Kristan Hamill is cruising for customers.
Recently, Expedia CruiseShipCenters announced it’s bringing more locations to Florida. The franchise travel agency company now counts among its franchises Hamill — with ambitious plans to bring four locations to the Brandon and Bradenton areas.
Hamill has previous franchise experience, having helped run and grow multiple Domino’s Pizza franchises in Los Angeles, Denver and El Paso, Texas, with her ex-husband. She also brings a love of travel to her new venture. Hamill spent her early childhood in Saudi Arabia, for one, and circled the globe as a kid in traveling to Asia and Europe. “It’s part of who I am,” she says.
She says she hopes her life and business experience will help in her new endeavor. But she’ll have to navigate some differences from her last business, among them leading a group of more entrepreneurial-minded people instead of hourly employees.
Based in Nokomis in south Sarasota County, Hamill says her first Expedia CruiseShipCenters locations will be in Ellenton, in north Manatee County, and fast-growing Riverview in Hillsborough County, with the third location likely around Brandon. “We’ll be serving all of those surrounding areas,” she says. “We’re hoping to have our first location open by the end of this year.” For the second, she’s targeting May 2020. So far, she has 11 agents on board and is looking for 25 by November. “We’re very growth focused, whether we do that through brick and mortar or expanding the customer base,” she says.
Hamill wanted to stay in franchising after Domino's. “I started looking around for new opportunities,” she says. “I love to grow businesses.”
Then she discovered Vancouver-based Expedia CruiseShipCenters, part of the Expedia brand travel search and trip planning giant. Expedia CruiseShipCenters was founded in 1987, and now includes over 230 franchise locations open or under development in North America. An investment in a Expedia CruiseShipCenters franchise ranges from $165,495 to $281,990, according to Entrepreneur magazine's Franchise 500 issue.
Hamill used to think cruises were for seniors, but a cruise to the Baltics that included seeing two Russian ballet performances changed her mind. “It made me realize this is a whole new way to think about travel,” she says. “Cruise ships are really like hotels that have entertainment. They can take you from one interesting experience to next.” Another plus? “The cruise industry is growing.”
Before Hamill decided to go with Expedia CruiseShipCenters, she did her research. She interviewed other franchisees and talked extensively with the company. She also went to work for another franchisee as an agent. “I believe with any business you have to start at the bottom,” she says.
'We always have to look to the customers. They are going to tell us what they want and how we can be better.' Kristan Hamill, franchisee, Expedia CruiseShipCenters
Hamill liked the suite of tools that came with Expedia and its competitive pricing. “That was important to me,” she says. “For us to stay competitive, I needed to know we had the advantage of a price. Travel, like pizza, is a low-margin business. It’s about volume. The good news is pretty much everyone travels.”
She also liked that the company is recognizable. “Expedia, like Domino’s, is a trusted and well-known brand, and that’s incredibly important,” she says. “It’s not like going to Joe Shmoe Travel Center.”
From her experience with Domino’s, the lessons that translate include leading teams, sometimes remotely. With Domino’s, three different markets were involved. With Expedia, she won’t be at each location physically all the time.
One major difference between the two experiences is the type of workers she’ll lead. “With quick-service restaurants, that’s not really an entrepreneurial mindset, whereas with travel they have to be,” Hamill says.
She’s looking for people who display an entrepreneurial spirit — and are OK with working on commission. “Our business model is similar to real estate agents,” she says. “Agents are independent contractors and operate like entrepreneurs. Each one of those people has a plan for where they want to take their career.”
To help get them there, Hamill gives her employees plenty of feedback and opportunities to talk with her about goals, tips and questions. She also tells them what she’s learned from working with clients. “Every time I work with a customer, I find a new way of doing something or improving," she says. "We always have to look to the customers. They are going to tell us what they want and how we can be better.”
The customer is crucial, Hamill says, but with franchises, they’re not the only ones who are important. “I think to be successful, putting people first is critical — customers and the people working for the organization,” she says. “If you’re only putting the customer first, you’re really missing something. The agents have to be happy and fulfilled.”