Women of the C-Suite: “Why You Should Hire People Smarter Than You” with Michelle Fee CEO of Cruise Planners
Hire People Smarter Than You: I am not afraid to recruit someone who knows more than me about a given topic. In fact, today, we have the strongest executive team and home office Team we have ever had because I put my pride aside and found the right people who can challenge me to get the best result and the job done
As a part of my series about strong female leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing traveling maven, Michelle Fee, CEO of Cruise Planners. Michelle has grown her travel business into one of the number one travel franchises to own, without a college degree. Today, Michelle is an inspiring leader and has cemented her place as one of the industry’s leaders and including being named an Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year National Finalist and an inductee into the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) Hall of Fame. Michelle founded Cruise Planners in 1994 putting travel agents first, and she has never lost sight of creating the right tools to make travel advisors successful.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I didn’t set out to become a travel executive, I actually don’t have a college degree. More than two decades ago, I was the owner of a flourishing full-service travel agency startup. With the boom of the internet, the thriving travel industry was being redefined. I recognized the need to do things differently and that we needed to embrace the technological changes.
I was a young mom who had two small children and we were living paycheck to paycheck, but I knew I had to take a risk and in 1994, Cruise Planners was launched. We implemented a home-based model recruiting and training travel agents to work remotely, exclusively specializing in cruises. At that time, this was unheard of.
For the first three years in business, I didn’t take a paycheck, instead I opted to continually reinvest in the business. We started with just five franchisees and today, we have become the nation’s largest network of home-based travel agents with more than 2,500 travel advisors across all 50 U.S. states, who have evolved to sell all types of travel — cruises, guided land tours and all-inclusive resort vacations.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
I was selected to be the Godmother of a cruise ship. This is a very rare honor that only a few people in the world can claim. As Godmother, I have the distinct pleasure to bless a new ship before it sails and smash an iconic bottle of champagne on the ship’s helm. I remember that day and always think about how lucky I am to do what I do.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
When I first started, it was a struggle to find ways to stand out. Sometimes you need to resort to unconventional or eccentric tactics to get noticed and draw attention to your business. Over the years, I’ve learned not to take myself too seriously. At our annual Cruise Planners convention, my team have me dress in silly outfits and perform skits. When you can laugh at yourself and have people laugh with you, then people are more likely to relate to you as a person, instead of looking at you as a figurehead. I’ve dressed up as a unicorn for National Unicorn Day to celebrate our team members, who we affectionately call unicorns. And for April Fools’ Day, people really thought I dyed my hair green because we really love the color green at Cruise Planners.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Cruise Planners stands out because of our amazing Home Office Team, who we call unicorns, as we know such rare talent can be hard to come by. As a home-based travel franchise, we support small business owners in all 50 states fulfill their dreams of owning their own travel business. Each one of them embodies Cruisitude, our signature word representing a positive outlook on life and a love for all things travel. Also, we are results oriented, so all of our collective efforts are to make our franchise owners shine for their clients.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
We have a few new projects in the works that will be announced at our annual Cruise Planners Convention in December. What I can tell is that at the end of August, we are launching a totally redesigned websites for 2,500 of our franchisees and an individualized CP Mobile app for their clients to access their trip via any smart device — we are always thinking about how technology can help power our marketing efforts, which we call MarTech. Our travel advisors are always just a call away to help travelers get the best value for their vacations… so we know we are helping people see the world, connect with their loved ones and unwind and relax.
What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?
Women need to step up to the plate and make their marks as leaders. You must be able to hold your ground, to speak intelligently and with authority when required — let your voices be heard.
Cruise Planners has an amazing culture and we have a fierce and fearless female leadership team who have an open-door policy. They are incredible at informal mentoring and provide men and women with company and personal goals for them to accomplish. Furthermore, they are given opportunities to interact with different levels of employees who can share additional experiences so they can relate and get a sense of inclusion among colleagues.
I think other leaders should consider creating family-friendly policies and benefits. For example, at Cruise Planners, we offer three weeks of paid vacation for parental leave for moms, dads and even fosters and adoptions. We also support breastfeeding mothers by designing a special room for them to express milk.
Working women tend to suffer from stress and anxiety and are generally the ones responsible for planning their family vacations. Being in the travel industry, we encourage our team members to get out in the world and travel. I think more bosses who support time off and vacations will create fierce loyalty from their team members because family time is important.
