

[00:37:38] Steph: Yeah. And you, like when we had spoken, one of the things that I think is important for people to remember too, is that as people are going through their different life stages and things change, like being flexible, like no one employee is going to be the same.

They're all going to need different things that motivate them. They're going to have different needs depending on where they are in their life. And you're very attuned to that. 

[00:38:02] Karen: Yeah, for sure. Because I went through it myself, right? I was a, like I said, a young mom starting out and well, shoot, I was right out of high school or college actually when I started my career.

So I have evolved through the ages of all of that. And it's given me, I hope tremendous compassion for everyone else going through those various stages, right? There's a balance. Of course, you have to walk a good line. But all I ask is that we respond to our customers in a timely manner. And get them back, get back to them with accurate and good information and treat our cruise partners.

As our clients. And that's exactly what we do. So both sides of it. I'm again, immensely proud of the reputation that I have in this company has, and it's because of who we are, we're very ethical, forthright people, and I think that speaks volumes in the industry. So it's just evolved over time.

We're in such a good place now because of some of the stuff that I did through COVID to continue to educate and speak on behalf of the cruise industry and utilize some of those cruise resources out there to put together data that wasn't too hard to track, but nobody was talking about it.

Yeah, not the other side of COVID. Interestingly enough, better than we went in and we went in strong. Again, I'm immensely proud of that because our job is educators. That's what we do for this industry. So I think when people have a good understanding of cruise and how it breaks down and we can simplify it.

And like I said, you answer a question in a minute and make them look good and knowledgeable to whomever they're trying to talk to on the other end of that. It's just a, it's just a wonderful situation 

[00:39:35] Steph: and having this remote team that you're working with. It's fabulous in so many ways because our team is a hundred percent remote here as well, because it opens up the field of prospective candidates.

But it, like one thing that I have always found challenging is you have to be very intentional about building that camaraderie for the group. And that for some people, they really struggle to stay on task when they're working from home. Like for me, I can stay so much more focused at home because I don't have like distractions of people coming to my desk or anything along those lines.

But for you, how do you deal with that challenge of creating the community and making sure that you're hiring people that are a good fit to work from home? 

[00:40:17] Karen: Speaking as somebody who wasn't a good fit for somebody to work from home in a position I held many years ago. I spent about five minutes working for a DMC.

I say that obviously funny, but I think if you love what you do, that is the differential. And we all definitely love what we do. Not everybody can work from home. When I was brought into the cruise industry, the carrot that was dangled for me was, hey, you can work from home. I'm like. I don't want to, I'm a very social person.

I like interaction. They thought they were going to get me with that work from home scenario, and I was scared to death, but I found out very quickly. The days just flew. Like I loved what I was doing so much. I've stumbled a little bit over the years and finding the right people sometimes that, didn't like the work from home environment.

Or frankly, they found all reasons not to work and they were cooking and doing laundry or whatever they were going to the gym or whatever they were doing. But not everybody fits that role, right? Not everybody wants that role. But I think you find something you genuinely like and enjoy and can flourish in.

 It works. You just have to figure out it's pretty evident to me because we're all trackable to the point I made to that employer all those years ago when I, I. I asked actually for a bit of a different scenario and I said, I'm trackable if I don't respond to my clients, that's going to be pretty well known pretty quick.

Again, that's our thing is we all, even our operations side, our sales and operations, both sides of the business are talking to customers every single day customer can't reach us. I'm the one getting the phone call and I'm grateful to say that rarely happens. So I think it's, I don't know if there's a secret sauce to finding the right person.

I think that you have to go with your gut a little bit on that. What is their background? What are their referrals? What's their work ethic? Because it really does come down to a work ethic, in my opinion, on whether or not you're going to give it everything you have when you're working from home with what can be distractions of.

Other things to do during the day versus work or night. 

[00:42:16] Steph: That's true. One of the things you do as well for your team is you hold an annual meeting every year where everyone can get together and tell us a little more about that. 

[00:42:28] Karen: Yeah. So every December we get together typically in Chicago because it's in the middle of the country and we can all get into Chicago.

So at least once a year, the whole team comes in for a meeting, a company meeting. We come in for two nights, three days. We have a full day and a half of meetings run by my business coach, which I'm sure we're going to talk about. And she facilitates that for me. So it's wonderful to have everybody together.

