Sailing to the sun, Carnival style

Sailing to the sun, Carnival style

Of all the major cruise lines, none in the last couple of years has experienced such a painful learning curve as Carnival. With a string of PR disasters ranging from the Carnival Splendor breakdown off Mexico, to this year’s Carnival Triumph debacle, you could be forgiven for thinking that the line had shot every albatross in existence out of the sky. The line’s image took a battering on the same scale as the Bismarck.

It was clear that far reaching changes were needed right across the line, and these would be addressed in due course. But the fact is that Carnival was already in a state of transition before the incidents cited above. While maintaining its core ‘fun’ product, some of the old eighties and nineties mainstays were being discreetly dumped overboard in favour of a more refined, all encompassing style of product delivery.

First, there was the Evolutions Of Fun programme, designed to breathe new life into the jaded, mid life, eight ship Fantasy class ships. The revamping of the pool deck areas was accompanied by the addition of around a hundred small balconies to each ship. Most significantly, each was upgraded with a new, adults only Serenity Deck, with padded loungers, ambient music, and a couple of whirlpools. It gave the whole class a new life. And, with it came a new look.

A lot of the original, whimsical neon, granite and glass fixtures- they were the creations of Carnival’s very own Andy Warhol, Joe Farcus- were stripped out and replaced with a more restrained, but still subtly vibrant palette. It was a theme already presaged by the most recent Carnival new builds- Carnival Dream, Magic and Breeze- and it has been universally well received. Twenty years of changing tastes is not something any cruise line or hotel chain can afford to ignore.

With these new ships came a whole new host of bars and eateries that have now spread across the entire Carnival fleet, such as Guy’s Burger Joint, the Red Frog Bar, and the Blue Iguana Cantina. There was also a shift away from the old fur, feather boas and fillet steak kind of evening options, with the introduction of a dedicated, late night comedy club. The entire project was known as Funship 2.0.

Carnival's distinctive funnels remain their trade mark

Carnival’s distinctive funnels remain their trade mark

So, in truth, Carnival was already well on the way towards morphing into something more upmarket, while at the same time attempting to preserve its mass appeal, long before the conga line of media cuts and kicks started to tear into its profit margins. Wounds were inflicted here that clearly required a lot more than simply cosmetic surgery.

The main step involved upgrading all the safety, engineering and back up systems right across the Carnival fleet, so that, in the event of a loss of propulsion, the ships would not be left without lighting, cooking facilities, functioning elevators, and working sanitation across the board. This was a huge but necessary task in and of itself. In fact, it was the single most important facet in restoring faith in the entire Carnival brand.

Next came the return of the savvy, highly regarded Bob Dickinson, Carnival’s marketing genius of the eighties and nineties, in a new consultation role. This was seen as a very positive move on the company’s part. There followed a massive, 155 million dollar transformation of the Carnival Destiny into the ‘new’ Carnival Sunshine. Though not without its own birth pangs and bad headlines, the relaunched ship has generally been very well received. However, Carnival chairman Gerry Cahill has said that there will be no more similar conversions across the fleet- a move that surprised some, including this writer.

Carnival is also coming back to a more responsive level of interaction with travel agents; brochures are now being printed again and made available for the first time in a few years, and both Arnold Donald and Micky Arison have recently been fulsome and complimentary in emphasising how important good agents are to the Carnival brand. And, signs are that the industry is responding positively to this.

After a period of painful and expensive retrenchment, it appears that the Carnival ship of affairs is making sluggish but steady progress forward once more. But no one should be hanging a ‘mission accomplished’ banner up anywhere yet.

Carnival Dream

Carnival Dream

2013 has been another bad year for lines in Europe in general, and Carnival is withdrawing completely from the continent for 2014. However, Arnold Donald remains bullish about the possibility of a return in 2015. We shall see.

Elsewhere, the line has upped its commitment to the Australian market with the deployment of a second ship down under, and there is also a renewed presence on the Mexican Riviera run out of Los Angeles; all indicators of a more ambitious strategy to come.

Right now, it is Royal Caribbean who are seen as the headway makers, with their giant Oasis class ships being genuine, world beating game changers in their own right. This is their time in the ‘nice’ spotlight and, naturally, they will ride that wave for all they are worth.

But it would be a foolish man indeed that would underestimate a quartet as formidable as Arison, Cahill, Dickinson and Donald, or a brand with the scale, style and pulling power of Carnival. The next few years will be interesting, indeed.

My advice? Stay tuned….

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