Captivating Cruises & Travel Tips with Kathleen Cooper Fitzpatrick, Director of Group Travel with Magnolia Travel Group

June 7, 2018

 

Jenny Cox Holman, Lifestyle | Travel Editor for Mississippi Matters, visited with Kathleen Cooper Fitzpatrick, Director of Group Travel with Magnolia Travel Group, to learn great travel tips and vacation planning advice for unforgettable family vacations and couples' cruises. 

 

 

 

Kathleen, can you tell us about your journey into the role as the Director of Group Travel with Magnolia Travel Group?

 

I owned a home based cruise and Caribbean travel agency for 11 years while my children were in school. During that time, I earned my Masters in Cruise Counseling, MCC through CLIA, and have sailed on over 85 cruises since 1977. I specialized both in cruises and vacations for individuals as well as for small and large groups. I am now Director of Group Travel for Magnolia Travel Group, but also handle any type of travel for individuals, couples and families.

 

I’ve gotten to know chefs, maitre d’s, directors of food services and cruise line executives and have handled all types of needs for clients prior to their arrival.

 

I have coordinated onboard weddings and wedding cruise groups; multi-generational reunions at sea; booked large Jewish families who require very strict kosher food preparation; ordered oxygen tanks to be waiting in staterooms; motorized scooters waiting in staterooms around the world; shipped golf clubs and luggage ahead to ships in United States and Europe so my clients could travel before their cruise; the list goes on and on after 30 years in this business.

 

When I began writing this article, I pulled out old photos.  Please indulge me to begin with a story which tells where my love for cruising all began.  It shows how much the cruise industry has changed and exploded in the past 30 years. This story comes out of a tattered, yellowed college scrapbook. 

 

 

What has changed in 30 years?

 

Large ships were sailing with 600-1000 passengers in the late 1970’s. In 2018, The Symphony of the Seas became the largest passenger ship ever built.  It is about 5 times the size of the Titanic.  With 22 restaurants, 24 pools, 2200 crew members, the Symphony can sail at capacity with 6680 guests.  Surprisingly, you don’t feel crowded because there are 18 decks, 24 elevators and 7 “neighborhoods”. Each neighborhood has its own personality and atmosphere, so passengers tend to segregate in different areas.

 

 

Nightly theme nights in the restaurants and extravagant midnight buffets have given way to unbelievable onboard activities and entertainment. Later in this article, I have listed the myriad of onboard activities on just a few of Royal Caribbean’s new ships.  It is mind-boggling how many amazing things there are to do onboard today’s ships for passengers of any age.  There are also well-planned quiet areas, adult only sundecks, beautiful spas, libraries, and nooks lounges where you can enjoy peace and quiet. And security… it has changed everywhere in the world!

 

Cruise line security was not tight in the 70’s.  If you had a Royal Caribbean Cruise Line Passenger Landing Card dated for that week, you could walk on any RCCL ship.  Can you imagine that now!!!  You cannot get on your own ship now without your boarding pass!

 

Ships often stayed in port up to midnight.  We boarded other Royal Caribbean Cruise Line ships in port and visited with their passengers.  We would always sit near officers from our ship in the lounge and knew we must leave when they left so as not to miss our ship!

 

Can you share with us about your profession and expertise as a Travel Advisor and Director of Group Travel?

 

The first two weeks I ever spent on a cruise ship - the smallest RCCL ship with very few onboard activities by today’s standards, were magical to me!  Since the day I stepped off of the Nordic Prince, I’ve had a love for cruising that has grown as much as the cruise industry. I did not join the travel industry for another decade but continued to cruise every year and invited friends to join me.  This may have been the beginning of my desire to coordinate cruise groups.

 

My first career began as the Fashion and Special Events Director for D.H. Holmes.  I was promoted to a regional position over stores in Mississippi, Alabama and Florida and thought retailing would be my long-term career. Eleven years later, Dillards bought all 28 stores.  I was suddenly faced with having to find a whole new career path. I had “sold” many friends and family on taking a cruise because my genuine enthusiasm for cruising was so obvious.  Cruise lines were not mass marketing like they are now and the majority of people were not familiar with cruising.  

