Over the past few months, travel agents have commented negatively on social networking sites and in response to articles about Carnival Cruise Lines (
). Some believe the line has lost touch with agents who sell the product.
A number of agents dislike commission changes the line made last year. Others remain strong supporters but acknowledge the line needs to do more to recoup the historically good relationship it has had in the past with the trade.
One agent wrote on a story: “For my 19 years of loyalty, my commission was dropped over 25%. I booked hundreds of clients with Carnival in '12. Not this year. My CCL sales have dropped! I'm just one agent. How many sales did CCL lose this year?”
Last week, Carnival tackled the issue publicly by establishing a new program, Carnival Conversations, in which it will hold face-to-face meetings with agencies in ports throughout the country. The story announcing that program is here: http://www.travelagentcentral.com/cruises/carnival-launches-carnival-conversations-travel-agent-outreach-program-41362
The first meeting with agents is in New York on July 12. Other meetings are scheduled for New Orleans, LA, on Aug. 1; Port Canaveral, FL on Aug. 15; Tampa, FL on Aug. 22; Charleston, SC, on Aug. 27; Miami, FL,on Sept. 12; Los Angeles, CA, on Oct. 2, and Houston, TX, on Oct. 21.
Carnival says the goal is to increase dialogue and strengthen ties with travel agents through road show events, agency visits and daily feedback opportunities on www.goccl.com, the company’s travel agent Internet portal.
In our article on Travel Agent announcing the program, one reader wrote: “I'm certain that conversations will make Carnival Management feel better, but the built-up resentment from commission and product problems will take more than just words.”
Travel Agent talked late last week with Lynn Torrent, the line’s executive vice president of sales and guest services, about the new initiative as well as agent comments.
“Back through [this most recent] Wave Season, Joni Rein and I spent a lot of time talking with a lot of different types of travel agents – front-line, home-based and those in large call centers,” Torrent said. “To sum up the message…many agents believe that Carnival does not value them and they believe we don’t need them.”
While she said the line doesn't feel that way, they know the "reality" that many agents do. Torrent characterized the negative feedback as “hard to hear” but she said it was necessary and the feedback is valued. As a result, she says “we need to do something."
Putting the Carnival Triumph situation aside, Torrent says some agents are still upset about the changes it made in the commission structure in 2012. In hindsight, she said the company waited a bit too long into 2012 – the fourth quarter – to announce the change.
That did not give agents enough time to take steps to increase sales, create more volume and thus qualify for higher commission tiers that determined pay rates for 2013.
Another issue, Torrent acknowledged was that the line hadn't made major commission structure changes for 10 years. In other words, it waited too long, when baby steps along the way might have been better accepted.
“We need travel agents, we have and will continue to appreciate travel agents,” said Torrent. “We rely on them, we need them, and clearly what we’re doing isn’t working anymore.”
So, the line has undertaken an initiative to really ask agents how they feel, what they need and how the line can serve them better. In order to have two-way dialogue, the line has set up these Carnival Conversations meetings with agents, which Torrent describes as “pretty aggressive” and there will be a virtual option for those who cannot make their way to the ship.
Rationally, not all things will change, she acknowledges. For example, Torrent said she doesn’t see Carnival making changes to the commission structure announced last year. She noted that with the new program, it’s important to manage expectations.
“When we think about 4.5 million passengers, doing business with 100,000 travel agents working for 14,000 travel agencies, we can’t run our business” doing everything that everyone wants, she noted.
That said, "we want to be fair and have a transparency," she said, calling the meetings a fireside chat of sorts. The goal is to open lines of communication, make changes where possible and reasonable, and Torrent said that's already happening.
Carnival has brought in more than just its sales employees on the new initiative. It's also brought in call center management and personnel. Torrent said the line knows the situation post-Triumph was very difficult on the call center side.
“Our bonus commission offer in May was one way to thank agents for their patience during that era,” Torrent said. “Our service was not acceptable.”
