Christine Duffy’s first year as president of Carnival Cruise Line came with a hefty commitment: visit all 24 Carnival ships, deployed across the globe, before the end of her first year.
The former president of the Cruise Lines International Association made good on her promise.
Nearly a year after entering the top post at Carnival last February, Duffy visited the Carnival Liberty in Puerto Rico, rounding out her commitment to understand the cruise line at the places that matter to it the most.
Duffy, a 30-year veteran of the travel industry, worked on the global presence of CLIA in her time as president, as well, bringing smaller cruise groups under the organization’s umbrella. She was the first female president of the trade organization and among a recent surge of women taking top positions at major cruise lines. Duffy entered the industry as a travel lover, became a travel agent and went on to be a leader at major travel companies.
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Here, she shares her thoughts on the rise of women leadership, her mission for Carnival and just how challenging it was to visit Carnival’s fleet at their international ports.
Q. What drew you to the tourism and travel industry initially? Are there any notable travel memories from when you were a kid that stimulated your interest?
A. My mother is French and all her family on her side is in France, so growing up we spent summers in France because they get a nice block of vacation, and I would go and hang out with my cousins and go wherever they were going for their four weeks of vacation. So I got the travel bug pretty young. For as far back as I can remember, I’ve always loved traveling, and it was always amazing to me how many of my friends that I grew up with had never even been on an airplane.
So I always knew I wanted to be in the travel business, and ideally I wanted to be a [Pan American World Airways] flight attendant because that was a very cool and glamorous job back in those days. I made it all the way to the final interview at Pan Am in New York, but what I didn’t appreciate was that they were quite rigid about the rule that you had to be at least 5 feet 4 inches without your shoes on, and so I was not eligible. As a backup, that’s how I became a travel agent.
I started out as a travel agent in Philadelphia and then worked at McGettigan’s travel bureau. The family decided to sell the business back in 2001, and we were acquired by Maritz Travel Company. I was the one who stayed on to do the integration, and then three years after that, Steve Maritz asked me to come and be president and CEO of Maritz Travel Company, which is still the largest corporate meeting event and incentive travel company in the world. I was the first woman president, and I had an amazing experience at Maritz.
When [the Cruise Lines International Association] approached me about the opportunity to run the trade association in Washington for the cruise industry, I thought it was a really interesting opportunity based on the work that I had just done, so I took the job. I spent four years at CLIA, and that ultimately led me to Carnival.
Q. You’ve been able to look at the travel industry from a bigger perspective as a travel agent and with CLIA. What perspective do you bring to this job?
A. At Maritz [Travel Company], I sold cruises as a travel agent. We did a lot of charters with cruise lines over time, affinity groups, special-interest groups, and at Maritz with corporate groups. So I was very familiar with the cruise industry from that perspective. I think the four years I spent at CLIA really gave me tremendous preparation for the job I have now, understanding how the industry is regulated globally and in the U.S. So the work we did on behalf of the cruise industry with the International Maritime Organization to the work that we did around the world and certainly here in the U.S., working with policy-makers, regulators, the U.S. Coast Guard, [the United States Environmental Protection Association] and other agencies to make sure that, it’s about educating, it’s about working together and understanding what people are trying to accomplish.
Q. You joined Carnival at a time when there’s been a surge in women leadership in the tourism industry, and in the cruise industry in particular. What are the greatest barriers to women in top executive positions in this industry? Are there fewers now than before?
A. I’ve always been focused on women leadership issues for the broader travel industry, and it’s a reality that most people who work in travel and tourism are women, and yet a small percentage of those women are actually in management or leadership. I would say the cruise industry, as a segment of the travel industry, is much further ahead that other parts of the industry when you look at the changes that have happened in the span of two years. I was the first woman to run CLIA, and at that time I don’t know that we had any women presidents. But today, we have not only myself, we have Jan Swartz as president of Princess Cruise Line, Ann Sherry, president of Carnival Australia, Lisa Lutoff-Perlo with Celebrity and Edie Rodriguez [president of Crystal Cruises]. When you look at the cruise industry, I think we’ve made tremendous strides [in] women running major cruise lines. I think when you look across the broader travel industry, there’s still a lot more opportunity because I think less than 40 percent of really senior positions are held by women.