 

I worked with a local agency for 2 years, then opened Vacation Destinations, a home-based cruise and Caribbean travel agency. I chose to specialize in three things: personalized service, product knowledge, and both individual and group travel. These same goals have always been important to me as a Travel Advisor.  They were just as important in 1991, before travel was widely available on the internet, as they are in 2018. 

 

(Personalized Service) I use the title of Travel Advisor because I have never wanted to be just an “order taker”.  Many in the travel industry not only offer their clients their expertise, but also professional, personalized service that you cannot get by booking online. 

 

In the early 90’s, I set out to visit and learn as much about every ship, resort and Caribbean island as possible to help my client make the best decisions in planning their vacation, honeymoon, or special trip.

 

I earned my Masters in Cruise Counseling, MCC, through CLIA and have sailed on over 85 cruises since 1977.  At one time, I could say that I had sailed on every ship on which I was booking my clients.  That is not feasible today, with over 350 ships and many ones being christened every year.  I continue to cruise, travel and study to stay up-to-date as much as possible.

I’ve sailed from budget ships to ultra luxury ships and everything in between; from outside staterooms to the top level butler-service suites; in a single cabin when I was escorting cruises and in quad occupancy staterooms with my family.  I’ve sailed with four generations of my family- from my grandfather and mother both in wheelchairs to my two young sons. I’ve sailed when I was barely finished taking very strong chemo and I’ve sailed 3 weeks following major back surgery. Most importantly, I always learn things on every cruise, in every port and in every situation that make me a better Travel Advisor!  

 

While onboard ships, escorting groups or in industry meetings, I have met chefs, Maitre’ D’s, Directors of Food, Directors of Youth Programs, Directors of Art Auctions, Cruise Line Execs., etc. I contact them to handle special needs or requests for my clients prior to their embarkation on a ship.

 

 

What is your most memorable cruise?

 

Where were you on September 11, 2001?  Everyone has a story. I was escorting over 150 clients on a Caribbean cruise. My late husband and two sons could not sail because it was during the school year.  Fortunately, I had invited my brother, Bill, to cruise with me.  We left our staterooms walking to the dining room and crossed the atrium lobby.  Crowds were gathered in both sides of the atrium watching two large TVs.  A plane had already hit the first tower.  We left to eat breakfast.  When we returned, the second plane had hit and the rest is history.

 

I sat in a very comfortable chair in the atrium lobby with other stunned and silent passengers as we watched CNN and MSNBC for the next 10 hours.  I had room service delivered to my chair so as not to miss any news.

 

 

It was the most surreal experience to watch this news on TV from international waters being contained for a week with a large international crew and multi-national passenger list.  The passengers were primarily American, but the crew represented probably 75 countries. I had always enjoyed getting to know the crew and talking with them about their countries and family.  But, I realized non-US citizens also felt this attack was personal to them as if it were an attack on the world. We did become one world on that ship!

 

Everyone was subdued trying to process it all. The cruise line opened all phone lines and computer lines for passengers to communicate with family.  Our friend, Fred Ross, was sailing with us.  It took him 3 days before he and his family could reach his sister who was working in New York. She had been working at the Capitol, but was changing to a new job in the Pentagon at that time.  Pastors held non-denominational prayer services.  The piano bar and other music venues played patriotic music.  It was such a different atmosphere.

 

I learned that when you plan a cruise or a trip, you never know what experiences it may hold for you.  There doesn’t have to be a 9/11 for you to have new life experiences; for you to be enlightened by those around you; for a fun trip to become an educational trip; for you to have a life-changing experience along the way.    

 

What services do you provide as a Travel Advisor?

 

As your travel advisor, from months of pre-planning, providing information along the way and that last minute unexpected emergency, I handle it all.

As your Travel Advisor, I provide for my clients:

 

(Expertise) A better travel experience starts with a professional, experienced Travel Advisor.

 

(Availability) When the unexpected happens, I am your support team.

 

(Advice) With more than 85 cruises, extensive travel experience, expertise as Group Travel Planner and Escort and almost 30 years in the travel industry. I can give advice on passport and visa regulations, inoculation regulations, foreign travel requirements, credit cards/ money and phone services for international travel, packing tips, helpful tips for traveling with children, and more.

