Carnival Conversations, a new program at Carnival Cruise Lines, aims to mend the company’s frayed relations with travel agents. Heading the program are Lynn Torrent, executive vice president of sales, and Joni Rein, vice president of worldwide sales. Both joined Carnival in 2008 from Costa Cruises and have held their current jobs since 2009. Last week, Senior Editor Tom Stieghorst spoke with them about Carnival’s outreach to agents
Q: Agents have been asking for support from Carnival for a long time. Why do this now?
Rein: The core piece of Carnival Conversations is really about a two-way dialogue. Over the course of the last several months, as Lynn and I, in reaching out to partners, heard some feedback that we’re not valuing the trade, I think we learned that there was a lot of animosity that was not clear to us. We thought we had done a good job in communicating outwardly to the travel agent community, but what we realized is we didn’t give them an opportunity to reach back. So I think that Carnival Conversations allows a number of different ways for travel agents to express themselves real-time, without letting things build up.
Torrent: I think one of the things Joni and I heard loud and clear is that many travel agents believe we don’t value them, and they’re upset by changes we’ve made. And those were hard words for us to hear. We have some great relationships, so we didn’t hear it from everybody, but even the accounts we have good relations with said, “Well, others feel this way.”
So this is our way of saying we take it seriously, and we’re committed not only to getting the message out but to taking the actions we need to take so that travel agents believe it.
Q: What actions are you referring to in particular?
Torrent: We’ve taken some already, and we plan, as a byproduct of these road shows, to listen and take more. In our contact centers, we heard some agents do not feel we were providing a level of service that they need. If they were struggling to do something on our online booking tool, our [inside] agents were not familiar enough with it or were referring them back to it, so we ramped up our staffing in the call center, we’ve done more specialized training in that online booking tool. We also heard that some of our pricing and promotions were just too complicated. That one’s a little tougher to fix, but we have our senior folks in our revenue-planning group working on that, and some of them will be on the road shows with us. We’ll have call center senior folks, revenue planning senior folks, so we can really be responsive, and it shows our commitment that this is not just an ad campaign; this is the beginning of a more transparent, formalized way of communicating.
Q: What can be done about the time an agent has to spend rebooking tickets when the price falls?
Torrent: I think the changes we made in the call center will help that a lot. The real answer is we don’t want prices falling. As part of our overall recovery strategy, we need to get our brand back on track. Clearly the incidents that occurred took a toll on consumer demand, and therefore our prices have slipped. That’s not good for anyone. We had a lot of disruption. Our call center performance was not something I’m personally proud of. In May, we introduced a bonus commission program specifically to address that. To thank [agents] for their support and in recognition that they were on the phone a long time waiting for us to decrease the price of a booking; that’s not something that’s fair to anybody.
Q: What more can you do to stop Personal Vacation Planners (PVP) from poaching clients?
Torrent: We take it really seriously. I believe what we do actually works. To put it in context, when I first started five or six years ago, I must have received hundreds of complaints a week about PVP poaching clients, not following the rules. [Now,] maybe we do single digits a month. We encourage travel agents if they run into something to report it. We monitor calls ourselves. We have very strict rules about what agents can and cannot say on the phone. If we find that someone is not following them, we have zero tolerance, and not only do we part ways, we’ll share that with the call center so that the rest of our team is aware, and we share the outcome with travel agents.
Q: Spending for preferred-supplier programs has been tightened. Several have dropped out. Do you foresee that changing?
Torrent: The changes we made overall last year were the right changes. I think we may have pushed some things too far, so we’re talking to partners again about potentially different relationships going forward. We’ve encouraged our entire sales team that if they or their travel agent partners believe we’re missing marketing opportunities, we should sit down and talk about those.
Q: Have you heard from agents that your promises to listen and to change aren’t credible? How do you respond?
Rein: We actually have. It doesn’t feel very good. But I hear it often enough that I have to believe that the travel agent community believes it. So it is quite humbling. The new program is going to give us an opportunity to regain trust, which I think will come over time. It’s not a magic bullet. But I believe that being more present and having that two-way dialogue, we’ll all learn a lot, and I think we just have to keep reinforcing our commitment until they trust.
Torrent: Some of our partners that we do have very good relations with have told us, “You know, Joni and Lynn, you’re not going to win everybody back, because of that issue,” so we understand that. We don’t have to like it, but we respect those decisions. But we’re also very committed, and as Joni said, over time our actions will speak to that.