Skift Take

Cruise loyalty programs are different from airline and hotel offerings, but Carnival Cruise Line's approach can still be instructive — especially as it evolves.

Editor’s Note: Skift’s Business Traveler newsletter is now the Business of Loyalty newsletter.

In this weekly missive, we’ll bring you the same insight into what matters most to the people who travel for a living, but now with an added focus on how airlines, hotels, and credit card programs battle for their attention and their business — a points geek with a Ph.D. of sorts. 

While we are still looking at how these moves impact the consumer, the focus is on what the industry is doing to win their loyalty. The newsletter is being written by Grant Martin, who you’ve come to know as the author of our Business Traveler newsletter over the last three years. He’ll be able to take advantage of contributions from Skift editors including Brian Sumers (airlines) and Deanna Ting (hotels) to better explain what’s happening with loyalty right now. We hope you’ll stick with it, and we promise to never devalue your reading experience.

For the first in a short series of guest-written Business of Loyalty dispatches, we’re dipping a toe in slightly different waters to look at the way one of the world’s largest cruise lines is considering loyalty — and how its program may evolve.

Carnival Cruise Line introduced its current “VIFP Club”  — that’s Very Important Fun Person Club, to go with the “Fun Ship” theme — in 2012, an overhaul of a previous loyalty program. It has five tiers starting with a cruiser’s first sailing, and the line awards points based on the number of days sailed. People at the top levels, of course, get the best perks: priority check-in and boarding, spa and restaurant reservations, free drinks, exclusive parties, and (importantly) free laundry service.

But chief marketing officer Kathy Tan Mayor, who joined the cruise line last spring from Las Vegas Sands Corp., wants to find ways to better encourage loyalty earlier on in a customer’s relationship with the brand “so they don’t feel like they’re waiting a lifetime to appreciate a benefit.”

“The third [sailing] is what we believe the tipping point is of when you’re considered a cruiser,” she said. “We should be designing the loyalty program to hand you more from the first cruise to the second and the second cruise to the third.”

That’s part of the task ahead for Scott Becher, who joined the company earlier this month in the new position of vice president of partnership and loyalty after a 30-year career outside the cruise industry in partnerships, marketing and media.

It made sense to combine partnerships and loyalty, Mayor said, because the two work hand in hand. And the idea is to eventually form links between Carnival’s VIFP Club and partners’ loyalty programs.

To start, Becher will concentrate on forging more partnerships in Carnival’s “passion points” around food, music, and sports to grow the appeal of the brand and make it top of mind for more vacationers. In addition to shared marketing efforts, Carnival wants to bring more of those partners onto its ships, either for short promotions or long-term relationships.

Reaching the next level — recognizing the top-tier members of other programs, for example — would require some investment in the current program’s infrastructure. But, Mayor said, “It’s something definitely we’re looking at.”

She said the eventual goal is to enhance the loyalty program to develop partnerships that allow for tier matching or enhancement benefits with partner programs.

And Mayor said the cruise line wants to cultivate passengers who are enthusiastic about the brand, not just driven by the promise of perks. She said behaviors that the company appreciates include booking early, engaging with the brand, and advocating Carnival to friends and family.

“When it comes to choice, we would rather it be attitudinal-based loyalty rather than just behavior-based,” she said. “So we’re not just bribing you with points.”

Becher said he sees a big opportunity in keeping that connection with members strong even when they aren’t sailing.

“Because it’s sometimes two years in between cruises for our guests, the biggest loyalty opportunity is maintaining an everyday relationship,” he said.

— Hannah Sampson, News Editor

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Tags: carnival, carnival cruise line, loyalty

Photo credit: Carnival Cruise Line plans to eventually link its loyalty program to partners' programs. Carnival Vista, a new ship from the line, is shown in this photo. Brook Ward / Flickr

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