 

(Special Needs) I can guide you through assistance traveling with handicapped; those that have special accessibility needs; paperwork to prepare for service animals to board ships; personalized shore excursions set up for cruisers through a separate team for those in wheelchairs or having special accessibility needs; CPAP machine needs; medical equipment  delivered worldwide waiting in staterooms onboard the ship for passengers such as oxygen tanks, motorized scooters, hospital beds, all types of specialized medical chairs, etc.

 

(Consultation and Peace of Mind) After you have planned everything, I provide a safety net.  I am available by cell phone throughout the whole process, even while you are traveling.

 

(Well Connected) A top Travel Advisor gives you instant VIP status when you desire the “extras”; I know how to get you in top restaurants, find hard to get tickets, access to exhibits and tours, and private guides. Though handling these extras may incur a small fee, I know how to save you money, so they more than pay for themselves.

 

(Personal Connections) It is of great value knowing GMs, chefs and execs at resorts, hotels and cruise lines and wholesale travel suppliers.

 

(Magnolia Travel Group) If you want to plan a vacation that is not in my area of expertise, we have a strong network within our Travel Advisors.  We share our knowledge and experience often to make sure all of our clients get a first- class travel experience. 

 

(Strong working relationship with travel suppliers)

Latest in computer technology to access the most up-to-date information and current specials to get you the best value. 

 

Can you share with those planning on a cruise vacation why you recommend travel insurance? 

 

As an experienced Travel Advisor, I can help you select the best Travel Insurance for your needs. This is very important and I highly recommend it. There are many different policies offered through insurance companies, cruise lines, and vendors. 

They all differ in coverage and price. Some of the benefits that Travel Insurance can cover are: trip cancellation/ interruption due to financial default coverage, trip delay, missed connection, accidental sickness medical expense, emergency evacuation & repatriation of remains, pre-existing medical condition exclusion waiver, travel medical assistance, worldwide travel assistance, live travel emergency assistance, concierge services, identity theft, baggage insurance coverage, accident sickness medical expense, natural weather disasters, inclement weather, and inaccessibility due to weather. There are policies that specifically cover those that may need coverage to cancel “for business reasons”; or to cancel “for any reason” rather than only “for medical reason.” 

 

Traditional medical insurance usually DOES NOT cover you once you are in International Waters.  Check with your insurance carrier.

 

 

Do you charge a fee for your service?

 

I do not charge any service fees for traditional Travel Advisor services and that is our policy at Magnolia Travel Group.  

 

There are a few exceptions: non-commissionable items such as airline tickets, etc. or a complicated trip with many pieces.  In this case, I let my client know in advance and discuss a reasonable fee.  

 

Travel Advisors/Agents receive a commission from all cruise lines, most resorts and hotels.  Airlines and condo rentals do not pay commissions.  If you call an online agent, they are receiving the same commission from the vendor, but you do not receive the same full service that top Travel Advisors will provide.

 

Each travel agency has its own policy regarding charging additional fees.  Sometimes it can vary between agents/advisors within one agency. When working with a new agent/advisor it is appropriate and recommended for a client to inquire about any fees they charge BEFORE you begin a working relationship. 

 

Do you need to meet with new clients the first time you work together?  How does someone get in touch with you? 

 

I keep a personal file updated on each client. The first time I work with a new client(s), I prefer to meet and discuss many things.  In some cases, this can be done by FaceTime or a telephone call.  I get to know their likes, dislikes, travel needs, medical needs, many different preferences, family/travel companions, and much more.  After the initial meeting, most clients handle everything by phone until we meet to go over travel documents.  Out-of-town/state clients handle everything by phone.

 

Each time my client calls, information in their personal file allows me to save time and tailor my questions by already knowing a lot about them. The more we work together, the better I am able customize travel plans to their tastes and preferences and the more they learn to trust my recommendations.

 

I am always pleased when I book destination weddings, honeymoons and vacations for second and third generation clients, as well as friends and family who are referrals from satisfied clients.  This shows that I have exceeded my client’s expectations in the services I provided as their Travel Advisor.

