Some of you might know that my North Carolina State University degree is in chemical engineering, and I worked in various parts of very technical industries. Along the way, I met the woman who would become the love of my life and my wife, Sherrie, who was as deeply involved in the travel industry.
Not surprisingly, a lot of her friends were also in the travel industry, and at a party one evening a person there commented, "Charlie won't be satisfied until he's in this business up to his neck."
I just laughed and laughed because there was no way I was going to walk away from university training, what today would be well over a six-figure income, first-dollar medical coverage, a company car and more.
But I did join the industry, becoming part of a company in 1993 that Sherrie had started in our basement 12 years earlier.
And I'm glad I did it, if for no other reason than I wake up each morning thinking, I get to go do challenging things that I enjoy today. But more important than that were the acquaintances and friends we made over the years.
Some of them, such as Dave Christopher, Rod McLeod and Bob Dickinson, have retired from the day-to-day side of the cruise industry (although Bob remains an active founding board member of Carnival Corp.), leaving an enduring imprint on the business.
And that brings me to another recent retiree: Maurice Zarmati. "Mo" was one of three Arison Shipping employees selected to join the original team of 24 that would launch Carnival Cruise Lines.
Micky Arison, Carnival Corp. chairman and CEO, characterized Mo as "one of a trusted core of individuals who built [Carnival Cruise Lines] into the largest, most popular cruise line in the world."
Mo has always been an advocate for travel retailers. In his words, "retailers have been important to the cruise industry since day one and will continue to be vital. The challenge is for retailers to get their best deal. A retailer has to be willing to go to a cruise line and say, 'If I do these things for you, what are you going to do for me?' The key is to have a plan and not be bashful about asking for things."
Digressing for a moment, "don't be bashful" was apparently a trait universally respected, at least at Carnival Cruise Lines. Sherrie and I once asked our Carnival business development manager to arrange a meeting for us with Bob Dickinson, who at the time was vice president of sales and marketing.
To our surprise, Bob invited us to lunch, and we learned much of one another.
At one point, I asked him bluntly, "What do we have to do to be a Carnival Agency of the Year?" That evoked a chuckle from Sherrie.
Bob replied, "Don't laugh. I've never known anyone who asked for something and had their questions answered that wasn't successful."
The CliffsNotes version is that Bob outlined the things we had to do over the next two or so years, we wrote a business plan to implement them and were named Carnival's Agency of the Year for 1990. Don't be bashful.
Returning to my discussion with Mo: "Retailers should expect support from cruise lines and in turn consider almost anything negotiable, including front-end, at-source commissions, back-end overrides, group commissions, tour conductors, onboard amenities and more. But don't even consider ... going into any such negotiation without a clear plan that defines performance goals, how they will be measured with a timeline.
"The biggest and most common mistake made by both parties is failure to follow up. The most important part of planning is to realize that not every project will succeed. Never be afraid to fail."
I asked Mo what retailers had to do to remain relevant in a business that verges on becoming a commodity in some segments.
"It's still a business of relationships, first and foremost," he said. "Not only between retailer and consumer but retailer and supplier." And a master at forging relationships should know.
"Retailers need to take specialization to the next level," he added, employing as an example a surgeon in the Miami area who specialized in complex spinal cord injuries. "If someone has a spinal injury, [this surgeon] is the only guy anyone thinks of. Retailers need to become the doctor of cruise travel in the market they serve so that everyone thinks of them when they think of a cruise.
"Retailers need to learn about their clients, what makes them tick. Then they can sell what the client really needs, not what the client thinks they want. Retailers have to make sure they stay current and are attractive to buyers.
"They need to hire salespeople, not order-takers. This is a high-tech business, but it's also high touch. Hire people who have a passion for what they do, who actually want to and enjoy helping others enrich their lives. If you have staff that is content to work for a flat pay rate, it's unlikely they will have a reason to excel. Incentivize your staff to stimulate them to be superstars."
Moreover, he added, "I'll tell you this: Ten years from now, travel agents will play an even bigger role in the cruise industry than today."
That's the voice of 43 years of experience speaking to us. It's our choice how we each choose to listen to a man whom I am honored to call my friend.
Charlie and Sherrie Funk own Just Cruisin' Plus in Brentwood, Tenn., and have provided agent and agency-owner training throughout North America on every facet of travel agency operations. They are the authors of several books, including "A Recipe for Travel Agency Success," "Creating a Blueprint for Growing Your Agency" and "You're Invited," a complete guide to hosting consumer travel events.