THE CHANGING FACE OF CARNIVAL CRUISES

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….

TRIUMPH RETURNS TO SERVICE

Carnival Triumph returns to service today

Carnival Triumph returns to service today

Amid all the ballyhoo and euphoria of today’s inauguration of the brand new Royal Princess at Southampton, the return to service today of the Carnival Triumph will probably go relatively unremarked upon.

Yet this was the self same ship that last generated Carnival corp it’s last tsunami of press and media attention, when the 102,000 ton ship drifted without motive power for several days earlier this year, following a fire on board. More than four thousand passengers and crew were stranded aboard the Carnival Triumph for several days, and a massive media feeding frenzy ensued.

The fallout from the accident was enormous; Carnival took a huge public and financial hit as a result, and some serious rethinking ensued at Coral Gables. One of the far reaching results of that thinking was last week’s return of former Carnival CEO, Bob Dickinson, in an advisory role. Long acknowledged as a savvy operator and a steady pair of hands, his presence should help to realign the company towards the core concepts that made it the front runner in mainstream cruising.

And today, the Carnival Triumph herself returns to service, embarking on the first of a series of four and five night cruises from Galveston, Texas, to some of the highlights of the western Caribbean. Four day itineraries feature a call at Cozumel, while the five day voyages showcase both Cozumel and Progreso, on the Yucatan.

The ship comes back to service with a whole new raft of fire detection and suppression systems installed. In addition, Carnival has installed a backup emergency generator to ensure that such vital functions as light, sanitation and heating systems can continue to operate in the event of an engine room failure,

Carnival took the opportunity to upgrade the Triumph with the full range of Carnival 2.0 Fun Ship enhancements during her enforced absence from service. The work was carried out at a dockyard in Freeport, Bahamas.

For instance, all cabins now have new beds and bedding, right throughout the ship. A vast amount of new carpeting has been fitted throughout all the main public areas. The line also took the opportunity to add a swathe of new dining and drinking venues.

These include the free for all Guy’s Burger Joint, featuring prime quality cuts of beef; the Cucina del Capitano themed Italian family restaurant, and the Punchliner’s Comedy Club. There is also a branch of the popular Red Frog Bar, with its own, specially brewed ‘Thirsty Frog’ beer, as well as the Blue iguana Mexican Cantina. The popular Alchemy Bar and EA Sports Club will also feature aboard the revitalised Triumph.

Serenity Deck, Carnival style

Serenity Deck, Carnival style

These upgrades go hand in hand with a range of new themed shows that are being rolled out right across the entire Carnival fleet. The revamped Carnival Triumph should prove to be a spectacular floating playground for these short cruises, scheduled to run right through 2014.

Sister ship Carnival Victory will receive a similar, comprehensive series of upgrades next year, as Funship 2.0 is rolled out across the fleet. Interestingly, the next scheduled upgrade is for the Fantasy class  Carnival Imagination in September.

TRIUMPH OF THE MEDIA?

ImageThere’s been no shortage of commentary from all sorts of strange quarters on the Carnival Triumph breakdown. Some of it has been interesting, while much of it seems to have been equivalent to the fevered burbling of a petulant two year old. So, here’s my input from the point of view of a regular traveller on cruise ships of all kinds over the past thirty-odd years.

I know the Carnival Triumph, having enjoyed a mad, hectic week on her. It was some five years ago to the Eastern Caribbean, out of Miami. It was a typical Carnival experience; all sizzle, swagger and crowds everywhere, having a great time. While there were some things about it that I did not like, there were far, far more that I enjoyed.

I’ve also sailed on seven of her more or less identical clones. No, this is not a ‘greatest hits’ brag-a-thon on my part. I’m just painting in the background here.

Firstly, you can’t ignore the seriousness of what happened here. The ship was adrift without adequate electrical supply, air conditioning or functioning facilities for days on end. Thousands of passengers were literally stranded on board what amounted to a slowly drifting ghost town. Fair enough. I’ll come back to that.

But what HAS been ignored is the fact that the initial fire- the one that proved so calamitous- was isolated and extinguished by the on board crew with breathtaking speed and efficiency. This ensured the safety of every man, woman and child aboard the Carnival Triumph. I’m not reading or hearing a lot about that. And neither are you.

Yes, the passengers have had what all would agree is an uncomfortable, ingnominous and thoroughly unpleasant experience. Questions need to be answered- and publicly- about how all the hotel functions on the ship that are so integral to the daily life of a cruise ship- could be so completely disabled. And it needs to be put right, all across the fleet.