 

My job is not done when the cruise or trip is booked.  There are many other types of information I provide my clients between their deposit, final payment, receiving their cruise documents, leaving for their cruise and a follow-up call when they return home.

 

What types of groups sail on cruises?

 

Sailing with a group is a different experience and a lot of fun!  There are two types: friends & family or corporate.  

 

I have booked groups of friends or family as small as 10 and as large as 180.  I always escort my large groups to handle the details and emergencies.  The Group Leader needs to enjoy their cruise.

 

A ship makes an ideal venue for any group.  You can gather in a reserved area of tables for dinner yet split up during the day to be as active or inactive as you would like.  Group gatherings can be planned such as group photos, a private cocktail party for the group, customized group excursions in a port, private parties or receptions.  

 

Groups sailing on a cruise can be a family reunion, multi generation family, wedding party, girls' getaway, singles group, dance group, common interest group, corporate retreat, incentive trip, or business meeting at sea.

 

 

What is the best cruise line?

 

This is THE question I am most often asked!  Every Travel Advisor and avid cruiser has their favorites, but all will say most cruise lines are best for certain things.  The cruise industry has the perfect ship and itinerary to meet every client’s need!  

 

Some clients find a favorite cruise line and always return to book on the same line. I sail on multiple cruise lines depending on which ship and itinerary best meets the needs, desires and traveling companions of my next trip. When I work with each client, I consider many things before making my recommendations.  

 

Can you share your favorite cruise lines for families with children? Teenagers? Adults?

 

In my opinion, and reflected in some of the most respected polls, the best cruise lines for different categories are - listed in no particular order:

 

 

Family Cruises:

  • Disney Cruise Line

  • Royal Caribbean

  • Carnival Cruise Line

  • Norwegian Cruise Line

 Caribbean Cruises:

  • Royal Caribbean

  • Celebrity

  • Disney Cruise Line

  • Carnival Cruise Line

  • Princess

  • Norwegian Cruise Line

  • Holland America

  • Costa

 Luxury Cruises for Adults:

  • Seabourn

  • Viking

  • Crystal

  • Azamara

  • Regent Seven Seas

  • SilverSeas

  • Oceania

  • Holland America

 European River Cruises:

  • Ama Waterways

  • Avalon

  • Uniworld

  • Tauck

  • Viking

 

Even though it may seem that cruises are for sun bathing and enjoying buffets galore, what type of onboard activities are offered on cruises?

 

There are hundreds of activities on different cruise ships, so I’ll just spotlight some from just one cruise line - Royal Caribbean Cruise Line offers:

 

  • Catch a wave on the FlowRider surf simulator

  • Take flight on the RipCord by iFly skydiving simulator 

  • Plunge down the 10 story Ultimate Abyss dry slide

  • Elevate your day on the Rock Climbing Wall

  • Ice skate in the middle of the ocean

  • Join Circus School 

  • SeaPlex- largest indoor active space at sea

  • Go top-deck ziplining

  • Ascend 300 feet above sea level with 360 degree views inside the North Star

  • Play a round of mini golf

  • Take a ride on the first ever Carousel-at-Sea

  • Award-Winning Adventure Ocean Youth Program- space varies by ship

  • Video Arcade- favorite games from the 80’s and 90’s

  • Original Productions and Showstoppers

  • Culinary Classes

  • Jewelry Making & Scrapbook Making

  • Mystery Dinner Theater- Solve the Crime in a specialty restaurant with a professional theater cast- select ships & sailings

  • Bionic Bar- Robot Bartenders shake, stir, and code your drinks

  • Trapeze School

  • Scuba Certification- get PADI certified onboard- fees apply

  • Skydiving simulator at sea

  • Full size oceanview basketball court/ volleyball court

  • Interactive Game Shows

  • Outdoor Movie Nights

  • Dance Classes

  • First ever Roller Rink and Bumper Cars at Seas

  • First Food Truck to ever set sail

 

How should one choose a Travel Agency and a Travel Advisor?

