Backed by Expedia, Manatee County travel agency converts clicks to cruises

UNIVERSITY PARK -- Rich Rogers has the opposite challenge for those in Florida who work in tourism: helping people get out of Florida for vacation.

Rogers is the new franchise owner of Expedia CruiseShipCenters, a travel agency with the backing of one of the largest online travel booking websites. The store opened Oct. 16 in the Market at University Town Center, also called University Park Center, beside Kohl's and Tijuana Flats on University Parkway.

It turns out that if Floridians want a cruise for a vacation, it's a relatively easy sale for the state that is the "cruise capital of the world."

"Two-thirds of all cruises are booked through travel agencies," he said. "A lot of it is an untapped market and cruising is really popular, especially in Florida."

CruiseShipCenters started in Vancouver, B.C., and after steady growth Expedia purchased a share of the company in 2007 to offer a brick-and-mortar presence.

"They realized that cruises are a really difficult thing to sell over the Internet because it's consultative travel and not commodity travel," said Tom Galbraith, manager of the University Park agency and a friend of Rogers since high school.

The Expedia name helps create curiosity from customers, Rogers said.

"Many of the different travel websites are owned by Expedia, so the buying power is huge," he said. "We're navigators of spectacular vacation experiences."

Expedia has 43 U.S. locations and 180 worldwide and expects to open another 30 this year.

That formula is what makes a travel agency that touts

cruising successful in Florida including several ports offering cruises and Port Tampa being the closest. Cruises departing from the Sunshine State offer Florida resident discounts and special military rates to help entice locals to set sail.

"When you hear about the billions of dollars invested in new cruse ships coming online, it's really a growing industry," he said.

The Florida-Caribbean Cruise Association estimates that cruise operators are investing more than $14 billion of capital this year. Also, 50 million Americans are interested in cruising over the next three years, Rogers said.

For this area it's double-edged sword because the ships are getting so big that the newer ones cannot fit under the Sunshine Skyway bridge to and from Port Tampa, prompting state officials to consider modifications to the bridge, a partial tunnel or a new port west of the bridge to avoid losing business. But for Rogers, who books cruises out of any port, he only sees opportunities for the area.

"Either way, it's great that the governments and politicians are looking to expand that port," Rogers said. "It's going to bring a lot of business to a lot of people and a lot of jobs."

CruiseShipCenters also books land vacations and other excursions to supplement its business, Rogers said.

Vacationer to vacation planner

Rogers, a New Jersey native, vacationed in the Sarasota-Bradenton area to visit family and relax. He wanted to settle here after recently living in Los Angeles.

He's used to travel in his careers in business operations. His first was for ABC News in New York booking satellite transmissions that took him on domestic and international presidential trips when it was the network's turn for pool reporting.

"I got to go to a lot of places I normally wouldn't have gone to and that gave me the travel bug," he said. "... I liked to travel to begin with but that just accelerated my interest in travel."

After a stint working for a major accounting firm in graphic design, Rogers decided he wanted to leave the traditional corporate environment and be his own boss as a franchisee.

He learned more about CruiseShipCenters and decided to make the permanent move from Los Angeles to Lakewood Ranch.

For him, there's nothing more uplifting than helping people forget their worries.

"I liked the fact that what you work on every day is people coming to you for travel and great vacations," he said. "So, it's a positive thing. You're not just selling a widget or whatever the product might be. This is a positive product to sell, and who doesn't like to travel or sell a vacation?"

Rogers and his consultants help educate customers on the different cruise lines, what type of experience they want, pricing and logistics to help them through booking a tour.

"They don't know what they don't know is what it comes down to," he said. "To ask a few good questions to get an idea of what they like and what their personality is like (is important)."

One of the busiest times for booking cruise travel is in the beginning of the calendar year as people plan out their vacations for the year, he said. Alaskan and European riverboat cruises are two of the more popular and growing destinations, Rogers added, for people who want something other than a Caribbean cruise.

The store also will host events for travelers such as a "first-timers" night for first-time cruisers to help people prepare for their trip or another night for those going on riverboat cruises.

"A lot of the online services don't have the community-based location," he said.

The way the company is structured, the stores not only sell to walk-in customers living in the area, but also help people out of state looking to come to Florida. Each of the travel agents are independent contractors who can build a database of customers to help build their own business, and the new agency is hiring. So far the University Park location has a dozen consultants.

Rogers and his consultants will also be on hand during the Chamber Expo co-hosted by the Manatee and Sarasota chambers of commerce from 5 to 8 p.m. Nov. 13 at the Bradenton Area Convention Center, One Haben Blvd., Palmetto.

Charles Schelle, Herald business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7095. Follow him on Twitter @ImYourChuck.