Marketplace challenges proved too much for Fathom to overcome

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Travel agents Denise Kahoud, front, and Brunilda Borges, shown helping to make water filters, said that her Fathom voyage to the Dominican Republic was "life-changing" but that despite her raves about the cruise, it was a tough sell. Photo Credit: Courtesy of Denise Kahoud

Travel agents expressed disappointment that Fathom, Carnival Corp.'s social-impact cruise line, will shut down next June, its one ship, the 704-passenger Adonia, to rejoin the P&O Cruises fleet. But they weren't necessarily surprised.

Fathom created huge buzz for being the first new Carnival brand since the 1990s, one with a social-impact mission -- and for becoming the first line to take passengers on regularly scheduled cruises between the U.S. and Cuba in more than 50 years.

But it has been no secret that Fathom's Dominican Republic cruises, which offered passengers the opportunity to participate in projects like teaching English or distributing water filters, were a tough sell, at times advertised for as little as $199, even as the Cuba sailings started at $1,800.

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Carnival Corp. chief information officer Roger Frizzell said that the Cuba cruises had proven "extremely successful" and that the company has requested approval from Cuba to sail there with other brands, beginning in June. Fathom's voluntourism experiences, meanwhile, will be offered to passengers on Carnival Corp.'s nine other brands.

Fathom president Tara Russell, who will head the expansion of Fathom experiences, said the line suffered from being both a new brand and an entirely new cruise category.

"Education in the marketplace and true comprehension of what the experience is really about has been challenging," she said.

This was not due to any lack of engagement from travel agents, which Russell called "astonishing."

"Yet what I hear, and remain convinced of, is people have a hard time taking their interest and enthusiasm and their engagement and translating it to what they feel is competent education to their [clients]," she said.

One issue Russell cited is Fathom's "social-impact" branding, which people didn't get. Going forward, the concept will be defined as "participatory travel," in that travelers are being asked to participate and be part of the Fathom experiences.

Russell was upbeat about the Fathom rollout to other brands, which began last month with two Fathom shoreside experiences that were offered on ships calling at the company's Amber Cove port in the D.R. Russell said her team is working on new locations and onboard content.

Martha Honey, the executive director of the Center for Responsible Travel, said that she believes Fathom as a cruise line doesn't fit any one travel category well enough.

"I think one of the problems was that it was mixing apples and oranges," she said. "It wasn't conventional cruise tourism or a conventional service vacation. ... Carnival jumped into this with a database [of clients] that was not used to this."

Others said that travelers couldn't disconnect Fathom from its parent company, best known for operating big ships and not associated with voluntourism.

"As enthusiastic as I was about it, some clients would say, 'It's Carnival,'" said Denise Kahoud of New York-based Worldview Travel. "I told them the ship was beautiful, the food was good with wonderful wine selection, activities, etc., and they'd say: 'We're not Carnival people.'"

Kahoud called her Fathom experience to the D.R. "life-changing" but said that despite her raves about it, it was a tough sell, while the Cuba trips were not. She was encouraged that Fathom's experiences would be offered to guests on other lines and thought it might have more appeal.

"That blend may have more value to guests that go and get a little taste of it, but then they're still on vacation," she said.

Luis Rodriguez of Miami-based Go Cruising and Travel, an Avoya agency, was sad to see Fathom go and said he had sold the Cuba cruises "left and right." While he also found the D.R. tougher to sell, he said when he did, guests were hooked, and that one went to the D.R. on Fathom four times.

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