How Carnival Cruise Line finds the perfect ports

Developing itineraries that excite guests is challenging, but it’s a skill that the line has honed well over the years. Ugo Savino tells Rebecca Gibson more

How Carnival Cruise Line finds the perfect ports
Excursions like the ‘Mystic River and Paradise Lagoon Adventure’ enable Carnival’s guests to explore the destination

This article was first published in the 2019 issue of Cruise & Ferry Itinerary Planning. All information was correct at the time of printing, but may since have changed.

Whenever Carnival Cruise Line carries out a survey to find out what drives its guests to choose one of its cruises, the answer is almost always the same: the destinations. From tropical islands in the Caribbean, to historic towns across Europe and bustling cities in the US, Carnival sails to a wide variety of ports around the world every year. But how does the cruise line choose which destinations to add to its itineraries?

“The perfect destination delivers value to both guests and cruise lines,” says Ugo Savino, director of deployment and itinerary planning at Carnival Cruise Line. “Guests want destinations that deliver memorable experiences, while cruise lines want ports with a high marquee value – places that guests have heard of and are interested in visiting. We try to combine both marquee and less well-known destinations that still deliver an outstanding guest experience because we know we’ll be able to drive demand and support guest retention.”

Fortunately for Carnival, this approach seems to be working. Many of its itineraries – and the ports and destinations they feature – consistently receive high passenger ratings, particularly the company’s private Bahamian island.

Currently, Carnival’s ships call at Half Moon Cay on the western side of Little San Salvador in The Bahamas, enabling guests to relax on white-sand beaches or opt for more adventurous activities like horse riding, cycling, kayaking and hiking. In mid-2020, the brand’s parent company, Carnival Corporation, will begin working with the Government of The Bahamas to build a US$80 million pier and port facilities on the northern part of Little San Salvador to enable larger ships, such as the LNG-powered Mardi Gras (to debut in August 2020), to visit Half Moon Cay. Carnival Corporation and the Bahamian government will also construct a similar US$100 million cruise port destination on the south side of Grand Bahama, which will be “uniquely Bahamian” with a beachfront and other yet-to-be-revealed features.

“Private islands tend to receive the best ratings from our guests, so we invest a lot of resources into designing these destinations and finding the optimal way to execute the overall guest experience,” comments Savino. “In general, guests perceive destinations as an extension of the cruise ship and their expectations are even higher when they visit our private destinations. We work very hard to meet and exceed those expectations by adding new entertainment options and shore excursions, and by training all our guest-facing employees to deliver an enhanced experience that leads to a fun and memorable vacation.”

Destinations with distinctive cultural, historical, gastronomic or natural attributes are also perennially popular. “Ports in places like Alaska, Venice in Italy and Dubrovnik in Croatia are just some of a few destinations that regularly deliver high satisfaction scores,” says Savino. “In this case, it is the uniqueness of the destination that attracts guests and makes the onshore experience outstanding.”

Savino adds that any cruise destination can be successful if it pinpoints the factors that make it unique, builds a strong brand identity and develops a strategy to promote and improve onshore offerings.

“The long-term success of the port of call as a cruise destination depends on whether it has a good strategy for constantly evolving its shore excursions, dining, shopping and cultural activities,” he explains. “If a destination can continually redefine itself, it will remain popular with all cruise guests – regardless of whether they are experienced cruisers or first-timers. It’s much easier to develop a detailed short-, mid-, and long-term strategy for prioritising the human and financial resources needed to achieve this when port authorities, tourism organisations and marketing companies have a clearly defined brand.”

Several of the ports and destinations featured on Carnival’s itineraries have already done this, including Aruba, Barbados, St. Kitts, St. Maarten, St. Thomas in the US Virgin Islands, and Cozumel and Puerto Vallarta in Mexico. “Over the past few years, these destinations have committed to creating cruise tourism strategies and invested resources to identify opportunities for delivering an outstanding experience to our guests,” Savino explains.

Carnival is working with its partners to achieve similar success in other destinations too. “We have constant conversations with the representatives of all the ports we visit to stress how critical it is that they offer a memorable experience to our guests,” remarks Savino. “We work with them before, during and after ship calls to identify areas for development and find ways to leverage strengths. Almost all ports have shown encouraging signs of improvement, but this approach must become second nature to all destination marketing organisations – they need to pay the utmost attention to those little details that can make or break the experience when a cruise guest visits a port of call.”

In addition, Savino advises ports and destination marketers to monitor the pulse of the travel industry to ensure they can anticipate changes in customer expectations and incorporate them into their plans.

“Our research shows that guests no longer want to sit on a bus and watch the passing scenery; they want immersive experiences that allow them to get an up close and personal look at the destinations they’re visiting,” he explains. “Consequently, we need to evolve our shore excursion options to accommodate this and offer a variety of choices that provide exclusive insights into the cultures, cuisines and history of the destinations we visit. Examples of tours we’ve recently introduced include the ‘Hidden Mexico, Traditions & River Lunch’ tour in Cozumel, the ‘Great Alaskan Lumberjack Show and Crab Feast’ on Alaska cruises and the ‘Country Home in Konavle’ excursion in Dubrovnik, Croatia.”

Tracking evolving market trends is also crucial. “Families are among the fastest growing segments for cruising – even outpacing the general cruise market – so we’ve created family-friendly options that allow parents and their children to experience and explore destinations in a fun way,” Savino says. “These tours include arts and crafts and other activities just for children, family-friendly pricing, stroller storage and more.”

Although it’s critical for ports and destinations to focus on creating new shore excursion opportunities, they must also ensure they continually develop the infrastructure and services they provide for cruise ships.

“First and foremost, we need ports that have the infrastructure to easily accommodate our vessels – this will become even more important as we introduce our newer and bigger ships over the next few years,” explains Savino. “Ports play a significant role in creating a great overall cruise experience, so we look for ones that have the facilities to quickly and seamlessly transfer our guests between ship and shore. We’re also looking for cruise terminals with a welcoming atmosphere that encourages people to go and explore the destination – we noticed that more guests venture off the ships if the port offers live music, artisan shops and other entertainment options.”

However, notes Savino, there is one priority that surpasses all others when Carnival is picking the perfect port. “The safety of our guests and crew members is our top priority and there are no circumstances where we would ever compromise on this,” says Savino. “If a port is deemed unsafe, Carnival’s ships will not visit, regardless of how positive other metrics may be.”

Analysing all the practical and experiential attributes of ports and destinations around the world to determine which can be combined to create a compelling cruise itinerary is tricky, but it’s a challenge that Savino and his team relish.

“When ports and destinations are successful, Carnival’s itineraries are also successful,” says Savino. “That’s why we invest a lot of time to develop and nurture relationships with representatives of many destinations around the world – both in places we currently visit and in those we hope to incorporate in our itineraries in future. If ports are the reason that guests are choosing to book a Carnival cruise, we know we have created exciting itineraries.”

Subscribe to Cruise & Ferry Itinerary Planning for FREE here to get the next issue delivered directly to your inbox or your door.

Share this story

Rebecca Gibson
By Rebecca Gibson
19 December 2019

Theme picker