|An awards presentation at a Carnival Conversations session // Photo by Carnival Cruise Lines|
After five Carnival Conversations open-microphone sessions and three virtual road shows online, Carnival Cruise Lines (www.goccl.com) has heard clearly from 2,000 plus travel agents about what it needs to win back trade trust and ensure agents keep selling the Carnival brand.
Lynn Torrent, Carnival’s executive vice president of sales and guest services, and Joni Rein, the line’s vice president of sales, have definitely heard agent criticism, as have Carnival officials responsible for revenue management and the line’s call center.
Catalyst for Change
But Torrent says the sessions have been invaluable – allowing the line to listen, learn and then focus on doable changes. So what’s happened as the line comes to the halfway point of the Carnival Conversations program?
Sessions have been completed in New York, NY, New Orleans, LA, Port Canaveral, FL, Tampa, FL and Charleston, SC. Five more sessions are planned this fall in Miami, FL, Long Beach, CA, Chicago, IL, and Dallas and Galveston, TX. One more virtual session is also planned.
“Road shows have always existed, but now they’re tucked under the Carnival Conversations umbrella,” said Torrent, noting that the open-microphone program - one full hour for agents to sound off - has been eye-opening. Agents aren't shy about what they want and how they want Carnival to change.
One important change implemented? A new radio campaign now features an agent call-to-action, and Carnival’s new television ads launching this month – at a time when the line typically does not advertise on television – will also feature an agent call-to-action.
Torrent and Rein say it was about four to five years ago that the call to action was dropped off the line’s advertising, likely as a result of a branding effort for Carnival.com. But now that agent call-to-action is back to stay.
“Agents have been very loud and clear that a call-to-action drives business to them,” Torrent stressed. She added that one travel agent heard the radio commercial while driving to a Carnival Conversations session and told the line it was a positive step.
From a trade perspective, “agents have a lot of influence in driving sales so cruise lines have to treat us as team members,” emphasizes Michelle Fee, co-founder and CEO, Cruise Planners. “We have to be on the same page.”
Fee said that’s why she thinks her agents are responding positively to Carnival Conversations. “It’s a great way for them to be vocal and feel like they are being heard,” Fee said.
After the Carnival Conversations open-microphone session is over, the executives, BDMs, call center executives and revenue management staff dine with agents and get more one-on-one or smaller group time with the travel advisors.
It’s discussions like those that have helped the line focus on what’s most important to be changed, said Torrent. What's needed most is a more simplified pricing structure, which she said will be introduced later this month or in early October.
Rein acknowledges Carnival over time progressed from having one of the simplest pricing systems to having one of the most difficult. She believes the new pricing structure should address that issue.
Travel Agent asked Torrent about NCFs or non-commissionable charges that the customer pays. Those remain an onerous point for many agents. NCFs include port fees and government taxes, but many agents claim the lines throw lots of other things into that mix and simply call them non-commissionables.
NCFs can rival or exceed the fare itself, and thus, agents often say that commission paid by the line to agents just isn't enough. It's unknown if Carnival's new pricing structure will have any changes that affect NCFs.
Torrent said Carnival's priority right now is to improve pricing. It's been an unusual year for the line with the Carnival Triumph propulsion problem and other operational issues in the first quarter, but “we are focused on getting pricing back to where it needs to be,” said Torrent.
Carnival has made sizable product investments this year and the new television advertising campaign should increase consumer demand. “We’re ramping up a lot of marketing prior to Wave Season,” Torrent said, by focusing on what’s important – “getting the pricing back, especially for our travel agent partners.” This is an issue that comes up in every session, and clearly is the most important to agents, she said.
|New product enhancements on the Carnival Sunshine // Photo by Susan J. Young|
Changes This Summer
One agent attending a Carnival Conversations program suggested the line put Joni Rein’s e-mail on all agent marketing materials, including the newsletter. The line complied and Rein now receives 100 trade e-mails a day at [email protected].
Rein said the e-mails are split into three categories. One third expressed appreciation for the line’s efforts to listen to agents and make improvements. Another third are more skeptical and say they’ll hang in there, but it will take time to convince them the line is serious and will make changes needed. Another third have unresolved issues and are passionate about those.
Other changes Carnival has implemented this year? One of the biggest is that the line adapted the script its Personal Vacation Planners (PVP) use when talking to consumers on the telephone. It now includes the question: “Are you working with a travel agent?”
This was a sore point with many agents who said Carnival was poaching their customers. By adapting that script, Carnival will work to prevent customers working with a travel agency from entering the PVP sales process.
The Carnival contact center has also discontinued a practice of servicing agents' booked clients for simple transactions requested by the client. While the reservations agents will still provide general information, they will refer the customer back to the agency for any changes in the booking.
The line has added more staff in its call center, retrained employees and stressed the importance of friendly, courteous service and of resolving the agent's issue on the first call, whenever possible. No longer will agents routinely pass the agent from person to person.
Carnival has extended the window for a direct booking to be transferred to a travel agent. Previously, it was 30 days. Now, it's 90 days. The line also has extended its group department hours to 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on both Saturday and Sunday.
In addition, Carnival instituted interline rates for travel agents' personal travel; agents who book select fall and winter sailings through February will receive up to a $50 onboard credit per stateroom. Agents also may now access last-minute deals for their personal travel; view available sailings and rates at www.goccl.com.
On the training side, Carnival has updated its system to flag completed courses for Carnival Passport, so it’s easier and quicker for agents to see in the learning catalog what’s been completed and what’s pending.
Per agent suggestions, Carnival also now places .pdf copies of all deck plans in the Fun e-Collateral Library. Copies of all consumer marketing communications are stored on www.goccl.com so agents will find it easier to reference a piece that guests may ask about. And, the line will increase its presence at conferences and trade shows to provide more opportunities for agent interaction with Carnival staff.
Is the line seeing any uptick in sales with its trade efforts over the past few months? Torrent said it’s too soon to tell, although she says feedback from many agents is positive.
Janice Sinardi, a Cruise Planners agent in Tampa, FL, attended the Carnival Conversations session in Tampa last month. “I found that all the executives that attended were there to listen and take the information and feedback for review,” she said, applauding Carnival for setting up the program.
Thus far, she says: “I truly have seen a difference in the last month when I call in and the reservation agents are much more polite and willing to listen and help you. I think the proof will be in their actions in the next few months and that the travel agent community needs to give them a little more time to work on these issues and to make the changes and corrections." She said she personally supports Carnival and that the line is part of her business mix.
Agents will continue to provide feedback through Carnival Conversations into 2014 and beyond. But the sessions won’t be full open-microphone sessions as they were this summer. This year’s sessions were designed to give agents the entire program to talk and air their issues. Carnival was in the full listening mode - not there to put on a sales program.
For future programs, though, “we want to get back to talking about the product, to helping agents sell and market the product,” Torrent said, “but we’ll always leave time for an 'open mike' at the end.”
“Carnival Conversations ... is now a living, breathing event for us,” said Rein. “The most important message we [want to get across] is that we value the travel agents and while our engagement with them may have been ‘off’ in the past, it won’t be in the future.”
Fee put it succinctly: "It’s all about understanding our expectations and, not only listening, but making the changes necessary for us to do business.”
For Travel Agents ONLY: What do you think about Carnival Conversations? Have you attended a session? What’s your perspective? What changes made thus far are most valuable to you? If you're a travel agent, let us know your thoughts on our Facebook page and in the comments below.