Carnival to launch new brand focused on ‘social-impact travel’

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Fathom will initially use the Adonia, a 710-passenger ship now operated by P&O Cruises.
Fathom will initially use the Adonia, a 710-passenger ship now operated by P&O Cruises.

Carnival Corp. is launching a cruise brand that will take guests to foreign countries to do cooperative social projects, starting with the Dominican Republic in 2016.

The brand, to be called Fathom, will initially use a 710-passenger ship now operated by P&O Cruises, but Carnival said it will not be a cruise company in the traditional sense.

Instead, it will offer “social-impact travel” similar to Habitat for Humanity’s Global Village program.

In its first year of operation, the Fathom brand is expected to deliver about 35,000 guests to the Dominican Republic, where they will help teach English, work on reforestation or water purification projects or help a women’s cooperative harvest cocoa and make chocolate.

Carnival said that although the brand would have a social mission, it would be a for-profit enterprise. The company said it will charge a base price of $1,540 for a seven-day cruise.

“The beauty of this is it is market driven,” said Carnival CEO Arnold Donald. “We’re not shying away from that. It’s for-profit, but it’s such an efficient and sustainable way to deliver social impact.”

The brand will be sold through both travel agents and a website. Without offering details, Donald said Fathom would be paying higher-than-standard agent commissions for at least 90 days after sales open to help it get off to a strong start.

“We definitely want to get some momentum going and get the word out,” he said.

Donald announced the program at the United Palace Theater in New York’s Washington Heights, the heart of the city’s Dominican community. A vocal group called Artists Striving to End Poverty opened the program with an uplifting song titled “I Was There.”

Arnold, perhaps anticipating charges of cynicism or commercial opportunism, shored up Carnival’s charitable bona fides by listing several projects in which Carnival Corp., and its brands have been involved for years that amount to tens of millions of dollars in donations.

He said he knew there would be skeptics but quoted Nelson Mandela, saying, “It always seems impossible until it’s done.”

The brand’s founding director, Tara Russell, described the project as the culmination of a personal journey, and then, following a musical and dance celebration of Dominican culture, a panel discussion featuring Russell and leaders of social impact groups with which Fathom will be working explored the impact the project could have not only on the lives of Dominicans in need, but on passengers who sail with the Fathom.

Dominican-born Atlanta Hawks center Al Horford and his wife, Amelia Vega (born in Santo Domingo), spoke of the gratitude they feel about the opportunities Fathom would open, and they pledged to stay involved.

Donald said Carnival had been working on developing Fathom almost since he accepted the CEO job in 2013, adding that it was an extension of his prior nonprofit involvements.

“One of my motivations in joining Carnival as an operating head was the fact that in my previous lives I’ve done some things, and I just thought inherently in this — I didn’t know what or how or where — there was a chance to do even more with it,” Donald said.

Carnival has identified two partners in the Dominican Republic that are already doing social work there.

The Fathom trips will leverage Carnival’s development of Amber Cove, the company’s private port on the country’s north coast near Puerto Plata, which is scheduled to open in October.

The first Fathom trip is a seven-day voyage scheduled to depart Miami in April.

En route to Amber Cove, passengers will get an orientation to the Dominican Republic, the needs of its people and particulars of the on-ground experience, including work training. In addition to included shore activities, more traditional shore excursions will be sold.

Once in port, the ship will dock for several days, serving as a floating hotel for the mission.

Sales for Fathom opened at 2 p.m. on June 4, and Carnival Corp.’s senior vice president for communications, Roger Frizzell, said the first reservations were made before members of the news media had even left the theater.

Carnival said the product has been structured to be extremely simple to purchase. There will be an initial $300 deposit and a single fare, based on an oceanview cabin.

There will be four cabin categories, and customers will later have a chance to either upgrade to a balcony or suite, or downgrade to an inside cabin.

To run the brand, Carnival recruited Russell, the founder and former president of Create Common Good, a social-impact enterprise that uses food-based projects as job training for people who are dealing with barriers to becoming employed.

Harvesting cocoa will be one of the missions for Fathom guests.
Harvesting cocoa will be one of the missions for Fathom guests.

Russell, who will have the dual titles of president of Fathom and corporate global impact lead, said the Carnival team that developed Fathom worked with the McKinsey & Co. consulting firm on a thorough study of the level of demand for social-impact travel. The study pegged the global market at about $1.6 billion annually.

“We really gauged the consumer willingness to pay: Who would actually spend vacation days and dollars on this experience?” Russell said.

Separately, Donald said the study found that about 1 million North Americans would be predisposed to undertake this kind of travel. In addition to North America, Carnival expects to market Fathom initially in the United Kingdom and Australia.

Beyond the potential for profit, there are several other legs to the business case for Fathom. One is that Fathom is expected to appeal to a passenger group that for the most part doesn’t cruise and would otherwise not go on a cruise. “There are a number of people who have chosen not to cruise before,” Donald said during the post-announcement news conference. “A number of them will do this.”

Russell added: “Our primary audience, we believe, is a purpose-driven millennial.”

Other significant business is expected to come from faith-based groups, such as church mission trips, she said.

After the announcement, Donald told media that he expected families might also be attracted to the product and that the ship could accommodate children.

Donald said a byproduct of Fathom would be to redeploy the Adonia on an itinerary that “is more friendly to that vessel from a fuel-usage standpoint.” The Adonia, built in 2001 as the R8 for Renaissance Cruises, currently sails eclectic itineraries to less visited ports in Europe, the British Isles and the Caribbean.

Fathom could also enhance Carnival Corp.’s image as a good corporate citizen and make it harder for detractors to criticize the company and the cruise industry generally on a variety of issues.

“The primary reason to do this is to deliver good in a sustainable fashion,” Donald said. “But having said that, absolutely, if this works out the way it is intended, I think it will give many people a different point of view than they have today about cruising.”

The Dominican Republic could also be a testing ground for a type of cruise that would fit into the rules maintained by the U.S. Treasury Department for travel to nearby Cuba.

“Humanitarian projects” are among 12 types of travel authorized for Americans seeking to visit Cuba, while the Adonia is the right size to use Cuba’s limited port infrastructure.

Donald called the notion of Fathom going to Cuba a “very interesting thought” but said the current focus is on launching it and making it successful in the Dominican Republic.

Finally, Carnival’s nine other lines might also find “nuggets of possibility” in what Fathom is doing, Donald said. That, in part, is why Russell has a corporate role as well as leading Fathom.

Onboard, the brand will offer Dominican food, music, films and other cultural experiences. The ship will be outfitted with a spa but not a casino.

“There probably won’t be any Broadway shows or anything like that,” Donald said. “But there will be fun that’s appropriate to the purpose that these people have selected to become travelers for.”

He said he suspects karaoke will be offered.

Carnival plans to build a robust Fathom.org website and use digital as the brand’s predominant marketing channel.

For most of its 43-year history, Carnival Corp. has preferred to buy brands rather than develop them.

The Fiesta Marina pan-Hispanic brand, created in 1993, closed less than a year after its debut. The 2007 creation of the Iberocruceros brand in Spain has been more successful.

Donald said he was confident that Fathom will succeed, but he acknowledged that it has to prove itself.

“If you don’t try anything, you can’t make anything happen,” he said. “There may be some bumps along the road.

“The bottom line is we’ve done enough work [that] we have the confidence to make the investment and give it a shot, believing that it will work.”
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Arnie Weissmann contributed to this report.

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