How Carnival's New Leader Is Righting the Ship

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Despite several unfortunate incidents at the start of 2013, Carnival Corporation  (NYSE: CCL  )  has made it through the year without being a major disappointment. Thanks to smart leadership and savvy program changes, it's minimized the effect of its rough first two quarters.

Why the year started off looking bleak
Carnival Corporation owns 10 cruise lines; one of these is Costa. The year began with the Costa Concordia half-sunk off the coast of Italy, and its captain on trial. The Triumph, Dream, Legend, and Elation from Carnival's flagship brand also experienced problems before the close of the second quarter, ranging from fires to broken propulsion systems. 

Carnival wasn't the only trouble-plagued cruise line. The Grandeur of the Seas, owned by Royal Caribbean (NYSE: RCL  ) , experienced an onboard fire in May. Thomson Cruises' staff on the Majesty suffered a fatal accident in February. These industrywide issues were also expected to greatly decrease customer confidence in Carnival and cruising in general. 

The actual financial impact 
Carnival's third-quarter net income fell 17.4% year over year. Operating costs rose across the board -- but much of that came from one-time payments resulting from the accidents. The news could have been much worse in light of the rough waters Carnival navigated during 2012 and early 2013. Instead, Carnival's making visible progress toward growth, despite year-to-date total revenue being lower than it was this time last year.

In spite of the concern that passengers would forgo cruises for other vacation options, year-to-date total revenue is only down 0.051% from the third quarter of 2012. In the first quarter of 2011, investors showed the most confidence in the company since the 2008 economic downturn. When compared to this period, total revenue for the most recent three months is actually up 27.7%. 

Ticket revenue surpassed 2012 levels in the third quarter, and revenue from onboard sales also exceeded last year's numbers. From SEC filings, it is clear that the North American division generated this increase in revenue. When broken down, North American revenue tops 2012 levels for the third quarter – and year to date.

How Carnival has stayed afloat
Carnival is in the right hands with new CEO Arnold Donald. Donald is responsible for enhancing onboard amenities, which directly drove up revenues. He oversaw the implementation of new safety measures and rolled out a new marketing campaign. He also facilitated the revamping of Carnival's online booking system, and began work on an annual crew training program.

These changes improved customers' experience with Carnival, helping to counter the effect of increased costs, discounted fares, and reimbursed tickets. And Donald mitigated the loss of the Concordia and an increase in dry dock days by christening two new ships and increasing capacity by 7,000. 

Going forward
Carnival is not alone in its struggle, but other cruise lines have also weathered the storm. Since February's accidents, Royal Caribbean's stock has risen 24%. Norwegian Cruise Line's  (NASDAQ: NCLH  )  stock rose 6.5%. 

Donald's short tenure has seen Carnival's stock price rise 8%. Stock prices dipped with the third-quarter earnings report, but Donald is not responsible for those results.

All of his actions to date should boost investors' confidence going forward. He needs a chance to turn the company around. In his own words, "I will spend every second I need to spend wherever I need to spend it on behalf of the shareholders of Carnival." 

Look for Donald's implementations to influence customer satisfaction. In an interview, he stated that "after 90-120 days of listening...and benchmarking, ...I'll determine what's most appropriate to really make a difference for our guests and for our shareholders." 

Look for a focus on increasing ticket sales. Carnival aims not only to fill ship capacity, but also to attract new customers. The vast majority of people have never cruised before, so a great growth opportunity exists. 

This company requires patience and a long-term view. There will be no quick fixes or profits topping 2004 levels just yet. But with Donald in charge, that day could come again for Carnival. 

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