Cruises Offering Nearly Free Rides

This complete article was originally released by The Wall Street Journal’s Market Watch on September 16, and features quotes from CIRE Travel President Eric Hrubant.

It hasn’t been smooth sailing for Carnival recently, between the infamous “poop cruise” in February, when a ship lost power and left travelers without working toilets or AC, to a Carnival-owned ship running aground in Italy and killing 32 people. But Carnival has been working to steer this PR stain in a more favorable direction — its latest attempts being money-back guarantees and cruise deals that make the Days Inn look pricey. Plus, it’s offering free cruises for travel agents.

On Sept. 12, the cruise line began offering money-back guarantees that give guests a 110% refund, complimentary flights home and a $100 shipboard credit for a future cruise “should they be dissatisfied with their cruise for any reason,” according to a company statement. And currently the company is advertising rates for “as little as $35 per person per night” (for a four-day cruise of the Caribbean leaving from Miami and stopping in Key West and Cozumel). And that isn’t an isolated deal: Prices for some Carnival cruises dropped an estimated 10% to 20% in the wake of the February incident, says Tom Stieghorst, the senior cruise editor for travel industry publication Travel Weekly. In addition, the cruise line announced in April that it would make enhancements on its ships — including new fire safety technology and better emergency power capabilities — that would cost more than $300 million. The pricing and ship improvements are, of course, a way for Carnival to entice consumers to give the cruise line another shot, industry experts say.

Also starting this week, travel agents can get a free Carnival cruise for themselves and bring up to three friends to share their staterooms. Most agents must book between Sept. 12 and 26 and travel between September 2013 and January 2014. “This is an unprecedented reach out to the agent community,” says Chuck Flagg, owner of travel company The Flagg Agency near Atlanta. Or as Travel Weekly’s Stieghorst, puts it: “They certainly have the agents’ attention.”

The move makes sense from Carnival’s perspective, as nearly two in three cruises are booked through a travel agent, according to industry statistics. “Carnival is trying to get back into the good graces of the travel industry,” says Eric Hrubant, president of New York-based CIRE Travel/Tzell. Indeed, Carnival in June launched a travel-agent outreach program called “Carnival Conversations,” which it says was “designed to increase dialogue and strengthen ties with travel agents;” the free cruise program was born of that initiative.

To be sure, Carnival isn’t the only cruise line that has run attractive promotions for agents and consumers. Hrubant points out that travel agents often get deeply discounted cruises from cruise lines, though, he hadn’t seen one offer completely free cruises on this scale before. And for its part, Carnival had a program offering travel agents very deeply discounted cruises even before this free cruise promotion, says Stieghorst. What’s more, other cruise lines are offering very inexpensive cruises right now as well, some for around $50 per person per night.

But are free cruises for agents and dirt cheap rates for consumers enough to remove the stench of Carnival’s previous mishaps? Hrubant says that the free cruises — assuming they offer a good experience — may help agents feel better about recommending a Carnival cruise, and that some price-conscious consumers will be enticed by Carnival’s low fares in spite of the bad press. “I’d recommend a Carnival cruise if it was right for my client,” Hrubant says. “But I’d add in a disclaimer about past events.” Stieghorst says that it could take six months to a year to see if Carnival’s outreach fully works: Credibility “isn’t gained in a day.”

Article by Caty Hill. View article on Market Watch here.

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