If one subscribes to the mantra that good leaders never stop learning, it would appear that Christine Duffy has begun her journey as president of Carnival Cruise Line (CCL) on the right track.

Having stepped into the role at the beginning of February, the former CLIA head describes her first six months as a crash course in the brand: she’s visited eight ships, held town hall-style forums with employees, shadowed a Texas-based member of her sales team, met colleagues and stakeholders at an array of luncheons, conferences, webinars and one-to-one meetings, and asked questions of everyone she’s met.

"It was six months of learning, listening and engaging with the people who make the brand what it is," Duffy explains. "Of course, that includes our loyal guests and the trade, but it was also about getting to know Carnival people, shoreside and on-board our ships."

Of course, Duffy did not embark upon this quest from a standing start. Her four years as president and CEO of CLIA were marked by a number of high-profile events and an unprecedented global expansion of the association and the industry at large. Membership grew from 26 lines to more than 60, and associations were established in emerging markets under the global CLIA umbrella. There was the spearheading of an extensive safety review in the wake of the Concordia disaster that resulted in ten new policies being adopted by member lines, and a concerted effort to heighten awareness of the cruise sector as a whole.

"I can’t think of a better experience for someone stepping into this role," Duffy declares. "It’s given me a great education in the issues the industry has faced and faces. We certainly encountered a number of challenges during that time, and that meant really learning about the regulatory environment, forging relationships with the International Maritime Organization, working very closely with the US Coast Guard and spending time in Australia. We also worked with all the committees focused on safety, security, the environment and strengthening the position of the industry."

Communicate, collaborate and coordinate

The hectic first months involved establishing ties to leaders across the various lines, including Carnival Corp’s nine other brands. Since his appointment in 2013, group CEO Arnold Donald has stressed the importance of collaboration between all players within the Carnival family and, for Duffy, this means building upon existing ties, which has smoothed the transition considerably.

"A large part of my time is spent supporting and engaging with our sales people, looking at how we best provide the tools, training and partnerships with the trade."

"Donald’s mantra of ‘communicate, coordinate and collaborate’ is a big part of what each of us does," she explains. "It’s not just a tagline; our leadership team meets every week and it’s something we’re seriously committed to. People like [Holland America CEO] Stein Kruse, [Princess president] Jan Swartz, [Seaborn and Cunard North America president] Rick Meadows, [Chairman of Carnival UK] David Dingle and [Carnival Australia CEO] Ann Sherry, these were individuals I’d met regularly and worked alongside during my time at CLIA. They’ve all been incredibly supportive since my arrival."

This support extended to Duffy travelling out to Santa Clarita, California, during the first month of her tenure, to spend time with Swartz and her colleagues. "It was part of my orientation, ensuring that before I delved into CCL and how we are structured and operate, I had the benefit of seeing how Princess and its leadership team work," Duffy explains.

A seasoned player

But it’s likely that Duffy’s close ties to cruise leaders were only part of her appeal as a contender when Donald considered potential successors to Gerry Cahill, who stepped down as president and CEO in November 2014 after seven years at the helm. Prior to her appointment at CLIA, Duffy was president and CEO of corporate meeting and incentive company Maritz Travel, having started her career as a travel agent in Philadelphia.

An innate understanding of the requirements and priorities of the travel professional community served her well at CLIA, and feeds into much of the work Duffy undertakes in this current role.

"We see the travel agent as a key distribution channel for the brand," says Duffy. "A large part of my time is spent supporting and engaging with our sales people, looking at how we best provide the tools, training and partnerships with the trade. The more successful they are in selling Carnival Cruise Line, the more successful we’ll be."

The dangers of digital

The emergence of an increasingly tech-savvy, independent traveller has led to a degree of debate surrounding what the future of the travel professional might be – or whether there is any future of which to speak. With a growing number of people booking holidays online, is Carnival not tempted to move away from the traditional channels and focus its efforts on digital distribution? Duffy thinks not. In her eyes, the emergence of new demographics makes travel professionals more valuable than ever.

