When Carol Matulonis first heard about Fathom, a cruise line that offers volunteer-focused trips, she was on board with the idea immediately.
“I just thought it was amazing and I booked it that same week,” the Fort Pierce, Florida resident said.
Matulonis, a travel agent who owns a Cruise Planners franchise, took the weeklong trip to the Dominican Republic with her 25-year-old daughter over Mother’s Day last year and enjoyed the experience. They taught English and helped at co-ops that made chocolate and stationery products.
But despite her enthusiasm, Matulonis wasn’t able to sell Fathom cruises to anyone — even clients who were intrigued by the concept.
“I wanted to. I tried really hard, I had a lot of people look at it,” she said. “But if they had to do the time and money for one vacation of the year, they wanted to do something different.”
That disconnect between interest and action was a persistent problem for the Fathom brand, and in late November, parent company Carnival Corp. announced that Fathom would fold its cruise line operations in the spring. The name and idea will live on as branded experiences on ships and shore for passengers on other Carnival lines.
And the other ground that Fathom pioneered — cruises between the U.S. and Cuba after a decades-long freeze — is expected to be covered by sister brands in the Carnival family.
Tara Russell, Fathom president and Carnival Corp.’s global impact lead, acknowledged that the line had a hard time communicating its message in a way that made enough people want to book.
“In many ways, we introduced a new category of travel, a new brand, and a new experience to the marketplace that was somewhat foreign,” Russell said.
She said there was a limited budget to foster awareness and comprehension, as well as a short window of time to help the idea catch on, though the brand reached out to travel agents through road shows, ship visits, online education portals, and webinars. Travelers who didn’t quite get the concept were also reluctant to spend their limited travel time on an uncertainty.
Once travelers tried the brand, Russell said, they often loved it, some sailing six times in as many months.
“We have very sticky engagement once people have an experience with us,” she said. “However, we’ve learned that until they’ve had an experience with us, they don’t fully get it and they don’t fully get us.”
Drew Daly, general manager of network engagement and performance at home-based agent network CruiseOne said he thought Fathom was “somewhat transformative in offering a new approach to travel, and certainly to cruises.”
But he acknowledged that the new approach was difficult for agents to communicate.
“When it’s a new type of experience, it’s hard to grasp and understand,” he said.
History of a Startup Cruise Line
Fathom first came to the public’s attention in June of 2015, a surprise move from Carnival, famous for its namesake fun-fueled brand. The new cruise line was meant to be different, full of purpose and meaning rather than boozy antics, casinos and shows. It used a 704-passenger ship borrowed from sister brand P&O Cruises in the UK.
Originally, the pitch was for a category the brand defined as “social impact travel,” with its first destination in the Puerto Plata region of the Dominican Republic. Ships would sail to one port — Amber Cove, developed by Carnival — during a weeklong trip and passengers would have the chance to take part in traditional excursions or volunteer work such as laying concrete floors, teaching English, or working in a chocolate-making cooperative.
From the beginning, there was talk of expanding — maybe with more ships, maybe to other areas. And within a month, that talk got specific. Carnival Corp. had U.S. permission to take Fathom to Cuba under the “people to people” category of approved travel. Those trips would be culture-oriented rather than volunteer-based.
Privately, the company had been considering the potential of Cuba since December of 2014, when President Barack Obama first announced the normalizing of relations.
Authorities in Cuba did not give their permission for many more months — until March of 2016. The first Fathom sailing, to the Dominican Republic, took place at the end of April 2016. Cuba followed the first week of May.
The addition of Cuba trips added new excitement to the brand, Daly said.
“The energy from that was just awesome and certainly Fathom did a great job promoting and breaking that glass ceiling of being able to say that’s a new destination for cruising,” he said.
While demand was strong for the Cuba sailings, the Dominican Republic trips were never as popular. Fathom first set prices around $1,500 per person for the Dominican Republic, but fares dropped significantly over time, sometimes hovering around $249 a person.
With permission from the Cuban government, the line switched a couple of Dominican sailings to Cuban itineraries in late 2016. And Fathom recently added a Cuba stop on several other trips that were scheduled to stay in the Dominican Republic.
Despite the challenges, Carnival Corp. said the brand was a win for perception. CEO Arnold Donald has spoken about the billions of media impressions Fathom generated.
But Mike Driscoll, editor-in-chief of the industry newsletter Cruise Week, said good press still has to lead to action to be truly valuable.
“No matter how many positive impressions you have in the media, if word of mouth isn’t there from people who are going, it’s not going to work,” he said. “It has to be ‘Oh, you’ve got to go.'”
