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After more than 40 years of working with what is now Carnival Corporation, Maurice Zarmati retired as president and CEO of Costa Cruises North America at the end of November — but that doesn’t mean he is sitting back.
Zarmati’s career with ships had an inauspicious beginning when his Jewish family was forced to emigrate first to Genoa, from Alexandria, after the Suez Canal crisis, then to the U.S. Zarmati, who had been extremely seasick throughout the transatlantic passage, remarked to his mother that he hoped never to get on a ship again.
Many sailings later, Zarmati worked on his memoirs while serving as Costa’s senior consultant on worldwide sales, marketing and passenger-traffic initiatives. And he has been sharing his experience with agent groups — when I spoke to him, he was trying to cram a world of knowledge into a very short time frame, offering advice taken from his mentors, including Ted Arison, who hired him just out of college.
Arison, who co-founded Norwegian Cruise Lines in 1966 with Knut Kloster and founded Carnival Cruise Lines in 1972, started what proved to be a lifetime career for Zarmati. A turning point came in late 1971 when the two founders separated. Of the 200-plus employees, Zarmati was one of the 24 who resisted the incentives offered by Norwegian and stayed with Arison, whom he credits with guiding him to success.
“I never forgot what Ted said, and I always followed it,” Zarmati said. “He said that you must first take care of the customers — see that they have a good time and listen carefully to what they tell you. Then, take care of the travel agents who sell your product. Make sure they are happy with your policies and the way you interface with them — listen carefully and let them know you are hearing what they tell you. The third is to take care of your employees, onboard the ships or on shore.”
Zarmati also quoted a central piece of wisdom from Gianni Onorato, president of Costa Crociere: “I want you to do your job so I can do mine.” Zarmati passed this along to agents, both in terms of their relationship with the cruise lines and in terms of their relationships with colleagues and employees, underlining an attitude of clarity and trust so each takes the responsibility for his or her own job.
And Zarmati takes it one step further.
“When you go to a car dealership for years and they recommend something, you trust them and, when, you recommend them to someone else, it’s good for everyone,” he said. “The dealership gets a new customer and the customer gets someone he or she can rely on. I hope I’m remembered for helping others.”
Along with these points, Zarmati’s own credo is to make a difference.
“If you speak to a customer and you haven’t made a difference, try again. And again,” he said.
He told groups of travel sellers that nobody seeks an agent because he or she is a generalist; everyone wants a specialist, just as in law or medicine. Particularly in this day of open information online, the agent must know the product very well.
But above all, he urged agents to establish trust, adding, “people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”
Zarmati is a disciple of hard work and persistence, urging agents to “follow up and, when it doesn’t work, learn to accept rejection gracefully.” He also suggested that each agent periodically take inventory and note what works and what doesn’t in order to plan for future approaches accordingly.
Where does Zarmati go from here? He’s taking his time to decide, but with his wealth of knowledge, universities are approaching him to teach, passing along the wisdom of his mentors and his own vast experience and intuition.