FORT LAUDERDALE -- When Arnold Donald took the job five years ago as CEO of Carnival Corp., the world's biggest cruise company, he naturally thought he'd be spending a lot of time on ships.
"That was the wrong assumption," Donald told the audience of 1,200-plus travel agents at the CruiseWorld conference here.
"I just flew back from China last night. It took me 14 hours to get there, I was there less than 24 hours, and then it took another 14 hours to fly back," Donald recounted. "I assumed I would be on ships a lot more than I would be on airplanes, and that was the wrong assumption."
Donald's big personality and fun-loving responses kicked off the first general session at CruiseWorld, a Travel Weekly event. The 30-minute conversation with Travel Weekly editor in chief Arnie Weissmann was briefly interrupted by a banner-toting environmental protestor, who was quickly escorted off the stage.
Donald answered a dozen questions posed to him, including why Carnival Corp. doesn't operate an upper-premium cruise line. He said Carnival already runs nine brands. "Why go into that when there's so much opportunity in the segments we're in?" he said.
He also said that, like river cruising, a segment may be a good experience for travelers without being a meaningful profit opportunity for a company as large as Carnival. "We're not trying to be in everything," he said.
Asked about the slow progress in rolling out the Ocean Medallion personal service technology on Princess Cruises, Donald challenged the premise. "We don't feel we're behind or ahead," he said. "It would be great to have moved even faster, but the smarter thing is to give the guests what they want when they want it."
Ocean Medallion is on one ship, the Caribbean Princess, and Carnival wants to be sure of guest acceptance before taking it further. Donald said some guests may not want the new technology, comparing them to phone users who still preferred a Blackberry device even if they could have a newer smartphone.
Donald also said that the cruise industry is working with cities around the world where residents feel that too many tourists are changing the urban experience.
"If the locals aren't happy, if they're not welcoming to our guests, the guests won't want to go there," Donald said. "We have to find a way to engage the locals around the world so that their lifestyle needs are being met."
He pointed to an agreement with the mayor of Dubrovnik last year to stagger cruise ship arrivals so that passengers wouldn't bunch up in the walled old city. "That's a gift we can give, and then we're recognized for it," he said, adding that cruise passengers are not day-trippers who don't spend any money.
"They want to experience the global destination, the local food, they want to go to the museums, they want a souvenir," Donald said.
The activist who disrupted Donald's talk is with a group that has targeted various Carnival public events this year. The Stand.earth group has called attention to the type of fuel that Carnival uses in some of its ships as part of a broader campaign aimed at fossil fuel use and corporations that produce or use fossil fuels.
At CruiseWorld, in addition to taking the stage, the group created a bogus app that delivered its message to conference-goers trying to access the WiFi network, and it padlocked a portable speaker beneath a banquet table that played a looped recording of some of its themes. Later, it lofted a trio of helium-filled balloons into the convention center lobby with a banner fixed beneath them.
"I respect their passion for what they believe," Donald said later, "but they don't have the facts, and the approach is inappropriate. This is not the way to do it."