It's been a year since Christine Duffy took the helm of Carnival Cruise Line -- and to say that the head of the world's largest cruise line has been busy is an understatement.
Within those 12 months, Duffy managed to visit all 24 of the line's ships, as well as its newest vessel, Carnival Vista, which is under construction in Italy and debuts in May. Financially, too, the company has performed, with double-digit returns on invested capital, as well as double-digit improvement in revenue, due to increases in onboard spending.
Cruise Critic spoke with Duffy on the phone, just before she attended a Carrie Underwood concert benefiting Operation Homefront, a nonprofit organization supporting military families that has been a cornerstone of Carnival's giving program. Here's what she had to say after her first year on the job.
Q: What was your biggest surprise, moving from CLIA (Duffy was previously president and CEO of Cruise Lines International Association, the official trade organization for cruise lines) to an actual line?
A: Having been at CLIA for four years, particularly the years I was there [when the Costa Concordia tragedy occurred], was a great education and preparation for me. Having the understanding for the broader industry, the regulations; having had the chance to meet with a lot of people from all of the other Carnival Corporation brands -- I really had a leg up as I stepped in. …
[The year] was more about getting out and on the ships. When you have a fleet of 24 ships, that's quite an undertaking. The big surprise was, I didn't realize how challenging it would be to do that, logistically.
The greatest thing for me has been really seeing the passion and the commitment that our team members shore side and shipside have for the brand, and how long our team members have been with us. … We're the most popular cruise line. We sail the most people. We've leaned into the original vision from [Carnival founder] Ted Arison. That's been a lot of the focus this year. It's about making cruising accessible to everyone and providing the most value for your money. It's the idea that everybody deserves that ability to go on a great vacation.
Q: You visited all 24 ships during your first year. Do you have a favorite ship or class of ships? How about a favorite restaurant or meal? Any onboard rituals you've developed?
A: I take a tour and meet our team members. I love to go down to the laundry. They are bubbly and proud of what they do. It's about that interaction. I can understand why our guests love Carnival so much.
When I first started doing the ship visits, I would do the tour and have a meeting with the management, then have a meal with the officers. What I didn't know was that everything I was eating was being relayed back! The office was hearing everything I ate, including the desserts. I got a message to the head of the culinary team that I should have only healthy options. There's no more pasta, we've replaced that with lettuce rolls. I am more careful; I did overdo it.
Onboard, I do love the Bonsai sushi and the steakhouse. The steakhouse food, it was as good as any Capital Grill I've been to.
Q: What do you see as the biggest driver of the line's increase in demand and onboard spending?
A: A lot of credit goes to Gus Antorcha, our head of shipboard hotel operations. Gus and his team are very focused, listening to the guests and hearing what they want more of. The idea is to keep the price point of entry the best we can make it and allowing people to decide how they will spend their discretionary money onboard.
Our new HUB app has also played a role in having people be able to communicate and engage more in the activities we have on the ship. It's more timely than having just the bulletins. The work that the team has done with some of our casino offerings as well as beverage offerings; people may try new things when they are on the ships.
There is still work we're doing on our retail offerings, and trying to be more relevant to what guests expect to see onboard. The retail market and space has changed a lot on cruises. We're trying to pay attention to that.
Shore excursions are another area we continue to work on. It's important that we keep things fresh and unique. An example is Amber Cove. This isn't a private island but a private destination. It shows that guests can get a very different experience if they are on a Carnival ship.
Q: Carnival carries the most kids of any cruise line out there. How has the feedback been for the Seuss at Sea program? How does Carnival cater to families better than other lines?
Dr. Seuss is one of those things that is timeless and classic. I read Dr. Seuss to my kids. Over the holidays, we introduced the Grinch onboard. He would roam around the ship, taking things, then his heart would grow and he would give them back. The Grinch will be coming back next holiday season. It's something everything can relate to. It's not just for families with children, by the way. It's not just the kids getting their picture taken with Cat in the Hat.
Over 700,000 children sail every year with Carnival. A lot of the programming is really focused on family. Our kids' camp program is important for adults and parents who want to get some time to themselves.
Q: Royal Caribbean has been advertising heavily on TV, with destination-focused ads toward Millennials. Is Carnival going to be doing a TV campaign? How do you see your audience as differing?
A: We have been running some spot TV in local markets. Given our homeport strategy, we're more focused and deliberate in where we're showing up. We're leaning heavily into digital. That's where Millennials are consuming content. If they are watching TV, they are definitely not watching the commercials. We're trying to craft content and work with social media influencers to communicate what the Carnival experience is like, in a relevant way.
Q: You have two kids in their 20s, which is considered a difficult age for cruising. What makes a cruise a good vacation for people this age? What have they taught you about what their generation is looking for in a cruise line?
A; I do have a mini focus group, because I also have my niece and her fiance. They were blown away by the options of the things that you can do … and also the idea there were things that we did as a family and things they could do on their own. They love the app. That became a good way to communicate [when we were onboard]. The apps were a big deal. They like Bonsai sushi, Guy's Burgers, the fun and flexibility. People who have never cruised before have no idea.
Q: How does you respond to people when they say that Carnival is "just a party cruise"?
A: The kinds of products and programs that really resonate with our guests don't fall into the category of "I'm here for a party cruise." ... When I go on our ships and watch our crew and the interaction they have with the guests, and the interaction the guests have with each other. It's participatory fun. There's a level of diversity on Carnival ships that says, "come as you are, whoever you are, you will feel welcome on a Carnival ship and you will have fun.' Fun is the universal experience.
Q: Where do you see Carnival differentiating itself from its competitors?
A: Our crew members onboard represented by over 50 nationalities and countries. For them, that ship is their home. They work as a team. The feeling you have when you're on the ship is that you've been welcomed into someone's home. They really care about how you are treated, in a more personal way. I think that, for me, is the distinction that we really have to talk more about. It is the more personalized between the interaction between the crew members and the guests that fosters a level of camaraderie.
Our food is amazing. Not just in specialty dining, but in the main dining room. We want this to be a great value. Everybody should be able to have a great meal and great dinning even if you don't eat in a specialty restaurant.
Q: Tell me more about Carnival's homeport and short-cruise strategies. What makes them so appealing and are there any plans to expand into even more American cities? Will that continue to be the dominant area of growth or will there be expansion into Europe and exotic destinations?
A: We're America's cruise line. Fifty percent of the U.S, population can drive to a Carnival cruise ship in six hours or less. We're in these ports and communities year-round. We're focused on providing sun, fun and Caribbean cruise. It's about fun, it's about celebration, it's about families. We're always looking at where are some other homeports where we can put ships … the announcement that we're going back to Mobile fits into that.
Our sourcing strategy is really in the Americas. At this point, that's what we're committed to. Vista is coming out -- our first new ship since 2012 -- and it will spend the summer in fall in Europe. While we have some Europeans, the primary guests on those Vista sailings will be American.
Q: Are refurbishments enough to keep the Fantasy-class ships attractive with competing ships like Vista -- and all their bells/whistles -- on the market?
A: We have a number of our ships going through dry docks. They are getting the Fun Ship 2.0 upgrades. Many of those ships serve smaller markets or shorter itineraries…. You may want a different ship with different features if you're taking a shorter cruise out of Tampa versus taking a longer cruise on Vista out of Miami. What is the intent of your vacation? Is it a getaway with a bunch of your friends, a romantic getaway or a family vacation? That's where our trade partners come into play. They play an important role in helping people make the right decision.
--By Chris Gray Faust, Senior Editor