In Europe, there are now requirements for boards to have a certain minimum percentage of women serving, and clearly Germany, France and now in the U.K., they are working very hard to identify women and put women on those boards. I think in the U.S., we don’t have those requirements, yet slowly we see more women joining corporate public boards, women in the political arena when you look at even members of Congress. So it’s a process, it’s an evolution, but I think for all the right reasons, not only women but just greater diversity overall, I certainly believe makes business stronger and makes our political process better.
Q. In this leadership position, you’ve been able to visit all 24 Carnival ships so far. What has been the biggest takeaways now that you have seen all the ships in the fleet? Biggest surprises?
A. The big surprise was when I started and said I was gonna visit the whole fleet, I didn’t really appreciate what a commitment that was. But I did it. And I am really glad that I did it because what happens on the ship is the heart of what our business is. The biggest wonderful surprise for me about Carnival Cruise Line is this unique essence that I think our brand has, in terms of the people on board our ships hail from more than 50 countries from around the world. Many of them have been with Carnival Cruise Line for a long time. And the pride and passion that they have for our company and our brand and our guests, it’s as if you are being welcomed into someone’s home. You never see people hugging their housekeeper when they leave the hotel.
Q. Another big sticking point has been Carnival’s “come as you are” philosophy, where the line strives to promote diversity on its ships. How do you do that from the very basic level up? How do you instill that philosophy?
A. People save up all year — their vacation time and their money — to go on a vacation, and we don’t take that lightly. So this idea of how do we make everyone feel comfortable got to be “come as you are.” I think for me, it goes back to Ted Arison’s vision when he started Carnival Cruise Line, which is that at that time, cruising was something that was really only accessible for people who had money. There was a certain expectation when you went on your cruise of how you would dress and the formality and experience of being in that environment, which is great. And that still exists today with some brands, but I think his vision was to make cruising accessible to everyone and the belief that everyone, every American, deserves to take a great vacation. Some people still like to get dressed up and wear their fancy clothes for an elegant night. Other people like to wear their Tommy Bahama shirts and, you know what, it’s all fine. It’s less about the demographic, it’s more about the individual.
Q. What consumer trends have you identified that are coming now, and how does Carnival adjust to changes in guest preferences?
A. Certainly we see multi-generational travel as a major trend across the travel industry. I think the advantage that we have as a cruise industry is that if you’re traveling where you’ve got grandparents, their children, grandchildren, children of all ages, the idea that you can take a cruise vacation and have something for everyone to do, some all together, some of it as you choose, and then being able to come together in the evenings for meals and dinner. I think we’ve really leaned into that with the programming, whether it’s entertaining, whether it’s food options.
Q. What are the biggest challenges in attracting new cruisers? What do you feel people are most apprehensive about when taking a cruise vacation, and how are your working to debunk those myths?
A. The good news for us is once we get somebody on a cruise for the first time, they come back again and again. And if you look at the data that shows customer satisfaction, that shows cruises relative to other kinds of vacations, we rank very high. So it is this issue of debunking myths. I also think it’s harder for people who do not live to see a cruise ship close up to imagine what a cruise vacation is like. So there is this perception, ‘Am I going to be bored? I’m going to be on this ship, we are going to be at sea, is there anything to do? Am I going to be waiting around in buffet lines? I like to work out and be active, is there just all this food and I’m going to gain 10 pounds?’ So there is debunking to do, but I think one of the things we have done at Carnival that I think plays really well to this issue of how do we get more cruise rookies is our home-port strategies.
The fact that Carnival is in 14 U.S. home ports and that we are pretty much in those ports all year round — and that 50 percent of the U.S. population can actually drive to their Carnival cruise vacation — supports this idea again of convenience and affordability. And because we offer so many different cruise itineraries, the idea that you could drive to a Carnival cruise vacation and take a three-, four- or five-day and try it, you don’t have to make the seven-day commitment the first time.
Q. When you move into new markets, what is the challenge there to attract new travelers who may not be familiar with cruising at all?
A. The other very important relationship we have is with the travel-agency community, especially for us where we have these different U.S. home ports today. Ultimately going to the travel professional who can help narrow that down, especially for somebody that’s never cruised before, is something that’s really important — and for us when we go into a new market.
Q. Some of your most popular ports are in scenarios where they are actually very crowded, such as the Caribbean and Alaska. How does Carnival differentiate an experience so that it’s a positive guest experience versus many ships in a small town?