"The corporation as a whole has ten brands, and we believe that means there’s a brand for everyone," she begins. "But with so much choice, it’s vital that we pair the right people with the right ships, based on what they’re looking for in a vacation experience. We get a lot of cruise rookies coming on board, and somebody who just stumbles upon a cruise runs the risk of finding it’s not the right fit. The best way to create an educated consumer is through an educated travel professional."

The challenge is how to make travel professionals relevant and visible to a new generation of customers. Duffy addressed this issue during her time at CLIA, as well as since stepping into her new role at Carnival.

"You have a lot of people who don’t really know or think about how to connect with a travel agent," she says. "When you explain to them that there are professionals who can guide you, and that they provide a service that’s essentially free, they’re often surprised.

"At CLIA, we reached over 18,000 individual travel agent members; it was one of our big projects during my time there. It’s about changing the value proposition so that, in the long run, there’s a way to connect agents with the consumers. Doing this successfully can only be positive for all parties."

The sheer diversity of consumers on board CCL ships not only demands a great deal of customer engagement and education; it means that the variety of offerings on board must appeal to a wide array of tastes and requirements. Accessibility and mass appeal are values that Duffy comes back to repeatedly.

"We want to be sure that there’s something for everyone," she declares. "That’s repeat cruisers, rookies, multigenerational families, and so on. The product and experience need to allow that kind of diversity: people should be able to do as much or as little as they desire; to be equally comfortable as participants or observers.

"Somebody who just stumbles upon a cruise runs the risk of finding it’s not the right fit. The best way to create an educated consumer is through an educated travel professional."

"We also take great pride in the value we offer our guests. In the US, 50% of the population can actually drive to a Carnival ship, as opposed to making the big investment required to fly an entire family to port. We feel we have made cruising – and I think this was [founder] Ted Arison’s vision when all this started – accessible to everyone. There’s still plenty of room for luxury and specialist brands, and we have wonderful examples of that within the Carnival family, but that’s not what Carnival Cruise Line is."

Mass demand, specialist focus

But mass market appeal does not mean foregoing promotions and programmes that target specific subgroups. Duffy is clearly excited by Carnival Journeys, a collection of 9-15-day cruises that incorporate ports the line does not usually visit throughout the Caribbean, Central and South America, Hawaii and Mexico. The programme debuts in October with a sailing to Bermuda, departing from New Orleans and ending in San Juan.

"There are a lot of experienced cruise guests, and guests with more time at their disposal, who really want to see these unique destinations," Duffy believes. "We’ve also built into Carnival Journeys a series of activity, entertainment and dining options that are customised to those destinations. It’s about cultural enrichment and creating a truly immersive experience, and it’s something that will really resonate with our guests."

Such a move may be reflective of a shift in guest demands that was previously associated with specialist and smaller lines. Another development underway also indicates the changing nature of cruise demographics: in 2016, CCL returns to European waters, following a three-year absence from the continent. Its new ship, Carnival Vista, will be the largest in the brand’s fleet, boasting the first IMAX Theatre at sea, a unique high-altitude cycling track and the line’s first on-board brewery. She will operate an inaugural season in the Mediterranean from May to October, then reposition to New York to offer a pair of round-trip cruises, and finally move to her new homeport of Miami in November 2016.

"We know our guests are not just excited about the new ship, but also about the opportunity to return to Europe," says Duffy. "We have pent-up demand from those loyal guests, and there’s also a great level of enthusiasm from our teams in the UK and across Europe. Then there’s the emerging European segment and the chance to tap into a younger market that may not be traditional cruisers. The experiences we offer are extremely enticing for that generation."

In the meantime, Duffy has set herself the challenge of spending time on board every single vessel in the line’s fleet – at the time of our interview, there were still 16 to go. "A pretty audacious goal," she laughs. Beyond that, there remains a strong focus on building and consolidating relationships across the brand.

"It’s an absolute honour to be president of Carnival Cruise Line," Duffy surmises. "The level of passion and commitment that people within this organisation have for each other, our guests and the brand is unlike anything I’ve seen."

That’s just one of many lessons learned. CCL’s president is clearly looking forward to the many more to come.