James Shillinglaw | June 08, 2015 2:29 PM ET
The Birth of a New Cruise Brand
The invitation asked us to come to the United Palace Theater at 175th Street and Broadway in Upper Manhattan. That’s Washington Heights, for those who don’t know the city, and it’s not the typical place to hold a press event—especially one being held by the largest cruise company in the world.
What could Carnival Corp. be announcing at such an unusual location? Well, after driving up there I found out within the first half hour. The theater itself, which first opened in 1930, was one of those glorious movie palaces of that era, highly ornate and palatial—again not the type of place you’d see a cruise company make a major announcement.
But it also turns out that the neighborhood surrounding that theater has many Dominican immigrants to the U.S.—and the Dominican Republic is a key part of the Carnival’s plan.
As many of you know by now, Carnival Corp. last Thursday unveiled a new cruise line called Fathom, the company’s 10th brand. But Fathom is unique in that it targets guests who want to give something back and who want to make an impact on the world through what has come to be known as “voluntourism.”
The new line, which will debut in April 2016, will offer sailings out of Miami on the 710-passenger Adonia, a ship currently in the P&O Cruises fleet. The vessel, which will be revamped and rebranded, will offer seven-day cruises to Puerto Plata in the Dominican Republic. In practice, however, the ship actually won’t do much cruising. Instead, it will stay in the Dominican Republic for four days and three nights in order to provide guests with the opportunity to participate in socially responsible activities aimed at supporting the country’s people.
For example, guests will have the opportunity to teach English to regional schools in the country; they can help local farmers harvest crops, cultivate soil or plant trees; or they can help build needed community projects. At the same time, they will interact directly with locals, eating with them, talking with them and enjoying their culture.
There also will be the chance to do some sightseeing, go swimming at great beaches or visit some of the natural attractions on the island. The idea is to create a cruise product that can make a positive impact on the lives of others and deliver an unforgettable experience to the guests who book it.
After being introduced last Thursday, Carnival Corp. President and CEO Arnold Donald began by talking about all the charities and causes that his company has contributed to over the years, including relief for victims of the Nepal earthquake and the typhoon on Vanatu Island, as well as providing money for military families, cancer cures, nature conservancy and the UNESCO World Heritage Fund.
But all that was a lead in into Carnival Corp.’s biggest experiment: An entirely new cruise brand devoted to giving back. Fathom, which has in its logo the words “impact” and “travel,” is a unique cruise product in that it doesn’t even have an experienced cruise executive as its CEO. Instead, to run its new brand Carnival turned to Tara Russell, a 20-year veteran of mostly non-profit, social entrepreneurial organizations, including most recently as CEO of Create Common Good, which provides food service job training and education to communities.
Russell, who spoke at the United Palace Theater, said she is deeply committed to business models that have a sustainable impact on humanity, and that marry the corporate world with the social enterprise world. In Fathom, she is attempting to create a brand that is sustainable and provides meaningful travel and life-changing travel experiences for guests who will work alongside local populations on projects that will have lasting impact. “Fathom puts authentic impact within reach of mindful consumers,” she told the audience at Carnival’s event last week.
For Donald, Fathom needs to be a sustainable and “much more systematic” program—and the only way to do that is to make it profitable. Prices per person for the cruise will start at $1,600. “We want to make money and we’re not embarrassed by that,” he says.
Donald says Fathom will target millennials, families and just about anyone interested in giving something back during their cruise. Others have suggested that fathom will strongly target the religious market—churches and other socially responsible groups—for its customer base, including those who already go on mission trips to countries around the world.
For his part, Donald says guests will do some real work, but they will be fun, too. Most importantly it will give guests the chance to truly have a local experience where they are much more immersed in the country, culture and people.
Will customers book the new Fathom cruise brand? That remains to be seen, but clearly there is an appetite in the market for “voluntourism” and giving back to the world while on vacation. A few tour operators already offer such programs during their itineraries, including G Adventures and Intrepid Travel, to name two that come immediately to mind.
A few cruise lines have also begun experimenting with individual shore excursions that feature socially responsible and community building activities, but Carnival is definitely the first to market an entire brand devoted to this kind of travel.
Already Carnival’s announcement is drawing praise from the travel agency community.
"People are always looking for new ways to travel and give back, so pairing both of these with Carnival Corporation’s new Fathom social impact travel experiences is a brilliant idea," says Michelle Fee, CEO and co-founder of Cruise Planners, an American Express Travel Representative. "Those new to the cruise market will find an upscale mission trip of sorts, which will be appealing to millennials and socially conscious families and give them a new way to experience cruising and see the world.”
On the other hand, some travel industry observers have begun wondering just how sustainable and effective fathom will be, given that a new group of passengers will experience its socially responsible programs in the Dominican Republic every week, so continuity may be an issue. But that will be a challenge that Russell and her team, as well as their partners in the Dominican Republic, will have to meet so that the entire program will deliver what it sets out to do.
The brand has partnered with Entrena, a group specializing in training, education and social enterprising in the Dominican Republic, and IDDI, the Dominican Institute for Integral Development, Inc. (IDDI), created in 1984, as a private non-profit organization, whose mission is to contribute to the transformation of both individuals and families, and the broader Dominican community.
Just how big such “voluntourism” cruising can be remains to be seen, but Fathom at least is a start to something that could mushroom fairly quickly. After all, even in the luxury travel sphere the new and recurring mantra is all about traveling to find unique “experiences.”
And what better experience could you have than doing good, interacting with local people in countries around the world and being socially responsible at the same time you’re on vacation?
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