Profile: CruiseCenter Focuses on Couture Cruising

Ellen Kalish and Tom Baker in St. Petersburg, Russia. The two travel several months out of the year to find new experiences for clients.(CruiseCenter ( Editorial Only)

When we caught up with Tom Baker and Ellen Kalish of CruiseCenter recently, they’d just booked a half-million-dollar safari for a family whose full intent is to repeat the experience every year going forward. Baker and Kalish were also extremely buzzed about Crystal Cruises’ plans to build new ocean vessels and expand into the luxury yacht, air and river cruising businesses. “That alone adds another 25 years to my career, which I’m enormously excited about,” Baker tells Luxury Travel Advisor.

The reality is, Baker and Kalish, who own CruiseCenter, a $15.5 million, Houston-based agency, are extremely pumped about the developments in travel all around.

“The bar is now being pushed so high in the luxury sector, including hotels and cruises; there are also some pretty lavish tours when you look at A&K and Travcoa and the other really fine brands,” says Kalish.

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This elevation of luxury travel products is being complemented by a higher level of service, as suppliers realize they can’t make a mistake with today’s discerning travelers. “They’re pushing one another to become better and better,” says Kalish. She notes that most of the top cruise lines pay fastidious attention to the feedback they get from clients, using onboard questionnaires and opinions of past guests to measure their successes in categories such as service and food and beverage. “Some live and die by those numbers,” she says.

With higher offerings and better-than-ever service levels, what could make life even finer for these luxury travel advisors? Big-spending clients, that’s what. Kalish and Baker report that their baby boomer clients, who are extremely sophisticated travelers, have amped up their travel budgets, in a major way.

“They’ve become more and more used to the best. They’re spending, and we can hardly believe the close-in high bookings we’re seeing,” says Kalish. “They’re spending on their families; grandma and grandpa are taking kids and the grandkids on luxury cruises. We’re seeing them on Royal Caribbean, and on Crystal Cruises, Regent and Seabourn.”

Because of this multitude of reasons, Baker and Kalish feel there’s never been a better time for luxury travel advisors. Those consumers who had been doing their own travel for years have simply gotten fed up with trying to figure it all out and are looking to travel advisors for assistance. Baker says when they were doing it solo they were very confused, despite all the tools available to them online. “They couldn’t figure out which day was what, which hotel was where, or which brand it belonged to. They really didn’t know the difference between cruise products at all.”

It’s that very abundance of information online that strengthens CruiseCenter’s luxury business, because clients need someone to interpret the luxury product. “We have studiously cultivated the client who absolutely comes to us and says, ‘help me, tell me, educate me, show me what to do,’” says Kalish, who adds that the agency doesn’t hesitate to send a client to the Internet to check out a specific website, so they can research a product. “We like educated clients and we like to be able to say, ‘Here’s an online link, take a look,’” she says, noting that after they’ve done their research, they come back to CruiseCenter and spend.

Baker points to a California client who started out cruising on Celebrity in Aqua class who is now spending $27,000 on a three-bedroom villa on NCL for their family.

“I have seen this time and time again, where clients will start off with something fairly modest and the increase in spend has gone up,” he says. “The client in California told me, ‘You know, we’re getting older. We’re approaching our early 60s, our kids are all out of the house, and what are we going to do? My husband and I have a nice amount of money set aside, and we want to take our kids and grandkids and enjoy them as much as we can before we’re unable to do it.’”

This “spend-it-now” attitude from clients varies wildly from 20 to 25 years ago when people waited to travel until they retired, and it was often too late to do so.

“The shift in spending is really great for the right travel agent focusing on that right customer,” says Baker.

With a name like CruiseCenter, there’s no question of what this travel agency’s core business is, but Baker and Kalish and their team of 11 advisors certainly sell more than ships.

“It’s boring to us to simply sell a cruise,” notes Kalish, who says her team looks at itineraries and makes suggestions for each port. For example, in Santorini, CruiseCenter has access to a sailboat that can be chartered. “We are always looking at pre, post and during,” she says of their cruise bookings.

She and Baker credit CruiseCenter’s agency consortia, Signature Travel Network, with providing them with a great portfolio of destination specialists who can assist with special access all around the world. She and Baker also travel the world, finding guides who can make a regular experience a great one, who can provide memories that the client doesn’t even know are possible.

“That is our stock and trade,” Kalish tells Luxury Travel Advisor.

