Arnold Donald, who replaced Micky Arison as Carnival Corp. president and CEO in July after Arison stepped down from the role, said he sees the brand as being in the middle of an evolution.
“I think there’s a lot of positive things about Carnival, the brand. It’s still doing great despite the negative noise that happened for a short period of time,” Donald said. “To me, it’s a learning. When those perceptions are very positive, we’ll still need those learnings because we have to continuously improve.”
At the beginning of this year, executives at Carnival were looking forward to stability after a difficult 2012. The parent company was a year removed from the fatal shipwreck of the Costa Concordia, which drew widespread attention in Europe and hurt business there. Carnival Cruise Lines was focusing on keeping costs low while raising prices and promoting its Fun Ship 2.0 enhancements, including a burger joint from Guy Fieri, comedy curated by George Lopez and a host of other new food, drink and entertainment venues.
Then, on Feb. 10, fire broke out in an engine room on the Carnival Triumph, which was sailing in the Gulf of Mexico with more than 4,200 passengers and crew. The blaze was extinguished quickly and no one was injured, but propulsion systems were knocked out. Although the ship had two engine rooms, shared cabling between the two was damaged by fire, leaving only emergency backup power available.
Passengers spent five uncomfortable days as the ship was towed to Mobile, Ala., without hot water, widespread working bathrooms or air conditioning. Some slept in hallways; others told stories of floors covered in sewage and of bags handed out in lieu of toilets.
The slow-moving ship and onboard ordeal made for perfect cable news fodder (and became a punch line on late-night talk shows). And the public’s perception of cruising — especially on Carnival Cruise Lines — sank like an anchor. People who had never been on a cruise before, a key target group for the cruise line, were especially affected.
Carnival soon announced a company-wide review of ships to prevent a similar situation in the future — an announcement soon followed by an unrelated technical problem on the Carnival Dream that forced an early end to a sailing.
In April, the company said it would invest $300 million to add more fire safety systems, increase emergency backup power capabilities and reroute cabling, if needed, to improve operating redundancies.
Mark Jackson, the cruise line’s vice president of technical operations, said the company is tripling the number of smoke and flame detectors in engine rooms, adding more water mist flooding systems and putting an emergency backup generator on each ship to make sure that passengers would stay comfortable if a ship loses power.
“Number one, we never want to lose power,” Donald said. “Number two, if we lose power, we never want our guests to be uncomfortable.”
Some systems are being installed while ships are in dry dock for routine maintenance, so all of the enhancements won’t be completed for another couple of years. But all 24 ships in the fleet will have at least a temporary emergency backup generator installed by the end of this year.
Jackson, who was hired in December but started the job in March, said that while no one was hurt in the Triumph fire, Carnival knows passengers were “extremely inconvenienced.”