DALLAS -- Ensemble Travel Group has added Carnival Cruise Line as a preferred supplier in a nod to the brand's efforts to work more closely with the agent community. The move gives the consortium's members a wider opportunity to sell more moderately priced cruises.

The Carnival announcement was made at Ensemble's annual conference here last week. Ensemble co-president Lindsay Pearlman said the decision was an acknowledgement of how Carnival's distribution strategy has evolved "relative to three to five years ago," when the company's relationship with agents had reached an all-time low.

But recently, Pearlman told a media gathering, "The members were asking for it. We do extremely well with [Carnival]."

The addition puts Carnival Cruise Line on equal footing with Carnival Corp. sister brands Cunard, Holland America, Princess Cruises and Seabourn, which are already Ensemble preferred suppliers.

As a result, said Marge McCauley, a Sparta, N.J.-based agent with Scully Travel Group, Ensemble agents who serve more budget-minded travelers will be able to offer clients better deals and more amenities. She said she was "very pleased" with the decision.

"I'm practically located in rural Pennsylvania, so I sell more Carnival, rather than Seabourn, which is what most New Jersey agents sell," McCauley said. "People are always looking for free stuff, like onboard credits, so that gives me an edge."

The move also represents a further effort on the part of Carnival Cruise Line to repair a relationship with the agent community that had become somewhat prickly during the past decade, when it reduced some of its commissions and engaged in more aggressive direct-to-consumer sales campaigns.

In 2013, Carnival, which had removed travel agent references from its television commercial tags, added back the reference at the end of its ads. That same year, in a response to agent complaints, the cruise line reduced its number of fare categories to three from six to make sales easier.

In 2015, Carnival reduced the thresholds on its commission tiers, making it easier for agents to reach higher commission status. For example, Carnival reduced to 250 from 400 the number of cabins agents needed to sell to reach a 15% commission rate. Carnival cut most of its commission-tier thresholds by more than 30%.

"We have a direct news channel, and that's not really going to go away," Adolfo Perez, Carnival's vice president of sales and trade marketing, told last week's media gathering. "But we're a big supporter of the trade channel and are looking for more ways to show our support."

The decision was just one of a number of overtures Ensemble made to the cruise industry during the conference at the Hyatt Regency Dallas at Reunion, which attracted about 900 people.

The consortium, which said it had its best year in 2016 and was on track to beat those numbers because of increases in all travel categories, unveiled its Navigate cruise-booking platform at last year's annual conference. Ensemble co-president Libbie Rice acknowledged last week that the consortium had to iron out kinks in the new platform.

"Has the rollout of Navigate gone as smoothly as expected? No," Rice told conference attendees. "We're recognizing the need for a formal team to bridge the gap between vendors and infrastructure."

Ensemble featured Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings CEO Frank Del Rio in a question-and-answer session. Del Rio used the opportunity to tout the cruise industry's response to this season's hurricanes, and he encouraged attendees to sell the Bahamas, the Cayman Islands, Jamaica and other Caribbean destinations that suffered little or no damage from the storms.

"Over 40% of the industry's capacity is in the Caribbean, so we need the Caribbean to succeed and be open," Del Rio said. "We in the industry can't possibly have an excellent year and perform as expected if the Caribbean isn't part of the mix, so it behooves us to work together to get the Caribbean up and running. You've got to do your part and get your clients revved up to go to the Caribbean again."

In addition to Carnival Cruise Line, Ensemble said that it had added 16 other preferred suppliers to its stable, including Hawaiian Airlines, Japan National Tourism Organization, Norwegian Air, TAP Portugal, Eva Airways and Onefinestay.

Ensemble executives, along with ASTA, also announced the creation of the Susan D. Tanzman Inspiration Award in honor of the travel agent, who died in September. The award will be given yearly at ASTA's annual global convention to an agent who embodies Tanzman's "inspiring nature and dedication to the agency community."

Tanzman headed Los Angeles-based Martin's Travel & Tours.

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