Mall crawl: Slow day at Carnival's kiosk

Travel Weekly's San Francisco bureau chief, Laura Del Rosso, recently spent a day at the new Carnival Vacation Store in Arlington, Texas. Her report follows:

ARLINGTON, Texas -- If every day were like this one, travel agents who fear that Carnival Cruise Lines is getting a lot of direct business at its first retail outlet would have nothing to worry about.

But then it is 106 degrees outside and Dallas-area residents have been warned to stay near their air conditioners and not exert themselves. It is also a Tuesday, typically one of the slower days at the Parks mall.

Jaime Safianow, one of the full-time Carnival staffers at the store, starts the day as she does other weekdays: making follow-up phone calls to shoppers who visited over the weekend.

The new facility has two full-time and one part-time staffer and, in accordance with Carnival's contract with the mall operator, must be open the same hours as the mall.

The previous Saturday was one of store's biggest days since it opened June 30: Safianow alone made five bookings, of which one was for a group of 14 and referred to a travel agent.

Three were direct bookings, Lin Humphrey, Carnival Vacation Stores project manager, who is on site today, is quick to add; the other one was processed by Carnival but credited to the clients' travel agent, who received full commission for the sale.

What a visitor to Carnival's new venture notices first is that it's actually not a store. It's a kiosk that stands in the middle of the mall walkway, a relatively new concept in mall retailing, said Humphrey.

"It's part of the trend of in-your-face marketing," he said.

But Carnival's kiosk, although attractive with its cherrywood trim and its bright red-white-and-blue smokestack, is dwarfed by the neighboring kiosks at the mall, including an adjacent Coffee Beanery.

And, a large skylight allows in so much sunlight from above that the Kathie Lee Gifford shipboard videos that play continuously are difficult to view.

Nearby are two companies that also have traditionally relied on an outside distribution system, but now are selling direct to consumers: Avon and Tupperware, both of which have branched into mall kiosks.

By 11 a.m., shoppers start arriving at the mall in larger numbers, but it's still pretty slow, and nobody has stopped by the Carnival kiosk. The first two people to show any interest are travel agents.

Mark Slack, president, and Dick Jensen, vice president, of Morris/Murdock Travel, Utah's largest agency, explain they are in the Dallas area on business and decided to stop by and visit the Carnival store.

Slack said his agency is considering opening kiosks in malls in Salt Lake City and wanted to size up Carnival's efforts.

"We're interested in the concept," said Slack. "Our feeling is that it's good retailing."

The agents ask about staffing and wiring for the technology required to run an operation in the middle of a mall.

"This is a laboratory for us to see what works," said Humphrey, who recently signed a contract for a second Carnival Vacation Store at Stonebriar Mall in nearby Frisco, Texas. A third is scheduled to open in Woodlands Mall in Houston in October.

Humphrey said he welcomes visits by travel agents and is aware of "mystery shoppers" sent by agencies.

"You can always tell by the questions they ask, like 'Do I get a better price here than if I use my travel agency?,' " he said.

"It's going to take a while for agencies to feel comfortable with us. We need to prove ourselves -- that we will ask whether people have an agency every time."

Carnival also is designing a training program to be conducted at the kiosks for agencies, and, through a Carnival "internship" program, agents are invited to work at the store -- and receive commission for sales.

Carnival's compensation for the kiosk staff is the same whether the sale is direct with Carnival or credited to an agency. They are paid a salary plus bonus, depending on the revenue they bring in.

Typically, Humphrey said, the staff asks whether the client has a travel agent at the time of payment. However, the staff often knows before that because they qualify shoppers by having them fill out a short questionnaire with some personal information as well as one about having a travel agent.

After 2 p.m. more shoppers trickle by, but few stop. Some teenagers play with the kiosk's screens that give shipboard tours and other line information. Small children are attracted by the colorful smoke stack and large clear globe attached to the kiosk.

Safianow has made two bookings thus far today. Both are a result of follow-up phone calls. One is a direct booking and one is credited to a travel agency.

As the afternoon progresses, the traffic around the kiosk gets busier. Some are people who already have booked a Carnival cruise and glance at the sample menus, photos of cabins and other material.

Humphrey said the kiosk has been useful to help with "buyer's regret" after someone pays for a cruise.

"They can stop by between the time they book and sail and get additional information. We reinforce that they've made a great decision," he said. "It helps build a relationship with Carnival."

But most visitors are clearly just curious. One is a 20-year-old woman who is thinking about her honeymoon in 2001.

Safianow spends 20 minutes with her and gives her material to take home. Before she walks away, I ask the woman whether she has a travel agent. No, she said because she has never traveled.

I asked whether she might come back and book a cruise at the kiosk. She looks around to make sure the Carnival staff is out of earshot, and said, "I don't think so because my fiance... would probably prefer going to Cancun on our honeymoon."

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