Carnival Cruise Lines has “some apologizing to do.”
That was the frank admission of Carnival sales executive Lynn Torrent in a conversation with Travel Market Report about its travel agent relations and a new trade outreach program announced this week.
Agents are being invited to speak their minds and enter into a dialogue with Carnival under an initiative dubbed Carnival Conversations. (See sidebar.) If recent history is any guide, that conversation is likely to produce some heated exchanges with agents who feel betrayed by the cruise line.
Carnival Conversations isn’t a change of course for Carnival, said Torrent, executive vice president of sales and guest services. “The change is we’re committed to demonstrating – through actions and messaging and two-way dialogue and transparency – that Carnival always has and always will rely on and need the trade.”
We asked Torrent to discuss Carnival’s new trade program as well as the issues that have so angered agents in recent years.
How did you decide to launch Carnival Conversations?
Torrent: For a few months we’ve been out talking to agents. We’ve heard loud and clear a couple of key messages. One in particular that’s troubling was that many travel agents believe that Carnival doesn’t really value them, and they were upset by changes we’ve made over the last several years and most recently the changes we made in 2013 [to Carnival’s commission structure].
It’s hard to hear that kind of feedback when we’ve got a team that is committed to working with travel agents and growing their business. So we agreed that we need to listen more and frankly we have some apologizing to do. Because despite our best efforts our intentions are not clear to travel agents.
Is this a repair mission?
Torrent: It’s repair in that clearly we need to apologize and we need to listen more. But it’s not a repair as in a one-time thing – it’s ongoing. We want to create a very transparent dialogue, so we’ll be listening to travel agents and responding to their concerns and suggestions.
To be honest and to be clear, like any other business, we can’t do 100 percent of what our customers and business partners want us to do. But we can listen and contemplate and we can explain our rationale, and that’s what we want to accomplish.
What do you feel you need to apologize for?
Torrent: The biggest thing we heard when we made changes in 2012 for 2013 [to commission terms] was that we didn’t give travel agents as much advance notice as we should have. We announced that in the fourth quarter of 2012. In listening, their preference would have been that we announce that much earlier on, maybe halfway through the year, so that agents could have the opportunity to sell more Carnival and perhaps influence their commission tier. That’s a really fair point, and we have apologized for that.
Another agent complaint is a lack of coop marketing dollars.
Torrent: We heard from many travel agents that they don’t believe we’re committed to marketing with the trade, to cooperative marketing, and that some of the decisions we made to reinvest those marketing funds didn’t go over very well. So we’re working with each individual account. We were with an account just the other day whose commercial terms were changed, and he expressed why he was upset and why he thought we were missing opportunities. So we’re looking at that.
To be clear, we are continuing to invest in cooperative marketing – that never changed. We did reallocate at the account level.
We hear that Carnival’s personal vacation planners ‘trash’ travel agents and actively dissuade customers from booking with them.
Torrent: When I started at Carnival more than five years ago, this was a really big hot button for agents. We took a lot of steps internally and we parted ways with a lot of employees who were not following the rules.
When you have a call center there’s always going to be someone who doesn’t follow the rules. But we take it seriously and we part company with those individuals, and we tell the travel agency involved. We also share it with the rest of the call center. I think our employees understand that we won’t tolerate that kind of behavior.
That’s at odds with what we hear from agents.
Torrent: It does happen, but the number is so small compared to where it was. But if you’re one of those agents that it has impacted, I can see where it would feel like this is a chronic issue.
Why is there such a high level of distrust among agents for Carnival? It predates the commission changes.
Torrent: When I started five or six years ago, probably the biggest complaints my first day on the job, were about some of these hot buttons and the PVPs.
I think what has made it larger is over the last several years we’ve worked really hard to be more efficient internally at Carnival, as well as to try make our relations with agents more efficient. When you have a product that is providing great vacations at great values, efficiency is really important. We think in the end it’s good for Carnival and good for travel agent distribution.
But as we listen to travel agents, maybe we pushed too fast, too hard. So we started in this place, and it’s gotten progressively a little noisier.
What do you mean by efficiencies?
Torrent: For example, we invested millions of dollars to create tools so agents could book simple-type bookings electronically versus calling in every reservation, or certain group activities. That was purely a travel agent investment, but we had to push the agency community pretty hard to use the tools.
What about the perception that at Carnival Corp. agents are seen as an expense, that there’s a bottom line focus that negatively impacts the bigger picture?
Torrent: We sat down with Micky Arison [chair of Carnival Corp.] about a month ago as part of building Carnival Conversations and getting ready for some cool advertising. We wanted to capture his thoughts on video so we could share them with the agent community. You’ll hear how much he does value travel agents and how he appreciates how much their role has changed and how much harder their jobs have gotten.
So to your point on Carnival Corp., I absolutely know they believe in and support the distribution.
One agent told me that once things get better for Carnival, agents will ‘get kicked to the curb again.’ Your response?
Torrent: It’s a fair question. The answer is we’ve always needed them. We also realize that while some agents will hear and believe us, not all agents will. Over time, as agents see that we are making a commitment, and this isn’t ‘we’re here today, gone tomorrow,’ I think we will win more back.