For Royal Caribbean, Carnival, repairs to ships, relationships

By Arnie Weissmann
NEW YORK — On consecutive days this month, travel agents boarded two ships that had been taken out of commission following onboard fires. And in both cases, repair work continued.

Aboard the Royal Caribbean International's Grandeur of the Seas, agents from the Baltimore drive market went on a 14-hour test drive through Chesapeake Bay. It had been sidelined for six weeks after a fire in Deck 3 knocked it out of commission, and some of the affected sections were still off-limits. For example, repairs were still under way in the South Pacific Lounge, and a portion of the aft Promenade deck was sectioned off to hold equipment related to the restoration.

Workmen were housed in about 70 of the ship's 996 cabins that had been booked for a weeklong sailing to Bermuda on July 12. Passengers who had been displaced on that and the following week's sailing were offered rebooking on a future departure and were given a percentage of the fare as compensation for the inconvenience, according to Vicki Freed, Royal Caribbean's senior vice president of sales, trade support and services.

The repair work still being done on Carnival's Splendor, however, was of a more complicated, delicate and personal nature. The 150 or so East Coast travel agents who populated seats in the ship's theater as it was docked at the New York Passenger Ship Terminal here had come in response to an invitation from Carnival Cruise Lines to "tell us your thoughts."

The invitation was the first installment of the Carnival Conversations road show, part of a larger initiative of the same name that the company launched to repair relations with agents who have complained that the line's policies and communications are at odds with its verbal commitments to support the agency channel.

Comments that were already posted on the Carnival Conversations section of suggested that the five execs on stage — Lynn Torrent, executive vice president of sales; Joni Rein, vice president of worldwide sales; Dave Chang, vice president for contact center sales; Kirk Neal, regional vice president of sales; and Justin French, managing director of international sales — might be facing an audience loaded for bear.

But the 50-minute open-mike session was remarkably civil, and those who attended often seemed more puzzled than angry about Carnival's policies.

There were moments when the Carnival execs themselves seemed puzzled, as well. Why, one agent wondered, after capping onboard credit for passenger gifts at $25 per person, did Carnival raise the price of a bottle of wine from $25 to $25.25?

"Are you kidding?" Rein asked. She said she was not aware of the increase but would look into it.

For the most part, the on-stage team seemed prepared for the questions, and the front row of the theater was filled with their direct reports, to whom they could turn for details if, French said, they needed to "call a friend" for more information.

Afterward, Torrent said that four of the top five issues agents had already let them know were important surfaced during the meeting: confusing fare categories, the service quality of call centers and booking technology, demand for higher commissions, the desire for printed brochures and the perception that the Carnival inside sales agents poached clients.

The last was the only one that was not raised by audience members. At the end of the session, Rein herself brought it up. She asked Chang to talk about complaints that the line's personal vacation planners on his staff are "aggressive."

Chang began by admitting that although he has responsibility for both trade and direct sales, the previous night had been the first time managers of both teams sat down for a drink together.

"We are partners internally and want to do a better job of communicating," he said.

He then articulated the "guiding principles" on the direct-sales side that are in place to protect travel agent-client relationships. Consumers are savvy, he said, and after speaking with a travel agent, might call to see if they can get a better deal direct. Call-center agents working with consumers are now required to do a "guest search" to see if the consumer is already holding an option with an agent. If they are, "We push it back to you," he said.

As for the other topics Torrent had indicated were of primary concern, confusing categories and fare codes had been addressed earlier in the week when Carnival announced that a simplified fare code system would be introduced in the fall.

The question encompassing live assistance to agents over the phone and the limits of booking technology came up when a Staten Island, N.Y., agent related how, when her computer had crashed, she called an agent assistance number. The operator, she said, told her he didn't have access to the specific offer she was trying to book and could not complete the booking for her. But when she called a consumer number, the call-center agent could find the offer and could make the booking, but only as a consumer-direct booking.

By the time the agent's computer came back online, she said, the per-person price had gone up $60. Why couldn't the operator assisting agents see the offer if the consumer-direct operator could?

"Our sales agent for travel agents was being truthful; they could not see it," Chang replied. "But going forward, they will be able to see those rates. We are making big steps to do that. I will guarantee that if [agent sales operators] can't find the rate, they will escalate it to someone who can."

Carnival's decision last year to restructure commissions, which made it more challenging for some agencies to hit higher override levels, was also questioned.

An agent from the Bronx, N.Y., seemed baffled that Carnival would essentially provide him with less commission on similarly priced sailings on the same itineraries as competitors.

"Carnival needs more business. Agents need more commissions," he said, suggesting that raising the latter would stimulate the former.

Rein acknowledged that the rollout for the revised commission structure was poorly handled. "We should have given you more advance notice, and for that we apologize. It may not have lessened the pain, but the amount of notice really wasn't enough."

Torrent added that although changing the commission structure was not an easy decision, she stood by it as the right thing to do. "But we are also sensitive to what travel agents want to earn, so we're coming up with additional opportunities to earn commissions," she said.
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