Just as I was touting the Carnival Conversations and my impression that they were doing well—Carnival decides to shake up its upper management again. This time, Howard Frank, the COO, is out and now a special adviser to Mickey Arison and Carnival CEO Arnold Donald. Alan Buckelew moves to Carnival from Princess, and Jan Swartz picks up the reins at Princess which (as a cruise line) moves under the umbrella of Holland America, where Stein Kruse (formerly of Holland America) is placed in the top spot of the joint company that now includes Holland America, Princess and Seabourn. Are you following? But what does this all mean to the travel agent?
To be honest, I am not sure. I think we will need to take a “wait and see” approach, but my gut is telling me that that in the end, the difference between the various lines will become very blurred.
To a large degree, when Princess was sold to Carnival (by P&O Lines), the line slowly began to lose its upscale mass-market niche. Now, Princess is very much assimilated into the Carnival brand, albeit with slightly smaller ships and a slightly less “party hardy” atmosphere. In the upscale mass-market segment, Celebrity is really the only player.
While Seabourn still maintains its brand (and pricing) as a high-end cruise, in my experience, the brand had difficulty competing with Crystal, Regent, and to a lesser degree Azamara and SeaDream.
In the end, it looks like all of the Carnival brands seem to be moving closer to a unified product. I am not suggesting that Seabourn will now have ships holding many thousands, but it seems that the cruising experience under Carnival brands may indeed become less distinctive.
A recent analyst’s report from Wells Fargo Securities felt that the move would enable Carnival Corporation to shift to a centralized CRM and reservations system to enhance up and cross selling between brands. Notably, he said that is may signal a move to standardize quality, safety, and risk across all brands. While this certainly has a lot of operational benefits (just look to Southwest and their fleet), it also puts the three brands into a position to compete with agents if they decide to shift in that direction. In the past, agents knew the clients and “grew” with them as they moved up the cruising food chain. If all brands are fully integrated, agents may indeed lose some of that advantage. All cruise lines have been feeling pressure from shareholders to eliminate the commissions paid to travel agents and all have resisted so far. A consolidated CRM and booking engine may be a step in that direction. Maybe not; but it is certainly something to watch.