Instead, Driscoll said, the details of the trip might have put travelers off.
“The idea sounds enticing,” he said. “Once you looked into it, it was ‘Do I really want to work on my vacation?’ A certain type of person does, but they may not want to take a cruise. A cruise is not the way for them to do that type of trip. Cruises are by nature a mass-market vehicle.”
Nancy McGehee, a professor who heads the Hospitality and Tourism Management Department at Virginia Tech, studies volunteer tourism and said Fathom never seemed like a sure bet to her.
“It’s pretty immersed in the volunteer component,” she said of Fathom’s model. “Pretty hard-core in terms of the time spent and yet it’s on a cruise ship.” That mix might have been confusing for cruisers and dedicated volunteers who didn’t necessarily overlap, she said.
McGehee said experts believe close to 10 million people a year participate in some sort of voluntourism, though the level of time dedicated to volunteering varies. Philanthropic travelers might pay as much as several thousand dollars for a volunteer trip; McGehee said Fathom’s low prices were a sign that there wasn’t a connection with the right audience.
“That speaks to the market mismatch, because there are definitely volunteers out there interested in spending that much in a week,” she said. “You lose them when you say cruise. The ones that you get the attention on cruise, you lose them when you say volunteering all day long.”
Still, Russell doesn’t consider the experience a failure.
“No matter what Fathom has done, we have only written the first half of the first chapter and we are on a path of expansion and evolution that for us is very exciting,” she said. “We don’t see anything as failure. I would absolutely not call anything that Fathom has done a failure.”
She listed accomplishments: bringing a new brand and category of travel to the market in less than a year; engaging thousands of travel agents; bringing tens of thousands of travelers on cruises that focused on social good in the Dominican Republic and cultural exploration in Cuba; and adding a new type of option to Carnival Corp. and the industry.
“It was never about one small ship of 35,000 travelers a year,” Russell said. “It was always about how do we serve this growing hunger globally.”
The Future of Fathom
The plan has always been to broaden Fathom beyond a single ship or destination, Russell said.
“This season is now how do we build kind of a Fathom travel mindset and a movement more broadly in and through and across the corporation and even potentially beyond,” she said.
Only some of the future plans for Fathom have been announced so far, though executives have said there will be branded activities on ships and on land. The partnerships that the line created with nonprofit organizations in the Dominican Republic will remain and grow for passengers on other Carnival Corp. brands who visit the Amber Cove port. And Fathom is in the process of adding more options in other ports.
Russell said that instead of working with as many as 700 people every other week, the partners on the ground will have a potential audience of nearly half a million travelers on Carnival brands visiting the Dominican Republic this year — though no one knows yet how many of them will opt for volunteering.
“We do believe there is a subset of travelers on every brand that we have corporately who long for this kind of experience,” she said. “Is it going to be a full ship of travelers? Not necessarily. But quite frankly, it doesn’t have to be.”
Princess Cruises president Jan Swartz said the line has already introduced excursions developed by Fathom and is working with on adding more.
“I do believe that the Fathom opportunity in terms of going ashore and doing activities that help support a community with hands-on contributions will appeal to the Princess guests,” she said. The option could be especially good for families with kids who want to add a day of service to typical vacation activities.
“I think that adds a richness of experience that we haven’t historically offered, so we’re excited to see how the Princess guests respond to it,” Swartz said.
The future Fathom experience won’t necessarily be devoted solely to volunteering or service on the ground. Russell said activities will allow travelers to connect to each other, connect to other cultures, and be enriched personally.
“People may come into a community or on board a ship, they may learn a new skill or they may learn and participate in some way with something that is rich and true and innate to that cultural experience,” Russell said.
Now, Russell said, Fathom refers to itself as “participatory travel” rather than “social impact travel” and defines that as the “step beyond immersion.”
“We believe people want to go into the heart of the destination and come alongside people and communities in new, exciting, and interesting ways,” she said.
She said market research showed that both cruisers and non-cruisers wanted a Fathom-type experiences.
“So what’s exciting for us corporately is we can now begin to attract a new audience of travelers who maybe wouldn’t have cruised in the past because we can give them experiences in and through our sister brands that may better align with their travel desires,” Russell said. Executives floated the same idea when first launching Fathom.
Moving forward, CruiseOne’s Daly said he thinks the new iteration of Fathom will have appeal.
“I think the social impact experience, offering that across the brands within the Carnival family of brands as a shore excursion kind of experience, is innovative,” he said. “There are a lot of people out there that would happily do a day or two on a regular vacation.”