One-on-One: Christine Duffy Talks First Year at Carnival Cruise Line

Christine Duffy, president, Carnival Cruise Line, has met with crew members on every ship in the Carnival fleet, including Carnival Conquest. // Photo courtesy of Carnival Cruise Line

A year ago, Christine Duffy left Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) to take the helm of Carnival Cruise Line as president.  Travel Agent caught up with Duffy last week to chat about her first year running the “Fun Ship” line. 

Carrying 4.5 million passengers annually on a fleet of 24 ships, Carnival welcomes its 25th, the new Carnival Vista, this spring. Here are some key “takeaways” from our one-on-one discussion with Duffy. 

Look for Continuing "Fun, Fun, Fun"

Many Baby Boomers still recall Kathie Lee Gifford's energetic TV commercials for Carnival in the 1980s, where she sang "If You Could See Me Now" and “Ain’t We Got Fun”? 

While that era is over, the “Fun Ship” branding for Carnival still has sizable pull, particularly with Boomers who've become grandparents, often paying for their children and grandchildren to take a multi-generational family vacation. While younger than those Boomers, Duffy knows the long-time "Fun Ship" message remains a draw.

“Everyone deserves fun," stresses Duffy. "It’s always relative -- especially for what guests want for their vacations -- so we’re going to continue to talk about Carnival and the 'Fun Ships.'”

Carnival as a brand also is affordable and welcoming. "It’s accessible to everyone and that is something you’ll see us 'leaning into' more,” Duffy says. “Come as you are. Everyone is welcome.” She says the brand is about being yourself and having fun, without anybody judging guests. 

Updating the Fleet, But Focusing on the Soft Side Too 

The updated Carnival Magic will sail from Port Canaveral starting in April. // Photo by Carnival Cruise Line

Carnival is extensively updating its existing fleet. Among those moves, Carnival Magic has completed an extensive multi-million-dollar drydock prior to beginning new service from Port Canaveral in April; newly added spaces will include Guy’s Burger Joint, RedFrog Rum Bar, BlueIguana Tequila Bar and more.

Carnival Inspiration recently received those venues and has resumed its year-round schedule of short Baja cruises from Long Beach, CACarnival Fantasy, which will begin Carnival’s new service from Mobile, AL, this fall will also receive updates this year. 

As for new tonnage, Carnival Vista, the line’s latest new build, will launch this spring. Carnival's last "new build" was Carnival Breeze in 2012, although it also invested $155 million in Carnival Destiny, which emerged from drydock as the essentially new Carnival Sunshine in 2013.  

“For me, a big accomplishment has been visiting every one of our 24 ships in the fleet plus Vista, which I visited in the shipyard,” Duffy told Travel Agent. She says her goal was not only to tour the ships and get a sense of those -- as Carnival has multiple "classes" of vessels, but also to spend time chatting with the crews.

“They’re on the front lines, delivering this great guest vacation experience,” she says. So while she points to more new tonnage (a second Vista-class vessel launches in 2018) she also says the software, meaning the crew who deliver the brand experience for guests, are critical in attracting new and repeat cruisers. 

“Our crew members hail from 50 countries and yet they make guests feel that guests are coming into their home...and we're here to take care of you," Duffy emphasizes.  

It’s that family experience and the sense that everyone is welcome that she wants to impart to future guests and repeat cruisers. For the future, she notes that the line will look at how it can better do the job of explaining and showcasing those "softer side" benefits.

Positioning Carnival as "America’s Cruise Line"

Carnival welcomes international guests who love its “Fun Ship” concept and is also looking to China (for Chinese sourcing) and Australia, but it's solidly rooted in North America. In fact, Duffy likes to describe the brand as "America’s cruise line."

“We have 14 U.S. home ports that 50 percent of the U.S. population can drive to within six hours or less,” Duffy stresses. “When people can see the ship in their community, it’s much less of a mystery to them.” That helps attract first timers. 

She’d love to see the list of home ports grow, so more people have the flexibility and affordability of Carnival available to them. Being back in Mobile after several years will help Carnival generate new-to-cruise guests, she told us. “The ship is right in their back yard,” she notes.

Drive-market home ports are attractive to families with kids in tow and others not wanting to traipse through airports, stand in lines, deal with flgiht delays and spend money for airplane tickets. Travel Agent experienced that first-hand at Port Everglades on Sunday. As Carnival Conquest was boarding guests, we met two families in the parking garage. One older couple had driven 900 miles from Nashville, TN, and another young family with two children had driven 700 miles from Charlotte, NC

Whether a ship is home ported in Port Everglades or another Carnival home port like Baltimore, Galveston or Mobile, people feel they have muliple options. They also can drive, avoid the airport hassles and save money. “I do think it makes a difference," Duffy says. 

Tapping Into Patriotism, Country Music and St. Jude's 

Ships home ported in Florida, Texas and Louisiana are in states that happen to have lots of military personnel and local bases. New this year, Duffy recently helped kick-off a new military family recognition program in partnership with country music star Carrie Underwood.

Carnival’s home ports by their locale also attract many country music fans but Duffy also believes the genre is growing throughout America. “My 23-year-old son and his girlfriend are country music fans,” she says, and "country as a genre has really grown in popularity."

