Fathom President Tara Russell Talks Cuba, Global Impact and Dreaming Big
Photo courtesy of Fathom
Yesterday, Carnival Corporation received final approval from the Cuban government to sail to the country with its new Fathom brand beginning on May 1, 2016, and I had the pleasure of speaking with Tara Russell, the new cruise line’s president, just last week at Seatrade Cruise Global 2016 to further understand the brand and its development.
At its core, Fathom is about social impact and offering travelers the opportunity to make a difference volunteering in the Dominican Republic and immerse themselves in the culture of Cuba, each on weeklong roundtrip sailings from Miami, Florida. Russell told TravelPulse, “I think we all have unique superpowers and gifts and talents and abilities that are unique to us, and yet we all need to learn what’s that sweet spot of my gifting and talenting with needs and opportunities in the world, and at Fathom, we do that. We essentially help people unlock their destiny through that experience,” and to additionally affect them when they return home as a positive part of their families, communities and workplaces.
Opportunities for so-called “voluntourism” abound in places like the Dominican Republic where Russell says the education system is one of the worst in the world despite progress being made there in other areas. She said, “We’re really working to help empower the future generation of youth through creative education models that keep kids engaged in school but also that bring content.”
READ MORE: Fathom Prepares for Onboard Experience
Thus, Fathom is a cruise experience that engages multiple generations of travelers, and Russell reflected on a recent experience she had with a boy in the DR that applies: “Jose was 10. I have a son who’s 10. So, I’m picturing my son Tyson at home who…has every opportunity on the planet. He’s part of this gifted education program within the public schools – it’s free, we don’t even have to pay for it – and he has all kinds of books to read. And then I think about this kid Jose who has nothing, but yet he’s the same kid that my son is…
“I mean I’m fortunate to have lived, worked, traveled and built stuff in lots of countries; this isn’t the first time. But it was a powerful moment because it was like seeing both of my lives at once. This child was hesitant with his language, afraid to try to speak English, and my son likes to be perfect. He’d hesitate with his Spanish in the same way. So, I’m picturing as I’m there with this kid, getting all totally emotional, I’m picturing my son coming with me in April, which he will, and I’m just imagining the learning, the shared learning, but also seeing there’s so much same-same in humanity.”
In preparing for the cruise line’s launch in the DR in April, P&O Cruises’ Adonia is being repurposed and is currently receiving its routine overhaul maintenance and what Russell calls a “soft wallpaper change” to ready the vessel for the new brand. She clarifies, “our mission is not to make the best ship. That’s not our mission. So, we do not want our dollars and energies to align with ‘it’s all about the ship’ because it’s not all about the ship. It is, though, about the ship as this idea of an impact playground and really about this curiosity and cultivation of community. And so everything onboard is…interactive, playful, engaging. For instance, we have these boxes hidden throughout the ship, these curiosity boxes, so kids can discover or adults can discover in strange, weird places that you wouldn’t expect. And so we’ve handcrafted what’s in there, where they go.”
She added, “We’re speaking to our traveler in lots of creative ways. We’ve done a lot in terms of visuals on the wall…: a lot of our design ethos, a lot of our brand identity and voice. So, we ask questions…We have a story confessional booth where we capture their stories almost like one of those wedding things. We’ve got this super cool postcard wall where you write a letter to yourself, to your future self. So, while you’re on this trip, you write a note, and then we send it to you later. But it kind of makes up this beautiful mural.
“We have an interactive artist who’s painting this mural every week, and there’s a part of it that always stays and a new part that comes tailored to each week and each tribe. We’ve got the best product and experience designers in the world, and we’ve had the luxury of such amazing talent working on this together that it’s pretty damn cool.”
When asked about programming at yesterday’s conference call after receiving final Cuban approval, Arnold Donald, CEO of Carnival Corp., said the guest experience in Cuba will be as they originally planned and announced it with alternating weeks dedicated exclusively to Cuba and the DR come the Cuban launch in May.
Russell explained, “the DR and Cuba programming onboard are 80 percent the same. On shore: radically different. So, what does that mean? You can think of Fathom with two key components. One is the social impact ingredients. The other is kind of [these] cultural immersion ingredients. In DR, you get both. You get social impact plus cultural immersion; A plus B. In Cuba, you get cultural immersion…There’s not a service, an engaging experiential service, opportunity in Cuba. Right now our focus in Cuba is around [those] 12 authorized forms of travel approved by U.S., OK with Cuba. And it’s really about beginning a series of learnings with the Cuban people.”
She added, "Everything onboard is Dominican and Cuban-inspired: food, music, film. You get a Dominican burger; you get a Cuban burger. You want a ham and cheese, you get a Cubano. Everything feels that region.” Also, Cuban bands will obviously differ from Dominican musicians. However, the dance that is taught onboard is very common to both places, and the workshop content is also similar, with specialized orientations for each destination.
In her role also as global impact lead for Carnival corporately, she says, “everything we built with Fathom, we can kind of smear across the whole corporation…We really are so fortunate to have the opportunity to dream big and to pioneer and lead the world in this next season.” That means there’s potential for international brand synergy to expand the Fathom effort.
The line is already imagining programs that may develop in conjunction with P&O Cruises Australia in the South Pacific, perhaps applying methods from the DR to Vanuatu, for instance, like educational models or ceramic-filtered clean water. Ultimately, she said, “the key for us is marrying the needs of these communities with the needs of our travelers, with the needs of the corporation,” to develop a market-driven solution to social needs that can sustain the effort.
For now, Fathom cruises to the Dominican Republic will launch on April 10, 2016 starting at $974 per person, and those to Cuba will set sail on May 1, 2016 beginning at $1,800 per person.
More by Jason Leppert
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