Tough questions — and civility — mark first Carnival Conversations

By Arnie Weissmann
Carnival convo execsNEW YORK — They came mostly from the Corridor of Blunt-Spoken People, that densely populated stretch of the Northeast that begins on Long Island, hits all five New York City boroughs, sweeps across New Jersey and into Philadelphia.

The 150 or so East Coast travel agents who populated seats in Carnival Splendor’s theater as it was docked at the New York Passenger Ship Terminal in Manhattan had come in response to an invitation from Carnival Cruise Lines to “tell us your thoughts.”

And so they did.

Friday was the first installment of the Carnival Conversations roadshow, 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 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 certainly 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 that 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, and 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 was the first time managers of both teams had 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.

Regarding 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 announced 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 agent related how, when her computer went down, she called an agent assistance number, and the operator said 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 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.”

And at the end of the session, such an opportunity was announced: Effective immediately, a $25 bonus commission was offered on Splendor bookings made through August.

A request for the return of printed brochures also surfaced, and Rein said Carnival was “committed to revisiting” not only whether to add them, but how they would be structured, saying that preliminary research indicated that what agents wanted from a brochure and what consumers wanted were not necessarily aligned.

Carnival’s sales and marketing teams needed to better understand what, if anything, made the most sense. “Stand by for more,” she said.

Some of the topics were more parochial in nature. A representative from a regional group of travel agents wondered why Carnival was the only major cruise line not to take a booth at their trade show. A bus operator asked for preferred parking arrangements around the cruise terminal. And an agent who had a group whose members ate meat — but only turkey meat — wanted the bird added to menus for all three meals.

But other regional issues had potentially broader impact. Philadelphia agents repeatedly called upon the line to bring a ship to its port, and a Saratoga agent made the case for three- to four-day “cruises to nowhere” out of New York.

Torrent responded that she was pleased with the enthusiasm for Carnival products — “We’ll take that back, for sure” — but also tempered expectations by saying that “deployment decisions are the hardest decisions to make.”

She noted that an Environmental Protection Agency regulation regarding what fuel mixtures can be burned within certain distances of the U.S. coastline “makes it harder” for Philadelphia.

Generally, the Carnival executive team, even when trying to manage expectations, adopted a contrite tone, beginning answers to tough questions with, “We have fallen short …,” “That’s a legitimate point …,” “We haven’t done the best job communicating …,” “That’s a great question …,” “We appreciate that (feedback) …”

And, most frequently, “We will take that back [to headquarters].”

French had begun by saying, “We hear you say that it used to be easy to do business with you, and now it’s not. We want to get to the bottom of that.” At the end of the program, he concluded by saying, “This was very meaningful. Keep the dialogue going [on]. Be a part of it, and help us get better.”

Afterward, Torrent said that although Carnival had solicited topics from the group in advance, she had not been sure what to expect. “I suspect it will be different with different groups,” she said. “But I was very pleased and think that agents were comfortable with how it went today. We got hard questions, but it was fair.”

One attendee, Aurelia Cruz, a part-time home-based agent from Freeport, N.Y., said she puts two groups on Carnival each year, and it is the only supplier with which she works. She said that over the past few years, it had become harder to book with them, and she was frustrated that she couldn’t get through to the group desk on weekends. Her comment mirrored a complaint another agent specializing in groups had raised during the open-mike session. (A cruise line executive replied that the issue would be reviewed.)

She said she has hung in with Carnival because her clients love the experience, but her frustrations had led her to consider sending group leaders to tour a Norwegian Cruise Line ship. But she said she was encouraged by the session onboard the Splendor and felt confident that changes would be made to help agents.

Still, she added, she had heard from full-time agents at her host, Montrose Travel, that they had stopped selling Carnival “because the income wasn’t there, and they weren’t satisfied with the treatment and support they were receiving.” Those agents, she said, did not come to attend the Conversations session.

Cheryl D'Onofrio of Magic Moments Travel in Port Chester, N.Y., said she also had groups that loved Carnival, but she, too, had found that it was getting “harder and harder to work with” the line.

Carnival convo questionShe cited examples of having had space she’d reserved for a group taken back by the line before the deposit was due (she got the space back), and she said she was unhappy that promotional templates were no longer available in black-and-white (she had saved money by printing them on colored paper rather than putting color on white paper).

“And they’ll call my clients at home and pressure them to book right away to get an offer,” she continued. “I won’t give Carnival any email addresses anymore. I have to tell my clients that if they get [a call from Carnival offering a deal] to call me right away.”

She added: “I haven’t heard from my business development manager [BDM] for years.”

During the session, in response to a question from an agent who was just starting out but who couldn’t arrange to speak to a BDM, Neal had said that BDMs currently are only available to agents who book 50 or more cabins a year but that the line would look at how to improve communications with agents below that threshold.

Commission levels were another sore point for D’Onofrio. “I like to buy a gift for my clients, but if your whole commission is $25, how can you give a gift?”

Even so, she said she wanted to see the relationship between Carnival and agents improve and hoped that, as promised in the sessions, Carnival would follow through and get back to agents on issues that were raised.

“I love Carnival Cruise Lines,” she said. “I’ve been on 15 Carnival cruises myself. Clients like them. I want to recommend them. I just want them to …”

D’Onofiro paused to consider her next words.

“Acknowledge us?” offered Cruz, who was sitting next to her.

D’Onofiro shook her head. “Play nice,” she concluded.

Follow Arnie Weissmann on Twitter @awtravelweekly.
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