Carnival CEO: Travel Agents Are ‘Critically Important’ To Cruise Industry Success

by Daniel McCarthy

Carnival Ecstacy docked in New Orleans. Photo: Win Henderson.

In an industry that is built on atypical purchases, travel partners are “critically important” to cruise line success, said Carnival Corp. CEO Arnold Donald, during an interview at Skift’s Global Forum in New York on Tuesday.  

“A cruise is not a typical purchase—you’re not buying a pair of shoes, you’re not even buying a house. You’re buying a real experience that involves other people. . . . Right now travel professionals are critically important,” he said.  

Donald told the audience that though most people who get on a ship will become lifetime cruisers, “the worst thing that happens in our industry is when people get on the wrong ship, because then their expectations are not exceeded.” 

When travel agents qualify their clients and match them correctly to one of 10 Carnival brands, or to another cruise line, they show their true value, he said. That’s especially true for clients who are first-time cruisers. “If we get them on the right experience, they will be cruisers for life.” 

Although Carnival Corp. is investing in new technology to help sell cruises—including virtual reality, which Donald said still needs to get “to another level”—he said that agents will continue to be the lifeblood of the industry.

“A cruise is not a typical purchase—you’re not buying a pair of shoes, you’re not even buying a house. You’re buying a real experience that involves other people. . . . Right now travel professionals are critically important."

“It’s really critically important for us to try and equip the travel professional to understand the brands and to understand their customers,” he said. “There’s so many decisions to make, and if you haven’t cruised before you have no frame of reference. . . . You could easily go to a travel agent who can condense that [research] time for you.”

Room for growth
The cruise industry continues to grow, including new ventures into China and Cuba, but cruise cabins still add up to less than 2% of the hotel rooms in the world. Most of the time, people vacationing aren’t going on cruises, despite Carnival Corp. sailing at 120% capacity, Donald said.  

The challenge for Carnival Corp. and the cruise industry as a whole is to get “people to want to cruise.”  

“My personal goal for this company is to keep cruise out in the public space in a positive way all the time so that when someone is thinking about a vacation they have the idea of ‘hey what about a cruise?’” he said.  

Charting new waters   
Part of what’s going to make cruising attractive to new audiences is the addition of new territories, including China and Cuba.  

China is “going to be the world’s largest cruise market, like it’s going to be the world’s largest market for everything else. It could be as large as the entire cruise industry is today; there’s just that many people,” Donald said.  

While capacity growth in China is limited because of continued obligations in other regions, Donald said he expects steady growth in China moving forward.  

Meanwhile, Cuba, which Carnival Corp. first sailed to with Fathom last April, is seeing growing interest from all generations, Donald said.  

“Cuba’s a fascinating place, and we’re humbled that we were the first ones to sail there,” he said.  

As additional Carnival brands and other cruise lines add Cuba itineraries, the country will refresh the Caribbean as a destination by providing new ports of call in a region that has historically been cruising’s most popular.  

“A lot of people have been there and done that. Cuba makes it new again.”

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