Cruise360 Hot Seat: Carnival, Norwegian, Celebrity and Oceania

(Photo by Susan J Young) During "On the Hot Seat," a General Session program at CLIA's Cruise360, James Ferrara, president,, questioned Nikki Upshaw, Sr. VP of sales, Oceania Cruises, and other executives.

Eight top sales and marketing executives each took their turn on “On the Hot Seat” at the second General Session of Cruise Lines International Association’s (CLIA’s) annual Cruise360 conference at Port Everglades, FL, on Thursday. 

Check out Part One of our coverage, an article which ran on Thursday, here. Here is Part Two, which features the discussion between moderator James Ferrara, president of, and four top sales and marketing executives: Mike Julius, Dondra Ritzenthaler, Camille Olivere and Nikki Upshaw.

Home Port Strategy

Kicking off the second half of the program, Ferrara quipped, “the fun is undeniable, but not everyone can win the hairy chest contest," as he questioned Julius, vice president of field sales for Carnival Cruise Line.

Ferrara asked, what's the draw for first timers and experienced cruisers, given that Carnival bills itself as “America’s cruise line?"

A top draw for Carnival? Julius cited its home port strategy with 14 home ports across North America: “We are within a five-and-one-half-hour drive of 50 percent of the population, so it’s easy for people to get to one of our ships.” Ninety percent of the line’s guests also come from North America.

The biggest draw, though, he said is the line's fleet, which offers a range of cruises, from short to long. One recent development, according to Julius, is that "we are moving some of our bigger [ships] with balconies into the short cruise market to get [first-timers] onboard, get them into a balcony cabin and get them ‘cruise-ified’ as we call it."

Matching each cruise product with the right customer is critical, said Ferrara: “When we get it wrong, people come back and say, ‘I don’t like cruising.’ When we get it right, they say, ‘I love cruising.’” With that in mind, he asked Julius, who are the right clients for the brand's attributes?

Julius said two types of people fit well with what his line offers. “One are the kid-pleasers,” he said.

Many consumers leave vacation days on the table, but “when they do take those vacation days, they do it with their family and their kids, and they want those kids to be happy…happy kids, happy parents.”

The other type of people who enjoy sailing with Carnival are what Julius described as “relaxed extroverts,” which elicited chuckles from the crowd.

“These are people who work hard, they want to come onboard and have a fun, relaxing time, but they’re also the people that are in the mix of the fun,” Julius said.

His take? “Not only do they not stand on the sideline and watch, they’re in the middle of it mixing it up. They’re very spirited. They’re very excited about having a vacation.”

Asked about commitment to social responsibility and sustainability, Julius referred agents to Carnival Corporation’s sustainability website: “It talks about all nine brands and what we do as a corporation to sustain our precious resource." 

On the charitable front, Julius also discussed Carnival Cruise Line’s long-time involvement with St. Jude Children's Research Hospital. “Let me tell you that it costs them $1 million a day to have their doors open,” he stressed. 

"Between Carnival Cruise Line’s guests, travel partners and employees, we have donated over $16 million to St. Jude’s and we’ve committed even more over the next couple of years," Julius said. 

Ferrara informed agents that St. Jude serves children and doesn’t charge for the medical service. "No child is turned away with childhood cancer," noted Julius. 

Putting Julius "On the Hot Seat," Ferrara said that “in the past, Carnival’s commitment to the trade has come into question.”

But acknowledging that was awhile ago, Ferrara said, "we’ve made a lot of progress since then. I believe there’s a huge difference.”

Julius responded: "If you are familiar with #thelist, we at Carnival, our current management – Adolfo [Perez, senior VP of sales and trade marketing, and other sales staffers] have done a number of initiatives. We have lowered the commission targets by 32 percent."

He also cited two amp-up commission programs, both quite successful. In addition, “we are the first cruise line to pay commission on future cruise certificates,” Julius added, causing agents to cheer in the audience.

“And we also now pay commission on weddings," he told the audience. "So there’s more to come so watch for it.”

