When Carnival Corp.’s new Fathom cruise line began sailing its initial slate of cruises to Cuba in early May, it caught a wave of positive media coverage as the first major cruise ship to return to Cuba.
Fathom’s product in the Dominican Republic, however, is way more ambitious than its Cuba presence; it has engineered a series of social immersion activities on the island’s north coast aimed at giving back to local community members.
Among travel agents and the greater cruise industry, though, there has been some skepticism about how Fathom not only fits into Carnival Corp.’s wide range of brands, but also whether such a cruiser looking to volunteer during his or her vacation even exists.
Fathom president Tara Russell, who has worked in a variety of roles at Fortune 500 companies and is also chairman of Create Common Good, a company that uses food production to help strengthen local communities, thinks that time will bear out that there is a strong market of leisure travelers who will be interested in a Fathom experience.
These cruisers may be younger and more willing to have an active vacation than the market of traditional cruisers, or simply looking to feel that their presence in a destination will have a positive impact on the local community.
While MSC Cruises homeported the MSC Opera in Havana in late 2015, and will operate the MSC Armonia out of Havana next year, Fathom represents the first opportunity for U.S. travelers to legally cruise to Cuba.
Skift sat down with Russell in Vancouver to discuss Fathom’s official launch, the challenge of building a niche cruise brand around volunteerism, why the line recently reduced some cruise fares, and the work that went into building the unique land experiences the brand has delivered in the Dominican Republic.
Skift: While the first month of Fathom cruises has garnered some praise, many are saying the market for this kind of destination immersion cruise doesn’t exist yet. How do you assess Fathom’s success so far?
Russell: I think for us the challenge isn’t the market. The challenge is getting to it quickly because it’s very fragmented. I guarantee this market exists. Every year there’s more and more data proving this market. We’re seeing it every day. The trick is it’s such a fragmented market that you just have to make sure, as a small company comparatively, that you focus your energy in the right place because it’s not for everybody. It doesn’t have to be. We don’t expect it to be. It would be a terrible miss if someone was looking for a casino and Broadway and a very traditional cruise experience, they might be disappointed.
I think we have a fun opportunity ahead of us because we get to start seeming much more normal. The first month isn’t really normal because you have so many media, and so many sales partners, that it’s sort of a weird mix of not really yet your traveler fully.
We have to be patient enough to really see the insights and the themes, versus overreact to every little thing, because I don’t think a lot of what we’ve had yet has been that normal.
I also expect our data will look very different for the first six months to the first 12 months to the first 18. Younger travelers won’t hear about us for 12 months until they hear from their buddy in a bar or out on a hiking trip. I think the audience will get younger and younger on the Dominican Republic. I think on Cuba it’s going to be fascinating to watch because Cuba is just a higher price point market. It’s a very different time. I think we’re going to also see that audience get younger, but it’s starting at a higher spot. To give you a sense, the average age of our Cuba travelers is probably 55 now.
Skift: You are essentially offering different products in both Cuba and the Dominican Republic. How do you build a cruise line in two different places at the same time?
Russell: We deliver radically different experiences in both places. Fathom is pretty simple. It’s about traveling deep. It’s really for people who long to have a rich cultural immersion, but also have meaningful human progress and impact. What we proposed as our design challenge was to build and put authentic impact within reach of mindful consumers and to really bring intention and purpose to travel to the marketplace. We defined a whole new category of travel, calling it social impact travel. The way that manifests in the Dominican Republic is very different than the way it manifests in Cuba.
In the Dominican Republic, there is alongside a service component for anyone who wants to participate. We have partners on the ground that we’ve identified. They’ve been there for more than 30 years. We do a lot of work around education of the environment and economic development. You, as a traveler, you don’t have to do that, but your ticket fare supports the ongoing operations that we serve there.
It’s been really fascinating. Personally, I’m kind of a dork. I like to watch human behavioral patterns. Would they want to do impact activities every day? Would they want to do impact activities one day? What was the mix. We did a lot of data playing. What we’re finding is people are loving the impact so much, they want to do it more. Most people want to do it most days. In fact, what’s happening is most people are doing an impact activity in the morning and then going zip lining or snorkeling, or to jump down the waterfalls or to windsurf or to hang out at the pool.
