Cruise line consultant Bob Dickinson

By Tom Stieghorst
Bob DickinsonFormer Carnival Cruise Lines CEO Bob Dickinson has spent the past year consulting for Carnival Corp.'s four North American brands. His assignment ends May 31. Dickinson took time out from a hiking trip in California's Napa region to speak with cruise editor Tom Stieghorst about how cruises need to be marketed and how crucial agents are to capturing the first-time cruiser.

Q: What's your overall opinion of the current state of cruise line marketing?

For the last number of years -- six, seven, eight years -- cruise lines have been undermarketed. When the fuel prices went up, the first thing to go was the TV advertising budget.

Social media is fine, but social media doesn't reach first-time cruisers. It's sort of like Al Gore's inconvenient truth -- or in this case, an inconvenient falsehood, that we can substitute one for the other.

Q: Is anyone doing better than the rest?

Look at Viking River Cruises and what they've been able to do with Masterpiece Theater.

It's not a huge TV buy, but the visual of whatever it is that is in the commercial fully explains that riverboat experience, makes it aspirational, makes it achievable, makes it so that I see myself in that picture, certainly in the over-50 set, which is who they're marketing to.

Q: What role do travel agents play in connecting the majority of people who have no experience with a cruise to the insiders who run the industry?

Travel agents are the biggest gateway to first-time cruisers, and the cruise industry in the last couple of years has not always been friendly to the travel agent -- and in some cases tied their hands. When you're selling three-, four-, five-day cruises where the noncommissionable fare is as much as the cruise ticket and you're getting 15% of $149, why would they sell that? Let them sell Sandals, let them sell river cruises, things where there's a lot of money.

Q: What changes should the cruise lines make?

I think some cruise lines have already changed back and have realized that the industry has overplayed its hand. In general, I think all of the brands, certainly the brands I worked with for the past year, are more agent-friendly this year than they were a year ago in terms of their policies and their procedures: pricing, co-op advertising. Every one of the four Carnival North America brands has better policies in place now than they did a year ago.

Q: Did you end your consulting agreement with Carnival or did management?

Very candidly, that was their choice. A consulting agreement is like a marriage; if one partner doesn't want it, the other doesn't either, if you know what I mean. If there is a willing audience at some point, I would like to do some [other] marketing or management consulting.

Q: Are you still working with the Camillus House homeless shelter in Miami? What else are you up to?

On Aug. 1, we're going take another 100 of the most hard-core, chronic homeless in the city and start them on the process of getting their lives back together. [But] I've cut back my time commitment, from 30 to 40 hours a week after I retired to 10 to 20 hours a week now. [My wife] Jodi and I are kind of on a second honeymoon. [In Napa] we're walking about two hours a day on average, enjoying the restaurants and just hanging out. On June 4, we'll be going to [our] home in North Carolina. We'll be there throughout the summer.

Follow Tom Stieghorst on Twitter @tstravelweekly. 
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