Carnival's Fathom brand has lost its ship but not its mission

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Fathom is designing shore excursions in destinations other than the Dominican Republic and Cuba for passengers on any of Carnival Corp.'s brands, like a visit to a Rastafarian drum circle in Jamaica.
Fathom is designing shore excursions in destinations other than the Dominican Republic and Cuba for passengers on any of Carnival Corp.'s brands, like a visit to a Rastafarian drum circle in Jamaica.

A year after it lost its only ship, Carnival Corp.'s experimental Fathom concept remains alive and busy reinventing itself, though it's not much talked about.

Carnival's social-impact brand made history in the spring of 2016 by pioneering the company's bridgehead between Miami and Cuba. It was also key to the opening of Carnival's $85 million Amber Cove port of call in the Dominican Republic. 

What distinguished it most from other cruise brands was that it gave travelers who were interested in doing charitable work on vacation a place to call home.

Yet despite a considerable push by Carnival CEO Arnold Donald, Fathom failed to reach critical mass as a stand-alone brand, so Carnival returned Fathom's only ship, the Adonia, to its P&O Cruises subsidiary in June 2017.

Since then, Fathom has operated in the lowest of keys. It remains a Carnival brand, said corporate chief communications officer Roger Frizzell, albeit a brand with no ship. Yet, its heart still beats within a small organization in Seattle.

Tara Russell, the brand's founder and guiding light, said, "In many ways, we think of ourselves as Carnival Corp.'s creative travel lab. ... we have a broad variety of activities that we drive and undertake for the organization."

In particular, Fathom has focused on two projects for Carnival. The first is maintaining Fathom's original mission on a reduced scale within the Princess Cruises brand. The second is creating Fathom-style shore excursions throughout the Caribbean. If the projects thrive, they could pave the way to a revival of Fathom on a more sustainable basis.

Fathom's venture with Princess involves the booking of Travel Deep groups on seven Princess sailings this year. The Travel Deep concept mostly replicates Fathom's social-impact mission of providing meaningful activities on a cruise, but in this case within the friendly confines of a mainstream cruise ship and its activities.

"This is an introduction to test the audience, test the appetite and test the reception," said Russell, who works out of Seattle. She retains the titles of president of Fathom and global impact lead at Carnival Corp.

To participate in Travel Deep, cruisers pay a $200 premium. The package includes up to three impact shore excursions, a cocktail party, onboard programs, hosted dinners and Fathom-branded merchandise.

Four of the seven cruises have sailed so far. The first drew 142 participants. 

"We've had a mix in numbers since then on different sailings," Russell said, adding that satisfaction scores have been very high.

Russell emphasized that there hasn't been much time between marketing the cruises and the sailing dates. 

"Were we to offer this more fully, it would be our intention to open in a broader range of time within the booking curve," she said.

The time-constrained marketing for Travel Deep has mostly been done by Fathom, but Princess has also contributed, and Russell said Princess vice president of sales John Chernesky has been talking up the sailings at travel agent conferences.

"He said it's been encouraging, because people have been real curious and wanting to hear more," Russell said.

A second clandestine project going on at Princess debuted this summer under the name the Detourists Caribbean. It is offered to all passengers on the Caribbean Princess and reprises many of the onboard elements of the Fathom program, such as storytelling and photography workshops.

Another feature that parallels the Fathom onboard program is the placement of surprise boxes for passengers to find. On Fathom they were called Curiosity Boxes, and they contained placards that had inspirational sayings.

On the Caribbean Princess, the boxes are orange in color and are called Detourist Traps.

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