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Business Focus: Cruise Planners

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Cruises are only for the newly wed or the nearly dead, right?

“Nothing could be further from the truth,” says J. J. Kuykendall, owner and operator of JJ Cruise Planners based in Oak Ridge North. “Cruises offer great value for everyone, regardless of their age or interests,” she says. “You can do as little or as much as you want. There are shows, surfing, ice skating, nightly shows, theaters, casinos, shops, specialty shops, trips to ports, swimming with dolphins, and stingrays.”

Kuykendall swam with stingrays on a recent cruise, something she never would have thought about when she was growing up in Jefferson, Texas. “We didn’t go anywhere,” she recalls. After finishing high school, she earned an associate degree in dental assisting from Tyler Junior College. In 1978, she married her husband Jim, employed then by Union Pacific, now the human resources director for Port Terminal Railroad, as well as the current mayor of Oak Ridge North. The couple have two daughters, Jessica Locke and Jennifer Hallgren, and have four grandchildren. Kuykendall was a dental assistant for the first several years of her marriage. “It was good,” she says, but with the birth of her second daughter in 1987, she decided to become a stay-at-home mom.

In 1995, her husband’s employer transferred the family to Houston. When a group of church friends wanted to go on a cruise, Kuykendall found herself working with the travel agent to make the necessary arrangements. She relished the task. “I love putting people together, organizing, ‘We’re going to do this, we’re going to do that,’” she says. In working with the agent, Kuykendall noticed that every time she called her office, the agent, not someone else, answered the phone. The agent explained that she worked out of her home. “I was like, wow!”

But Kuykendall didn’t think more about becoming part of the travel industry until two years later when she began investigating possible business opportunities. “I thought that travel agent thing, that was a blast, and I loved the cruise.” After diligently researching the industry, she became a franchisee of Cruise Planners American Express Travel in 2004. After six days of initial training, she opened her agency in Oak Ridge North. Her fears about attracting business proved groundless. She put out the word among family and friends that she had a travel agency and asked that they give her a chance to make vacation arrangements for them. They did.

Today, Kuykendall’s clientele are spread across the U.S. and reach into Canada, almost all based on word of mouth referrals from satisfied customers. She has earned the Master Cruise Counselor (MCC) certification from the International Association of Travel Agents, as well as various travel related awards, including the Million Dollar Club award for sales leadership. She continues to take online classes to stay abreast of travel industry developments. She has also added three agents to her business.

Her success, she believes, is founded on building relationships with people she has never met in person and putting together people who have a common interest. A case in point, she says, was the first group cruise she put together—a scrapbooking group. A friend who had a scrapbook business used her internet contacts to alert scrapbookers about the upcoming cruise, and one of the persons who signed on for the trip was a lady who lived in Tennessee. Building on that relationship, Kuykendall estimates she has since booked cruises for four to five different generation groups from Tennessee. “It’s just amazing,” she says.

Even though she books cruises out of ports across the country and abroad, Kuykendall believes the Galveston port is especially ideal for local first-time cruisers. “It is so easy,” she says. “You don’t have to fool with flying somewhere first. We have a choice of four, five, or seven nights out of Galveston.” Two cruise lines, Carnival and Royal Caribbean International, embark from Galveston to Caribbean destinations.

Potential customers hesitant about a cruise because of fears about health issues can take a significant step toward protecting themselves against such occurrences by following common practices of good hygiene. “It’s the whole cleanliness thing,” Kuykendall says. “Wash your hands frequently. All cruise ships have hand sanitizing machines in public areas.” Every ship has medical personnel and is equipped with a hospital to address medical emergencies, she says.

For passengers susceptible to motion sickness, Kuykendall recommends they opt for cabins located in midship where they will not experience as much motion as in forward or stern locations. Additionally, she says, they might want to try pressure bands around their wrists, available over the counter at drug stores, or obtain a physician’s prescription for a scopolamine patch that can be worn behind one’s ear. Sufferers should also drink plenty of water during the cruise, as well as avoid staring at the horizon.

News stories concerning illnesses aboard cruise ships have not noticeably dampened her booking requests, Kuykendall reports. “It makes a good story. People like to talk about it. But when people are asking me about it, they’re like, ‘Hey, did the price of my cruise go down?’” Prices usually don’t fluctuate in response to such stories, she says, although she notes cruise prices across the industry were lowered for a short time in the wake of the Costa Concordia running aground off the coast of Tuscany in 2012, resulting in the death of 32 people.

One option for budget conscious travelers to get a good deal on rates, Kuykendall advises, is to book the cruise about three months ahead of the targeted departure date. If rates should fall in the meantime, the lower rate can be passed along to the customer. Kuykendall can also set up a “pay-to-sail” plan, which allows customers make installment payments for the cruise.

While cruises account for the lion’s share of her business, Kuykendall also handles all other kinds of travel arrangements, some of which involve adventures in exotic locations. If the traveler encounters a problem abroad, Kuykendall feels it is her duty to come to the rescue. For instance, two years ago she booked a vacation package for a man and his son to spend three days climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro, followed by three days on an African safari. The man called Kuykendall in the wee hours of the morning to say that, because the luggage had been lost, he and his son could not make the climb as planned because they lacked the proper gear. Kuykendall made a flurry of calls to travel vendors and managed to reverse the itinerary, allowing the customer and his son to proceed to their safari. In the meantime, their luggage was found and couriered to them while they were in the bush, so they were able to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro as planned. The client did not incur additional charges. “I really try to take so good care of my people,” Kuykendall says.

A major misconception people have about her services is that they increase travel costs. “It does not cost you any more to use me. The cruise lines, the resorts, the hotels pay me commissions to take care of you. I have many vendors to help you. I’m going to be your advocate if anything goes wrong. It’s never been about how much money I can make. It’s always been about the best interests of my clients.”

Travel is not only Kuykendall’s profession, it’s also her passion. “The world out there is just amazing,” she says. She takes a couple of cruises and land trips annually, and has visited several foreign countries. She and her husband also enjoy rolling out their fifth wheeler to go on camping excursions with friends and family, and are active in Grace Crossing Community Church of Christ.

Kuykendall may be reached by email at jjkuykendall@cruiseplanners.com, by phone at (281) 292-7022, or through her website at funcruises4you.com.

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