The Carnival Triumph is, in essence, a small town that happens to travel from place to place; a sun, fun and reggae fuelled theme park devoted to hedonism and indolence. When all is well (which is 99.99 per cent of the time) ships like her never merit a headline anywhere. Until something like this comes along.

People are still individuals, even in crowds numbering over three thousand. No two are the same. No two have the same tolerance level for discomfort. Not everyone is a stalwart, and not all of us are cut out to be heroes, either.

So it is hardly surprising that so many different versions have been made public in various different passenger accounts. Alt these people are fuelled by those same tolerance levels. What is ‘unbearable’ for some can be shrugged off by others. All of which has been reflected in the on board story. But the focus of the media has, overwhelmingly, been on the lurid and the sensational.

One constant question is; why has it taken so long for tugs to get to the scene? As if deep water, ocean going tugs grow on trees. They don’t. And, once assembled, those available proceeded at their best, not very great, speed. They are tug boats. Not speed boats.

When they eventually reached the stricken Triumph, they had to begin the awkward ballet of trying to tow a 100,000 tons plus cruise ship to safe port. This is, quite simply, the longest deep sea tow of it’s kind ever attempted. It is in fact without parallel. For all concerned, the whole sorry business was a huge learning curve. Things were bound to fall behind any coherent schedule.More so, when the weather turned for the worse. Tip for the media; you cannot make weather. Truth.

While the passengers on board the Triumph suffered enough, the idea of evacuating them to a fleet of rescue ships would have been beyond mad. The people were safest concentrated on the still seaworthy Triumph. Any attempt at evacuation would have been the height of irresponsibility.

It is to the credit of those stranded passengers that so many of them have gone overboard-pun wholly intentional- in praising the crew of the Triumph. From most accounts, it is obvious that the crew have performed out of their skins, truly to a quite extraordinary level.

They have by and large kept a shipload of anxious, mentally frazzled passengers as comfortable, sheltered and informed as possible. They did not create this accident, but they were left with the debris to clear up.

The press seems to have forgotten how much greater the discomfort of the crew has been during all of this. Most of their cabins are interiors, and it’s a safe bet that hardly any were even vaguely inhabitable through all this. These men and women have worked around the clock selflessly, trying to do what they could for the passengers while enduring worse conditions themselves. Every last one of them should get a substantial extra bonus from the company they have served with such exemplary selflessness.

So now the ship is docked, and passengers and crew alike are no doubt thankful to be back on dry land. The next fourteen cruises for Carnival Triumph have been cancelled to allow for for repairs. The media circus, having extracted it’s pound of flesh, will move on.

I just hope that everyone concerned with this sorry tale learns the right lessons. Far more importantly, I hope that they act on them. What happened here would not deter me for one moment from setting foot on a Carnival ship.

But the rest of the travelling public? That might be a harder call to make….

CRUISING ON CARNIVAL

Anyone with more the three brain cells will be aware that there are many cruise passengers that would rather commit hara kiri than board a Carnival ship. The idea of being afloat with thousands of people in an environment sometimes compared to a floating frat house is anathema to them.

And that, of course, is fair enough. Because the true beauty of cruising lies in the fact that there are types and sizes of ships out there to suit every taste, from the raucous to the reserved.

But it is also a sad fact that many of those who sneer at Carnival have never set foot on a Carnival ship in their lives. My first Carnival cruise was back in 2000 and, for sure, I went with very mixed feelings. But I was also prepared to keep an open mind.

And the truth is that I had a great time. I met some absolutely wonderful people- a recurring theme from all of my dozen or so Carnival voyages to date. Yes, sometimes lines for getting on and off are maddening, as are the buffet lines. But you do not have to be Hercule Poirot to realise that these are the inevitable consequences of putting to sea on what is, in essence, a small town with propellers/azipods.

Sure, there are elements I find unappetising. The on deck games can be banal. So I don’t watch them. The ships have enough space and options to allow you to find your own personal happy space. Don’t like Country and Western? OK, go listen to some Jazz. Not a jazz fan? Fine- go check out some live rock. I’ll stop there because you undoubtedly get the gist.

Food not quite gourmet quality? Think about it in terms of what you pay for your trip. The value is certainly there. It might not be six star, but you’re not paying those kind of prices, either. Carnival’s food in general is pretty damned good, and occasionally outstanding. The dining rooms are as much entertainment venues as any bar or club on the ship, so you’re not going to enjoy the kind of  hushed, hallowed repast as on, say, Seabourn or Silversea. is that really a deal breaker for you?

