Bob Dickinson Returns

| Friday, 26 Apr. 2013

Carnival has re-hired the former Carnival CEO as a consultant


Bob Dickinson, KathyLee and Micky Arison

In a move that reminds me a lot Steven Jobs returning to the helm of Apple Computers, the man who originally coined the phrase "Fun Ships" is coming out of retirement to "reassess the brands" of the cruise lines owned by Carnival Corp.

Bob Dickinson started working for Carnival Cruises 41 years ago, and was named president in 1993 and retired as CEO in 2007 after 36 years of service. Along the way he wrote two books mostly targeted to travel agents. The first one is called "Selling the Sea," and it describes the basic attributes and knowledge a travel agent needs to be successful at selling cruises.

The brands owned by the Carnival Corp. parent company that Dickinson will be evaluating include Carnival, Costa, Cunard, Holland America, Princess, P&O, Seabourn, and some European brands. His goal will be "to identify their core strengths and weaknesses, and what has changed in the last 18 months." according to an interview with by Ann Kalosh at the SeaTrade Insider web site.

The message Bob hopes to bring is that cruising needs to get back to its "core values," that it represents a "high value vacation at a very reasonable price." To be clear, while this has always been Bob's message he feels that it has become lost in the last two years. His target for reinstating that message will be largely the travel agent community because agents are messengers to the general public.

Working with travel agents was always one of Dickinson's strengths, along with his very able assistant at the time, Vicki Freed. When Bob retired five years ago it was only a matter of weeks before Ms. Freed also announced she would also be leaving Carnival, but in her case it was to work for a competing cruise line, Royal Caribbean. The former chief financial officer for Carnival Cruise Line, Gerry Cahill, was promoted to president of the Carnival Cruise Line - and he will remain in that post.

Some people believe that Carnival's relationship with travel agents has become especially strained in the last year, and if one sees sales as an indication, that appears to be true. But Bob does not mention a troubled relationship with travel agents in his interviews.

In the SeaTrade article he noted that in watching the actions of CLIA (the Cruise Line Industry Association) over the last two years he has seen the public message about cruises has been largely focused on "safety" rather than value and quality. Much of the reason for that can be attributed to the actions of Senator J. Rockefeller of West Virginia, who decided to pick on the cruise industry after the media showed it to be an easy target after the Triumph power failure. Rockefeller called in CLIA president Christine Duffy to testify "as a witness" in a congressional hearing, and followed up with three strongly worded letters to the CEO of Carnival Corp. Micky Arison.

Surprisingly, it appears to be the highly media-sensationalized power failure of Carnival Triumph that has done the most damage. Even after the Concordia accident many people were still willing to try a first cruise, but since the Triumph debacle the industry has seen a dramatic drop-off in first-time cruisers. In fact, although repeat cruisers industry-wide have always made and continue to make up the majority of passengers on any cruise for over a decade now, the first-time cruiser demographic is still very important, and the decline there has been substantial.

The New Cruise Industry

So, Bob Dickinson has his work cut out for him. Carnival has lowered its profit projections to the Wall Street community for the last two quarters, and a recent (June 6) Harris poll shows a continued lowering in the "trust" factor in all cruise lines by the general public, down 12% since the Triumph incident. But Carnival Cruise Line is the line that has been affected the most - as compared to levels before the incident, the measurement of trust in Carnival is now down 26%.

Now, there are aspects of the poll that show how far from reality the public perception of cruising has gone - for example, now more people feel air travel is safer than cruising. That is a ridiculous assumption when there has only been one major cruise calamity in the last twenty years.

The New Cruise Misconceptions

Dickinson's job will be to address the new concerns the public has about cruising, what we call the "new cruise misconceptions" that have largely replaced the ideas that stopped people from trying their first cruise 10 years ago.

Back then the common cruise misconceptions were simple: "It's for old people," "I'll feel trapped on a boat," "all they do is eat," and "it's too regimented." And in fact, the entire cruise industry worked hard not only to change the reasons why those misperceptions got started - and then they had to continue working to change the misperceptions that persisted.

But in the last two years we have seen far more malicious misperceptions; with people saying far more malicious things: like "cruise ships are death traps," "they're rampant with disease," and "they nickel and dime you onboard." But the industry has also been working hard to alleviate those concerns; invoking new sanitation procedures to cut down on the incidents of norovirus, and clarifying the fact that any onboard charges are additional and optional, not required.

There is usually a grain of truth in every misconception, but these new ones, especially the "death trap" claim, seem downright frightening -- and there is a reason. Fear is highly motivating, and lately many news bureaus have been assigning writers who know almost nothing about the cruise industry to "investigate" cruising. What they tend to find is the web sites of a small (but notorious in cruise circles) group of people who have personal and professional vendettas to defame the cruise industry.

Many industries have detractors, but with the cruise industry these detractors are able to play upon the "fear of the unknown" since only about 20-percent of Americans have ever actually been on a cruise. Lack of first-person eyewitnesses to convey the truth about cruises makes the jobs of these professional cruise industry bashers far too easy. That is why travel agents need to work harder to carry the good and real message about cruise vacations.

So we say - Good Luck, Bob Dickinson. The industry needs an outspoken advocate such as yourself right now, and we hope and believe you will be the tonic the cures whatever it is that currently ails you.

By the way: Bob Dickinson has not been out of the spotlight completely. Our own CruiseMates' correspondant Kuki caught up with him for an interview on Carnival Breeze.

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