A. One of the advantages that we have at Carnival Cruise Line is because we are in these ports all year round, so the relationship is certainly there. The understanding from those people at the port, such as the excursion provider, is that Carnival is here 12 months out of the year, so we need to make sure that the relationship is ongoing. And it’s an important relationship for both sides. Our team does a lot of work all the time to look at what are the things that we can be doing that make a shore excursion unique and different, because for many of our guests, they’ve been to these destinations before.
Look at what Carnival as a corporation has done in terms of investment in a place like Amber Cove, where we are taking people back to the Northern coast of the Dominican Republic. We have not had cruise ships in the northern DR in quite some time. We’ve invested $85 million in a beautiful facility, and again partnering with the government and the community, we create experiences through the shore excursions to highlight the beauty of the DR.
Q. What are the areas of the cruising vacation that you want to focus on improving for Carnival moving forward?
A. I think that we are at a point in time where if you think about boomers versus millennials, we attract both. I think today it has become more important to spend money on experience rather than stuff. So what we invest in the places that we know makes the biggest difference.
We’ve introduced a lot of live music, for example, back onto the ships. There was a period of time where it was all about the DJ, and I think we heard from guests, ‘Hey, where is that steel drum band and where is my live music?’ We know when we introduced Carnival Journeys, there are people out there who do have more time and who have visited a lot of the traditional places in the Caribbean that we sail to on a seven-day, or a three- or four- or five-day. In Journeys, we try taking people further into the Caribbean, South America, Hawaii, so we’ve got these nine-, 10-, 15-day journeys for people who have more time, and we’re getting great feedback from those cruises.
Q. What do you think will be the trajectory of the industry moving forward? Where do you see cruising going in the next 10, 20 years?
A. I think what we are going to see is cruising truly becoming a global industry where people from around the world will see all the same benefits that Americans have seen from the modern-day cruise industry. So, larger ships, lots more features on the ships, whether its dining, entertainment, different areas of the ship. And I think that whenever we go into these new markets, we make a lot of modifications. I was just in Australia visiting Legend and Spirit, the two ships we have there, and there’s lots of modifications that our teams have made based on what the Australian guest values in their vacation.
The other thing I think is already happening and that will be a big thing is around technology on-board cruise ships. Some of that is the technology that the guests use, our new Hub app is tremendously popular. I remember going on our first cruises with my family where we had to buy a walkie-talkie to communicate, now we’ve got an app where people can chat with each other. I think we are seeing more and more functionality embedded into the guest technology experience.
I think what people may not see but is going on behind the scenes is the level of technology that makes our ships more efficient, more environmentally friendly. So if you think about the investments we have made as a company in exhaust-gas cleaning systems, which is in process and being implemented as we speak.
And I think people continue to be amazed about what you can find on a cruise ship. Vista will have the first IMAX movie theater at sea, you know how great an experience is that when you’re on vacation with your family and can see a first-run movie and then put the kids to bed and then you can go and explore the rest of the ship.
Experience: She has more than 30 years of experience in the travel industry, starting as a travel agent in Philadelphia at Rosenbluth Travel, then to McGettigan Partners, which she grew from 25 employees to nearly 500. Then to Martiz Travel Company, where she was president. She was also president and CEO of CLIA, the leading trade association of the cruise industry, for four years before joining Carnival.
Also: Duffy serves on various travel-industry boards including those for the U.S. Travel Association and Visit Florida. She founded the Meeting Professionals International’s Women’s Leadership Initiative in 2001, which delivered research and programs to help women in the industry advance in their careers. She also belongs to The Committee of 200, an organization of the world’s most successful women business leaders.
Education: Attended college but began working immediately following high school.
Personal: She has been married to husband Andrew Duffy for 35 years. Her two kids, Danielle and Sean, are in their 20s.
About Carnival Cruise Line: Carnival Cruise Line operates 24 ships in three- to 16-day itineraries to the Bahamas, the Caribbean, Europe, the Mexican Riviera, Alaska, Hawaii, Canada, New England, Bermuda, Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific Islands. The Doral-based line was founded in 1972 and is now part of 10 brands under the Carnival Corporation umbrella. Carnival Cruise Line is welcoming its latest vessel, the Carnival Vista, which will sail from PortMiami in November.