Everybody knows that they can speak freely. We fix things. What's working? What's not? Where are we going? How do we do it? What can we improve upon our processes and so forth? So while we're a relatively small company getting together like that once a year is critically important to everybody and everybody commits that time but also throughout the year many of us are together be it on a new ship inaugural or At a IRF event or a site event or another customer event, something.

So there's usually two or three of us together at any given time on events that happen, but once a year we all get together, but then we also do team meetings once a month, virtually where we all just get together. We hard, hard stop at 30 minutes. Everybody, we go around the table. talk about anything new quickly and we get to see each other.

I love the platform coming out of COVID with, teams or zoom or whatever it may be because we all do get to see each other. And be more of a cohesive unit that way. 

[00:43:47] Steph: And then you have the full team meetings on board once a month, but then individually, you're also meeting with them, checking in.

[00:43:54] Karen: Oh, absolutely. Yep. Yep. Yep. Yeah. So we have basically two divisions of the company. We have Sales and we have operations and I talked to the two teams separately, but individually I talked to everybody probably some daily, literally daily. And then some that I don't work with on a daily basis, at least once a week, if not maybe 10 days, but usually about once a week.

Because we're small, so it's easy to talk to everybody. We're all involved in everything we're doing. So the operations team is touching everything the sales team is doing. I'm responsible for everything they're both doing. So ergo, I talk to everybody pretty frequently. 

[00:44:30] Steph: That's a great plan. So another question, this is a fun one since you specialize in incentive travel.

First hand, how those incentives can really help motivate people on your employee side. Do you compensate your employees with salary plus commission, or some other set of like, how do you incentivize them? 

[00:44:49] Karen: So a couple of different ways depending on the position, it is everybody's on salary.

I do, I have one contract, a 1099 salesperson, but she is compensated also with commission and. So it's really cool because I'm able to give my support people the opportunity. If we win, they win. So we're profitable. They get a piece of that, which they know. So it drives everybody also to work, and to be available and to close that business or be available for that customer. But yeah, I do incent them with. Financial for sure on bonus, either annual or quarterly, just depends on the role, but also travel. We try to get the whole team out on ships which is sponsored by me, by the company. So we'll find the right fits for people to go sail, be it on an inaugural or I tell people, look, what should I just had my key person here that supports me.

She just sailed in Alaska with her husband for a week. Sponsored by 3D because I wanted her out there. She wanted to go to Alaska. It's a win. She learns the ship and learns the operation and got to go on vacation without working. She was on vacation. So it's both travel and financial. 

[00:46:04] Steph: That's perfect.

Sales + Marketing

[00:46:06] Steph: Let's toss things up, chat a little bit about sales and marketing. So how do you find new business? 

[00:46:14] Karen: Wow. I am very proud to say it's really organic these days, but early in my career or in my company career I mentioned I came from the incentive side of the business, which meant instead of travel companies and we're the cruise buyers for some of the largest ones, I'm very proud to say in the country, a lot of people move around just like they do in the hotel side or the cruise side.

So it gave me contacts in a lot of different places. And again, reputation, I think is everything. And I'm grateful to have had that throughout my career. Before I got into cruise and I just started calling and saying, Hey, this is what I'm doing. The first question was always wait a minute.

I love you, Karen, but. I'm not, you're going to keep my commission. No, I'm not. And this is what I'm doing and how I'm doing it. And then it opened everybody's eyes. So it was literally early on and back in the Rolodex days, it was Rolodexing through contacts. Now it's a lot of referral.

People just hear about us or a customer will say, Hey, you got to call Karen or, whoever, and on the team that they may know, they ran into us at a, at an event site and certainly IRF with the speaking opportunities that we've had. Learn more about, hey, you can use a cruise expert. It does not interfere with your financial capability.

So I think I'm very visible doing things like this, which I'm so grateful for. A lot of virtual meetings and opportunities to speak have happened over the last couple of years with COVID, but now, getting back out on the road and being front and center and speaking and educating on the cruise industry.

It just, it's just been. A really cool trajectory really in the last, I'll put COVID in that too. Really, since about 2015, 16, we started getting some serious legs underneath us at these events and being recognized. My coach asked me many years ago, what was your, what's your goal? I said, I want to be the voice of the industry.

And interestingly enough, COVID gave me that platform. So we have come out of that literally as the voice of the industry to the meeting and incentive market relative to cruise. And I'm forever grateful for that. 