In fact, private guides are de facto at CruiseCenter. “There is not a customer I have in my portfolio that I don’t do private guides or private excursions for in every port, unless it’s such an obscure place there's just a beach dock,” says Baker. “Ship shore excursions for a client who is well traveled are almost passé. They hate the idea of getting on a bus with uncommon travelers, and from our perspective we use a little guilt in pushing the envelope a bit. I will say to a customer considering a cruise line shore excursion, ‘have you thought about the fact that you are going to be on a bus with 40 uncommon travelers, and there might be somebody who gets lost shopping and you have to sit on the bus and wait for them?’ They usually finally say, ‘Go get us a private guide.’”

Once a client has experienced a private excursion they’re hooked.

“That’s the key to the kingdom that opens the door to the realization that while everyone else is getting on a motorcoach, our client is getting into a lovely black vehicle with a nicely dressed guide and driver. It changes the luxury cruise to a luxury experience, and then it just builds,” says Kalish.

The agency also sees its FIT business, sans cruise, growing at a healthy clip. For example, one of Baker’s clients who has done eight cruises recently requested a land vacation in Machu Picchu. “I’m going to create a unique experience for them,” he says. “I’ve also got clients who have been booking Oceania’s best suites for years for whom I’ve just booked a $30,000 per couple Made for Spain FIT that focuses on their heritage.”

How CruiseCenter Came to Be

Kalish and Baker have each been in the industry for about 30 years, but their paths didn’t converge until they found themselves at Atlas Travel in Houston, a powerhouse corporate travel agency. Baker was actually hired by Michelle Morgan (Signature Travel’s former leader) in 1984 to work at Ask Mr. Foster Travel. In 1986, he went to work for Cruise Holidays with industry veterans Joe and Vivian Ewart, who were operating company-owned franchises in Southern California. Later that year, he became the youngest DSM hired by Holland America Line. After covering the Los Angeles area for nearly 10 years, he moved to Houston and joined Atlas Travel.

Kalish got the travel bug after escorting a group of students on a seven-week tour of Europe. She and her husband began traveling the world, and in 1987, her travel agent offered her a position, observing: “You know more about travel than I do.” After building a large clientele in Houston and beyond, Kalish was recruited by Atlas Travel in 1994.

CruiseCenter’s foundation was established in 1996 when Atlas’ owner, Ariel Leibovitz, gave Kalish and Baker free reign to enhance the corporate agency’s scope by developing a leisure component that focused on the growing cruise market. Navigant International purchased Atlas in 1998. In 2003, Kalish and Baker partnered with Leibovitz to purchase CruiseCenter from Navigant.

The partners have operated CruiseCenter as a private company for the past 12 years, with high-end luxury travel and special interest event groups as the cornerstones of the business. CruiseCenter joined Signature Travel Network in 2004 and quickly became one of the group’s top producing agencies.

Over that time, the agency has moved full-force in to the luxury sector. Case in point: In 2007, CruiseCenter was a larger and more diverse agency, bringing in about $20 million in sales annually. That’s a healthy business but the partners felt they were becoming all things to all people.

“We were doing multiple Alaska cruise groups of 500-700 passengers throughout the summer season at a price point of only $499 to $899,” recalls Kalish.

After the market collapse and economic adjustment, the three partners sat down and analyzed every piece of their enterprise to determine the most profitable one to keep. The decision? To walk away from low-profit business and to focus instead on the top 20 percent of their clients. As a result, they retrained their agents to hone in on offering unique travel experiences and higher-commission products.

“We encouraged them to craft personalized travel plans using Signature’s higher-end cruise and tour vendors, hotels and destination specialists,” says Kalish. The strategy worked; CruiseCenter increased its profits exponentially in less than a year, she says.

Today, CruiseCenter reaps $15.5 million in annual sales, operating at a higher profit margin, thanks to its move to luxury. Its affluent clients span all age groups; all are anxious to explore new places and to revisit favorites.

The agency is located in a four-story office building in Houston where it garners a few walk-in clients. Primarily, business is conducted by phone-in conversations that include interviewing clients extensively to determine which products are truly a fit for them.

“We discourage electronic-only conversations as they often leave something to be desired and are generally not conducive to building the type of relationships that result in happy and loyal clients,” says Kalish.

Network Know How

CruiseCenter uses Signature’s cruise and tour amenities to “gift” its clients with onboard credits and private touring experiences; Kalish says they’ve found such offerings to be great tools to close sales. “Often it’s the complimentary Signature private experience that introduces our clients to the concept of private touring. Once they’ve done it, they’re spoiled forever and willing to pay for custom experiences on their future cruises and land vacations,” she says.

The agency also uses the value-added amenities in Signature’s preferred hotel program to “sell up” and to differentiate itself from online consolidators.

