It takes a lot to upstage the State of the Industry panel at Seatrade Cruise Global, the biggest annual cruise industry conference in the world. But about an hour before it all kicked off April 26, 2022, the only thing everyone was talking about was news out of Carnival Corporation: Its beloved president and CEO, Arnold Donald, would step down August 1.
Luckily, the man who helped steer his company's nine cruise lines through perhaps the toughest two-year period in its history was slated to join that vaunted panel, and he didn't flinch when moderator Lucy Hockings asked him about the announcement. Instead, he responded with what has become his trademark style of leadership: He calmly spoke of the excitement behind his replacement, Josh Weinstein, a man whom Donald has long been grooming for the position.
"I'm really excited for Josh and even more excited for me," he said.
It's difficult to imagine Carnival Corp. without Donald, 67, at the helm, a position he held for nine years that saw tremendous growth and change both for the company and the industry. With Donald in charge, Carnival Corp., which includes Carnival Cruise Line, Holland America Line, Princess Cruises, Cunard, [Seabourn]/cruiseto/cruiseitineraries.cfm?cl=34), P&O, P&O Australia, Costa and AIDA, the company saw 27% growth in passengers from 2013-2019. He also brought in strong leaders with diverse backgrounds for his brands, including Christine Duffy as president of Carnival Cruise Line and Orlando Ashford as president of Holland America.
Donald, who will take on the role of vice chair at Carnival Corp., sat down with Cruise Critic for an exclusive interview about his time with Carnival, what's next for him and what we should expect for the future of the industry.
Spend any time with Arnold Donald, and you'll find yourself enraptured by the conversation. The man, who never worked in the cruise industry before joining Carnival (though he was on the board), has an easygoing manner, a deep laugh and a way of making even the most complex topics accessible to anyone.
You feel like he's listening to you. And he is. It's a strategy that long has served him well. Listening to -- and responding to -- his employees has been part of his makeup from the beginning. The former chairman of Merisant and a longtime executive with Monsanto places a high value on building community and communities.
To that end, Donald has prioritized building a team of people -- a community -- that offers a variety of backgrounds and ideas.
"For businesses to thrive over time, they have to innovate either in their processes or their products and services," Donald said. "If they don't, they disappear."
In late 2014, Donald brought in Ashford (pictured, speaking), who is Black and had never worked in the cruise industry, to head Holland America Line. Under Ashford, HAL saw a new branding campaign that included a logo change, launched two new ships, wholly refurbished its fleet, upped its culinary game and enhanced its entertainment offerings thanks to partnerships with the likes of Lincoln Center. Those who worked for Ashford during his tenure, which ended in 2020, often talked about his ability to lead by example, encourage discussions and break the rules of office politics.
Duffy (seen here with Shaquille O'Neal, above) also joined in 2014, bringing with her a long tenure in travel, including a stint as president of CLIA, the cruising industry's largest advocacy group. Duffy's people-first approach fit in perfectly with Carnival Cruise Line's emphasis on fun, and she made it her mission out of the gate to meet as many employees and guests as possible, spending time on every ship in the fleet. Under Duffy, the first female president of CCL, the line's fleet of ships has grown to 24. Carnival also introduced the world's first roller coaster at sea and fleetwide biodigesters aimed to reduce food waste.
But Donald insists it's not just important to have a diversity of voices among leaders; it's important across all teams throughout the company -- shoreside and onboard ships. Employees represent more than 150 countries, fitting, as guests of the line come from more than 200 countries.
He says this can't be simply lip service.
"It's not just the diversity; it's gotta be inclusion," he said. "The diverse people have to have a real voice and be heard and listened to and able to influence and impact. ... When they do, they have a greater probability of sustained success."
Donald's approach has paid off with a number of innovations for the brands under Carnival Corp.
Perhaps the best-known is Princess's Medallion, a concept Donald himself introduced to the world as keynote speaker at the Consumer Electronics Show in 2017. Along with then-Princess President Jan Swartz (now head of Holland America Group) and the man largely behind the technology, John Padgett, now president of Princess, Donald talked about how Medallion would change the industry.
Medallion has since been rolled out on every ship in the Princess fleet, and its footprint just keeps increasing. It's taking the friction out of cruising, making embarkation and disembarkation easier, giving passengers faster internet, easing pain-points and even allowing cruisers to use their Medallion disk to make purchases in ports.
While Medallion might be the splashiest innovation, Donald also points to Fathom as an example of outside-the-box thinking. Launched in 2015, and now defunct, Fathom was a one-ship cruise line devoted to the concept of voluntourism and exploration. Donald appointed Tara Russell, who has deep roots in social enterprise and nonprofit organizations, as its president. The line was devoted to travel in two places: the Dominican Republic and Cuba, previously off-limits to American travelers because of the United States' embargo against the country.
"We attempted and successfully launched but weren't able to sustain a completely different concept and brands with Fathom," Donald said. "What that did, as an example of diversity of thinking: It gave the corporation a different image, which was positive at the time, but also it was the catalyst for entry into Cuba. Because we had Fathom, we were able to accelerate access to Cuba when things began to open up.
