Improved agent relations have been a big priority for Christine Duffy, president and CEO of Carnival Cruise Line, who just completed her second year on the job.
Duffy spoke one-on-one with Travel Agent about trade efforts and other topics including fleet refurbishment, global expansion and Cuba, a hot topic for most cruise lines this year.
Cuba Bound: Starting in June, Carnival will sail into Havana, Cuba with the largest ship of any U.S. brand. Four-day and five-day voyages on Carnival Paradise will depart from Tampa, FL.
“With the number of repeat cruisers we have and the fact we sail in the Caribbean year-round, we actually think that this is a great opportunity to have a completely new destination -- where we believe there’s pent-up demand -- for people to visit in an affordable way,” says Duffy.
She believes a cruise vacation is the best way for people to see Cuba who have never been there, or are returning for the first time in several years.
What about guests who are either “new to cruise” or those Carnival “regulars” accustomed to sailing within the Caribbean region without a passport? Some Carnival guests -- including loyal, repeat guests -- simply don’t have or want a passport. They bring a certified birth certificate as proof of citizenship.
But a birth certificate won’t cut it for entry to Cuba. “We want to make it as easy as possible, and so there is a lot of information that we’ve already shared with the travel agent community so that our trade partners can advise their customers,” Duffy notes.
She stresses that much Cuba information is available at Carnival.com and the line has extensively trained its 800-Carnival number customer service agents in answering Cuba questions.
“You do need a passport, so that’s something you have to do in advance,” she says. “People will also be required to get the tourist visas and we’re going to make those available onboard.”
As guests get those visas onboard, she says it’s a good opportunity for them to ask questions of Carnival's staff so they understand the nuances of Cuba travel and the U.S. government's “people to people” requirements. “We’re going to be facilitating that process onboard,” she says.
Duffy also emphasized: “We sail with a lot of families so we’ve made sure we have the shore excursions for Carnival Paradise's Cuba voyages that meet the people-to-people requirement but, at the same time, are going to be great educational and immersive experiences and fun."
No Passport Required?: Travel Agent asked Duffy if allowing guests to sail with simply a birth certificate had become outdated, given the political and security situation in today’s world.
“For our brand and really, our mission is really to make sure a cruise vacation is affordable," she says. "So, we’ll continue to allow guests to use a birth certificate [for non-Cuba voyages where it’s appropriate] for as long as the government allows that.”
While things may change over time, she emphasizes: “We’re going to continue to give our guests that flexibility – for a lot of them that don’t have passports. For people traveling with families, it does get expensive."
For a family with two or three kids, current U.S. passport fees can run into the hundreds of dollars. Fees are $110 for adults and $80 for kids under 16 years of age, not counting any passport photos or expedited handling fees.
Over time, Carnival will see how the situation evolves. "We do encourage people to travel with a passport,” she says, but for now, Carnival is not planning to require that. “We’re not planning to make any changes," she stressed.
Updating the Fleet: Refurbishments to existing ships really do have great impact, Duffy says. Carnival has seen over time that its “experience scores” and other score indicators have greatly improved for older ships with the addition of the new Fun Ship 2.0 features.
Agents tell us that guests sailing on the brand love the new signature spaces such as the Blue Iguana, Guy’s Burger Joint or other Fun Ship 2.0 features.
Duffy, who is shown above during a shipyard visit for Carnival Vista before its launch, says this year the cruise line has already refurbished Carnival Ecstasy and Carnival Sensation, as well as Carnival Glory, which just received Waterworks, a snazzy new water park.
It's also not just the older ships being updated. “We’re also going back to newer ships like Carnival Breeze and Carnival Dream," Duffy noted. New this year, Carnival Breeze will get the new Guy’s Pig and Anchor Barbecue and Alchemy Bar.
“We really take the cue from the guest experience scores and believe that if you’re improving the guest experience you’re going to improve demand,” she says. “That’s why we’re making an effort to put the Fun Ship 2.0 features in across the fleet.”
Better Trade Climate: What’s her "take" on Carnival's efforts to develop a better relationship with the trade? “I’m a believer that it always comes down to the people and the leaders that have the responsibility," she acknowledges.
"Clearly, the big change has been in Adolfo Perez stepping in to lead our trade channel and my very close and direct involvement with Adolfo and our BDMs (business development managers) to make sure they have the support," Duffy says.
However, she also says that prior to her arrival the BDMs were already trying to do everything they could to support the agents: “The difference is making sure they were getting the investment that they needed to enhance our tools, to put more recognition programs in place and to have more reach to serve the agent community including agents who are working from home."
In addition, Duffy says it's advantageous that Perez now reports directly to Ken Tate, senior vice president of revenue management, and “is also very engaged with our trade partners” to create win-win opportunities.
With a past travel agency background, Duffy, who also previously served as president and CEO of Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), says “the reality is that the trade is a critically important channel for us."
So Carnival has recently invested more in technology tools, enhanced its Excellence Awards for travel agent partners, and changed its group commission structure, a process that began three years ago. It’s also recently added some additional trade leaders to the travel agency advisory board.
“It’s really is about making sure that we’re listening…that we’re making the investments…and from the top leadership of the brand, that we’re focused on the trade and continue to evolve that relationship,” Duffy emphasized.
Ocean Medallion: The contemporary line's parent company, Carnival Corporation, recently announced its revolutionary new technology update, Ocean Medallion.
