Carnival Cruise Lines’ travel agent outreach program, which includes open meetings with retailers and sweeping changes in policies, appears to be working, at least according to the line’s top two sales executives and several travel agents whom I spoke with last week.
The Carnival Conversations road show came to Chicago on Oct. 18, so I attended to see how the relationship between Carnival and agents is progressing. The Chicago stop was the ninth of 10 live functions (the final one is in Houston on Oct. 21) and four webcasts.
Through the past few months, as the line listened, responded and made changes to some of its unpopular travel agent policies, the mood among agents attending the road shows has lightened. “Overall, it’s getting more positive,” said Lynn Torrent, executive vice president of sales and guest services. “The tone has changed quite a bit. But that’s not to say we don’t have more work to do.”
But Torrent and Joni Rein, vice president of worldwide sales, claim they have already accomplished quite a bit as they’ve overturned a number of decisions that angered agents and prompted many to vow to stop booking Carnival.
After facing a public relations disaster following the Carnival Triumph and other ship incidents earlier this year, the line knew it had to take major steps to win agents back into the fold. The first was launching Carnival Conversations to help rebuild the relationship, once the strongest in the industry, and make Carnival easy to do business with once again.
Most recently Carnival simplified its fare codes to only three, reversing a decision made last December to increase the number of fare codes from four to seven. The line also is bringing back printed brochures after a five-year absence — a decision applauded by agents in Chicago — and also now includes a “Call Your Travel Professional” call-to-action in its marketing materials.
Carnival also enhanced its Vacation Guarantee, which reimburses unhappy clients and gets them home from the ship, and also launched a massive advertising campaign, an investment exceeding $25 million. The line also has offered limited-time promotions offering bonus commissions, extra rewards points and group incentives.
Carnival is already seeing results. While she wouldn’t cite specific numbers, Torrent said bookings by agents are “improving significantly,” especially over the past four or five weeks. “We like to think some of it is because of the effort we’re making, but some of is coming as the brand recovers,” she said. “The brand has been bruised, and it needs to recover.”
At the Chicago meeting, travel agents aired their complaints, but in a measured manner. One didn’t like the policy that she can work with a business development manager only if she books 50 cabins a year —some years she exceeds that while other years she falls short. Those who book fewer than 50 staterooms were advised to consult the “trade engagement team” (inside sales) in Miami.
Some comments addressed travel agents’ fears that the line’s Personal Vacation Planners steal clients. David Chang, Carnival’s vice president of contact center sales, said when consumers call direct, the line asks the client if they are working with an agent and also does a search to see if the guest is holding a reservation booked by an agent. The line also extended the period of time an agent can take over a booking of a client from 30 to 90 days, he said. Chang also emphasized that Carnival PVPs cannot offer lower fares than agents do. “We do not have a better rate,” he said. “We never have.”
Another agent complained that even though she books the same number of Carnival bookings, her profits are dropping. “I’m selling the same but my income keeps going down,” she said.
Torrent said restoring pricing integrity is Carnival’s number one goal. “This year, everything is off, and you see that in our pricing,” she said. “Our objective is to get pricing back to where it was.”
Torrent and Rein emphasized that the Carnival Conversations work is not finished. One upcoming task is revamping the line’s groups program. “The biggest rub we have is that our group rate is not the lowest publicly available rate, and we’re going to fix that,” Torrent said. “The group rates can be higher than what consumers see on Carnival.com.”
Carol Gage, co-owner of Enchanted Ladies Cruises & Tours in Matteson, Ill., told me she appreciates that Carnival held the lunch meeting in Chicago. “I hope they take a lot of the stuff we said to heart, look into it and build up a better relationship,” she said. “I appreciate the fact they took the time to come and at least listen to us and let us voice our opinion. I hope changes will be coming.…Carnival was great for the person who wanted to take a cruise and didn’t have an arm and a leg to spend. They were always easy to work with, so I hope they get back to that point.”
Torrent and Rein realize some agents might remain skeptical, but they vow to continue Carnival’s program and build on the line’s the pro-agent policies. “We want to make sure we never find ourselves in this place again,” Rein said. “This is a forever program!”