So, what is it actually like on board? The Carnival ships are stunning, swaggering slices of Vegas-On-Sea, with casinos the size of zeppelin hangars, and all the round the clock fun and frivolity you could ever shake a cocktail stick at. The upper decks are liberally sprinkled with pools, hot tubs and chaises, plus thousands of bodies draped across them. There is live music everywhere.

Too much? Sometimes, yes. But Carnival have clocked on to this, and each ship now has a dedicated, adults-only Serenity area with padded loungers and umbrellas, and sometimes a couple of hot tubs. On my last Carnival cruise, I eschewed the bubonic joys of a day ashore in Ensenada and just hung out here all day instead. Sheer, copper bottomed bliss it was, too.

I’m not mad on their on board discos, but this is more down to the music policy than anything else. And it is understandable that the young and young at heart want to hear the current stuff. Having grown up listening to the Temptations and the Supremes, it’s pretty obvious that the ‘sound’ of One Direction and Girls Aloud is not going to be honey to my ears. But again, it’s a generational thing. I have a theory that the first Caribbean line to have the odd, Motown/Philly/Soul themed cruise would clean up quite nicely at the bank. Food for thought. Soul food. Hold that thought!

But again, there are other options. Each Carnival ship has a bar dedicated solely to good, live jazz, and I love chilling out in them. The young can keep their hip hop and their Budweisers if I can get some cool jazz and a decent martini. And thankfully, Carnival serves up both with some aplomb.

Some shudder at the bright, neon fuelled decorative excess that typifies Carnival interiors. They are mainly the work of the brilliant Joe Farcus, Carnival’s very own Andy Warhol. These actually work perfectly for the famously monickered ‘fun ships’, and contribute immensely to the brash, breezy vibe that permeates those Carnival colossi. Fun is seldom subtle, and Farcus even less. But his ships are always beguiling, in an Alice through the looking glass way. Each is as distinctive as a fingerprint; and they are never, ever boring.

Cabins are fine and roomy, though the suites are not generally as expansive as the competition.The newer, bigger builds flaunt avenues of balconies atop their snow white hulls. Those balconies are not big, but definitely big enough for two. And it also gives you another options to escape the hugger mugger on the noisy upper decks.

Yes, there is a hard sell for extras such as bingo, shore excursions and the rest. The photographers can be annoying, but the truth is that it is no more prevalent on Carnival than on any of its rivals these days. You’ll find a blizzard of flyers for shop sales, both on board and ashore. if this annoys you, that’s what the waste bin is for.

Truth be told, all of these things are options on the whole smorgasbord that is the experience of a Carnival cruise. As with any buffet, you pick the stuff you like, and disregard the rest. This is not rocket science, but it’s amazing- and a bit dispiriting- to realise how many people don’t get that.

And of course, you’ll always find career, professional moaners on any cruise. The sort of people that would probably have more fun at a hanging than a wedding. Nothing will ever be good enough for them but- again- the size of the ships means you can neatly sidestep these miseries intent on raining on your parade.

Like anything else, a smile and a decent attitude will generally sugar your coffee. Just go with the flow, as it were and, chances are good that you’ll have a great time. I have had some of my best times on Carnival ships- the people that I have met, both passengers and crew, have often been a delight- and I fully intend to go again.

Wherever and whenever you go, have fun. It’s a party, not a punishment. See you out there somewhere!

  Carnival’s distinctive funnels are their trademark

This piece was originally written prior to the incidents with the Carnival Triumph and Elation, both of which I have sailed on. I have very happy memories of both ships.

Does anything that has happened change my opinion on cruising Carnival? No. Things go wrong on any ship from time to time. That said, Carnival’s PR department has it’s work cut out for it in reassuring the travelling public that all is well with their ships.

There’s been a very vocal, ill informed barrage of media feeding on what they see as a prime target. That does not mean that there are not issues that need to be resolved- and permanently- in the public eye. Stupidity on one side does not excuse laxity or lack of clarity required from the other one if it is to get back on track.

The great bulk of these breakdowns seem to be happening to the bigger, Italian built hulls. By contrast, the eight ships of the earlier Fantasy class- all built by MASA in Finland- seem to lead largely charmed lives.

All of these now tend to sail on shorter, three to five day circuits and are, in truth, never too far from land anyway. But they are not the problem.

With Carnival upping it’s presence in both Scandinavia and the Mediterranean this summer, the company really needs to get it’s act together if it is going to compete effectively in those arenas with longer, better established rivals such as Norwegian and Royal.