Christine Duffy was just a couple weeks into her new job as president of Carnival Cruise Line last year, surrounded by members of the military and a country music star in Texas, when she had a realization: This cruise line was all about America.
It didn’t hurt that she was on a ship named Freedom, outfitted like all Carnival ships in red, white, and blue.
“That’s when it really crystallized that we are America’s cruise line,” said Duffy, who stepped into her role in February 2015 and spent the next year visiting every ship in the fleet of the world’s largest cruise line.
Before joining Carnival, Duffy was president and CEO of Cruise Lines International Association. She was in that position when fire disabled the Carnival Triumph in early 2013, leading to days of intense media coverage as the ship was towed to land. On occasion, she even commented on the incident’s implications for the broader cruise industry.
The cruise line invested hundreds of millions of dollars in fire safety and reliability upgrades; instituted a new money-back guarantee for travelers who were unsatisfied within the first day of a cruise; worked to repair relationships with travel agents and poured money into advertising campaigns. Within a year, the efforts were paying off, and the former CEO retired on Nov. 30, 2014. Duffy was named to the post a couple weeks later.
These days, Duffy said, the conversation is about momentum and not recovery.
Carnival is continuing popular programs including the concert-and-comedy series Carnival Live, which lets passengers watch performances for an extra fee, and the Seuss at Sea children’s program. Earlier this year, the operator announced a partnership with Carrie Underwood, which will include a concert for military families on a ship and a fundraising component for Operation Homefront. Underwood will also be part of the concert lineup for 2017.
And on Sunday, the cruise line launched its newest and biggest ever ship, Carnival Vista, in Europe.
Duffy spoke to Skift earlier this spring about the new ship, empowering employees to surprise passengers, what she learned over the last year, and why she believes Carnival is America’s cruise line.
Skift: What were your main goals for your first year in this position?
Duffy: Well, first thing I said was ‘First do no harm.’ Because I think the brand and the team that was here had done a great job setting us up for success. And the other thing that I said was I wanted to get out and visit every one of our ships across the fleet. So that was 24 ships plus going to visit Vista under construction. The primary goal was just immersing myself in Carnival, the culture, getting to know the people, and really spending a lot of time onboard the ships engaging with our team members.
Skift: That sounds like some people’s idea of a dream job.
Duffy: You know, I think it is a dream job. Of course, visiting 24 ships isn’t the same as getting to take 24 cruises. These visits included town hall meetings with all of our team members, coffees with our management and officers on board, getting to spend some time with the people we have in ports that support all of our embarkation and work in the destinations.
I love to be out and about and being with people, in a lot of ways for me it’s what I like to do best. It gives me a lot of energy and I think it’s really helped me, as I come back to shoreside and work with our teams here, to keep front and center that at the end of the day the product we deliver and the vacation experiences happen on board the ships with our team. And the more connected we stay and the more true we stay to the vision and purpose that Carnival Cruise Line was created [with], I think the more delighted our guests are.
Skift: What were some of your biggest takeaways from those visits, specifically in terms of generating new ideas for where the brand could go or new things the brand could do to delight guests?
Duffy: I think a lot of it is this idea that I focused on in my first year was building a closer bridge between shoreside and shipboard….With a fleet as large as ours — and we’ve got two ships in Australia — making sure that that communication, collaboration and coordination is happening on an everyday basis is important.
You may have heard Arnold Donald, our corporation CEO, talk a lot about that work that he’s really instilled in us across the brands of Carnival Corporation. I think the same thing has applied within Carnival Cruise Line. Given our size, given the number of years that we’ve been in business, we have a lot of new people within the brand and we have a lot of people who have been here from the very beginning.
And so I talked about diversity within Carnival Cruise Line, making sure that we really honor the legacy and the experiences of people that have been here over time but at the same time really integrating fresh ideas and fresh eyes on a business that has been very successful. How do we take it to the next level, how do we build on the strong momentum that the brand has today?
Skift: What are some of the new guest-facing innovations that have come along in the last year that you are really excited about?
Duffy: Gus Antorcha, who heads up our shipboard operations team, is really working to empower our team members on board for what we call positive surprises. So really empowering the team members to recognize and delight customers in ways that are unexpected….