[00:48:19] Steph: Yeah, isn't it weird? The pandemic did so many horrible things, but then there's these random things that pop up and you're like, yeah, that would not have happened without the panic.

I think it moved a lot of people to want to start their own companies and be more in control and like huge life changing things on both sides. 

[00:48:39] Karen: Oh my gosh. I, you couldn't have told me that in the middle of it, what was going to happen. I never in a million years, but people have told me and I hope it, it comes across here, but I'm incredibly impassioned by our industry.

I love what I do. I love the cruise industry. And that's what drove me as I was sitting there watching our ships shut down and watching all this horrible negative information. And I'm a numbers person. And I was like, wait a minute. The facts just aren't adding up for me. And I figured it out. They weren't being portrayed accurately.

Nobody was talking about it. And I'm like I'm going to talk about it. I might be a little small fry over here in this big world of ours, but I'm going to do what I can for our industry. And it led to. So many opportunities and, so many chances to talk about and educate. I'm sorry, I keep saying that, but educate the industry because that's really what it's all about.

Because if we educate about cruise, people get interested in cruise and they learn something. And my goal is always every single time I'm talking to somebody or presenting something. And I say that on almost every presentation I do, which is clearly not what we're doing today. Is that, Hey. No matter how many cruises you've been on or how long you've been in the industry, my goal is for you to walk away today, learning something you didn't know.

And that's really cool when that happens. So it's just a, I don't know. It's a wonderful platform to have and. Be able to speak to this every day on what this industry is truly all 

[00:50:09] Steph: about. 

Yeah. And you like, so through industry affiliations and your contacts within those I'm trying to remember that like third party incentive companies, you're their cruise person.

Are there, when we're talking about the specific associations, which associations have been really helpful for you to find new clients? 

[00:50:28] Karen: I think it's the networking events both through SITE and the IRF. Those are the two biggest ones in the industry. 

[00:50:35] Steph: There's, it's like MPI, the Meeting Planners International.

Is that one? 

[00:50:38] Karen: It is. Yeah. And my colleague on the West Coast does a little bit more with MPI. It's a little bit stronger out there. But associate association business itself is not usually conducive to cruise because of the buy in aspect of it. So we don't do a lot with the association business and I don't want to misspeak on that being the bulk of what MPI is.

We have touched on MPI and we've participated with MPI. I haven't personally for a couple of years, so I'll stay away from speaking to that specifically because I can't. But yes, MPI is another one for sure. 

[00:51:11] Steph: And one of the things I want to point out too, that's so interesting about your business is that these contacts you talked about when the third party incentive companies that many like cruise brokers will go individually to all these different corporations and try to find their incentive person and figure out how to get in.

Thank You're unique in that you work with these third party incentive companies who have all those corporate clients already. And so you have one contact where you can reach X amount of possible clients. 

[00:51:42] Karen: Yeah, not, that was my upbringing in the industry was with an incentive travel company. So I quickly understood that, this, these companies, it's one or, 10 or whatever contacts for me within the company, depending on the size they have.

All these customers out there, so it's wonderful and it's not to say because I'm also a member of FICP, which is financial and insurance conference planners. Those are direct customers that we also work with. But I'm very careful and very respectful of the relationship lines. So if I know a direct client is working with their third party, Okay.

I don't talk. I don't go there. Because I'm shooting myself in the foot with my contact at the third party for one customer. And that was just the way I was raised in the industry. So it's why I have mad respect for the travel advisor community, third party community, incentive travel community and the third parties that I work with.

[00:52:34] Steph: Yeah. And I'm going to put links into all these places. And like one thing for listeners to think of is I know that a lot of these associations. have mailing lists and they can do, we've all received mailings from associations that we belong to that are promotional. So that's something to think about too, if you're breaking in.

[00:52:53] Karen: You could get all kinds of information from any of those primary companies. 

[00:52:58] Steph: Now, what kind of sales growth have you seen as your agency matures? You've said it's gone gangbusters since COVID after you finally got over the hump. But I'm curious are your clients really sticky? Do they stay with you?

Constantly having to market to find new business. 

[00:53:15] Karen: I don't think it's wise as a business owner to ever stop looking for business, but I'm blessed again, working with the third party community, sometimes they'll bid amongst each other, but they have, a lot of reach in the client.

incentives that they've been doing for so many years. So interestingly enough I am spending my time right now treading water and I'm grateful for it, but wow it's crazy. I had hoped that we would be recovered from a sales perspective. By the end of 24 and we're there already in the middle of 2023, it's come back.

