From left to right: Mike Julius, senior managing director of U.S. trade sales for Carnival; David Wright Sr., a travel agent for YTB Travel and a Carnival Conversations raffle winner; Jennifer Buenrostro, business development director for Carnival; and Joni Rein, vice president of worldwide sales for Carnival // © 2015 Valerie Chen
Feature image (above): Carnival Inspiration // © 2015 Carnival Cruise Line
Now in its third year, the Carnival Conversations travel agent engagement program has expanded to encompass 180 additional events throughout the U.S. and Canada in 2015. Called "Carnival Conversations: More Time Spent With You,” the program will include 11 road shows, each featuring a panel of Carnival executives who will answer questions from travel agents, in addition to 169 regional training seminars with various members of Carnival’s sales team.
“Since we introduced this three years ago, we have come a long way,” said Drew Santiago, business development director for Carnival Cruise Lines, during an interview with TravelAge West. “Carnival is a big company, so it may take a bit of time to implement some of the changes agents request — due to protocols and all of the channels we have to go through. But whether the feedback is positive or negative, we need to hear it, and this forum is the place for agents to vent.”
Carnival Conversations in Long Beach, Calif.
On March 23, at the third Carnival Conversations event, approximately 125 agents gathered onboard Carnival Inspiration in its Candlelight Lounge to have their questions answered, while the ship remained docked at the Port of Long Beach in Long Beach, Calif. Lunch, also onboard Carnival Inspiration in the Carnivale dining room, followed the Q&A portion.
Joni Rein, vice president of worldwide sales for Carnival, told TravelAge West that, during the open-mic events, there are no questions left unanswered and nothing is censored.
“Travel agents are the backbone of Carnival, so it’s really nice to travel with the team and be able to see agents who may produce anywhere from one to thousands of bookings,” Rein said. “Agents all have different perspectives, and they have great ideas — things we might try. We take that back to Miami with us.”
Panelists at the Long Beach event consisted of several Carnival executives, including Rein; Kirk Neal, regional vice president of sales; Vicki Tomasino, regional vice president of community and trade relations; Noel Hernandez, director of strategic projects; and Vicky Rey, vice president of guest services. Mike Julius, senior managing director of U.S. trade sales, acted as host, while Santiago and Jennifer Buenrostro, also a business development director, fielded questions from the audience. Arlene Marichal, senior director of solutions and special services, took on the duty of “phone a friend,” where she would redirect any questions that the panelists were unable to answer to Carnival’s corporate office.
Topics of discussion posed by the travel agents in attendance ranged from collateral material to agent commission.
Pauline Assarian, a travel agent for Goldrush Getaways in Pomona, Calif., inquired about policies for booking groups and time extension between the first and second deposit. In response, Marichal explained that although the second deposit is currently not something Carnival intends on modifying, the cruise line’s revenue management team is continually working to come up with creative ideas on how to motivate agents to sell groups and to give their clients an adequate amount of time to pay fees.
In addition, Marichal noted that Carnival has already been working on improving the first deposit, even eliminating the first deposit at times for certain soft sailings. Many agents in the audience expressed their approval of Carnival’s recent special group promotion where they delayed the first deposit.
Rachel Hernandez, a travel agent for CruiseOne in Bakersfield, Calif., asked if there would be any other ships moved to Long Beach. According to Julius, who answered Hernandez’s question, Carnival constantly reviews its fleet with consideration about which ships make sense in which ports. And, according to Julius, the cruise line’s seven-day Mexican Riviera cruise recently returned to the city’s port in response to feedback voiced at last year’s Carnival Conversations event in Long Beach.
Travel agents learned that they still cannot obtain commission from selling short excursions due to the narrow margins of such sales; however, Carnival executives annually review the matter and will do so within the next couple of months.
There was positive feedback from Jason Jacobs, managing director of travel agent affiliate program, TA 4 Life, regarding the Carnival Live program — which has featured big-name entertainment such as Lady Antebellum, Jennifer Hudson and Styx — and Carnival’s “Cheers!” package, which offers one flat price for all drinks during a sailing. Rey confirmed that both programs are hugely successful and will remain onboard the ships.
Throughout the discussion, the panelists repeatedly stressed the importance of using GoCCL.com, Carnival’s travel agent portal — and for agents to sign up if they haven’t yet.
Rein said she expects Carnival Conversations will continue to evolve, particularly with the increased amount of time spent with travel agent partners.
“It’s an ongoing conversation, so it’s our way of committing to the travel agent community to listen, to learn, to value what their opinions are and to appreciate them for their business,” Rein said. “We hope travel agents get everything they want out of this. They’re our past, our present and our future. Carnival has been around for 40 years, and travel agents helped us get here.”