Agents divided on best fate for Princess

By Michael Milligan and Laura Del Rosso

ravel agents are resigned that Princess will link up with either Royal Caribbean or Carnival but are divided over which scenario they prefer.

For some agents, the possibility of Princess becoming part of Carnival Corp. is a "scary" prospect, as one agent put it, because it expands Carnival's already powerful position in the cruise industry.

On the other hand, a takeover by Royal Caribbean is equally a concern for some agents who fear that Princess would not remain a stand-alone division as part of RCCL.

Reducing the number of cruise lines in the market is also a concern for some agents.

"It reduces our bargaining power," said Teri Trettin of Carlson Wagonlit Travel in Tacoma, Wash.

But Trettin also believes Carnival would be more likely to keep Princess as a separate brand -- hopefully, with separate commission policies.

Deborah Tucker, owner of Gulfport, Fla.-based Travel Designs by Debbie had a similar take on things, saying, "We've seen so many takeovers that I am not surprised" by another.

Tucker said, "The only thing I worry about is [Princess] will lose its brand identity. I think Carnival has done a very good job in keeping the brand identity of Holland America and Carnival totally separate. I think they do a better job of it than RCCL and Celebrity."

Likewise, Denise Sartorio, Cruise Connection, Parker, Colo., said the most important outcome of the Princess sale is that the "integrity of the Princess product remains and that its quality does not go down."

She added that there are pros and cons to each scenario.

"Clearly, Carnival already is a big conglomerate of cruise lines, and they would dominate the market even more. At the same time, management of Holland America and Cunard is separate so that consumers don't even realize they are owned by Carnival."

Dick Clark, owner of Enjoy World Travel in Williston, Park, N.Y., said he prefers an independent Princess, "but if it has to merge, I would rather see it with RCCL. Carnival would be too big."

While noting that Carnival has been agent friendly and that he expects it to stay that way, Clark was concerned that with so many brands under its belt, Carnival could become an oligopoly.

Carlos Afre of You and Leisure, a major cruise-only agency in San Francisco that is a top seller for Princess Cruises, also said, "My wish is that Princess is left alone."

But he said he would favor the Carnival offer because that company has a history of "leaving the cruise lines alone, even though it's a scary prospect that Carnival" would hold such dominance.

Afre, like other agents, noted that RCCL merged the sales departments of Celebrity and Royal Caribbean after its Celebrity acquisition

He also said that if Carnival succeeds in winning Princess, "it will be very interesting to see how they manage Holland America and Princess" in the same corporate family.

Other agents were unruffled by the prospect of either deal.

"I don't know that it will make any difference," said Anne Zartman, co-owner of Laurel Travel Consultants in Laurel, Miss.

The two major trade associations aren't taking sides either.

ASTA president Richard Copland said, "We as travel agents have a very good relationship with Carnival and Royal Caribbean. We are supportive because they are very supportive of us."

Copland went on to note that the cruise lines are generally reporting strong bookings, while the airlines are not. The differentiating factor, Copland said, has been travel agents.

"The cruise industry has embraced the distribution system. The cruise lines are doing well and the airlines are drowning in red ink."

ARTA president John Hawks agreed but noted there are some dangers in consolidation, particularly if it leads to a reduction in the number of sales reps and district managers.

Hawks said ARTA had not yet taken "a formal position" on the matter but said the best of all possible outcomes would be if Princess remained autonomous.

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