Business Monday

Q&A with Tara Russell of Carnival’s Fathom on social impact cruising, future of the brand

Tara Russell, president of Fathom, with a student in the Dominican Republic. Fathom’s week-long cruises to Puerto Plata on the northern coast of the Dominican Republic focus on social impact and volunteer activities.
Tara Russell, president of Fathom, with a student in the Dominican Republic. Fathom’s week-long cruises to Puerto Plata on the northern coast of the Dominican Republic focus on social impact and volunteer activities.

In 2013, serial entrepreneur Tara Russell, whose life work involved building impact businesses, decided to take her new social-enterprise idea — and float it out at sea.

The concept for Carnival Corp.’s 10th brand, Fathom, came from the mechanical engineer, who, coincidentally, hadn’t been on a cruise ship since she was 10.

When Russell boarded cruises again in April, as president of Fathom, she headed to the Dominican Republic on social-impact trips — a new kind of vacation. Fathom’s voyages cater to the concept of “voluntourism,” a vacation that gives back.

During week-long voyages to the Dominican Republic and now Cuba, guests on the 704-passenger Adonia can partake in excursions that include teaching English to sixth-graders at Puerto Plata in the Dominican Republic’s northern coast and meeting with the owner of Cuban paladares, or private restaurants, in Havana.

Fathom visits the Dominican Republic for social-impact trips with volunteering components, and every other week also goes to Cuba for cultural immersion voyages and stops in Havana, Cienfuegos and Santiago de Cuba.

Many people long to make a difference in the world but have no idea where to begin.

Tara Russell, president of Fathom

After a tumultuous few weeks and weathering a controversy sparked after Carnival Corp. agreed to a Cuban policy that would have barred Cuban-born Americans from traveling on the ship, Fathom sailed to Cuba on May 1 — after the Cuban government agreed to change its policy. Sixteen Cuban-born Americans were on board. Fathom became the first cruise line to sail from the U.S. to Cuba in more than 50 years.

On May 2, the day the ship arrived in Havana, Russell tweeted a photo of a Cuban couple, one holding a large U.S. flag and the other a large Cuban flag, at the port in Havana as the Adonia arrived.

She added: “Best job in the wld, thx @MickyArison (Carnival Corp.’s chairman) @CarnivalPLC @FathomTravel for making this possible!”

We spoke to Russell while she was aboard the Adonia during the inaugural Cuban voyage about creating Fathom, meeting expectations and the future of the cruise line.

Q. When you came up with the idea for Fathom, you hadn’t spent much time on cruise ships. How has the cruise experience (with its possibilities and limitations) reshaped your original idea?

A. If anything, my time with the industry has strengthened my belief that a cruise can be an enhanced experience for social impact. The ability to bring joyful abundance, rich community engagement, reflection and diverse personal enrichment is more easily facilitated via a cruise ship.

I have fallen in love with the wonder of the ocean, the rich diversity of our global team of 120,000 employees, and the enormous asset base of potential we have because of the breadth of our global family of 10 brands.

First, we travel to set locations in the Dominican Republic on a regular basis. By bringing approximately 700 passengers to work three days a week every other week, we have the potential to offer thousands of traveler-impact days per month to the communities we visit. Each passenger’s contribution, regardless of its size or length of duration, is complemented by hundreds of other passengers, creating a huge ripple effect that will positively impact the lives of many Dominicans and far beyond.

Second, unlike other service-learning trips, Fathom provides an accessible, safe and high-value experience that leads to enduring positive impact on both travelers and local communities, while still providing a flexible, fun opportunity to recharge.

Many people long to make a difference in the world but have no idea where to begin. We provide nourishing opportunities to be immersed in another culture and community, to make relevant, lasting contributions. Fathom is an opportunity “within reach” for mindful consumers to get hands on experience in international volunteering. This is unique and important. Up until now, it is difficult for the average person to find meaningful ways to volunteer overseas due to costs, language barriers, logistics, etc. Fathom eliminates these barriers for people who want to get personally involved, but may not have the networks or resources to build an authentically impactful, enduring experience.

We already see that the Fathom journey is having, and will have, a deep and lasting impact on our travelers as well as on the communities we work with.

This is a new category of travel the world has never seen.

Tara Russell, president of Fathom

In the first two weeks alone in DR, we have seen an incredible start to our work alongside the residents there with more than 100 water filters produced for homes to help provide clean water to local residents; 4,700 seedlings were planted as part of the reforestation efforts; nearly 700 students and community members from the Dominican Republic were involved with our travelers in English language classes; new concrete floors created in five homes (where there previously was only dirt floors); more than 1,500 sheets of paper produced providing critical income to women; and strong progress in chocolate production with more than 530 pounds of nibs cleaned and some 10,300 chocolate bars wrapped in the process. Working alongside on these types of projects, we are creating real sustainable impact in the lives of the people there, and that is what it is all about in our view.

Q. The Fathom concept was shaped around intimate, people-to-people experiences. But is it really possible to deliver those kinds of intimate experiences with a cruise ship that holds more than 600 passengers?

