As Fathom prepares for a new chapter, the brand has to clearly identify its mission to connect with the right vacationers. If “social impact” was not a clear description, will “participatory” do the job?
Adonia leaves port in Miami heading to Cuba in May. The ship will return to the UK later this year and Fathom will become a branded experience within the Carnival Corp. family rather than a cruise line.
When Carol Matulonis first heard about Fathom, a cruise line that offers volunteer-focused trips, she was on board with the idea immediately.
“I just thought it was amazing and I booked it that same week,” the Fort Pierce, Florida resident said.
Matulonis, a travel agent who owns a Cruise Planners franchise, took the weeklong trip to the Dominican Republic with her 25-year-old daughter over Mother’s Day last year and enjoyed the experience. They taught English and helped at co-ops that made chocolate and stationery products.
But despite her enthusiasm, Matulonis wasn’t able to sell Fathom cruises to anyone — even clients who were intrigued by the concept.
“I wanted to. I tried really hard, I had a lot of people look at it,” she said.
“But if they had to do the time and money for one vacation of the year, they wanted to do something different.”
That disconnect between interest and action was a persistent problem for the Fathom brand, and in late November, parent company Carnival Corp. announced that Fathom would fold its cruise line operations in the spring. The name and idea will live on as branded experiences on ships and shore for passengers on other Carnival lines.
And the other ground that Fathom pioneered — cruises between the U.S. and Cuba after a decades-long freeze — is expected to be covered by sister brands in the Carnival family.
Tara Russell, Fathom president and Carnival Corp.’s global impact lead, acknowledged that the line had a hard time communicating its message in a way that made enough people want to book.
“In many ways, we introduced a new category of travel, a new brand, and a new experience to the marketplace that was somewhat foreign,” Russell said.
She said there was a limited budget to foster awareness and comprehension, as well as a short window of time to help the idea catch on, though the brand reached out to travel agents through road shows, ship visits, online education portals, and webinars. Travelers who didn’t quite get the concept were also reluctant to spend their limited travel time on an uncertainty.
Once travelers tried the brand, Russell said, they often loved it, some sailing six times in as many months.
“We have very sticky engagement once people have an experience with us,” she said.
“However, we’ve learned that until they’ve had an experience with us, they don’t fully get it and they don’t fully get us.”
Drew Daly, general manager of network engagement and performance at home-based agent network CruiseOne said he thought Fathom was “somewhat transformative in offering a new approach to travel, and certainly to cruises.”
But he acknowledged that the new approach was difficult for agents to communicate.
“When it’s a new type of experience, it’s hard to grasp and understand,” he said.
Only some of the future plans for Fathom have been announced so far, though executives have said there will be branded activities on ships and on land. The partnerships that the line created with nonprofit organizations in the Dominican Republic will remain and grow for passengers on other Carnival Corp. brands who visit the Amber Cove port. And Fathom is in the process of adding more options in other ports.
Russell said that instead of working with as many as 700 people every other week, the partners on the ground will have a potential audience of nearly half a million travelers on Carnival brands visiting the Dominican Republic this year — though no one knows yet how many of them will opt for volunteering.
“We do believe there is a subset of travelers on every brand that we have corporately who long for this kind of experience,” she said.
“Is it going to be a full ship of travelers? Not necessarily. But quite frankly, it doesn’t have to be.”
Princess Cruises president Jan Swartz said the line has already introduced excursions developed by Fathom and is working with on adding more.
“I do believe that the Fathom opportunity in terms of going ashore and doing activities that help support a community with hands-on contributions will appeal to the Princess guests,” she said.
The option could be especially good for families with kids who want to add a day of service to typical vacation activities.
“I think that adds a richness of experience that we haven’t historically offered, so we’re excited to see how the Princess guests respond to it,” Swartz said.
The future Fathom experience won’t necessarily be devoted solely to volunteering or service on the ground. Russell said activities will allow travelers to connect to each other, connect to other cultures, and be enriched personally.
“People may come into a community or on board a ship, they may learn a new skill or they may learn and participate in some way with something that is rich and true and innate to that cultural experience,” Russell said.
Now, Russell said, Fathom refers to itself as “participatory travel” rather than “social impact travel” and defines that as the “step beyond immersion.”
“We believe people want to go into the heart of the destination and come alongside people and communities in new, exciting, and interesting ways,” she said.
She said market research showed that both cruisers and non-cruisers wanted a Fathom-type experiences.
“So what’s exciting for us corporately is we can now begin to attract a new audience of travelers who maybe wouldn’t have cruised in the past because we can give them experiences in and through our sister brands that may better align with their travel desires,” Russell said.
Executives floated the same idea when first launching Fathom. Moving forward, CruiseOne’s Daly said he thinks the new iteration of Fathom will have appeal.
“I think the social impact experience, offering that across the brands within the Carnival family of brands as a shore excursion kind of experience, is innovative,” he said.
“There are a lot of people out there that would happily do a day or two on a regular vacation.”