Think about the team members we have on board, whether it’s the cabin stewards, whether it’s the dining room team, even some work that we’re doing with our spa to really invite people to participate and give the positive surprises.
A lot of people aboard our ships are celebrating a special event, whether it’s a child’s birthday, an anniversary, a multigenerational family trip, and so there’s a lot of little things we can do that don’t cost a lot of money that really go a long way in making a difference in somebody’s vacation. We really are trying to unleash that and take advantage of what comes very naturally to our team members on board, which is serving the guest and making everyone feel welcome and special on their vacation.
Skift: So what could something like that be, like just as simple as a few flowers or a special announcement or a special towel animal?
Duffy: It may be coming back and finding that the cabin steward has decorated the room and the door to celebrate a child’s birthday, it may be breaking out in song in the dining room to acknowledge a family onboard that may be celebrating a special occasion, all the way to going into your cabin and finding that there’s a spa gift card saying ‘thank you for coming and celebrating your anniversary with Carnival’ and allowing a couple to go to the spa that might not otherwise do so.
So it’s really, I think, doing more as I said to empower and have these things happen in a natural, authentic way. And a lot of them don’t cost much money and some of them do cost money, but I think it’s those small things that make the biggest difference. And frankly, our crew members love this.
Skift: You’ve been thinking about Carnival as America’s cruise line…Can you talk a little bit about that train of thought?
Duffy: Again, it was the value of me really visiting and spending time onboard the ships and meeting a lot of guests and realizing that we have a unique position in the cruise industry and I think in the vacation market overall.
It does go back to [founder] Ted Arison’s vision of really changing what had been a vacation experience for those that were wealthier to believing that every American deserves a great vacation, people work hard all year and a cruise vacation is something that should be affordable and should be fun and people should be able to come as they are.
And so we’re really, as we lean into that original vision and purpose of how Carnival Cruise Line came to be and you think about the fact that we have ships in 14 U.S. home ports, that we offer more short cruises for people who maybe have not cruised before or want to try it. Fifty percent of the U.S. population can drive to a Carnival cruise vacation in six hours or less time. And when I really look at our guests on board, they come from all walks of life.
We have more active and retired military that sail with us than any other brand. We have more families — we have 700,000 children that sail with their families on Carnival Cruise Line. This trend of multi-generational travel where people are coming together because people don’t all necessarily live in the same neighborhood or place where they grow up.
I think this fosters the sense for me that we are America’s cruise line. As I say to my team, it’s not that I’m even thinking about it anymore, we just need to own that.
We are here all year round and while we have a ship and a half in Australia and we’ve announced that we’ll be entering China, when you look at the size of the fleet, the new ships that we have coming into the fleet, we still have the majority of our capacity and our focus and our desire to continue to serve this North American market. I think we’re able to do that with a product that really resonates for those Americans who really are looking for a great vacation at a value that cannot be replicated with any other cruise line or I believe any other kind of land-based vacation, frankly, when you look at the value for experience.
Skift: And I feel like with the partnership with Carrie Underwood and some of the concerts that you’re doing, it seems like that really plays into kind a sense of Americana in some cases. Is that coincidental, or is that part of what you’re doing, trying to make your onboard products really kind of echo that sense of America’s cruise line?
Duffy: We talked a lot about how do we make sure that the experience on board mirrors the way that we promote and market Carnival Cruse Line to guests. And so if you think about where our ships are located and this idea of America’s cruise line and you look at what’s popular, I mean obviously we are going to be responsive to what we hear from our guests and who is our core customer. And so when you look at Carnival Live, the kind of bands and groups that we’ve brought together resonate with the Carnival guest.
Carrie Underwood and the opportunity to partner with her and Operation Homefront, which we had done before. It’s funny talking about this now thinking back, I mean the very first big event that I did when I joined Carnival in 2015 was the repositioning of Carnival Freedom to Galveston. And that was on Valentine’s Day and our team had put together an event with Martina McBride. We had invited 1,000 military families on board, overnight on Valentine’s Day to experience the ship, to welcome Carnival Freedom to Galveston. And we gave a large check to Operation Homefront. And probably, for me, that’s when it really crystallized that we are America’s cruise line.
