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An Interview with Joni Rein – Vice President – Worldwide Sales – Carnival Cruise Lines

 

A 20-year cruise industry veteran, Joni Rein joined Carnival Cruise Lines in May 2008 as Vice President, Field Sales and was named to her current position, Vice President, Worldwide Sales, in January of 2009. In this capacity, she is responsible not only for Carnival’s domestic field sales but also the line’s international sales efforts. Prior to joining Carnival, she served as vice president of sales development for a Carnival sister company, Costa Cruises.

TRO – Carnival has recently implemented new pricing and automation policies effective August 1st of this year. You have stated that you are aware of some confusion and concern in the agent community, and the overall perception of Carnival’s aversion to taking agent calls. Can you clarify these new policies for those of us on the agent side of the equation?

JR– There’s been a lot of feedback and industry confusion, but it’s not about CCL disliking those calls, it is to encourage automation. We never meant to have a partner not call, we think that is very good. It’s more for the non-essentials that we are looking to automate, but certainly not to eliminate the personal contact – only things that I would call a simple transaction. That is the cornerstone of everything we are trying to do.

TRO – Can you describe how you got to where you are today?

JR– When I arrived at Carnival several years ago and would go out on our road shows and travel globally, the number one issue on the minds of our partners was help us with the tools that you are offering. Since that time we have done a number of things that we are really proud of, book CCL, we have revised Carnival University, we have far more communication with our partners today with our On Board with Carnival newsletter and a number of other tools. We have invested significantly in our systems to help support things like booking groups which is always very time consuming by phone. When we changed our policy to where automation was the only means to complete certain transactions our automation utilization went from 5% to 65%.

TRO – And what grade would you give these initiatives so far?

JR– I take responsibility for our positioning and for our report card for informational support. However, I would give myself a “D” in communication. I think the positioning certainly wasn’t as great as it could have been.  I think that is very evident from the reaction. But, at the end of the day, most of the partners that I speak with say “we get your automation efforts and direction.”  And, there is a fear of “will there ever come a day when we won’t talk to a travel partner on the phone at all.” That’s not the case at all.

TRO – What percentage of bookings currently come via TAs versus direct?

JR– We don’t actually give out that number. But the vast majority of our business comes from our travel agency community. So, it is and always will be a major source of distribution for Carnival.

TRO – Has that changed over the last few years?

JR– The changes that we see are based on consumer habits. In a bullish market consumers shop and take risks. When you are in a down economy consumers go to  branded travel agencies, like an American Express. A lot buy directly from suppliers. And it is not just in the travel industry. It is really across all products and services. In 2009 we saw a lot of articles written in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times about how the consumer had become empowered to control how they shop, where they shop and what they shop for.

The one good thing about being a seller of cruises – consumers are less likely to take a chance (on where they shop) because it is a very complex transaction. It requires intimate product knowledge. I think there is a plethora of opportunities within the product and the suppliers. It is a complex transaction to handle on your own as a consumer.

This is why I think that our travel partners are so in alignment with the consumer.

TRO – Can you elaborate on the “strict performance standards” referred to by Lynn Torrent  (Executive Vice President, Sales) in a recent trade media interview?

(Responding to a question about CCL pursuing direct bookings from agency clients, Lynn stated “that shouldn’t happen. We became less aggressive, we implemented more strict performance standards, we terminated a number of employees. The direct booking department is much smaller today than it was two years ago“.)

JR– Lynn and I passionately support the agency distribution system. When we came to Carnival those new performance standards were in place but not necessarily enforced. We took our travel partner complaints pretty seriously. It was absolutely top-of-mind on our road shows. There were a lot of challenges with partners saying we were stealing their customers. We did a lot of work with our sales teams. We are enforcing higher quantities and levels of service observation. When we receive a complaint it goes right to a complaint resolution specialist who takes that lead all the way back to its inception. We take it very, very seriously.

When we were transitioning from our sister company, Costa, I received much more email about the direct booking problems than I do today. So I know for sure that this is really an incredibly improved program.  What you do is you set the standard for your sales team that these are actions that are just not tolerated. Then a few examples are provided showing that you mean that.

TRO – So, today, should agencies be noticing this change in policy?

JR– They absolutely should.  If they think that it is happening, they can send me an email. I take that very, very seriously and I personally follow up.

TRO – Other than feedback from the TA community, is there any other mechanism in place to determine if overly zealous employees fail to adhere to these new, more ‘agent friendly’ performance standards?

JR– In CCL Worldwide Sales, my leadership team keeps me posted and follows up and there is a regional vice president that walks it through within 24 hours toward resolution.

TRO – What drives direct bookings versus agency bookings?

