Portrait of a Company is the first of an occasional series
focusing on travel industry success stories.
EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J. -- It was late in the afternoon -- near
quitting time for most 9-to-5 firms but closer to the halfway mark
at Cruise Value Center's workday -- when Paula Kivet walked two
doors down to show off where Cruise Value Center got its start 11
Back then, three people worked at the agency: Paula Kivet, then
45 years old; her husband, Jeff Kivet, 47; and one part-timer. It
was a $60,000 investment, and the husband-and-wife team worked
weekends and until 10 p.m. most nights.
Today, the original site of the Cruise Value Center shop is a
shoe store, and Cruise Value Center has devoured real estate in the
same strip mall along one of central New Jersey's busiest retail
The agency now employs about 80 people here and, depending on
whom you ask, around 100 active independent contractors around the
The Kivets haven't cut their hours back much: They start
shutting down around 9 or 10 p.m. The Internet, meanwhile, is open
24 hours a day.
Just don't call Cruise Value Center's CEO Jeff Kivet a travel
agent -- "Captain Jeff" prefers to be called an entrepreneur. You
also could call Cruise Value Centers one of the largest mom-and-pop
cruise-only agencies in the U.S.
Kivet said Cruise Value Center is on track to take in around $60
million this year, more than $20 million better than in 2003.
"I was in the business six months and I realized if I wait for
the customer to call me and react to his needs I'm going to be last
to the finish line," he said.
Cruise Value Center is online in a big way these days, and last
month it was the recipient of Carnival Cruise Lines' Automated
Agency of the Year award. Kivet said online sales -- from people
who book at www.cruisevalue.com, and people who call in via the
number posted on the site and business sourced from third-party
sites like Travelzoo and CruiseCompete -- represent about 40% of
the retailer's sales.
Part of Cruise Value Center's success is the careful attention
it pays to consumers' bottom line.
Kivet said he'll do "whatever it takes," including rebating or
discounting, to make a deal. But Kivet also said a lot of his savvy
pricing depends on thinking ahead. He blocks group space two years
in advance. He sells insurance, and he also sells shore excursions
through a third-party supplier.
"We know exactly where people want to go. We try to know what's
hot and what's not," he said. "That's unique from the average
agency, which is reactive. Do as many packages and charters in
advance and have everything set up in advance so when they call I'm
ready to give them a deal."
Bob Dickinson, Carnival Cruise Lines' CEO, said Kivet is a
"He works very hard, he's not afraid to invest money, he built
up his business, he motivates his people," Dickinson said. "He's
not an Expedia or a Travelocity or an NLG, but he's grown his
That growth is reflected in the size of the agency's office,
which more than doubled in 2002 after Kivet took over adjoining
retail space. Marilynn Boeker, Cruise Value Center's director of
sales who led a TravelWeekly.com reporter through the ranks of
sales agents (called cruise consultants here), the documents
department and the Internet group, said the business has
practically outgrown its new quarters, as well.
Near Captain Jeff's office a lunchroom doubles as a meetings
room for product-training sessions.
Cruise Value Center is big on efficiency. Phone reps answer the
calls and take down the prospective clients' basics, like name,
phone number, which lines they've cruised on before (if any) and
which ones they'd like to cruise on this time (if any).
The results are passed on to Boeker or sales manager Anthony
Amato, who distributes them to one of the cruise consultants.
According to Kivet, the trick is to keep consultants focused on
selling, not on the paperwork.
On this day, nearly everyone was on the phone.
Cruise Value Center's consultants are grouped by expertise, and
its "platinum" agents such as Sharon Parchment, who did $2.5
million in sales last year, are situated along one row.
"They can sell anything, from Caribbean to around-the-world,"
Parchment's best sale: "Probably my QMs," she said, referring to
clients she booked on the Queen Mary 2. "I booked my trip two years
On the other side of the wall, top agent David Hauser took one
call after another: A lady who wanted to book the QM2 -- but only
if she could do a pre-cruise stay in Athens -- then a client who
wondered if he should bring his passport to the pier and one who
called to book a cruise on the Brilliance of the Seas.
"Beautiful ship, the Brilliance," Hauser said as he pulled up
the deck plans. "Let's get a booking here for you."
To contact reporter Rebecca Tobin, send e-mail to [email protected].