A. We have the perfect vessel for our travelers: the MV Adonia. It is an intimate ship (700 passengers), ideal for bonding with fellow passengers as well as for finding space for quiet self-reflection. It is our impact playground and academy. Adonia offers our travelers a safe, comfortable and convenient venue. We want our travelers to feel nurtured and secure so they will be at their best as they tackle community challenges and needs.

Once in the Dominican Republic, we offer impact experiences that vary in group size as appropriate for each specific activity. So travelers get to participate in small numbers with a women’s cooperative that makes chocolate as well as in small groups working with schoolchildren and in larger groups — such as planting trees — where more manpower creates more impact.

The early feedback from the first two cruises to the Dominican Republic suggest we are on the right track — with more than 200 cruisers immediately signing up for a return cruise with Fathom in 2016 — but we also will continue to fine tune the experience to make sure we are listening to our guests to make it to a transformative experience for everyone involved.

Q. The initial Cuba experience has come with far more official attention than one would expect on future sailings. How do you think the future sailings will be different?

A. This was completely new territory for all of us. It had been decades since a U.S. cruise line last sailed to Cuba, so we are experiencing something with our travelers that is literally history in the making. While future cruises may not have the phenomenal media attention of the inaugural cruise, we believe our travelers will have an experience of a lifetime with every cruise to Cuba — just as we did in the inaugural — as they witness the rare beauty and charm of Cuba, its amazing people and all that country has to offer.

Far more went as we had hoped and expected than not, and this was extremely encouraging for us in thinking about our future cruises to Cuba.

Tara Russell, president of Fathom

Q. How are bookings now that you almost have two sailings under your belt? Has interest increased? How far out are travelers booking?

A. This is a new category of travel the world has never seen. We believed — and are now seeing it happen — that once people started traveling to the DR and begin to share their experience with others that public awareness and market demand will grow. We are seeing bookings grow at a pace we predicted, and, of course, our new cruise to Cuba every other week holds great potential for Fathom since there is so much pent-up demand to travel to Cuba from the U.S. Now that we have completed our first cruise to Cuba, we are even more convinced that our travelers will continue to love this experience, and we are seeing it in our booking numbers already in the past few days since launch. Everyone plans their travels differently, so we are seeing bookings come in at varying time frames throughout the year.

Q. With the experience of sailing to each destination, what tweaks do you plan to make to each?

A. We believe in lean, iterative, human-centered design, so we will continually be molding our experiences for continued progress.

It all starts with listening to our travelers and making adjustments based on their feedback. We are already making small tweaks to our Fathom offering based on the feedback we have received from the first cruises. For instance, our arrival time to the Tropicana, a world-famous cabaret, will be earlier now, and we will instruct our guides to permit our travelers to leave group tours (to explore the city on their own if they desire to do so) by helping them self-certify through their own individually driven people-to-people experiences.

Listening to our travelers in situations like these will help us exceed their expectations in the long run, which is a top priority for all our cruise lines, not just Fathom, and the early feedback from our guests is very promising that we are on the right track.

For nearly a half mile, the Cuban people had lined up on the streets, cheering and waving. It was an emotional experience.

Tara Russell, president of Fathom

Q. What went better than you expected, and what went worse?

A. While we have experiences regularly with new markets around the world, there was a great unknown with the entire process in Cuba since it had not been done in decades by any U.S. cruise line. As you can imagine, it had the potential to be quite different from what we put on the drawing board to when we were able to put into reality on our first sailing. From my perspective, far more went as we had hoped and expected than not, and this was extremely encouraging for us in thinking about our future cruises to Cuba. It has been a remarkable and transformative experience for all.

How do you quantify hope and transformative experiences? It was a moment of a lifetime to experience that we will never forget. The welcome and reception we received in Cuba from the people upon arrival was beyond imaginable. It is something I — and I am sure everyone, especially our Cuban-born American travelers — will remember and treasure for the rest of our lives. For nearly a half mile, the Cuban people had lined up on the streets, cheering and waving. It was an emotional experience that moved us all deeply, something so very positive and touching that we will always remember.

Tara Russell

Job title: President of Fathom and global impact lead of Carnival Corp.

Age: 38

Experience: Russell has diverse consumer product experience with Fortune 500 companies including GM, Intel and Nike, working across product development, technical sales and marketing, process engineering and manufacturing teams. She is a serial entrepreneur with experience developing, launching and building impact businesses. Over the past 15 years, she has been building nonprofit and for-profit social enterprises. In 2016 she was named one of Fast Company’s Most Creative People in Business 1000.

In Idaho, she founded and currently is chairman of Create Common Good, a food production and job-training model for refugees, women at risk, the homeless, people coming out of prison, anyone with a barrier to employment.

In her previous life, she lived in Thailand for four years, offering pro bono small business development training to nongovernmental organizations, and she also co-founded three other social ventures for profit and nonprofit: Jitasa, NightLight and World Economic Forum Global Shapers Idaho.

Education: Bachelor of science in mechanical engineering with highest honors from the Georgia Institute of Technology.

Personal: Married, mother of two children: Tyson, 10 and Lucy, 8.

About Fathom: Fathom is Carnival Corp.’s 10th brand. It’s a social-impact company that offers a new category of travel, meant to create meaningful people-to-people experiences through cultural immersion or volunteer work.

Website: fathom.org

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