Speaking from personal experience, Ferrara said change “comes from the top, it comes from the new leadership and the attitude of the new leadership at Carnival is commendable.”

CLIA Cruise360 audience

Free at Sea

Every few years a cruise line comes up with a big promotional idea that shakes things up, noted Ferrara, who congratulated Camille Olivere, senior vice president of North American sales, Norwegian Cruise Line, on the line's “Free at Sea” program.

Calling Free at Sea “wildly successful,” Olivere told the agents that it's ongoing: “You can always count on it for being there for a promotion that you can include.”

She said it works well because so much value is packed into the price of a ticket: “What we’re seeing now is that guests really want to feel that they’re getting something for free when they book. So that’s been hugely successful for the guests.”

Guests have a choice of various features, so they can pick the one that most meets their vacation needs. If they're booked in an inside stateroom, they can choose one option from a list of options. As they move into higher fare accommodations, they can choose multiple options, with guests in the Haven and Suite categories getting all the Free at Sea inclusions.

Among the options? Olivere cited the unlimited beverage package, which she told the agent audience is the most popular, and it's a $623 per person value. “Can you imagine that?” she asked.

Alternatively, guests might choose specialty dining or shore excursions, which Olivere said also is a really popular option. Or, “a lot of people like ‘Friends and Family for Free,’” she said, noting that the line has had that on more than 400 sailings.

Typically, it’s not at a time when the kids are out of school, “so I like to call it the 'naughty parents’ promotion,” Olivere joked. Then she asked asked the audience: “Are you guys using Free at Sea?” which elicited robust claps, cheers and “yeah” responses.

Ferrara noted that the line has a new ship, Norwegian Bliss, arriving this spring. Olivere said Andy Stuart, the line’s president, signed the papers to accept delivery of the new ship on Thursday.

Norwegian Bliss will soon head from Europe to New York. There are four inaugurals – New York, Miami, Los Angeles and Seattle, and, on June 2, the vessel will begin a season of Alaska itineraries. Travel Agent plans to be onboard during the Miami sailing to report back to agents about the new ship.

Ferrara mentioned the line’s marine life/ocean hull artwork by famous eco-artists. It’s not just great art, according to Olivere: “These partnerships go beyond that. They’re actually an investment in protection of the ocean and protection of wildlife.”

With those partnerships, there are eco-programs both onboard and ashore. Olivere talked about Great Stirrup Cay, the line's private Bahamian island, on which Norwegian has an initiative to save the sea turtles, with the line blocking off an area to protect their nests.

Also, “we’ve had an initiative with sea birds because they think the ship is an island and they try to come live on the ship,” she said. And there's much destination-focused content for guests. "We’ll be doing a lot of education about the destinations we’re going to in Alaska," she said.   

As for environmental/sustainability actions, Olivere said there is a 50-page .pdf on the company's website that explains all the efforts. “I think the entire industry is really doing a fabulous job about ensuring that we’re recycling,” she said.

Targeting innovative itineraries, Ferrara asked Olivere about the new Caribbean itineraries with private island experiences at Great Stirrup Cay in the Bahamas and Harvest Caye in the western Caribbean. 

“Now we have something for both [types of Caribbean region] itineraries,” she said. “We’ve actually combined those two destinations with Cuba for a seven-day itinerary out of Port Canaveral,” she said.

Cruise360 CLIA Panel Discussion Sales Marketing Photo by Susan J Young Editorial Use Only

Edge and Human Rights

Next up in “The Hot Seat” was Dondra Ritzenthaler, senior vice president, sales and trade support and service, Celebrity Cruises. Ferrara noted that the Celebrity Edge ship details coming out have “been a real tease, really tantalizing,” to which Ritzenthaler responded: “It’s been a year since we’ve gotten a new ship and it’s our turn.”

She also said that the line needs the passion that its employees feel to also spill over onto travel partners, and by putting things out little by little along the way, that helps do that. The results have been positive, she said, “as you all are really anticipating it and you’re talking about it and you’re booking it. And that’s why we’re doing that.”