She also acknowledges a strong connection between country music and the military. "That connection really works and really fits well” for Carnival, Duffy says. She also says patriotic support of military families and charitable support of projects like St. Jude’s Children's Research Hospital will continue to be high on Carnival’s “must do” list.

Christine Duffy hugs a child at St. Jude's Day in Memphis, TN. // Photo by Carnival Cruise Line

After achieving a $5 million fundraising goal for St. Jude's, Carnival recently announced an additional $10 million goal by 2020 while continuing its role as the hospital’s Official Celebration Partner.

During Duffy’s time in Memphis during a recent travel agent advisory board meeting, she spent a day at St. Jude's to see the work first hand. 

Improving Trade Support 

Another big accomplishment, in Duffy’s eyes, is the progress made with the agency community, following some trade policy change hiccups prior to her arrival.

“We’ve worked really hard this past year to rebuild trust and rebuild relationships,” she stresses, citing the early 2015 appointment of Adolfo Perez, a 34-year Carnival veteran, as vice president of trade sales and marketing .

“We’re pretty proud of [the work done thus far to improve agent relations] and his great team of sales people who are so passionate about the brand,” she says, noting that it was a tough period for a bit. “We’re very resilient, and really pleased at the progress thus far.”

She points to Carnival Conversations, a program developed so the line could better listen to agents, create effective dialogue and effect positive change. Duffy herself has attended and participated in one of these sessions.

It's not just talk, she says. Some positive actions have resulted. “We did make some changes on commission levels so agents could get to the next tier more quickly,” Duffy says. “These aren’t just soft things... and that's obviously resonated with the agents.”

Cultivating Repeaters

Once the cruise is under way, Duffy's perspective is that Carnival must continue to give guests unique experiences. Since the line is big in the Caribbeanmany of its guests have essentially “been there, done that” in terms of the destination. Duffy says her team continually asks itself, “How do we keep it fresh?” 

One new product that's helped, particularly for Boomer and senior guests, is the addition of longer Carnival Journeys voyages in the southern Caribbean, South America and Hawaii.

“Carnival Journeys really appeal to people who have more time, they already love to cruise and the longer voyages take them to new ports and give them new experiences,” Duffy notes. She also says these voyages have been a hit for  “throwback sea days” with guests wearing white dinner jackets and enjoying 1980s-style cruise traditions.

Carnival hasn’t been in Europe since 2013, so repeat guests are eager for Carnival Vista to begin sailing there this year. "Most guests sailing on in the Mediterranean on Carnival Vista are North American,” Duffy says. "We’re seeing pent-up demand.” 

Delivering Value... But Preserving Accessibility 

What can agents expect to see from the brand moving forward? “To me, the most important thing for Carnival as a brand is that we continue to be the leader in delivering that value for your vacation dollar, so whether it’s on land or sea, we’re very committed to that,” Duffy says. "Everyone deserves a great vacation."

While bundling more inclusions into the fare has been a hot trend for other cruise brands, who then have subsequently been able to raise pricing, Duffy believes Carnival must deliver value but also continue to make cruising must be accessible to everyone. “We’re back to being conscious of how our guests spend any of their discretionary dollars," Duffy says. 

In dining, Duffy says Carnival provides a high-quality culinary product in the dining room for those who want to dine there every night and watch their budget. But it also provides extra dining room choices at an added charge as well as specialty restaurant experiences at an added fee for those who want the choice of something else during their cruise.

“We’re working hard to make sure we keep price [the basic cruise fare] at a point that works," she says. "It's about giving choices, but rather than including all that in the fare so we’re providing maximum flexibilility and choice.” That means giving guests an array of choices in onboard activities, alternative dining and shore trips, but not making the fare more pricey so that many new cruisers can't afford the vacation.

Family programs, water fun and, above all, choices characterize a Carnival cruise. // Photo by Susan J. Young

Multi-generational trips are increasing, she says, stressing that Carnival already builds value into the cruise. For example, all Carnival's family programs are complimentary.

Moving Forward

Agents can expect to see Carnival “lean more into being America’s cruise line and being here year- round," says Duffy. That’s a message that she believes is impactful. 

She can't believe it's been a year since she arrived at Carnival, noting that there have been changes within the corporate team, but “we’ve had a good year in 2015 at Carnival and we’re no longer talking about recovery.”

Agents know that Carnival had a rough road after the Carnival Triumph incident; the ship lost propulsion in the Gulf of Mexico and was towed back to port over a period of several days. There was intense media coverage of difficult onboard conditions for guests.

Particularly for potential first-time cruisers, the imagery was daunting. Agents had a tough sell getting new-to-cruise guests to sail. In addition, many agents considered previous commission and other trade policy changes made under former management as onerous. 

Duffy says there's been great progress on both counts. "Now, we're building on the moment,” says Duffy, proud of the fact that the line has been name the most improved consumer brand in image across any category. It’s far from where the line was when she took the helm.

“For me, it’s great to be the most improved, but it’s a lot better to be the best,” Duffy emphasizes, indicating where she hopes to take the brand.

In October, readers of Readers Digest also voted Carnival as the most trusted cruise line. Separately, in USA Today's "10 Best Readers' Choice Awards" Carnival was selected as the best cruise line and best cruise ship (Carnival Breeze) for dining.   

“For me that sums up where we were and how far we’ve come," Duffy says, "and we’ll continue to build on our momentum and work to enhance our relationships with travel agents.”

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