CCL’s Justin French Calls Turnaround In Agent Relations “Unbelievable”

Open Jaw
By Bruce Parkinson

Justin French

The shift in the quality of Carnival Cruise Line’s relationship with the travel trade over the past 3 years would make an interesting MBA case study.

In the years leading up to 2013, Carnival made a series of direction and policy changes that damaged the partnership. More aggressive direct sales, lower commissions, the discontinuation of printed brochures and a general lack of support made agents feel disrespected and less enthusiastic about selling the product.

In the wake of a perfect storm of bad press that swarmed CCL after the Carnival Triumph fire in FEB 2013, every mistake was scrutinized and small incidents overblown in the consumer media.

That may have been when the world’s biggest cruise line gained a renewed appreciation for the role of travel advisors, not just as a sales arm, but as ambassadors and promoters of the product.

Since then, all boats have been rising in the Carnival/agent waters.

“It’s unbelievable,” says Justin French, Regional Vice President, Canada & the Northern U.S. “As president, we have Christine Duffy, who started her career as a travel agent. As VP Sales & Trade Marketing we have Adolfo Perez, a huge advocate of agents. We have a completely trade-friendly management team.”

For the past 3-plus years, Carnival has made a serious effort to re-engage with the trade by listening to and acting on their complaints. ‘Carnival Conversations’ events across North America began as an airing of grievances and evolved into a positive atmosphere as agents realized that Carnival was making a sincere attempt to reset the relationship.

CCL has also invested heavily in product, service and polishing its damaged reputation among consumers. The result: the overall Carnival Corp. posted its best-ever full-year financials in 2016.

“We are coming off a great year as the Carnival family,” says French. “And our position in Canada is very, very positive. There’s a lot of new business year over year. And we’re getting really positive word-of-mouth from Canadian cruisers. Our net promoter scores (based on post-cruise pax surveys) are very high from Canadians.”

French says Canadian travellers appear to have adjusted to the currency differential. “People have been hesitant, but now I think they’re just saying ‘We’ve got to get away.’”

Carnival has worked hard to get more agents on its ships to experience the product. “I was recently on Vista and there were 250 cabins of agents aboard. Their most frequent comment to me was ‘This isn’t what I expected. It’s so different from the image of Carnival.”

French points out that CCL’s ‘party ship’ image is outdated, citing that the line carried over 700,000 children last year – more than double the figure of a decade ago. As well, more than 1,000,000 seniors sailed with the line in 2016.

French, who joined Carnival in 2003 as Western Ontario BDM, says Carnival is continuing to listen and act on both retailer and guest feedback.

For one, printed brochures are back and available for ordering. “We’ve just printed a new one to give agents something tangible to use when working with clients,” French says.

For consumers, Carnival introduced the 'Great Vacation Guarantee,' a program offering a 110% refund, complimentary return flights and a $100 OBC for a future cruise, should they be dissatisfied with their cruise for any reason. 

“This should give agents great confidence because we are standing behind the product and indicating our desire for guests to return,” says French. “The guarantee rarely gets used, because we do everything we can to make people happy, but I think agents should be using this as a powerful free sales tool.”

CCL now publishes its full itineraries and opens bookings two years out, rather than one year in the past. French says that has lengthened the booking window considerably. In Canada, that has been helped with a Canadian Resident Promo Code that has been in place for the past 6 or 7 months and has now been extended through 31MAR.

“Basically, Canadian cruisers get our best Early Saver rates in Canadian dollars, but without the cancellation restrictions of Early Saver and with the added bonus of a US$50 OBC. These policies are really helping to get business in sooner.”

With a new ship coming to CCL in 4 of the next 5 years – including the first 180,000-ton XL Class, LNG-powered ships, French says the future looks bright.

 “When agents recommend the right Carnival ship to the right person, it’s a winning combination. 50% of our 1st-time cruisers return within 24 months. And both agents and consumers are learning that there’s a whole lot of value that comes with a Carnival cruise, at a really great price. We want agents to switch-sell from land because we have a product that off the best combination of price and value.”

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