Ferrara asked Ritzenthaler about the new Celebrity Flora. Designed specifically for sailing the Galapagos, the ship will serve 100 guests in all-suite accommodations with the line's Infinite Veranda.

Yes, the ship will be wonderful, Ritzenthaler said, but she added that for Galapagos voyages: “It will always be about the destination and the oneness with all the animals. It doesn’t get any better than that. And she comes in May 2019. It’s not too far off.”

Switching gears to social responsibility, Ferrara explained that Malala Yousafzai, the young Pakistani human rights advocate and the youngest Nobel Prize laureate, will be godmother of Celebrity Edge. Having Malala as godmother, “means the world to us,” said Ritzenthaler, as the discussion morphed into a talk about inclusivity. .

“At Celebrity Cruises, we authentically believe in opening up the world, and we are all about inclusiveness – really being one,” said Ritzenthaler. “We are the sponsor of the Gay Pride parade. We really believe that everyone should be treated with the same love and the same affection.”

She said Malala’s choice as godmother dovetails with Celebrity's belief in equal rights for women and women’s education. “And we have 12 ships, and now we have five hotel directors and captains who are women,” Ritzenthaler told the crowd, eliciting strong applause.

“I guarantee you, your customers don’t know that,” Ferrara said. Ritzenthaler said, “and it matters. People want to do business with people that they feel are like them and have the same values as them.”

“So who do we put onboard Celebrity?” the moderator asked. “I love the fact that we aren’t just for one group,” she said, citing customers who come for multigenerational family travel and others celebrating a birthday, graduation or anniversary, or those just wanting a modern luxury vacation.

“Keep trusting us with your guests,” she urged the agents.

Fifteen Years and Onward

Last up on the “Hot Seat” was Nikki Upshaw, senior vice president, sales, Oceania Cruises, whom Ferrara congratulated on Oceania’s 15-year anniversary. “We couldn’t have done it without you,” she told the agents in attendance, “and what we’ve done is now build a family.”

Just 15 years after its founding, the line’s six ships take guests to 450 destinations across the globe. “Our family is our crew, our shoreside team, and of course our guests, which you kindly send our way, and most importantly, all of you, the travel agency community.”

Ferrara asked Upshaw about the cultural trend and philosophy at the heart of Oceania’s brand, called “kaizen.” That means constant and gradual improvement, she said, adding that she hoped the agents would buy into the same philosophy.

Yes, “sometimes we have to shake things up and revolutionize, but our intent and our focus is that we keep ever building and innovating, and by doing it gradually we bring you along with those changes,” Upshaw told the agents.

In that spirit of innovation, the line recently launched a new Wine Bar at La Reserve. Several times during an Oceania cruise on Riviera or Marina, guests enjoy a La Reserve wine pairing in the evening. Guests have wine flights and tapas, small plates created with the destination in mind – so guests become even more immersed in the shoreside culture.

“How can we [the agency community] be better partners?” asked Ferrara. Upshaw said she felt the agents all worked so incredibly hard.

That said, “the most important thing is certainly listening to your clients and understanding their passion points, and matching that to the cruise experience that’s going to work for them,” she stressed.

For example, she talked about what the line offers in terms of culinary innovations as well as wellness tours and wellness features, such as a cold pressed juice bar at sea.

“To be a better partner, it would maybe be to branch out – and not pigeonhole,” she said. Think of the guest’s passions and then dig deeper into the brand looking at the wellness options, for example. “Look out for ideas and opportunities,” she said.

Coming up, Oceania is heading to Alaska this year and next on the 680-passenger Regatta. How will the line protect the fragile eco-system, both in Alaska and elsewhere?

For customers who have concerns about the environment, Upshaw noted that Oceania's parent company,  Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings, has an environmental officer on every ship, with the mandate to look for ways to make things better. 

Stay tuned to for our coverage on Monday of remarks by Arnold Donald, the chairman and CEO, Carnival Corporation, during his keynote address at Cruise360. 

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