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 years ago.

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 corridors.

The agency now employs about 80 people here and, depending on whom you ask, around 100 active independent contractors around the U.S.

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 "go-getter."

"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 business phenomenally."

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," Boeker said.

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 ago."

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].

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