[Steph claps] Thank you. 

But it's come back that fast. But if you think about it, it's because the cruise industry rocketed back. Once it came back, it went straight up. So I know it's going to level out probably soon, but we have not stopped treading water now for a year. So it took a little while through 2022, for things to start building back up.

But the sales cycle, and I'm happy to say that's for our customers too, because the land side came back right away. When people started traveling again, cruises took a hot minute because of all the negative media. But once people saw that for the retail market and all of you out there, because selling cruises and getting people back on ships, I love the cruise industry on the retail side because people weren't afraid. They want to cruise. That's what they do, right? Talking the corporate market into cruising with the risk they perceived was a different story. So starting in probably about mid 2022, we started taking off and it's just it's still going north. So I run the statistics and the numbers for the I R F educational cruise side of things, or I contribute to that, I should say. And it's really cool to look at the numbers that we did. 

In 2021, we first came back to one of the first meetings and ran the numbers. And with a survey that was done of buyers, crews came in dead last of opportunities they were interested in.

This year, 2023, it came in third. So that's how fast it went back up. And that data is on the IRF website as well. So cruise incentives came back as number three from dead last. So I was like, Oh my goodness, gracious. That just speaks to the resiliency, which we know in the incentive industry is so big, like incentive travel.

Never say never. But I can't imagine that people to people personal interaction ever going away. People like that while they still can choose with an incentive, a cash or a merchandise reward or an individual travel experience in lieu of going on the group experience. The numbers don't lie. And that was my point during COVID.

The numbers don't lie. They're easy to follow. So it just means that, people are cruising again. The incentive cruises are happening again. Is it because the industry continues to build and grow? Probably. It's also because, guess what? When's the last time you heard anything negative in the cruise media?

[00:56:09] Steph: Do— so this is just out of curiosity. I don't know if you know the numbers, but pre COVID, do you know where cruise ranked? It's third now. Do you know where it ranked? 

[00:56:19] Karen: Before and that's a great question. So I'm going to come back to you on that. So we can post it because we did do the numbers. I'll actually, I only joined the IRF.

We don't have them from the IRF because I only joined them in 2019. And that was my first year. And then COVID happened. So I'll ask them if they have any cruise data because just because there wasn't a cruise representative within them doesn't mean they weren't running data. So I will find out because I don't know the answer to that.

And I would love to know. 

[00:56:50] Steph: Yeah, I'll put the answer in the show notes when we get it for people that are i'll curious. 

[00:56:55] Karen: As soon as we're done today I'll reach out for that. 

[00:56:56] Steph: Perfect. 

[00:56:57] Karen: Great question. 

[00:56:58] Steph: Thank you. I'm just, I love asking questions, so I've got another one for you. 

[00:57:03] Karen: Yes, ma'am.

[00:57:04] Steph: So you provide just immense value to the companies when they go through you. So you had told me that you're not a hard salesperson, and as a non-hard salesperson, I can appreciate that, but that you are a closer. And so what kind of things do you attribute to your high close ratio what are you doing in educating clients on the value?

[00:57:25] Karen: It it's understanding the value proposition of a cruise. And it's difficult for me to step out of my cruise box and I have to put my customer hat back on. And my hotel hat back on because I've recognized over the years, there aren't very many people on this and I am a supplier on the supplier side of the industry who have the background that I do that from a point of experience that speaks to, I'm sitting across the desk from a buyer.

Yeah. Okay. It was a hot minute ago that I was a buyer, but I remember that. I remember what you're looking at, what you need, the timeframe within you need it, the education that you need don't waste my time. Just get me the information. So making information easy and accessible and complete is a huge part of it.

And making sure the point I made a little while ago, there's a room right here and there was a hotel right here. This hotel rate includes all of this. This hotel rate includes this. At the end of the day, the cruise is going to be a better value because it's more inclusive. It doesn't always want the inclusiveness of it, right?

But if the numbers work, it's important to understand the numbers. So that's really, I think the net bottom line is understand the number that you're getting. And what it represents and includes, and the end of that is really important. 

