Cruise Despite skepticism, Carnival positive about agent outreach By Tom Stieghorst / September 08, 2013 Share 1 -- Carnival Cruise Lines is seeing mixed results from Carnival Conversations, its outreach to travel agents, but top executives are optimistic that over time it will be a success.In an interview, Lynn Torrent, executive vice president of sales and Joni rein, worldwide vice president of sales, acknowledged that two months into the program, some agents are still wary of Carnival.“I think some agents are saying, ‘We are so appreciative that you’re doing this,’” Torrent said. “Some agents are appreciative, but they’re looking at us with sort of one eye closed, one eye open, saying ‘Hmm.’ They’re a little skeptical, like, ‘Do you really mean it?’”Since July, Carnival has talked to more than 2,000 agents in five cities in road shows led by Torrent and Rein and in three virtual shows that were made available to agents online.The cruise line is in the process of digesting a survey of agents that takes about 20 minutes to complete. Rein said the survey has had a 3% return rate, compared with an average 2% rate with surveys of its type.Carnival hopes to use the survey results to shape policy improvements, such as the design of a new brochure. The cruise line hasn’t offered a physical brochure for several years, a missing element cited by many agents.“We desperately need brochures,” said Terri Howell, owner of Dream Cruises, in Baton Rouge, La. “Brochures sell cruises.”Carnival launched its Conversations initiative after concluding that it needed to be more responsive to the 14,000 agencies with which it works. Complaints about a variety of issues had been mounting, and support from some agencies was absent whenCarnival found itself in a public relations battle following the fire on the Carnival Triumph in February.Based on feedback from the program, Carnival has announced more than a dozen changes to its practices. They include opening very low “interline” rates to agents, as well as dealing them in on last-minute discount fares for personal travel; making deck plans more accessible via PDFs; and extending the window for transferring a client’s direct booking from Carnival to an agency from 30 to 90 days.Carnival also put copies of all its consumer marketing materials, such as direct mailings, on its GoCCL travel agent portal so agents could see what messages clients might be seeing, and executives will attend more conferences and trade shows to raise Carnival’s visibility.It also added “Are you working with a travel agent?” to the phone script of its personal vacation planners, who drum up direct business. Torrent said she thought this was one of two changes that has resonated the most with agents.“That’s been really well received,” she said. Carnival has also announced that it plans to simplify its pricing, an issue that she said has sparked the most comment from agents. The new pricing is expected to be unveiled in late September or early October.A major gripe in pricing has been the work associated with Early Saver fares that feature price protection. Agents have had to rebook continually as fares dropped this year, and consequently have had to accept lower commissions.Torrent said agents are sharply divided on Early Saver. “Some agents are very passionate,” she said. “They do not like Early Saver. They do not like the price protection feature. However, some agents actually really like it.”A decision is still pending on whether or how to modify Early Saver, Torrent said.In addition to fare simplification, Carnival has another project in the design phase. It is re-engineering theGoCCL booking engine to make cabin selection more streamlined and convenient, enabling more customized room searches and decreasing the amount of input needed to extract rates. The initial fixes are scheduled to go live in October.Carnival has held field meetings so far in New York, New Orleans, Port Canaveral, Tampa and Charleston, S.C. Of those, the one in New Orleans generated the most heat.Agents there found it hard to book groups on Carnival. They were upset that they could not take advantage of new Carnival incentives to book group travel on the Carnival Sunshine, which will be homeported in New Orleans from November until April.All of the group space had already been closed out on the Sunshine prior to the new program’s announcement.Agents attending other meetings said Carnival did field some criticism. “I found the audience really wanted to get some things off their chests, and some of them were negative,” said Janice Sinardi, a Cruise Planners franchisee who attended the Tampa event.Sinardi said Carnival executives came across as sincere in their desire to listen. They addressed everyone’s issue and came to individual tables after their presentation for follow-ups.“The proof will be in the pudding — if they go back and make the changes,” Sinardi said.The road show part of Carnival Conversations finishes with meetings in Miami on Sept. 12, Long Beach on Oct. 2, Dallas on Oct. 10, Chicago on Oct. 18 and Galveston on Oct. 21. By that point, a new Carnival TV campaign will be under way.Torrent said that while Carnival will preserve some of the feedback channels opened by Carnival Conversations, it plans to pivot to a more traditional trade message in the months ahead.“What we want to do is migrate to more sales and marketing and product,” she said “To emphasize what makes Carnival Carnival.”The time devoted to open-ended question-and-answer sessions has been necessary and will continue to a degree, Torrent said. But she added that it can’t be the focus indefinitely. “We want to get back to what’s fun about selling Carnival vacations,” she said.Follow Tom Stieghorst on Twitter @tstravelweekly.