A chat with a Carnival 'vacation planner' By Richard Turen / June 14, 2010 Share 1 -- In February, Kim Walters, director of air and sea sales for U.S. Tours/The Vacation Store, wrote a letter to Travel Weekly about challenges she had faced booking a client on a Carnival cruise [Letters: "Carnival sales call to valued client put a frustrated agent on the spot," Feb. 8]. Walters complained that Carnival's direct-sales staff had called her client with a lower price than she had quoted him. Adolfo Perez, Carnival's vice president for global contact center sales, responded with a clearly stated defense. It included a timeline showing that the client had initially contacted the Carnival toll-free number and "provided us with his information" [Letters: "CCL's policy bars in-house reps selling to clients of travel agents," March 1]. The next day, one of Carnival's "vacation planners" called the client directly but couldn't close the sale, so the guest was listed as a prospect. Sixteen days later, Carnival again contacted the client, who explained he had booked with an agent. The client, however, contacted Carnival several more times to check prices. He was unhappy that the pricing could fluctuate so much and wanted to make certain that his agent was getting him the best possible deal. The solutions desk at Carnival told him he would have to go back to his agent to get his fare repriced. Walters could not get the price Carnival had quoted to the client, so she had to refund the $100 discrepancy. She ended up making $137, instead of $237, in commissions. Perez concluded his letter by pointing out that "any employees who purposefully violate our policy and attempt to take a booking away from a travel agent face termination of their employment." A few months have passed, but I still can't get these letters out of my mind. This is a lot more than a loyalty issue with me. It is a core competency issue. Can Carnival's -- or any cruise line's -- internal sales staff really offer competent counsel to seniors, folks who have recently lost their jobs, the recently widowed, the recently diagnosed and all the ordinary folks who need help planning and arranging their cruise vacation? To find out, I played secret shopper and made a test call. I was "Rick," planning a cruise on the Magic out of Barcelona. I asked Carnival's vacation planner the kinds of questions that experience suggests my clients might have asked me. Here are her responses: 1) "It has been about 17 years since I've been to Europe, and that wasn't on a cruise." OK, then how does she help guests plan? But let's give Carnival's vacation planner the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps she is well read and tutored on these ports. 2) "When the ship gets to Civitavecchia, Rome is right there." Nope. Central Rome is actually a three-hour roundtrip, with bus transfer, from Civitavecchia, if traffic is light. There is, of course, a local train that connects Civitavecchia and central Rome, but my Carnival vacation planner didn't know anything about that. 3) When I asked about Livorno, Italy, the vacation consultant explained that it was "right next to Monaco." This will come as news to residents of Monte Carlo. 4) The vacation planner volunteered that her "knowledge of ports is extremely limited." It was kind of her to prove it. She was perfectly adept, however, at spewing forth the kind of misinformation that ruins an experience for folks who have been saving for a European vacation of a lifetime. 5) I changed the subject. Perhaps the vacation planner could advise me on the best insurance options for my situation? "I don't know anything about any cancellation policies besides Carnival's," she explained. So, another crucial element of travel consultation was just not a part of Carnival's direct sales program. "Buy ours because we know nothing about insurance" is not a policy, and it could destroy someone's vacation experience. We hadn't gone too far into our conversation when it became clear that I needed a real vacation consultant, not a headset pretending to be an agent. But she never once suggested that I consult a professional. She would have lost her commission. So, yes, it's true that Carnival does have a clear policy about direct-sales contacts with a booked client. But that fact misses the point; this column could have been written about any of the major lines' direct-sales efforts. They all share the same sins. They all justify their existence by asserting that a certain percentage of clients will not work with an agent. But does this mean that these consumers would rather speak with a sales rep in the home office who, lacking essential training and experience, cannot properly counsel them on matters of insurance options, pre- or post-travel, hotel options, air arrangements, privately arranged shore excursions, pros and cons of the various cruise lines, shore excursions, in-port dining recommendations? The list goes on and on. The suppliers charge the direct guest for these services. Since it is built into the fare, the direct client is being charged commission for proper counseling but not actually getting any. But you can't really blame suppliers that go direct. There are, after all, no legal or financial consequences for incompetent consultation practices, and the traveling consumer really has no clear advocate when it comes to misinformation or inadequate counsel. As for Walters, I frankly wonder how she, or any of us, can make money providing the expertise required for proper vacation planning for a $237 commission. Oops! Make that $137. Perhaps it's time to eliminate some products from our inventory. Contributing editor Richard Turen owns Churchill and Turen, a vacation-planning firm that has been named to Conde Nast Traveler's list of the World's Top Travel Specialists since the list began. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. This column appeared in the June 14 issue of Travel Weekly.