The cruise industry was stunned last week by the news that Vicki Freed, Carnival Cruise Lines' longtime head of sales, was defecting to Carnival archrival Royal Caribbean International.

Freed, one of the most well-known executives in the cruise business, had spent three decades with Carnival, and along with former CEO and president Bob Dickinson, she had been the face of the line to travel agents.

Freed last week assumed the role of senior vice president of sales for Royal Caribbean, its top sales position, four days after informing Carnival that she was leaving.

The move created an avalanche of speculation among travel agents and the close-knit cruise industry as to what could have prompted Freed to leave after almost 30 years with Carnival, including 15 as one of its most senior executives.

"She's been an enormous asset, and Carnival must be disappointed they lost her," said Richard Sasso, president and CEO of MSC Cruises USA. "Royal Caribbean must be thrilled."

Only six months ago, Carnival's top ranks were stocked with executives who had been with the company since the 1970s.

Since then, Carnival has experienced a sea change, starting with the retirement of CEO and 35-year company veteran Bob Dickinson last summer. Carnival Corp. CFO Gerald Cahill replaced him and promptly brought in Ruben Rodriguez, a former vice president with the Boston Consulting Group, as the line's first executive vice president of marketing and guest experience.

Bringing in Rodriguez changed Freed's role at Carnival. For 15 years she served as senior vice president of sales and marketing. Under Cahill she became senior vice president of sales and guest services, and for the first time someone with a loftier-sounding title ranked between her and the line's president. According to some industry insiders, that fact alone perturbed some longtime Carnival executives.

"She's been with the company forever and is a major reason for so much of its success," a former cruise executive said. "It was a tactical error. This is a relationships industry. Those things matter."

Travel agents also took note of the changes.

"She should be the top gun. She earned the top gun," said Jeff Kivet, CEO of Cruise Value Center in East Brunswick, N.J., who said he was blindsided by Freed's move. "She's a lady who has all the credentials. She's a powerhouse. Royal Caribbean must be jumping for joy. She's the person to get."

In an interview shortly after her resignation, Freed would only gush about her former employer, and she insisted that none of those changes affected her decision to leave.

She did say that she always thought she would retire with Carnival.

"In my mind I never thought I would leave Carnival, but this was a great opportunity in the right time and the right place, and change is good," she said. "We all have to grow."

Royal Caribbean President and CEO Adam Goldstein, observing the uncharacteristic executive changes at Carnival, saw that for the first time in her career Freed could be ripe for the taking.

"We have competed against them almost since our inception," Goldstein said. "For the most part, they have been an extremely stable company in their management makeup. And that hasn't been as true lately."

Goldstein knew that with Dickinson's departure, one of the industry's dynamic duos would be broken up.

"It gave us the thought that it might be worth an attempt," he said of pursuing Freed.

Dickinson stunned

Dickinson, who in his retirement has focused on raising money to fight homelessness in Miami, said he was as stunned as anyone to hear the news.

In hindsight, he said, there was at least one major signpost along the way: Lisa Bauer, Royal Caribbean's former senior vice president of sales, was appointed Royal Caribbean's senior vice president of hotel operations in December.

"That was the black swan," Dickinson said. "At the time I didn't think it was Vicki, but my antenna was up. It struck me that it was very curious, because Lisa had done such a bang-up job."  

Goldstein said that Bauer would have moved to operations regardless of Freed's decision. But the conversations with Freed were happening in tandem, and everything fell into place at the same time.

In Bauer's former position, Freed will essentially do the same job she did at Carnival. She will report to Goldstein and head up the company's 345-person sales force, along with managing Royal Caribbean's trade support and services division, which includes reservations, group sales, customer service and loyalty programs.

On the other side of Miami at Carnival headquarters, the team was obviously caught off guard by Freed's resignation, and it was uncharacteristically quiet to the press. Carnival released a short statement saying that Freed was going to "another company" and thanked her for her long career there.

"We thank Vicki for the many contributions she has made to the Carnival organization over years and the very valuable role she has played within the company," the statement said. "She is wished well by all within the Carnival organization as she moves to the next phase of her career."

As to who would replace Freed, Carnival did not say and as of press time likely did not know.

One Carnival employee said that the thought of Freed leaving was so far-fetched that thinking of a successor for her had never occurred to anybody. 

In an internal memo, Cahill told the company, "I want to take some time to think about the organization of our company before deciding on a replacement for Vicki. In the interim, the sales and guest services department heads will temporarily report to Ruben Rodriguez."

The memo prompted some speculation that perhaps Rodriguez would take Freed's place at the helm of sales. But the name that surfaced most often among travel agents and other cruise industry insiders was Maurice Zarmati, Carnival's vice president of sales, who was once Freed's boss but never attained the top sales position at Carnival.

End of an era

Reflecting on his relationship with Freed, Dickinson said, "One of the smart things I've done in my life was hiring Vicki. She's a go-to person. She never let me down. She is the consummate industry salesperson."

He noted that as a professional team they were totally in sync. "She could speak and I could finish the sentence, and I could speak and she could finish the sentence," he said.

This end of an era feeling was echoed by many who spoke of Carnival losing both Dickinson and Freed.

Sharon Euliss, owner of All About Cruises in Burlington, N.C., Carnival's agency of the year in 2007, was one of them.

"First Bob, then Vicki, you feel like you're losing part of the family," she said. "I've known [Freed] forever, and its always been really nice to know that you have people like her in that position. She is a hands-on, approachable person. She just really cares about us, about travel agents."  

Euliss said that she booked mostly groups and that Carnival had a strong groups department, an area Euliss and other travel agents have identified as a weakness at Royal Caribbean.

To contact reporter Johanna Jainchill, send e-mail to [email protected].

Get More!

For more on Vicki Freed, see Jainchill's "In the Hot Seat" interview. 

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