[00:58:50] Steph: Yeah. And I feel like it goes, it's through the whole sales cycle, the travel cycle, and even up to the end you had talked earlier about when they get the bill at the end and how complicated that is to look at and figure out and that you help them with that.

How do you do that? 

[00:59:08] Karen: Yeah, so we get, oh gosh, and anybody who's ever seen a cruise bill knows this, but, and no offense to our cruise partners, it's just their systems and how they work, but we get these incredibly complicated, line by line, crazy looking, I don't even remember what they're called, bills.

We go through it line by line, make sure it matches what was purchased. Most of the time, believe it or not, it doesn't. We find different things in there. Sometimes it's to the client's favor. And honestly, sometimes it's to the cruise line's favor. Things they didn't catch. So we're bringing to the attention of some of the cruise lines the detail that's so important to present a final bill.

The net of what you asked me though is we take that big complicated thing. That's the backup. We give that to the client, but we one page it. Here's your bill. It matches your total over here. Here's everything that you need. Here's your backup if you need it, but you don't get that simple document from the cruise line.

You don't get it. 

[01:00:06] Steph: Yeah, that I feel like is worth it. 

[01:00:07] Karen: So it's hours of time saved, hours and hours of time saved. And because we are in it every day, like we know what to look for, right? We can pick things out and figure it out real quick versus, Oh my goodness, going through all those pages of every single line is complicated.

[01:00:22] Steph: And like operations wise, especially if you're chartering a ship. Yeah. There's. Who do I talk to about the room gifts? You're going to have a million zillion different contacts at the cruise lines, but you're their go to that can help them. And tell them what they can and can't do on cruises.

If they want to go from here to here, if that's actually going to work. 

[01:00:41] Karen: Yeah. So I have my own Marine program and I time my own itineraries for charters, which is awesome because again, the cruise lines know that. And they know when I bring them an itinerary, it still has to go to Marine to be approved, but it works and they know that.

So that's super cool because I can have a conversation with the client for a river cruise or an ocean cruise, it doesn't matter. And we can time a different itinerary because when you charter. oftentimes you have the ability to customize the itinerary. And while you may not have a million people necessarily to work with at the cruise lines for a charter, what people don't know is what they don't know.

So when I'm involved with something like it's remarkable to me. And again, I love our cruise partners. They're amazing, but sometimes there can be one person managing the world of charter for that cruise line. They don't have the time to dig in and figure out what does that client want or what can they do?

Or, Hey, can we bend the envelope just a little bit? Which frankly, that's the nature of the incentive business is to create something that a guest can't do on their own. So how do you customize that? What can we do? What works? What doesn't and why? A big part of that too. And I think I said this to you when we spoke the first time was, I'm not an attorney, but I play one on TV.

Because the complexity of a charter agreement and sometimes the group agreements too, depending on the cruise line, the legal ease in those sometimes is very marine driven. So why is it written that way? And being able to explain to a risk or an attorney, counsel in house or whomever. Why is it written that way?

Can it be bent? If so, how much? And if not, why? So a lot of times we get involved with those conversations to, to explain the language of the cruise contract, because it's very different from a hotel contract, but there's reasons that doesn't, this can't be tweaked or changed. We just have to dive into that and figure out what can be.

And then on the operation side, I always smile with people on charter and go, Hey, it's your ship. What do you want to do? Short of painting the ship blue, what do you want to do? People have changed out furniture and artwork and that's extreme and expensive, but you can also just put customized pillows in or put logos on tables or bring in florals and linens, because that's another thing that people don't necessarily think of is, when is the last time anybody walked into a hotel and said, thank you very much for the white linens?

Never. You do theme parties and all kinds of cool stuff. But on ships, we were walking and doing. Thank you very much for the white linens. Your dining room is very pretty. Yeah, so we figured out, vendors that know the cruise industry because there's all kinds of. Different things with customs and depending on where you are that you have to do to bring things on a ship.

We simplified that process so that people now can do theme parties and events for groups or charters. Doesn't have to be a charter. So there's all kinds of things that goes back to the education of the industry and what's available to them. And so many people go, Oh, my gosh, I didn't know I could do that.

I didn't 

[01:03:33] Steph: know I forgot the name, but the name of your partner on on your website that helps you with understanding what you can do with customs. And. making these events special. 

[01:03:43] Karen: Yes, events design at sea is on our website, and they, he is the one that said to me, he's a leading DMC in the Bahamas was attending site events and IRF events over the years.