 

I work with Magnolia Travel Group.  We are a thriving and exciting new Travel Agency owned by Kim Sims, Jennifer Wooten and Jose Sosa.  They are based in Madison, Mississippi, with over 20 home-based agents in the Metro Jackson area and other states.  

If you do not currently have a relationship with a Travel Advisor/Agent, we welcome you to visit our website at www.magnoliatravelgroup.com.

 

Most travel agencies have both experienced and relatively new agents.  Many agents have areas of expertise if they have traveled extensively in particular areas or specialized in studying and selling them.  Some Travel Advisors book everything while other agents choose to limit their scope to sell only certain areas.

 

Interview a Travel Advisor just as you would in selecting a Financial Advisor, CPA, or anyone you might hire.  You should feel very comfortable talking with this person and believe that after much discussion, you could trust their recommendations.

 

Questions you may want to ask in looking for a Travel Advisor:

  • Do you, or your agency charge any fee(s) for your services?

  • How long have you been in the travel business?

  • What type of training have you had?

  • Do you limit yourself to certain areas of expertise or do you sell everything?

  • Have you traveled or are familiar with the areas or type of travel that is of interest to me?

  • Do you keep regular work hours?  Are you available if I call outside of these work hours?

  • What are your strengths as a Travel Advisor?

 

Can you share with us your all-time favorite cruise memories and why?

 

My favorite memories are always the cruises with my family!  We have spent so much quality time together on ships, excursions together and in ports.  

Do you recommend clients to schedule a time to visit with you to find their travel goals? How can those interested in using your travel services reach out to you?

 

Yes, the first time I meet a new client(s), I always set an appointment to fill out Client Information Forms and get to know each other.  We will discuss many things to help me better serve them going forward as their Travel Advisor. After the initial meeting, most clients prefer to work by phone and email due to their busy schedules.  I am free to meet with my clients, work by phone or email. I am available by cell phone from 9:00 am-5:00 pm. and make appointments to meet in person at my client’s convenience. 

 

What do you enjoy the most about what you do?

 

My clients become friends and repeat clients. They refer their friends because they appreciate my attention to detail. I always go the extra mile to customize their vacation. 

I love to coordinate groups to cruise or travel together and escort the larger ones.  There are so many details involved, but I love the entire process. Destination weddings are always fun because I am able to take the stress out of such a joyous occasion by handling most of the work for the wedding and honeymoon.

 

 

What do you believe creates the most special vacation memories?

 

Once you embark on the ship, leave your worries, work, frustrations, hectic schedules, at home! You are sailing AWAY!  Don’t pre-schedule every minute on your vacation.  Give yourself time to stop and smell the roses.

Be present in the moment.  Are you traveling to a new place with lots to see and learn?  Have you been there…look for the things you have not noticed before. Be present with those traveling with you. Use this uninterrupted time to reconnect with family and friends.Turn your phones and electronics off as much as possible! Don’t miss the new sights and sounds around you. 

 

Challenge all of your senses:  Smell new scents. Smell the food cooking.  Smell someone’s fragrance! See new sights.  See things you’ve missed in the people you love. Hear the music you love.  Experience new music.  Listen to the water crashing. Listen to new languages.  Listen to the silence. Enjoy some pure quiet time! Taste new foods.  Taste something different.

 

Do something different...which may be to do nothing at all. Rest! Walk around the track breathing fresh air. Exercise. Try something new.  Take a different excursion.  Enjoy a day in the spa. Learn. Take a class. Meet new people. Most of all make wonderful memories as you travel!

 

Would you like to schedule an amazing vacation with

Kathleen Cooper Fitzpatrick, Director of Group Travel with Magnolia Travel?

The best way to reach her is by her cell phone at 601-259-2079, or by email at kathleen@magnoliatravelgroup.com or on Facebook!

 

{Blog by: Jenny Cox Holman}

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MississippiMatters is a news blog of cooperative writers, videographers and podcasters published by  The Well Writers Guild, a 501c3 devoted to mentoring Mississippi writers and to addressing uncovered or under-covered topics.  MississippiMatters focuses on offering creative "takes" on our state's culture, ideas, events and more.