We believe a lot about this idea of collective impact and what’s possible together. We spend a lot of time, effort, and energy engaging and creating experiences around shared humanity. It’s not like a white person with the answer goes down and brings the solution. We came to learn, to immerse, to really understand the needs of the Dominican friends and partners that we’ve made. Then we come in alongside the things they were already doing.
Skift: What was the hardest part of building your operation in the Dominican Republic?
Russell: I would say honestly the hardest part had nothing to do with the Dominicans. That part was easy because we found the right partners. The hardest part was finding the right partners first, because initially when we went, what we found was an enormous, like hundreds literally of people doing little things, like mom and pop.
Then we met these three partners that we partner with now. It’s like we started at the ground up… [an USAID partner told us about] the Alerta Joven model, a program for at-risk youth. It’s really about keeping kids engaged in school. It’s a before and after school model.
They do it in 40 places at once. It doesn’t matter if they do it in the convention center, in the school, or in somebody’s home. You show up at any one of them at 9 o’clock, you see the same thing. For us, because we were really trying to build a scalable model that we could do it not just in one school but in every school across the region over time, as we built that scale. For me, there’s a lot of good stuff happening. There’s very little that’s happening at scale and happening genuinely impactful and sustainable. We just mandated it had to be all those things. That was hard that part…
Re-architecting the supply chain in the period of time we had was a massive challenge too. Yet, it was so important to us because it’s a part of who we are as a brand. We wanted there to be a cohesiveness to everything so that it wasn’t like this go on shore, have this amazing, intimate experience in the community, come on board and have this weird dissonant disconnect.
Skift: So you’re saying cruisers shouldn’t expect a pizza buffet onboard.
Russell: It’s just different. We believe a lot in joyful abundance. We have a pool on board. We have meditation classes. We have wine and paint night. We have cocktail classes, but you’re learning about cocktails of the region. You’re learning about dance of the region. You get to learn salsa and Merengue. It’s that we want to invite people into really experiencing this place, whether you’re on board or on shore.
It’s like some music festivals. There’s a lot of experiential communities that come together. That’s not really about where they go. It’s about what they do together. Our tribe that comes with us becomes like family. Half of what we’ve built is the experience itself. Half of what we’ve built is what we call the impact playground for the community building and sharing.
Skift: Fathom recently cut cruise fares for the summer, which is usually a sign in the industry of a lack of demand. Why cut fares if this is such a unique, exclusive product?
Russell: Part of it is that we believe in giving access. We want to bring that introductory year market on quickly because we think the sooner you come have the experience, the more likely you can’t help but go share it. For us as a small brand who doesn’t invest hundreds of millions of dollars in traditional marketing, the best way we grow is that you have your own experience and go tell your community about it. The way people make decisions today, especially for something like this, is not through point of sale marketing. The way people make decisions is through a trusted source.
We want people to [cruise], whether you’re a cruiser or a non-cruiser, we don’t care. We’re agnostic about that. Our thing is we want people who love to travel, want to go deep, but also love to make a difference. Right? That’s the gist of who we are.
Skift: What about destinations beyond the Dominican Republic and Cuba? Would you consider bringing the Fathom experience elsewhere any time soon?
Russell: The beautiful thing is we’re open-minded about all the locations we touch. I think the key is we have to understand the place well enough. For us to just cookie cutter it and say, “this is what we do globally,” is a goofy approach.
What we’ve essentially done is we’ve built all this impact IP [intellectual property]. We’ve got a lot of ingredients both on ship and on shore. Now what we’re able to do is look with our brands at wherever they already go. Also we don’t ever need or plan to leave the Caribbean because we’re going to hopefully forever be there. [Carnival Corp. has] invested in an $80 million port in the northern coast of the Dominican Republic.
I think for us, the key is we care a lot about doing everything we do in a way that is genuinely meaningful. It’s authentically impactful. That takes time. It also takes understanding. I think we work first to develop intimacy. People say, “Why aren’t you doing XYZ in Cuba yet?” The reality is we don’t know the Cuban people and the Cuban place well enough yet to even pretend to understand [all the things they want]… we’re just starting to learn.