JR– I think consumers do it because they can. With the inception of Web 2.0 there is an extraordinary amount of information. Consumers are smarter, they feel empowered to research on websites. We see their traffic patterns. They do shop, often going to the supplier’s site. The person best equipped to close that sale is the person who wins that customer…and it is not done on price. In our “no rebating” policy going into effect on August 1st we did that for the trade because we believe the consumer is confused. The policy is being implemented to reduce the incentive to shop around.

Then it is all about who has the most compelling reason for conversion, and I think it is the trade, because of their vast knowledge. 

TRO – So it is about relationship selling?

JR – It is ALL about relationship selling. It is how we support one another. You have the relationship and we want to help you keep that relationship and keep all of the noise out.

TRO – Justin French, Managing Director of Sales, Canada, recently told an ASTA Webinar audience “direct marketing is necessary for Carnival, as the line is trying to reach cruise rookies.” He urged travel agents to contact Carnival to “learn more about how to reach out to new cruisers.”  Has CCL identified new channels for this, other than those currently utilized by agencies – the web, newsletters, direct mail, word-of-mouth, etc.? How do we pursue “rookies”?

JR– This is one of my passions.  I look at the world and I see 80% of North Americans haven’t cruised yet. But, all the suppliers and distributors are focused on the 20% that has cruised and are just passing them around. On the cruise rookie side, given our branding, positioning and value proposition, we can partner with our distributors to target Middle America. Our Chief Marketing Officer, Jim Berra has an article at Carnival.com called “Cruise Rookies Rejoice!”.

We have very rich content on this subject, we have done research on ways we think are best to engage cruise rookies. I support what Justin said, and the magnitude of our consumer marketing is driving consumers to trade distribution, it is a win / win for everybody.

TRO – How can we access this information?

JR– By visiting Carnival.com, the “New to Cruising” section. You can also contact your business development manager who has all the sound bites and can walk agents through the process.

TRO – How is CCL distinguishing itself from other mega-ship brands that seem to be locked into a contest to see who has the most “who-knew-they-had-that-on-a-ship” type of attractions – surf riders, bowling alleys, boxing rings, ice skating rinks, aquatic shows, etc.?

JR– I think that by not getting caught up in that race we distinguish ourselves, that it is very clear to both the consumer and the trade that we are the “Fun Ships”. We are committed to providing a fun, memorable and affordable experience with easy access to ships through our drive port strategy. We do a lot of research and today we know that a family will drive up to nine hours rather than go to the airport. We are seeing that the drive port strategy has served us well. The new Carnival Magic will be coming to Galveston. About 50% of our domestic guests live within a five hour drive of a Carnival port.

TRO – Your sister brands, Holland America & Princess are aggressively expanding in the area of “edu-tainment”, particularly in the area of Culinary Arts & Digital Arts.  Any such plans for CCL? Are you developing something specific for the CCL demographic?

JR– We are about three weeks away from a very exciting announcement on this subject – something that will be showcased on the Carnival Magic.

TRO – Regarding Social Media efforts – John Heald’s blog in particular – it seems very popular. What exactly is his title… Chief Cruise Director, El Jefe de Cruzero, Dear Leader…?

JR– Oh, he runs the company! He is so funny. Before he became a superstar blogger he was doing some wonderful things on board the ships with morning TV shows. He is so zany!

TRO – How does John’s blogging efforts impact bookings? Do you have any metrics on that?

JR– I’m sure that it effects bookings to some degree because you have a loyalty to the brand. We don’t measure that…we’d probably have to give him a bonus if we could track back.  But there are a LOT of people following him.

Blogs are a great opportunity to reach out on a personal level. Our PR department is helping me create a “Joni” blog. It will give me the opportunity to talk to our travel partners in a more meaningful way.

TRO – What can travel agents learn from this phenomena?

JR–  We have trainings on Social Media and online marketing available on this subject…on-demand webinars on how to identify these opportunities, etc. You need to dabble in direct mail, dabble in Social Media, you need to have a little bit of everything to reach your customers. Consumers expect that. It is really important to know how your customer wants you to speak to them. Some want you to pick up the phone and give them a call. Some want you to do some research then shoot them an email. You need to build on that relationship so that the customer says, “Wow, they listened to me!”

Lyn Edwin Cathey is a  veteran of 25 years in the travel industry – holding positions within the industry such as trainer, educator, agent, consultant, agency owner/manager and product specialist. For 15 years prior to joining the travel industry Lyn worked as a full time entertainer/comedian, performing on banjo & guitar – often as a featured act on cruise ships. He created and currently maintains several websites, including  http://TripFinder.com.

 
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