We got to know each other and I don't know, 15 years ago, he just looked at me innocently, honestly, and said, so who does your theme stuff on cruise ships? I'm like, 

[01:04:02] Steph: you're joking, right? 

[01:04:04] Karen: What? So we got into this conversation and he's a brilliant creative mind and he figured out how to do it and has been doing it ever since because he had a division of his company that did weddings, for example, weddings in the Bahamas.

And he's thinking. Why can't we do this on cruise ships? So he uses local vendors wherever they are in the globe around the globe to bring on special things onto the ship. And then he manages the process because he knows how to work customs to get things on ships and so forth. So that was a super cool.

thing to have the ability to do that. We didn't in the past. Yeah. 

[01:04:39] Steph: It remake, remade the industry. So we'll link to events designs by seeing case. They have a very pretty website. 

[01:04:46] Karen: They do have a, yeah, creative genius that he is. Yes. 

[01:04:50] Steph: Okay. So one of the other things I know, like part of the value in people using you is you have.

Number one decades of experience, but also you have this in house cruise ship database that you've created through the years that can help you give that information really quickly to your clients. And it's up to date. So what is the important information that you put in that binder or Excel sheet? 

[01:05:14] Karen: So a couple of different things that we have, the number one thing that is literally up on my screen and desk every single day is a very intricate grid of the entire cruise industry broken down by segment. So we have luxury premium river and contemporary and expedition. So every ship that fits within those buckets is in that spreadsheet by company. So all of the Royal Caribbean ships are broken down so that I can see. The name of the ship, how, what how many cabins it has.

When was it built? When was it last refurbished? how big is its theater? Breakdown of how many suites balcony ocean view and inside cabins. And that's my go to document. So when I have a client that calls and needs, whatever I can immediately see how many cabins that ship has we also have, if they are, for example, year round in the Caribbean or if they move from caribbean to Alaska or Caribbean to Med. Where are they going? 

That's a live document updated all the time because the ships move all the time and they change what ship as a new ship comes out, they change deployment for everything else. So it's live all the time. But that's, think about that for a second.

How do you know what ship is where at any given time of the year or what ship is even the right size for you? That's why we figured out years ago And this was true. And I talked to a lot of our clients about it. They would say, yeah, and I would ask them, so how is it if somebody comes to you and you're throwing spaghetti at the wall to figure out what you're going to offer that client for their 2024 incentive, you're talking about any hotel anywhere on the globe and you know it like that, but somebody says cruise and you go, yeah, no, we'll just let's just go with Four Seasons Maui or whatever, right?

Cause they, so we simplified it. So my, again, when I go back to the very beginning of our call today is literally, and this very sincerely, a client will call me or text me or email me and say, Hey, what's here then? Okay. So here's what's here then. So yesterday as an example, I had a client that reached out to me for 80 cabins.

They want warm weather. They want four nights and they want a and it's in June of 2025. No problem. Here's your shifts. That's what we do. So we know we get the future deployment of the cruise lines. So we know where the ships are going to be in the future. So that's one document. The other one that we have a resource for so that we don't have to wait to get it from the cruise lines is we have the deck plans, fact sheets, and GAP point lists, beverage package lists shorts, handy, all of that.

So our job is to help make it very easy or as easy as possible for a client to present a cruise instead of going, where do I start? 

[01:08:08] Steph: And having to wait for the cruise lines to get back to you with how many inside cabins they have, because no one wants the inside cabin, so you need to know what the capacity is.


[01:08:17] Steph: This is a perfect segue into the next segment, which is the wisdom segment, because I just feel like I... Got a whole ton of wisdom that you've picked up through the years. 

[01:08:28] Karen: I'm glad!

[01:08:28] Steph: So when we spoke earlier, you mentioned a problem that a lot of us business owners face, and that is who do you go to for help when you're at the top and who can give you different perspectives?

So through the years. How have you dealt with that challenge? 

[01:08:44] Karen: I was definitely lost for a few years. As I opened my company and quickly recognized, I always had a boss to go to, I always had a mentor or someone that I could talk to and it's wonderful to have, your family your partner, your spouse, whatever.

But. It's, they're not exactly objective, right? Because they're emotionally involved with you. So many years ago I was at a dinner with, and the plus one of my client happened to be a business coach and she and I were just making small talk over dinner. And what do you do? I'm like, Oh, that's interesting.