Signature’s CRM tools also come in to play at CruiseCenter; they’re used to capture clients’ personal and transaction data for back-office functions, marketing decisions, forecasting and business analysis. Signature’s cruise search feature and other content have also been integrated into CruiseCenter’s website; the agency also participates in Signature’s direct-mail and e-mail marketing programs, which are branded under the agency’s name.

Supplier Savvy

Kalish and Baker are strong advocates of training and welcome frequent vendor visits and presentations in their Houston office. “We find ‘in-person’ training considerably more effective than webinars, as they allow us to discuss strategies for selling to our higher-end clients while simultaneously providing continuous education, which keeps us current and better able to match product with clients’ needs,” says Kalish.

They also feel it’s imperative to know the management of all the leading tour operators, cruise lines and hotels, noting it keeps them relevant as a company and ensures they are remembered when they need to call in a favor or urgently need help in a crisis.

“We use our top-producer status with every major supplier and Signature along with Tom’s Conde Nast Traveler and Wendy Perrin’s “Wow” list status to position our agency leadership in both our marketing to clients and with vendors to open doors,” says Kalish.

“We have studiously cultivated the client who comes to us and says, ‘help me, tell me, educate me, show me what to do,’”

—Ellen Kalish

Each of CruiseCenter’s advisors has been in the business for more than 20 years; their specialties range from exotic travel to affinity groups, special celebrations and multigenerational travel. All are FIT specialists who, of course, also have an expertise in premium and luxury cruising.

“CruiseCenter’s predominant focus is on our customer’s leisure travel experience,” says Kalish. “We thrive on creating couture travel experiences and have built long-lasting relationships by paying close attention to their requests, needs, lifestyles and aspirations. We are 110 percent focused on our best customers.”

And so it’s likely Baker and Kalish will remain upbeat about the luxury travel sector. “We are bullish on luxury travel and see the growth future of the market as quite bright,” says Kalish. “As more and more agents seem to focus on selling low-cost travel and services, we continue to refine our skills at finding and servicing the right high-end business for CruiseCenter.”

And as the level of luxury products and service continues to rise, Baker and Kalish plan to raise the bar on the service they provide to their own clients.

“It’s always got to be right, and it’s always got to be good. In that respect, we’re in the same position as our luxury suppliers. We have to deliver those same kinds of excellent trips. We personally hold ourselves to that same standard,” says Kalish.

At the same time, the plan is to have a good time, as Kalish and Baker move CruiseCenter forward.

“We love what we do, and we are very passionate and very fortunate to be doing what we do,” says Baker. “As I said, I hope I have another 25 years because I couldn’t imagine retiring. The future is nothing but bright. It gives me a smile every day.”


Partners: Ellen Kalish, Tom Baker and Ariel Leibovitz

Headquarters: Houston, TX

Number of agents: 11          

Annual volume of business: $15.5 million

Affiliations: Signature Travel Network (2004 – present)


Over the top

You can find Tom Baker and Ellen Kalish of CruiseCenter traveling globally between two to three months every year; for Baker, that includes escorting multiple group departures. On their journeys, they make it a priority to visit top hotels and engage destination specialists to explore options for unique touring activities. Their goal is to return with personal recommendations for their well-traveled clients for both FIT and group travel. Their goal is to answer “yes” when clients ask them if they’ve been to a place they’re recommending. Baker’s most recent “famous feats” include family reunion safaris priced at more than $500,000 to yacht charters in the Mediterranean. He recently created custom Indian elephant and tiger safaris in remote lodges and parks. Baker also built two custom luxury travel journeys by chartering the Norwegian Haven two years in a row and providing experiences with private guides. The program included private family tours, gourmet dining and a bevy of value-added experiences over a week’s period with pre and post hotel and sightseeing.

“The key here was providing couture experiences for up to 30 families [not related to one another] all sailing the same week,” says Baker. “It was remarkable to see the rows of private luxury vehicles at each port as guests were privately whisked on and off the ship as others looked on wondering what it was all about.”

Kalish’s “over-the-top” travel plans have included a bespoke jetset honeymoon on the French Riviera for a Ferrari-loving couple. Following a luxury cruise, they embarked on a two-week Ferrari self-drive itinerary, which culminated in lavish celebrations by Ferrari owners from all over Europe who gathered at Place du Casino in Monte-Carlo. 

Kalish also created a series of complex trips for a milestone anniversary for a couple who love bird’s-eye views from helicopters and hot-air balloons. Five unique trips spanned a full year, combining luxury cruises and land travel with in-depth flightseeing treks over Alaska, Egypt, East and South Africa, Brazil, Australia and New Zealand.

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