Conquest in Crescent City

Carnival's biggest ship makes its debut in a new year-round homeport

By: Anne Kalosh

Carnival Cruise Lines’ newest and biggest ship, a floating palace dedicated to the great Impressionist painters, was christened in New Orleans where it will sail year-round.

The 110,000-ton, 2,974-passenger Carnival Conquest departs every Sunday for Montego Bay, Grand Cayman and Cozumel.

The Conquest boasts the fleet’s biggest children’s area and spa facilities, along with an expanded teen facility with a soda bar and a separate dance floor flowing into a huge video games area.

A sushi bar and a new concept a fish and chips shop are free of charge. The Conquest’s supper club, The Point, is not located in the funnel as on the Spirit-class vessels, but it has a larger galley to accommodate high demand for the reservations-only venue.

The overall decor is lighter and more colorful than perhaps any other Carnival ship, and the Impressionist theme highlights some of the world’s most popular and easily recognized artworks such as Claude Monet’s “Water Lilies.” While the New Orleans deployment targets the large drive-in market from nearby states, Carnival officials also expect Conquest to draw from the West.

“We put the Conquest in New Orleans because we want our cruises out of New Orleans to be more of a national product,” said Terry Thornton, Carnival’s vice president of marketing planning.

“The great thing about New Orleans for the West Coast region is that it’s a same-day flight. You can fly from gateways such as Los Angeles or San Francisco and be in New Orleans by mid-afternoon and depart on a voyage that day. Also, several low-cost air carriers that offer some great pricing, such as Southwest, are serving New Orleans.”

In the past Carnival has not pushed its New Orleans product on a national basis.

“Even with the Inspiration, some of the major West Coast markets such as Los Angeles and San Francisco were already among the top 12 markets from which we were drawing passengers for the seven-day cruises,” Thornton said.

Carnival officials say they are excited about New Orleans as their third biggest U.S. homeport, but a problem looms in the form of a power line that stretches across the Mississippi River. It’s too low for the towering Conquest to safely pass under while in the main lanes of river traffic. Instead, the ship must steer toward shore, where the line is higher, and the power utility must cut electricity to prevent a dangerous arcing effect.

The situation will worsen in January, when Mississippi waters run higher. Carnival President Bob Dickinson expressed frustration that the issue had not been resolved prior to Conquest’s arrival.

“If they don’t solve the problem in 60 days, we’re taking the ship to Gulfport,” he told reporters on Conquest’s two-day introductory cruise to nowhere.

During a travel agent Q&A, he reiterated his concern and stressed, “We want to operate the ship out of New Orleans.”

The growth of Carnival’s fleet means the Fun Ships will carry 3 million passengers in 2003, up from 2.5 million this year, Dickinson said. “Almost four out of every 10 North Americans will cruise on Carnival Cruise Lines.”

Addressing the pending acquisition of P&O Princess Cruises, Carnival Corp. Chairman and CEO Micky Arison cautioned that the deal is not done yet. Due to a costly change of control provision built into P&O Princess’ merger agreement with Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd., the P&O Princess board cannot recommend the Carnival offer to its shareholders before Jan. 1. Then Carnival must win shareholder approval at the Feb. 14 vote.

Asked about synergies related to the deal, particularly in Alaska where Holland America Line and Princess Cruises run huge land operations, Arison said the 49th state is clearly one area where there are opportunities.

“I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see a Holland America Line passenger staying at a Princess lodge,” he said.

He brushed off a suggestion that the Princess and Holland America brands could “cannibalize” each other.

“If you look at Carnival Triumph, its biggest competition is Carnival Victory,” Arison said. “Do I care if both ships are filled? It doesn’t matter.” He also noted, “There couldn’t be two more different philosophies in ship design and experience” than the traditional Zuiderdam and the contemporary Coral Princess, each debuting this month.

During the agent Q&A, Vicki Freed, senior vice president of sales and marketing, said Carnival was considering making shore excursions bookable on line (but not commissionable).

Dickinson responded positively to a suggestion that agents be allowed to pay the $25 Supper Club charge as a gift for clients. He said the next issue of the Carnival Capers newsletter would include an evaluation card for agents, including the question: “What’s your pet peeve?”