Not really interested at all because I'm like, I am Karen. Hear me roar. What do I yeah. And then fast forward, as I opened my business and was struggling, I reached out to her and she has been my executive coach ever since. And I recommend somebody like that to everybody who's running a business because.

There's no excuses. She does not tell me what to do. She helps me figure out what I need to do. She makes me get out of my own way. She helps me see the forest through the trees. She helps me chunk things out and project things because you tend to get so wrapped up in your day your employees and your customers and your industry.

There's so many other things, and I will fully admit I am not the most organized person in the world, so I get so caught up in my 45 emails an hour that I'm trying to respond to versus maybe setting up a road show or doing something productive on the or proactive. I should say on the sales side. Having a business coach, I meet with her every week for 30 minutes.

Every now and again, we do an hour like if it's towards the end of the year and I'm trying to plan for the future. And I think I said this to you and I'm happy to say it again. Or if I didn't, I'll say it anyway. I literally owe my company to this woman who helped mold me, shape me. Okay. Get out of my own way.

She has the perfect image of me that she brings up at every team meeting that we have and has done that from pretty much the very first team meeting she did with my team, which I've worked with her probably 15 years. But about 10 years ago, I just dug in. I was not having it. And the next year when we brought the team together, she had a picture of a donkey with its heel stuck in the sand.

And she's ' That's your boss. 'That's and then she, but she's — then she said how she's working with me to evolve from that. But she was right. I know my industry bar none. I know my industry. Does that make me a great business owner and leader? No, I had to learn that I'm a great salesperson over the years.

I'm a great subject matter expert. Does it make me a great business owner or leader? No. And she has helped me. I am now, I think. And she's helped me figure out how to manage all of that. 

[01:11:43] Steph: So she comes to your, the annual meeting that you do. 

[01:11:47] Karen: It's my meeting every year. Yeah, 

[01:11:48] Steph: perfect. 

[01:11:49] Karen: Yep. 

[01:11:51] Steph: When it comes to industry learning, what's your favorite event to go to, in your specific niche?

[01:11:58] Karen: I can't say that I actually go to a cruise specific. I know Cruise 360 is a big deal for people. There are cruise specific retail specific events that happen for the cruise industry. So in all fairness, I can't say that I have a favorite that is cruise only. I have favorites that are industry for our side of the industry.

[01:12:22] Steph: Yeah. What are those? 

[01:12:23] Karen: It's site and IRF for sure. Those are The biggest bang for our buck. We always sponsor them. They have great customers, great networking and great education. So we always participate in those because of the content that we get. 

[01:12:39] Steph: Perfect. I'll we'll link to cruise 360 site and IRFs annual events and conferences for people.

[01:12:45] Karen: Wonderful. Thank you. 

[01:12:47] Steph: We'll start wrapping up soon, but one quick question before we get into the last segment. So what do you wish you would have known before starting your company?

[01:12:57] Karen: Oh, my goodness. Patience and employees. I went too quickly to people I knew versus exploring. To find people that would fit, and I hope that makes sense. , I stumbled and fell a couple of times along the way, learned my lessons, got back up, dusted myself off and moved on. So to the point of I'll take and look for the right personality and the right drive over the experience any day because of mistakes I made in the past.

So that's I think would be my I'll put it at patience for sure. 

[01:13:34] Steph: Yeah. One thing I hear when you're saying that is also learn all, none of us business owners are perfect. We're all learning constantly, but the key is you're like learning from your mistakes. Oh, that was a bad hire.

Where did I go wrong? How can I avoid this in the future? And that's why people that have had businesses for a long time get smarter and smarter as they go along because they're learning from these experiences. 

[01:13:59] Karen: And that's just it. And you have to be willing to, right? And I think it's a continuous learning journey, frankly.

[01:14:05] Steph: Yes. 

[01:14:05] Karen: As our industry evolves and changes, and the travel industry in general, learning from others, being willing to adapt. Not be that donkey in the sand, right? It's just opening up your mind to what you might not know and listen to other experts. I love like I'm a certified woman on business and being part of that.

I should have mentioned that, but listening to other women leaders in whatever space they're in. I love that. I love listening to what people's struggles have been, and it always resonates somehow with your own business. Even if it's not your business, if it's, a business that you're in, and you're a leader in it, or you're running a division of it, or whatever it may be, I just think listening to other people who have experienced whatever it may be is powerful.

