While the relationship between Carnival Cruise Line and travel advisors has had its contentious moments, the line’s outreach, most recently with its Why Use a Travel Advisor campaign, seems to be turning things around.
“There’s no question that we had a tough relationship with the trade a few years back, that we did some things that were agent-unfriendly,” said Adolfo Perez, Carnival’s senior vice president of sales and trade marketing. “We required certain fare codes to be booked online only. We also increased our commission tiers, so a lot of people saw their commissions reduced.”
Since taking the job in 2015, Perez told Skift that improving relationships with travel advisors has been a high priority, including taking steps to boost earnings for advisors and strengthening communication channels.
“We’ve done things like increasing our commissions and strengthening our co-op program with advisors,” he said. “We also started a commission acceleration program where if you hit certain targets during the first three months, you’re at a higher commission level for the rest of the year.”
Why Use a Travel Advisor
Outreach efforts have also been instituted, including the Why Use a Travel Advisor program, which launched in May. The year-long program includes a series of parties held in Orlando, Minneapolis, New York, and Toronto in which travel advisors are invited to bring along a client and a prospective client. The events include drawings for cruises, upgrade offers, and remarks by representatives from the American Society of Travel Advisors and Cruise Lines International Association about the value of booking cruises through a travel advisor.
The initiative also includes a dedicated website with news alerts, marketing tools, video clips, contests, and other features. There’s also a brochure with talking points about the benefits of booking cruises through advisors.
“The idea is to help promote the idea of using a travel advisor to the public, which sometimes has the mistaken idea that they no longer exist,” Perez said.
Among those who applaud Carnival’s new initiative is Mary Rembold, owner of Pikes Peak Cruise and Travel in Monument, Colorado.
“Carnival hasn’t always been as agent-friendly as they should have been, so it’s great that they’re recognizing our value,” she said. “The fact that they’re working with ASTA and CLIA really lends credence to what they’re doing.”
Michelle Fee, CEO of Cruise Planners, agrees, calling it an “awesome” step that is needed in an era of proliferating online cruise booking channels.
“I love the fact that Carnival is creating connections between travel advisors and consumers,” she said. “With the popularity of online travel websites, many people don’t see the value in using a travel advisor. They don’t realize that they’re missing an opportunity to work with an expert who has access to special offers, VIP experiences, and other benefits.”
But Can You Make Money?
Carnival, along with other mass-market cruise lines which offer low basic fares that do not cover non-commissionable items such as premium dining and shore excursions, are often regarded as less beneficial for advisors than upscale cruises with their higher fares and all-inclusive pricing.
“Just selling Carnival could make you go broke,” said Craig Satterfield, author of Confessions From a Cruise Scholar, a book about his 35-year career as a travel advisor specializing in cruises. “Some people have gotten disillusioned with selling low-priced cruises and have moved into selling all-inclusives.”
Taking issue with that, Perez countered that the market for high-end cruises is relatively small and that mass-market (also called contemporary) lines like Carnival have a far broader customer base.
“The bulk of the cruise business is with contemporary lines like Carnival, and we’re an easy brand to sell,” he said. “We’re great for first-time cruisers, and we have ports within driving distance of most of the U.S. population. We have five million guests a year, so if you’re not selling us, you’re missing out.”
Fee at Cruise Planners, which sells a broad range of cruises at various price points, said there’s a place for mass-market cruises like Carnival in an agency’s overall business mix.
“Don’t shy away from mass-market — it influences people to cruising, and once they’ve tried it, they’re a customer for life,” she said. “Some people might prefer mass-market when they’re traveling with kids or grandkids but prefer a higher-end line or river cruise when traveling by themselves.”
Rembold agrees, adding that many of her clients have started out with Carnival and then moved up to more upscale lines as years ago by. She also finds that mass-market lines are often a good option for groups.
“You can make money with mass-market cruises if you’re smart about it, especially by doing multigenerational family cruises or other groups,” she said. “If you can get together a group of young people or several couples who don’t want to spend a lot of money, it can be very lucrative.”
Lisa Silvestri, owner of Silvestri Travel in Sarsota, Florida, has found Carnival to be an especially good vehicle for incentive groups.
“I do a lot of incentive cruises for 30 or 40 people, so I need to work with a line that really supports this kind of travel, which not all do,” she said. “Bar none, Carnival’s incentive department is the most helpful one that I’ve found.”
Other challenges in Carnival’s relationship with both travel advisors and the public include the fact that the Carnival name has garnered more than its share of notoriety over the years, most recently with Carnival Corp., the line’s parent company, being slapped with a $20 million fine over poor environmental practices.
Perez added that the cruise line has had to deal with misperceptions that it is all about party ships and booze cruises. “The name ‘Carnival’ no doubt feeds into this,” he said.
Silvestri was among those put off by the party ship persona, but said that her mind changed after taking a Carnival cruise with her husband several years ago.
“After Carnival received bad publicity from a cruise where people were stranded in the Gulf of Mexico when a ship malfunctioned, they reached out to travel advisors with free cruises,” she said. “We had trepidations, particularly since the cruise was during spring break. We ended up having a great time, with the atmosphere very relaxed and mellow, along with good food and service. We were amazed.”