Skift: Is there marketing behind that? Is that a direction you think you would go, or is it more like a frame of mind and kind of the way you program and operate?
Duffy: Well, at this point it was something I declared, so I think for the rest of our team and the marketing team, they like it. They see where it is natural for us to lean into that. It also goes to the other thing we talked about, this come as you are. We’ve been known as the Fun Ship and certainly ‘Fun for All, All for Fun’ is still our tagline. But part of that fun for all and all for fun is this idea that on a Carnival Cruise ship, you can be who you are and it is a more, I’ll say, relaxed environment where I think people just can be free to come as they are.
And again, if you go onboard a Carnival ship, I think we attract guests as vacationers who really want to relax and have fun. And the fact that I declared we’re America’s cruise line really comes from the fact that we are here year-round, who our guests are, how we market the great value that we provide. We may or may not have more formal marketing behind that, but hopefully like a lot of things these days, they start to go viral.
Skift: Is there anything you can talk about in terms of the brand’s performance? I know that in the last few earnings calls, there was talk about Carnival Cruise Line specifically having I think it was double-digit yield improvement or better-than-expected ticket yields.
Duffy: As you said, we had double-digit yield growth. The brand continues to be a very strong contributor to the overall Carnival Corporation results. I’ve said to my team, we’re no longer talking about recovery for Carnival, we’re really talking about building on the momentum that we have. And I’ve told the story when I accepted this job, before I started, Carnival was recognized by YouGov BrandIndex as the most improved brand, which was great and people were really excited about that. And people here had worked very, very hard to make that happen.
Fast forward and then in October, Reader’s Digest said Carnival Cruise Line: most trusted cruise brand in America. And that was relative to other brands like Marriott and Apple and Amazon that were recognized.
USA Today readers voted Carnival at the end of the year as best ocean cruise line. I think for us, and especially for the team that has been here for awhile, we’ve agreed. We’ve moved on and clearly the guests and the brand are doing very well.
We’re very excited to be taking delivery of our newest ship….We haven’t had a new ship since 2012, so we are very excited to have Vista, she’ll spend the summer and fall in Europe with lots of North Americans on board. There’s been a lot of great demand for the new ship and the fact that she’s in Europe. We haven’t been in Europe since we brought Breeze on in 2012.
And we’ve got a great and exciting event planned in New York when the ship makes her way back to the U.S. in November, which includes Carrie Underwood and the military families that we’re sponsoring with Carrie’s tour right now that are attending her concerts and having private meet and greets with Carrie, they will all participate in New York along with 1,000 military families that will be on board for a private Carrie Underwood concert.
And then the ship arrives in Miami, which will be her home, later that same month over Thanksgiving weekend. This is a new class of ship…so it’s a very different ship, she’s the biggest ship that Carnival will have in the fleet and we think that we’ve incorporated a lot of exciting new features into Vista. And kept a lot of what we know really resonates with Carnival guests.
Skift: What are some of the things that are included in the new class that repesent the direction that you think Carnival is going?
Duffy: One of the first things I’ll talk about is really this idea now that we’ve got Family Harbor, so an area specifically designed for families. The decor in that area is very nautical, very themed that way. The cabins surrounding Family Harbor were designed where people who are traveling with their children, the layout of the cabin and the space is really designed to accommodate families.
Juxtapose that with what we’ve done with Havana [staterooms] and Havana Cabanas and the idea that we have a space where people — adults, no children under 12 in that area —with their own pool space, their own place where they can go to the bar, they can enjoy breakfast and lunch in that space along with cabins that are designed instead of a balcony where you’ve got an outdoor space that’s really connected right onto the deck to sit out and enjoy and people watch. And then at night it opens up to everyone.
But i think it’s this idea of, we know we have a lot of families that sail with us, but we also have a lot of couples and adults who are traveling together and so this is a way to really acknowledge that.
If you think about the entertainment on board with Punchliner Comedy, which really plays well to a lot of our adults and the IMAX theater with first-run movies, [which] is going be appealing to people with families but also to adults who may want to catch a late-night movie. [Outdoor suspended ride] SkyRide is, we’ll see if that’s going to be more for adults or kids. I think the vistas will be beautiful and I guess you can go pedal as fast as you can or just take in the views and go a little more slowly.