This high-tech wearable device -- which can be worn on a necklace or wrist, or put in a pocket -- connects to thousands of sensors around a ship.
It can customize and enhance the guest experience by opening the stateroom door, ordering drinks, purchasing souvenirs in the onboard shops, communicating with a stateroom steward who can book a spa treatment and so on.
“We’re all very excited and very proud of what the corporation is doing and the investment that’s being made to really rethink the customer experience and how we can improve, given today’s new world," says Duffy. "It’s not to say that what we have doesn’t work or is broken, but like any good corporation, we’re just always looking for what’s next and how do we innovate.”
So why wasn’t Carnival the launch customer, as sister line Princess Cruises now is. “My friend raised her hand first,” quipped Duffy, referring to Jan Swartz, the president and CEO of Princess.
That said, Carnival is “watching and involved from the sidelines," she notes. Also, as a benefit of having multiple sister brands at Carnival Corporation, "we’re always looking to learn from each other about best practices,” Duffy says.
Duffy will sail on Princess in November when Ocean Medallion is introduced. She can’t wait to experience the technology first-hand.
The World versus North America: Carnival has expanded overseas to such sourcing markets as Australia and New Zealand. Where would Duffy like to see the line go in future years?
“Of course, everybody is watching China so we’ll see what evolves there,” she says. As for North America,“we are America’s cruise line so that is where the majority of our fleet and ships will be deployed year-round," she stresses.
Carnival's brand strategy centers around 14 U.S. home ports. Half of the U.S. population is able to drive to one of those home ports in six hours or less. "That's great, especially to be able to attract a lot of cruise rookies,” Duffy points out.
Galveston and New Orleans are good examples of U.S. home ports where the brand has expanded and brought in newer, larger ships to handle growth.
“We’re very excited about the new ships coming into our brand,” Duffy says, but while they can offer more potential for expansion globally, “North America – that is our sweet spot.”
Age of Fleet: What about the potential retirement of the older Fantasy-class ships, sizably refreshed by Carnival in recent years, but more than 25 years old in some cases?
“Like other cruise lines, we’re always looking at the fleet and what makes sense,” she said, stressing that the Fantasy-class ships are actually quite popular with "new to cruise" guests seeking value and from loyal past guests who prefer a bit smaller vessel.
“I’ve had guests tell me that they actually liked Fantasy-class ships better than the new ships because of the size of the ship,” she said. “People in the contemporary brands are not really building ships the size of Carnival Fantasy anymore.”
In addition, “those ships can serve markets that otherwise wouldn’t be able to support larger markets, which is why we continue to invest in that class,” she notes. Currently, the refurbished Carnival Fantasy sails from Mobile, AL, for example.
Carnival has eight ships in the Fantasy-class, and Duffy says they all have received or will receive the Fun Ship 2.0 features.
“The great thing from my perspective is that we have all those options,” she says. “You might want to jump on a Fantasy-class ship out of Mobile because it’s easy for you, and you may want to sail on our flagship, which is Carnival Vista, and you may want to jump on a plane and fly to Miami.”
Each is a different experience, although still delivering the Carnival brand features.
More Journeys, Itinerary Tidbits: Duffy says the line has recently expanded its longer-voyage Carnival Journeys program, with “our team focusing on how do we give our guests the opportunity to go farther.”
These include more extensive Caribbean voyages as well as repositioning cruises to Alaska from southern California.
On both Caribbean cruises and European cruises, Duffy reports that Carnival is now attracting more Europeans, particularly U.K. guests.
That said, Americans definitely are traveling to Europe for a Carnival cruise, she said: “We were really pleased with Carnival Vista to just see the demand for North Americans, who wanted to be on our newest ship in the fleet and also take the opportunity to sail in the Mediterranean.
But while the line is expanding its Carnival Journeys program, Duffy says they also recognize that some people may not want a longer cruise. So the shorter cruises are also offered.
Warm Sands, Soft Breezes: “Hopefully we’re getting close to final approval for a private destination for Carnival in Grand Bahama,” Duffy emphasized.
At the same time, she says Carnival Corporation is very focused on continuing to invest and enhance the guest experience at its other private destinations, such as Amber Cove in the Dominican Republic and Grand Turk in Turks & Caicos.
Giving Ocean Medallion as an example of the cruise company's continuing innovation on the guest side, she says the company and her brand also strive to work with partners in the Caribbean on “how does everyone lift their game.”
Why aren’t warm weather and soft sands enough? It’s simple. “We have so many cruisers who have been to the Caribbean many, many times,” Duffy points out. “The message is that it’s really important for destinations in the Caribbean to continue to invest, innovate and enhance the guest experience.”
Biggest Accomplishments: After two years, she's focused on two prime tasks. “I’ve spent a lot of time on people,” she says, talking about working with her employees and investments the brand has made with human resources in recognition, rewards and talent development.
She's also out on ships, spending time on every ship in the fleet during her first year and continuing to be visible shipboard. For example, she's shown above with the SkyRide crew of Carnival Vista.
Important, too, are the continuing efforts that are “improving our relationships with the trade, building back the trust, and supporting the trade," says Duffy.
Look for additional new technical enhancements this year that will help travel agents do business with the line in an easier manner. Simply put by Duffy: “It’s an ongoing process."