[01:14:55] Steph: I agree. That's why I like with these podcasts, even if it's not your niche, it's still really helpful to listen. Cause there's so much cross ideas and it's good to get outside your niche and see what other people are doing, whether in the travel industry or outside the travel industry. 

[01:15:11] Karen: A hundred percent agree.


[01:15:13] Steph: Ladies and gentlemen, it's that time of the show where we start wrapping things up and you're just going to start to hear some music gently starting from the background, which means it's time for our indispensable segment. So this is the segment where we ask our guests, what technology book or person has been indispensable to the growth of their agency and then tell us why. 

So Karen, what has been the person saying technology that has been helpful to the growth of your agency? 

[01:15:42] Karen: I think you're going to know what I'm going to say already, but—

[01:15:44] Steph: I have an inkling 

[01:15:45] Karen: 100% my coach. Okay. I literally would not have my business without her.

I'm so grateful that she came into my world all those years ago. I'm so grateful now too, that she's become a friend. But having somebody that has helped shape me and help me grow this business to what it is now, which is definitely the leading cruise expert in the industry on the meetings and incentive side, I would have never been able to do it without her.

And that's both technology she's driven me towards, learning my own processes in house and not making excuses for that, and just guided me to be the best leader I can be. No question about it. 

[01:16:25] Steph: Does do you know if people are interested after listening to this and finding an executive coach or a business coach?

Is there a place you would recommend? Yours was at a dinner table, but is there a list of business coaches or maybe you want to share your business coach's name. 

[01:16:39] Karen: I'm sure there is. And I will come back to you so you can post that as well because she'll know. I don't know if there's a group of executive coach like a, like an MPI or a SITE or whatever.

There probably is, but let me ask her because she would know and she will tell me. 

[01:16:54] Steph: We'll put that in the show notes, everybody. Even though we don't have the answer right now, it'll be up there by the time we have this published. 

Karen, thank you so much for joining us today and taking the time to share your experience so openly with us. I really appreciate it. 

[01:17:08] Karen: I'm so grateful for the opportunity. Thank you very much. 

[01:17:11] Steph: Absolutely. And thank all of you for joining us. 

Just a reminder that our Host Week call for speakers is open and you should definitely be thinking about what great topic you would like to present. You can go to https://hostagencyreviews.com/ speaker to apply. 

And if speaking is not your thing, do not worry. That's okay too. You can go and register for Host Week at https://hostagencyreviews.com/hostweek to sign up for the biggest event of the year. Last year, we had 2, 500 registrants. It's free. It's virtual. You don't have to go anywhere.

And it is the last week in January every year. So we want to see you there! 

And that is all for now, folks. We'll chat with you soon. And thank you again, Karen. Thank you. 

[01:17:54] Karen: Take care. 


[01:17:55] Steph: You can read a transcript, view the show notes, and watch a video of today's episode all in one handy place by heading over to hostagencyreviews. com slash T A C and clicking on episode 2 7. 

And if you are feeling unusually productive today, after you submit your Host Week speaker application, let's keep those dopamine hits going when you check something off a list and have you leave us a review on your favorite podcast platform.

That's right, I suddenly realized that we hadn't had any reviews in a few years, and I said to myself, Self you gotta get on that! And now I have done that. I have done a call to action for reviews, I'm gonna check it off my list and feel happy as a little... Let's see, happy as a little otter playing with a seashell.

Speaking of, I am off to the Galapagos next week as I mentioned, so you can follow along on my social feeds to see the pictures of me hugging all the cute little animals. You might also see a picture of me in jail for trying to bring a tortoise on the ship, and they found it during turndown service.

But either way, it should be fun, so follow on social, and we will see you next time.

About the Author
Steph Lee - Host Agency Reviews

Steph Lee

Steph grew up in the travel industry, helping on and off with her mom's homebased travel agency. She has worked with thousands of agents in her role as a former host agency director before leaving in 2012 to start HAR. She's insatiably curious, loves her pups Fennec and Orion, and -- in case you haven't noticed -- is pretty quirky and free-spirited.

If you’re looking for Steph, she leaves a trace where ever she goes! You can find her on Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn (her fav) and Pinterest as 'iamstephly'. 🙂 You can also catch her on her Substack, Bumblin' Around, where she writes on things outside the world of HAR.