MIAMI -- Carnival Cruise Lines is putting its foot down.

Specifically, the cruise giant is preventing travel agents and Web retailers from promoting group rates to individuals.

In one recent case, the line removed a listing from a Web site advertising space on a sold-out sailing, a three-day cruise on the Fascination.

The site, CruiseCompete.com, offers space on sailings that are otherwise sold out by advertising for agents who have available group space on those dates.

Terry Thornton, Carnivals vice president of marketing planning, said ads promoting group prices to individuals are disruptive to Carnivals level-playing-field strategy.

Carnival is running a tighter ship when it comes to groups. Since last fall, the line has been quietly cutting back on the amount of group space it doles out to large retailers.

Group space is typically allocated to agents for specific affinity groups or as speculative space, which the retailer can fill with multiple individual or small-group bookings.

As cabin prices rise closer to the departure date, agents with group space have a price advantage.

Vicki Freed, Carnivals senior vice president of sales and marketing, said the line is trying to better manage its inventory and control the number of people who take space simply for a pricing edge.

However, Freed emphasized that Carnival is still in the groups business and is even expecting a slight increase in the overall group mix.

Thornton noted that in the downturn following 9/11, some of these policies loosened up and spec group space was something all of us were pushing.

Today, however, demand is rising and not as much new capacity is coming on line. In that environment, Thornton said lots of companies will want to maintain better control of their inventory.

I think youll see this thing flow back with some tighter controls on spec group space, he added.

Executives at Princess, Royal Caribbean and MSC Cruises, which allow agents to advertise group prices, said their group policies havent changed.

But with rising rates and little new capacity, group space could become a hot commodity.

Agent Steve Sibille, owner of Crowns Adventures at Sea in New Orleans, said, Right now, if you have inventory, youre sitting on a gold mine.

To contact reporter Rebecca Tobin, send e-mail to [email protected].

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