Arnie Weissmann
Arnie Weissmann

At the New York celebration of the 175th anniversary of Cunard Line last week, I took the opportunity to ask Carnival Corp. CEO Arnold Donald a question that had been on my mind for some time.

And then the conversation suddenly went in an unexpected direction.

I began on the topic of river cruising, arguably the fastest-growing segment of retail travel.

First, some background: Five years ago, I had asked former Celebrity Cruises CEO Dan Hanrahan whether his parent company, Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd., was at all interested in getting into river cruising, which was even then growing at an extraordinary clip.

He said no. "It would take several riverboats just to fill one deck of the Oasis," he replied. It was, in other words, simply of too small a scale to be attractive.

Similarly, when Carnival sold off Windstar in 2007, an executive told me at the time that Windstar, while profitable, was essentially too small for a large corporation like Carnival to bother with. "In a year, it carries about as many passengers as Carnival Cruise Line carries in a day," he said.

The recent Carnival launch of the one-ship cruise line Fathom, which will use an older P&O vessel to carry 710 passengers to do social impact work in the Dominican Republic (and soon after, in Cuba) made me wonder whether Carnival is evaluating when selective small operations might be attractive.

River cruising has grown significantly in the five years since I asked Hanrahan about it; Viking River Cruises now alone has in excess of 9,200 berths.

So I asked Donald whether riverboats have risen to a market size that would interest Carnival. I told him I could see how Carnival might leverage the strength of any of its brands to jump-start the marketing of a new riverboat line.

Rivers are different from oceans, Donald began. Starting a river line from scratch would require different operational expertise.

That aside, he said, riverboat cruising "wouldn't move the needle" on a corporation with a market cap of $40 billion.

Nonetheless, I said, he and Carnival Corp. have put a lot of effort against the launch of tiny Fathom, which isn't likely to move the needle in the foreseeable future.

First and foremost, he replied, Fathom is about doing good; it's the right thing to do. It also improves the return on an older ship. But the time, effort and expense to launch Fathom has had a tremendous side benefit: It has helped change the conversation about cruising.

"No one's talking about Concordia or Triumph anymore," he said. "They're talking about Fathom and Cuba."

When Donald joined as CEO, he went on, "cruising was in a bad place," and part of getting it to a better place required consumers to look at cruising in a different way. Changing the conversation was essential.

"I love the launch of Virgin Cruises," he said. "Virgin is cool, and that makes cruising cool. I'm not sure cool people were thinking about cruising before. Attracting new cruisers is important."

The strategy of changing the conversation about both the company itself and cruising in general is becoming a core competency of Carnival, and I believe it reflects a sophisticated understanding of marketing and public relations.

It's one that requires some patience, as well. The initiatives emerged in "Carnival Conversations," a mea culpa effort directed to travel advisors who felt that Carnival Cruise Line had become insensitive to their business concerns. That campaign was backed up with some changes in policy that appear to have persuaded some advisors that Carnival is serious about getting a rocky relationship to a better place.

The Fathom effort, directed to the trade and consumers, is at once a larger initiative and a more subtle one.

In the end, both directly address overcoming challenges to company and industry growth that resulted from Carnival-specific issues. No doubt the rising economic tide and the passage of time are contributing factors to the improvements in Carnival's stock price and market cap. But a concerted effort to change the climate of opinion about Carnival and cruising appears to have helped, as well.

However, Royal Caribbean International's CEO, Michael Bayley, rejected the supposition that rehabilitating cruising's image is the motivation behind his line's initiatives.

At a New York event marking the 100th day before the Anthem of the Seas is to homeport in Bayonne, N.J., and one day after my conversation with Donald, he told me that "I think you'd have to have a slightly negative orientation to approach it that way.

"I happen to be optimistic and positive about cruising. That's the conversation we have had, are having and will continue to have in the future."

This doesn't mean that Royal messaging is static any more than Carnival's messaging is negative. Royal's consistency in conversation hinges on the conversation consistently discussing product innovation, which, overtly intended or not, results in changing the public's perception of all cruising, not just Royal.

Despite the significant variances among cruise lines and ships, the category of "cruising" stubbornly remains monolithic in the minds of most consumers.

And the variance of approaches and mind-sets of the different lines notwithstanding, what each is doing both differentiates their brands and changes the conversation about cruising as a whole.

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