"It's why we were the first company in Cuba. If we hadn't done the Fathom thing, that probably wouldn't have happened."
While talk of innovation might get Donald excited, when pressed to talk about the achievement of which he is most proud, he humbly pointed to making his employees happy.
"What would make me happy and make me feel like I accomplished something is if our employees said, 'This is a company I'm proud to work for; this is a company whose future I believe in. It is a company that's given me the opportunity to achieve my aspirations,' " he said.
Donald said he believes this kind of achievement -- happy, fulfilled employees -- ultimately is what leads to company success, from creating joyful vacation experiences to exceeding guest expectations and delivering for shareholders.
It seems like his approach has worked.
Carnival Corp. was named a Glassdoor Employees' Choice Award winner as one of the Best Places to Work in 2021. The awards are given annually based on employee feedback, shared anonymously, on Glassdoor.
"Arnold makes the work fun, and he sets the bar high, but he sets the bar high for himself, and then he helps you achieve it," said Roger Frizzell, Carnival Corp.'s senior vice president and chief communications officer. "He thinks outside the box. He's got the biggest engine of any individual I've ever seen. He just goes and goes and goes, but all the time, he's having a good time with the people around him. He's been the best CEO I've ever worked for. And I worked for a number in my career."
That Donald and his successor, Weinstein (far left), have a great relationship is clear: The two put together a video distributed to employees announcing the change. In it, Donald is effusive in his praise of Weinstein, expressing confidence in his leadership style and even joking about Donald's love for open-faced PB&J sandwiches.
"I am very excited to share that our boards of directors has enthusiastically accepted my recommendation that at that time, Josh Weinstein, our current chief operations officer, will assume my current role as president and CEO of Carnival Corporation & PLC," Donald tells employees.
Weinstein, 48, has spent the past two decades with Carnival, working as assistant general counsel, treasurer, president of Carnival U.K. and COO. Donald saw his talent early on and identified him as someone who could have a great impact on the business.
"I, along with several others in our organization, I purposefully intentionally did things to develop him," he said. "He was treasurer. I sent him over to the U.K., and he was shocked when I did it. When I first proposed that, people were like, 'Why? Why would you want to do that?' But then they got it, and look what's happened in terms of his development and evolution."
That the company would be in good hands as it approaches the next phase played into Donald's decision to step down August 1. Donald says there's no perfect time to do it, but he feels comfortable because the fundamentals are in place.
"Things are lined up in a positive way, and the team is ready," he said.
So, what does Weinstein bring to the role?
Donald calls him "very bright" and says people naturally like him, in part because he "remembers we're all human beings," adding that people value his openness and transparency.
Weinstein also was an integral part of the company's approach to the COVID-19 pandemic, proving he can pull people together even under the most intense of circumstances. While Donald and he have worked together closely, Donald says Weinstein will bring his own flavor to the role.
"At the same time, he's different than me, which is important and good," Donald said. "That's the diversity. He's going to come at things a little bit differently."
With his replacement firmly in place, Donald believes the future is bright. While the pandemic, which shuttered the industry for more than a year, has been an unprecedented challenge, Donald thinks that some good has come out of it.
For starters, he believes a long-held industry myth -- that cruise ships are "floating petri dishes" -- could well be dispelled thanks to the way the industry took on its return to sailing. The cruise industry has been the most stringent of all among travel and hospitality when it comes to safety protocols, requiring testing, vaccinations, physical distancing and masks along the way.
"It's clear," Donald said. "We have all the data in the world that show that incidents of COVID on cruise ships ended up being far less than what you saw on land."
As cruising has returned, confidence that cruising is a worry-free form of travel is high; in a recent Cruise Critic survey, 96% of people who had cruised during the pandemic said they felt safe onboard, and 74% gave cruising a perfect "5 out of 5", saying they felt "very safe." This dovetails with another recent survey in which 61% of people said they felt safe on a cruise ship. This was more favorable than eating at a restaurant (57%), taking a commercial flight (44%) or attending an indoor wedding (29%).
As cruising continues to return, the positive story around health and safety onboard cruise ships could finally put to an end the "petri dish" talk.
Donald also points to the way the industry came together to address keeping guests, crew and people in ports safe and healthy as something he believes will last. Within Carnival Corp., meetings across brands happened regularly, as everyone aimed for the goal of a return. But this type of communication also took place across the industry.
"If it had been a two-month crisis or a three-month crisis, it would be done and over, but because it's gone on for a couple of years, that muscle memory is starting to take place where people are getting used to collaborating, getting used to communicating ..." Donald said. "And so that real-time collaboration, communication, I think, has been enhanced dramatically."
When it comes to what he'll miss the most, Donald, a self-described nerd, talks about tables and algorithms, but also about people: He'll miss the frequent interactions he has with his team and his connection to what he calls the "human spirit."
Still, with more time on his hands, Donald is excited about one thing: He actually might get a chance to spend more time on cruise ships, meeting with crew and passengers.
"I am looking forward to that," he said. "I can't just run around having fun all the time, but the bottom line is, I'll be able to spend a little bit more time onboard ships."