Lori Berberian Pelentay is not ashamed to say she uses old-fashioned binders and paper reservations forms to keep track of her bookings, client payments and such.
"Computers crash," she said. "I'm a tactile person, and I need to see the paper in front of me. When I look at my booking form I see in a moment what I need to see. It's a system that works for me, so why change?"
Pelentay, a home-based agent who owns Pasadena, Calif.-based Kensington Cruises, once hired a helper to enter client information in CRM software. She soon realized she wasn't using the software and decided to accept that she wouldn't switch to the new system.
It's the kind of advice that Pelentary offers in a self-published guide she wrote for new travel agents, "How to Sell Cruises," available on Amazon. Pelentay, who started working for for Princess Cruises in 1984, draws on her years of experience at the cruise line and as a travel agent for the book's content.
Lori Berberian Pelentay
She spent a year on board the Pacific Princess (the "Love Boat") sailing in the Mediterranean and later returned home to southern California to work in-house at Princess, rising from reservation agent to a role in the "dispatch" department that directed communication between ships and the head office.
In 2000, she started her agency and affiliated with southern California-based Montrose Travel's host agency division. During Montrose's annual conferences for its independent agents Pelentay found herself talking with new agents who wanted to specialize in cruises. She realized that she had a lot of information to share.
"Everyone had a million questions and they kept sending me emails with more questions, and I realized that I could write a book," she said. She said she has sold between 20 and 30 copies a month since it was released in 2013.
Pelentay relies on word-of-mouth referrals for almost all of her business, and she advises other agents to build their business through referrals. She suggests they carry stacks of business cards with them to hand out any time, anywhere, and to routinely talk about travel.
"The best thing I can say about how I've done it is that I am constantly opening my mouth and telling people what I do," she said.
Pelentay also "works really hard" at keeping her clients. She sends holiday cards and birthday cards to remind them that she's there to serve their travel needs.
She's seen a lot of changes over her years, particularly the drop in cruise commissions. As a result, she charges new clients a $50 fee to research a cruise, which is applied to their booking, if they decide to book. If they don't, she keeps the fee. "I don't want to deal with shoppers," she said.
"I purposely don't advertise on the internet. I only want referrals, because I can't deal with shoppers who only want to nickel and dime one cruise against another."
About 30% of her business is groups, primarily multigenerational families, girlfriend getaways and church groups. She generates about $500,000 in annual sales with her first love, Princess. However, she's recently expanded into European river cruises and sees that as a segment with much potential, particularly for groups.
Her biggest challenge is time management.
"Sometimes I will work to 9 or 11 at night," she said. "That's what happens when you're running your own business."