Last week's announcement that retired Carnival Cruise Lines President and CEO Bob Dickinson would be returning to Carnival Corp. as a consultant led to widespread industry speculation that the appointment could open the way to improving sometimes strained relations between the cruise giant and travel agents.
Dickinson, 69, is a revered figure in the distribution end of the cruise industry, where he is highly regarded for his long history of both supporting and challenging the travel agent community.
The move comes at a time when Carnival Corp. is under pressure from Wall Street to do something about the erosion in its business this year.
Carnival Vice Chairman Howard Frank, to whom Dickinson will report, framed the mission as one of reconnaissance and consultation.
"He's going to do research with travel agents," Frank said of Dickinson. "If there's a perception that is a negative one with regard to Carnival Corp., Bob will provide that feedback."
Any actions that might result from Dickinson's reconnaissance, however, are likely months away.
Within the travel agent community, the decision to hire Dickinson to study marketing and distribution issues was universally applauded.
"It's a great move for [Carnival Corp.]," said Vicky Garcia, president of Cruise Planners in Coral Springs, Fla. "The company has had challenges. This will help them take a somewhat negative PR situation and turn it around."
In an interview with Travel Weekly, Dickinson said the new role came up when he was asked to step down from the Carnival Corp. board, along with former P&O Princess CEO Peter Ratcliffe, because as former company executives they were not seen as independent directors under London Stock Exchange rules.
"Seeing that coming, I started conversations with Howard sometime this spring, basically saying 'I'm a free agent come April; I want to stay in the business,'" Dickinson recalled. "And he came up with this, which is certainly very near and dear to my heart."
Dickinson said he will research the deficiencies, strengths and opportunities in Carnival Corp.'s North American brands as well as the deficiencies and strengths of the brands' chief competitors.
The results will be used to produce what Dickinson described as a "gap analysis," showing where improvements could be made, and then to devise a strategy to enhance travel agent relations.
"That's really what it's all about," he said. "We want to have as robust as possible relations with agents, among the various brands."
Although Dickinson will delve into Princess Cruises, Holland America Line and Seabourn Cruises, it is Carnival's flagship brand, Carnival Cruise Lines, that has generated the most animosity from some agents in recent years.
Several agent groups, including the Midwest Agents Selling Travel network and Signature Travel, ended preferred supplier agreements with the cruise line last year after a cutback in promotional dollars.
The question of whether agents are supporting Carnival Cruise Lines as actively as they could rose in importance after the Carnival Triumph's engine fire in February, which resulted in weeks of negative television coverage about cruising.
A Harris Interactive poll of consumers taken shortly after the fire revealed sagging scores for quality, trust and intent to purchase for all seven cruise lines included in the survey. A May follow-up poll revealed a further decline.
But some Wall Street analysts said the damage was mostly confined to Carnival Corp. brands, and of those, mainly to Carnival Cruise Lines.
Analyst Sharon Zackfia of William Blair & Co. said that since March, Carnival Cruise Line's prices have been down 15% to 20% compared with the same time last year. She recently reduced her rating on Carnival Corp., saying its problems had deepened beyond the short term.
Frank said the number of recent analyst downgrades for Carnival Corp. was significant. He recalled that at a meeting for investors in Southampton, England, aboard Princess Cruises' new Royal Princess, he got a very positive reception from the shareholders, but there were concerns.
"I think they wanted assurances we would be proactive on all of these issues," Frank said.
As for Dickinson's role, Frank said that the request for a fresh look at the marketing and distribution practices at Carnival evolved from discussions with the heads of its various brands.
He said Dickinson's exact role had not yet been "fully vetted out" when a memo announcing his contract was obtained by the news media. He said Dickinson would be meeting with the brands in coming days to get their input.
Frank also stated that the "entire cruise market," not just Carnival, is going through a rough patch.
At a Royal Princess news conference, Jan Swartz, Princess Cruises' executive vice president for marketing, said Princess would take advantage of Dickinson's advice and counsel.
"Bob has a strong reputation as one of the key figures who helped create the cruise industry," she said.
Like many travel sellers, Bill Smith, head of the cruise division at the Virtuoso consortium, said Dickinson's appointment would be good for agents. As a result of the retirements of veteran executives like Dickinson and former Regent Seven Seas president Mark Conroy, he said, "the industry lacks people who know the value of the agent relationship."
But Smith also recalled that Dickinson would provoke agents at times by, for example, asking them to stay open on nights and weekends.
"He's a clear speaker who can challenge the distribution system," Smith said.
Smith, a former executive at several cruise lines, also said Dickinson's appointment could be uncomfortable for current cruise brand presidents, including Dickinson's successor, Gerry Cahill.
"If I were them, I might be looking over my shoulder," Smith said. Dickinson downplayed that idea, saying his role would limited to recommendations.
"It's up to me to build a compelling enough case to make it irresistible to the line management," he said.
Travel network executives were clearly enthusiastic about Dickinson's new role.
"We're anxious to see Bob's ideas for our mutual success," said Jeffrey Anderson, vice president for marketing at Avoya Travel.
Vacation.com President John Lovell described Dickinson's appointment as "great for agents. Bob has been, is and will continue to be an advocate for the distribution channels."
Brad Tolkin, co-chairman and CEO of World Travel Holdings, said, "The industry has had some challenging press. Bob can be a great spokesperson for the industry at large, and his suggestions will certainly be insightful." Follow Tom Stieghorst on Twitter @tstravelweekly.