Carnival launches fathom, a new “social impact travel” brand

Travelers on fathom will help cultivate cacao plants and organic fertilizer at a nursery and assist local cooperatives run by women in producing artisan chocolates.
Travelers on fathom will help cultivate cacao plants and organic fertilizer at a nursery and assist local cooperatives run by women in producing artisan chocolates.

How about a little good-doing with your cruise?

Doral-based Carnival Corp. on Thursday unveiled a tenth brand called fathom. Rather than highlighting a revolutionary new ship or onboard entertainment, the buzzwords were “sustained impact,” “lasting development” and “global vision.”

The world’s largest cruise company even shied away from using the six-letter word.

“It’s so different that we don’t call it a cruise,” said Tara Russell, fathom president and Carnvival Corporation’s new head of global impact.

In what the company is calling “social impact travel,” fathom will take passengers on seven-day journeys from PortMiami to the Dominican Republic starting in April of 2016 for trips that include volunteer activities with established organizations on the ground.

Traditional excursions will be available — windsurfing or hiking, for example — but passengers will also be able to cultivate cacao plants; make chocolate with a women’s cooperative; work with educators to teach English skills and help build water filters, all while using the docked ship as their home away from home.

The ship will spend two days each traveling to and from Amber Cove, a new port that Carnival Corp. has developed on the nation’s north coast, and three days on the ground.

A portion of the fare — the company wouldn’t say what percent — will go to partner organizations to cover supplies, travel and staff on the ground and to help fund their general operations.

The new venture will use a 710-passenger ship built in 2001 that is currently deployed as P&O Cruises’ Adonia in the United Kingdom. The vessel was the last of the eight “R class” ships built for the now-defunct Renaissance Cruises, and sailed as Royal Princess for Princess Cruises for a few years starting in 2007.

Instead of Broadway-style shows and casino nights, the ship will offer onboard activities in the form of training for the in-port activities, Spanish language lessons and Dominican music, art and culture. Menus will be inspired by the destination.

“It’s not that we’re going to shy away from fun, it’s just going to be really different,” said Russell, who founded Create Common Good, a nonprofit that provides job training and placement in the food service industry to people with barriers to employment.

Company research indicates fathom will find interest from three key customer groups: older millennials who have some disposable income; families with kids age eight and over who are looking for meaningful vacation experiences and older adults who have been in the workforce for decades and want to give of their time, not just donate money to a cause.

And the company expects that audience will be willing to pay a premium for the experience: Prices start at $1,540 per person and include an exterior cabin with a window, meals on the ship, onboard experiences, three social impact activities on shore and related supplies, taxes, fees, and port expenses.

In a note to investors, UBS Investment Research analyst Robin Farley pointed out that the price “compares very favorably with some other 7-day Caribbean sailings (a range of $950-$1,200 per person for April cruises on the three largest broad-market brands).”

Vicky Garcia, chief operating officer and co-owner of Cruise Planners, said she got enthusiastic responses from travel agents after posting news of the new brand on Facebook.

“I think it’s super exciting, very outside the box,” she said. “There’s people doing this type of travel today. What an interesting concept to do it on a cruise ship.”

According to a 2008 study from consultancy Tourism Research & Marketing, about 1.6 million people a year vacation to volunteer, spending roughly $2 billion.

Henry Harteveldt, travel industry analyst at Atmosphere Research in San Francisco, said he believes the travel called “voluntourism” is growing because it appeals not only to millennials who want authentic experiences, but also baby boomers who might have volunteered in their younger days.

“If they execute right and if they are true to this, I don’t think this will ever be their largest brand, but I think it could be a very, very successful niche to introduce people to take cruises who would have perhaps never considered getting on a more mainstream type of cruise,” Harteveldt said. “I think that it will be quite fun and I think it has enormous potential.”

Arnold Donald, CEO of Carnival Corp., said the main goal of fathom is to do good by “driving, over time, real meaningful change for the better in a community.”

But, he said, there are other perks.

“We access new people who otherwise might not have cruised. We repurpose a vessel, extending its life, lowering costs associated with it, driving better revenue,” he said. “There’s just a whole lot of additional benefits, the halo effect that will come with it.”

Russell and her team, working on a contract basis, explored several potential destinations for fathom’s launch with key criteria in mind: Were potential partner groups already working in the community? Did they have projects that could be helped by a literal boatload of volunteers with a variety of skill levels every week? Would that help make an actual impact on the community? How viable would it be to travel to the destination from Miami? How safe was the place?

“It sort of is hard to imagine it having been anywhere else first, because the Dominicans have been so warm and embracing and just so incredibly excited to partner and work with us,” she said.

David Luther, who runs a nonprofit aimed at helping residents out of poverty, said he works with tourism groups all the time. But he heard something different when he met Russell about six months ago.

“For Carnival to come and say it’s part of their business model, that was the difference,” he said.

Luther, founder and executive director of Instituto Dominicano de Desarrollo Integral, said “you have no idea” how much work could be achieved by continuous help from volunteers. He named reforestation, beach cleanup, sustainable farming and other activities just to start.

Donald, who took over as CEO of the parent company nearly two years ago, said Carnival sees potential.

“We’re optimistic we’ll prove it out,” he said. “If for some reason it doesn’t work, then the worst thing that happens is we tried something that’s a little noble.”

If the concept does prove successful, though, Donald said he expects the company would want to replicate what it’s doing in other parts of the region and world. Based on initial research, fathom has other potential destinations identified, and Carnival knows which ships would be the best fit.

Longtime industry observers were surprised by the news but also saw opportunity.

“There’s definitely a market for it, the question is how big is it and how much are they willing to pay,” said Miami-based cruise expert Stewart Chiron, CEO of “There are a lot of people who would like to be able to give of their time but they haven’t had the right vehicle.”

Jessica Hammer, a 32-year-old Coconut Creek resident, is just the kind of traveler fathom is looking for: a millennial who travels but has never taken a cruise.

“I think it’s really interesting,” she said after reading about the new brand. “It definitely got my attention for sure.”

Hammer, who works in digital strategy for a software company, said she has researched educational expedition-type cruises before, but was intrigued by the prospect of adding a volunteer experience.

“You’re going on a volunteer trip — you’re just going on a boat,” she said. “It’s something I wish I could do, it’s something that’s always at the back of my mind. I’d like to do more volunteering.”

She said she would want to make sure that her involvement would be legitimately helpful to an organization — that she wouldn’t be getting in the way or do more good just by donating money.

“There has to be an element where you’re not creating problems for the people you’re helping,” she said. “You’re not just doing it for social media reasons.”