06/26/2014 11:11 am ET Updated Aug 26, 2014

Women in Business: Q&A with Michelle Fee, CEO & Co-Founder of Cruise Planners-American Express Travel

Michelle Fee is CEO and co-founder of Cruise Planners-American Express Travel, the nation's largest home-based travel agent franchise network in the industry.

Cruise Planners has more than 900 franchisees in 47 U.S. states and boasts top producer status with most cruise lines and travel partners. Fee has also been inducted into the Cruise Lines International Association's Hall of Fame for her work in the cruise industry for more than 20 years. Also, Cruise Planners is 75 percent female owned, and Michelle has been an active role in the company throughout its existence.

Under her leadership, she created a business that positions franchise owners for success by providing them with unique marketing programs, hands-on training, and incredible technology and tools that allows them to conduct business anywhere, anytime. Cruise Planners has been named No. 1 Cruise Tour/Travel Agent by Entrepreneur magazine for 11 years, which demonstrates how the company continues to grow and evolve.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
I started out my career as a travel agent, which allowed me to fully understand the elements that go into planning someone's dream vacation. Also, being a mother, gave me a high level of compassion, and family-focus that radiates throughout Cruise Planners.

What sparked you to start the Cruise Planners franchise more than 20 years ago?
Twenty years ago, the travel industry was changing and changing fast, and I knew that if I didn't reinvent myself I would become a dinosaur. Working from your home was just becoming popular, and with the birth of the Internet, it allowed us to manage a network of home-based agents. We had people working from home selling travel before it was a "perk" to work from home and since then, the home-based travel business has blossomed. We are proud of where it has come and all the success our franchise owners have accumulate from our unique marketing programs, hands-on training, and incredible technology and tools that allows them to conduct business anywhere, anytime. Looking back, I never dreamt we would have more than 900 franchisees in 47 states with more than 60 employees in our Home Office in Florida.

How do you maintain a work/life balance especially that you are now a grandma of two?
It is so much fun being a proud "Nonna" to my two beautiful grandsons. I think the trick is to hire highly-qualified people. I always say "If you surround yourself with the best talent, it makes your job much easier."

I've also learned, to not overthink things (I used to do that a lot) - to take the moments with your family, enjoy the holidays/weekends, which helps you recharge so that you can be productive during the work week.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your career in the travel market?
At Cruise Planners, I constantly challenge our team to evolve, and we are tackling it head on. When I started this business 20 years ago the Internet was in its infancy. Today, Cruise Planners manages more than 900 individual agent websites, has built a myriad of technology tools, and provides the hands-on support so Cruise Planners travel agents look larger than life. Our in-house technology team has developed a smart phone application where each travel agent's customer can actually look up and book a cruise from the palm of their hand. On a personal note, a highlight for me is when I was inducted into the Cruise Lines International Association's Hall of Fame, which was voted on by the major cruise companies in the industry, and it was truly inspiring to be recognized by other leaders within the travel industry.

Why did you campaign as Woman of the Year for Leukemia & Lymphoma Society this year?
I believe that people who are leaders in the community should give back and help support causes that are near and dear to them. Unfortunately, I think we have all been affected by cancer one way or another - maybe a family member or good friend or even you - and everyone wants to help find a cure. This year, I campaigned for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society's Woman of the Year in South Florida and we blew our goal of raising $125,000 out of the water by raising nearly $300,000 to help fund the fight against blood cancer.

What advice can you offer individuals who are seeking to start their own business?
The one piece of advice would be, set a plan before you start. However, not everything is black and white; there are always gray areas, so it's important to be flexible, as you might need to change directions along the way. Sometimes it's best to just go with your gut instinct.
I also live my life by this quote: "It's nice to be important, but it's more important to be nice!"

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
Quite honestly, I've never worked for a company that has been owned by a man, and we have built a corporate culture that celebrates women. We are 75 percent owned by females, and it works well for us.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
I grew up in the travel industry and there have been many people who believed in me, supported me and mentored me. As such, I like to give back to the next generation of travel-industry professionals. Each of our franchisees has open access to me and I get to interact and train them on how to successfully market themselves, which allows me to mentor each of them.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
I admire strong women such as Oprah who was able to build a media empire. She also gives back, is loyal and works hard for her earned success.

What are your hopes for the future of Cruise Planners-American Express Travel?
In the future, I hope Cruise Planners can continue to be different and stand out in this busy market place. Cruise Planners has a notable brand, which is easily recognizable by its "Cruisitude"- our signature positive attitude about life and travel that we coined a few years ago. We hope we can continue to inspire travelers to use Cruise Planners travel agents as a solution to all their traveling needs.