What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a large team?
Have the right people in the right jobs. Everyone has their own unique talents and when you have the right team, then they’re unstoppable. Most people will work harder for someone they truly like. I have an open-door policy, so anyone in my office can come in and chat for any reason. There is no ivory tower!
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I’m grateful for my dad. He always told me, “Do what is right, not what is easy.” To grow as a company, you have to challenge yourself by asking, “Is this right, or is this easy?” This means running a company that constantly innovates, pushes the envelope, and jumps into discomfort. As a hair salon owner, he taught me the important lessons of hard work. My first job was sweeping hair up on the floor of the salon, and that humble experience has taught me that nothing is below me and to appreciate every role in a company — no matter how small.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
At Cruise Planners, we’re passionate about travel, but we’re also passionate about giving back to our global community. We have our own charity, CP Cares, that started out as a humble effort to support causes that we, as a family, care about a great deal and raise money all year in different ways. In 2014, I ran for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society’s (LLS) Woman of the Year and was crowned after raising $292,000 towards research and finding a cure for cancer. To date, we’ve raised and donated $2 million to support various charities including the SOS Children’s Village in Coconut Creek, Muscular Dystrophy Association, Kids in Distress, Susan G. Komen, Shoes for Africa, Fisher House Foundation, Wyland Foundation, Angel Notion, Joe DiMaggio Children’s Hospital, Forgotten Soldiers Outreach, A Prom to Remember, and many more. The list of charities that our CP family supports continues to grow annually. Together we can make a difference.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
1. Grow from Criticism: The best way to learn about your business is to ask questions. Call your customers and find out if they are happy with your services. Some may criticize and give you an earful, but this is invaluable feedback and it teaches you how to be better.
2. Be a Unicorn: Figure out how to create a competitive advantage in your industry. There may be many other companies that do exactly what you do — figure out how to stand out in the crowd. Be different… be unique!
3. Build It or Buy It: At the beginning of my career, technology was new to me, so we needed to invest in existing tech products or build our own to meet our unique needs. I decided to invest in building our own and that investment has paid off… Big time. Today, Cruise Planners is known as an innovative technology and marketing company in the travel industry. That investment constantly proves to benefit us and our franchise owners.
4. Hire People Smarter Than You: I am not afraid to recruit someone who knows more than me about a given topic. In fact, today, we have the strongest executive team and Home office Team we have ever had because I put my pride aside and found the right people who can challenge me to get the best result and the job done.
5. Remember Where You Started: Our first-ever Cruise Planners franchisee is still with us today, 25 years later, and I think that is a testament to our dedication to our franchise owners and demonstrates our loyalty.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
At Cruise Planners, we love green! It’s our signature color we call “CP Green.” Recently, Cruise Planners’ Home Office Team did a beach cleanup in Florida and collected 150 pounds of trash. The trash consisted of Styrofoam, rubber pieces and non-biodegradable materials, such as cigarette butts, fishing lines, plastic bottles, caps, bags, cups and so much more. In the travel industry, it’s our responsibility to keep where we live, work and vacation beautiful for generations to come. We’re encouraging everyone to pick up litter wherever you are to help our community to be a better place! Join our #CPGreenChallenge by showing us your efforts with videos or pictures, then challenge your family and friends.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“If we don’t keep evolving, we will become extinct…dinosaurs.” The world is moving at such a fast pace, we too need to be moving. For instance, there is a whole new demographic of travelers: Gen Z (born between 1995 and 2015). They are reshaping the travel industry and buying differently than the Baby Boomers and Millennials do. We need to make sure our nationwide network of home-based travel agents have the tools, technology and know-how to sell to every traveler — we always keep evolving.
We are blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them :-)
I love Oprah! We actually got to sail on Oprah’s Girlfriends’ Getaway cruise where she was officially named Godmother of Holland America Lines’ MS Nieuw Statendam and she is incredibly deserving of that honor. While I was in the audience and heard her inspiring speech, I would love one-on-one time with her as she has built an empire that at its core inspires others to be better versions of themselves — and now also inspiring them to cruise!
Thank you for all of these great insights!
About the author:
Chaya Weiner is the Director of branding and photography at Authority Magazine’s Thought Leader Incubator. TLI is a thought leadership program that helps leaders establish a brand as a trusted authority in their field. Please click here to learn more about Thought Leader Incubator.