Many agents were put on hold for a long time, and Torrent said the bonus commission was the line’s way of saying ‘thank you’ to compensate for the additional time.
Torrent also acknowledged that if the travel agent called into the call center, even during a normal (non-Triumph) period, it's clear that they often had trouble. The Carnival call center agents either weren’t knowledgeable enough to answer agent concerns or questions. And often they simply directed the agents back to www.goccl.com. If website issues were the concern, then that just sent the agent around in circles.
Now, the line has focused squarely on the call center issues, she said. “We’ve done refresher training for all [call center] agents on www.goccl.com,” she said.
She said the line’s reservations agents also have specifically been told they may not route the call to someone else or send the agent back to the website. The feedback from agents was very hard to hear, Torrent stressed, “but needed.”
In addition, she said that about a year ago, Carnival started getting an increased number of letters and emails from guests booked through travel agents. The clients may have called Carnival, asked about programs, but many wanted to do booking-related changes.
While in past years, the line would have automatically referred the customer back to the agent, last year Carnival started helping the clients and made booking related changes if requested by the client. Torrent said the line tried to conference in the agent, but timing-wise, that didn’t always happen.
“It didn’t go very well,” she acknowledged. Travel agents felt very strongly that the policy was not appropriate. But just recently, the line changed its policy.
Now, she says if a consumer calls asking directions to the port, the line answers that. “But we don’t touch the booking,” says Torrent. “We never touch that now.”
Agents are happy with that change, she said, but she noted that some consumers may not be. It's a balancing act of sorts. But Carnival now hopes the line is better satisfying agents by making the adjustment to the policy.
In addition, “we heard from a lot of agents, who felt like our travel agent rates were not right,” she said. In otherwords, the interline rates were better than the travel agent rates. “They were right,” she said and noted that those rates have now been changed.
She said on the commission structure change, the agent complaints about the late notice for qualifying for 2013: “You know they’re right, we’ve apologized, we should have done it sooner.”
On the co-op side, “travel agents are saying we no longer do co-op marketing and we’re not interested in them” but the perception isn’t reality, Torrent said. “We do have a pretty rich co-cop program, however we did restructure it, and we may have pushed too far. We may have missed agencies with really good opportunities.”
So the line has gone back and asked their sales team about potential opportunities. “We are now doing some marketing we hadn’t planned,” she said. “Some agencies are willing, some are pretty sore at us.”
When asked about Bob Dickinson’s new consulting role and whether he had a hand in the development of Carnival Conversations, she said "no," adding that the program has been in the works for months.
However, she said “Bob in his role with Carnival Corporation will work with all brands. He knows the industry. He knows our brand. In his role as a board member, he had great suggestions. I expect it will now continue."
Torrent said she was having her first meeting with Dickinson last Friday. “It’s important he gets good context from all the brands,” she said.
She said that moving forward, she hopes her brand can be more responsive to agents. That said, agents shouldn't expect the commission structure to change anytime soon.
“I don’t see any changes to commission structure,” Torrent said. “I think it’s fair but I think we should have announced it much earlier prior to implementation. I think what we have in place is a fair structure. When you wait 10 years, though, it does seem pretty drastic."
While Carnival Conversations is a monicker of sorts, it’s not just an ad campaign, she emphasized. Yes, you'll likely see trade ads and information on www.goccl.com to introduce the concept. But she hopes that agents will see it as more - an effort for better trade communications and feedback.
While invitations have been sent for attendance at the first program in New York, in most cases, agents can request to attend a session, Torrent said.
The dedicated Carnival Conversations section on GoCCL.com will feature short daily surveys comprised of open-ended questions. Torrent said Carnival will share timely responses to this feedback, letting agents know what they can implement and what will need further review.
There will also be a more detailed quarterly survey. Travel agents may also find Carnival’s expanded road show and webinar schedule on the site.
Do you agree that Carnival has now taken a step that may help improve relations with agents? What’s your perspective? Is this step the right move? Is it enough? Let us know your thoughts if you’re a travel advisor on our Facebook page or in the comments below.