Fathom is a new ‘social impact’ brand. But what does that mean in practice? Tara Russell, its president, explains
Fathom is Carnival Corporation’s 10th and newest cruise line, but can confidently claim to be unlike any other. Positioning itself as a ‘social impact’ brand, the company promises immersive and ethical travel to customers who want to have a “positive impact on people’s lives, and aren’t always sure where to begin.”
Fathom markets itself in a quite unique way. For the moment, only serving two destinations, it also barely mentions the word ‘cruise’ in any of its literature, except in reference to its only ship, the R-class Adonia, which had been operating for P&O Cruises, also of Carnival.
Most the customers Fathom is targeting are not your average cruise dwellers — and even the company’s president, Tara Russell, a social enterprise entrepreneur, is from outside the industry. We sat down with her to discuss the ideas and objectives behind Fathom and what customers can expect from its cruises to the Dominican Republic and Cuba, which has opened up to American passengers (see box-out, below).
Firstly, what is social impact travel?
The idea of social impact travel is a new category that we’re defining. It’s this idea of creating an opportunity and an experience for people who love to travel, but also want to make a difference and have a fantastic time all in one. We believe it’s a holistic solution. You’re probably familiar with the term ‘voluntourism’ — and while there are elements of that [in what Fathom does], we go deeper into one destination. A lot of people have asked, ‘Why wouldn’t you go to Haiti and Honduras and Jamaica with the first Fathom ship?’ and while we absolutely considered the opportunities that might exist, it’s very important to us that we make a genuine impact and authentic impact in one place, versus this speed-dating thing!
Can you give us any specific examples of any Fathom activities?
The before, during and after [cruise] experiences are being uniquely designed around the social impact experience. On board we’ll have a lot of fun, engaging activities and experiences that take you from Miami, our homeport, into the region, even before you arrive. It’s about contextual immersion into the countries — so we’ll have Cuban and Dominican food, film, music, art, entertainment, and conversational Spanish workshops. Then when you get to the location, it depends on the traveller. There’s an enormous amount of flexibility: you won’t be mandated to do one or many things, but you’ll have the opportunity. Part of your trip purchase includes three social impact activities on the ground. We’ve focused our energies around education, the environment and economic development. We’ve got creative arts, music and sports workshops that we’re offering [Dominican] kids. We’re trying to empower the future of youth in the country. We will have English workshops for youth and adults.
It’s very important to us that we make a genuine impact and authentic impact where we visit
We have also partnered with a variety of small co-operative and local businesses who have pretty significant challenges. We have a women’s co-operative, 30 women, who produce organic chocolate. They have just got a contract with a supermarket chain in the country — but they don’t have ample workers or the resources to hire a bunch of workers. So our travellers are going to produce chocolate!
Everything we’ve designed is a side-by-side activity, it’s not us foreigners coming in with the solutions. It’s us coming alongside to learn, immerse and serve in such a way that we amplify the positive impact they’re able to have.
Is Fathom aimed at a younger audience?
It’s built for an audience that we see as eight to 80 [years old]. In terms of those who are booked in, that’s fairly accurate so far. We have three primary target groups: one is the purpose-driven millennial, a young person who hops on the ship and can’t wait to run out and save the world. The second group is the mindful family; people who want to go on a trip that goes deeper, and want their kids to be able to enjoy this uniquely enriching experience, [that’s also a] tremendous education experience. The third group is intergenerational families and more seasoned travellers, such as someone who is 50 to 80, who has more time and disposable income who may volunteer back home and want to do something quite different.
Your background is outside of cruise — how did you end up at Carnival?
I spent my first ‘career’ in the corporate word — with General Motors, Nike and Intel — and a lot of that time was in cross-cultural and overseas work in Shanghai. These last 16 years I’ve been busy building social enterprise companies from the ground up. It really [came about] because I have a long friendship with Arnold Donald [president and CEO]. Initially it was just a hunch and an idea I discussed with Arnold, with no intention of being involved in that exploration. It wasn’t that they found me — it was serendipitous.
Would Fathom exist if it wasn’t for Cuba opening up?
The opportunity didn’t exist there when we began the Fathom adventure. We began the conversation in August 2013; it wasn’t until December 2014 that the travel restrictions for Americans eased to Cuba. It wasn’t until we were waist deep in our Dominican Republic that we began to consider [Cuba]. In some ways the stars aligned! We believe wholeheartedly in the opportunities there; we’re tremendously excited to be the pioneer to enter the changing Cuban landscape. We also feel this tremendous responsibility. The experience there will be different [to cruises to the Dominican Republic]. It won’t be a service-focused trip — it will be about cultural immersion. Our travellers will have the opportunity to really connect to the Cuban people; to learn the stories of the Cuban people through food and art and music and film. We have a long learning curve: it’s important we spend time learning about the Cuban people before we start dreaming about what the opportunities for social impact might be there in the future.
Will Fathom change the perception of cruising?
There is only room to grow, in terms of bringing in a very different and new customer. The cruise travel market is quite small compared to the international travel market. We not only hope to be that tip of the spear in terms of pioneering social impact but to also hope to spur innovation in the travel space, and helping companies think outside the box in terms of business development and social impact.
The Havana club
As Cuba begins to open up to US ships, we spoke with David Selby, the former managing director of Thomson Cruises, to get an idea of what challenges he faced when bringing his cruise line to Cuba for the first time in 2011.
What challenges did you face when bringing Thomson to Cuba?
While Cuba’s cruise business wasn’t developed, there was a level of infrastructure already in place. They had ports and they had ferries that regularly operated. There was also a willingness for the operation to be successful; they were desperate for the American ships to come in, and there was some knowledge on the ground to make it happen. We also had experience in opening up the Red Sea with Sharm el-Sheikh. One of the biggest challenges we faced had nothing at all to do with Cuba, but was the Costa Europa crash in Egypt, which happened about the same time.
Why is there such interest in the country?
We were the only cruise line that was going there at the time. It was a communist country and something completely different to back home. Going on a British cruise line, with the Thomson name, made it a lot safer in the eyes of our guests.
What does the Cuban government need to do to make sure it becomes a sustainable destination?
There is no reason why Cuba can’t become a major Caribbean destination. What they must avoid is a situation like the one Alaska created with its Alaska Head Tax. Instead they need to introduce reasonable charges and prove that they are environmentally friendly and is safe for passengers. People are scared of the unknown.
David Selby is the managing director of Travelyields Consulting