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Carnival COO says company well positioned in leisure industry

NEW YORK – While 2009 promises some rough seas ahead, Carnival Corp. should fare better than many other leisure companies, its vice chairman said Wednesday at its annual shareholder meeting.

NEW YORK – While 2009 promises some rough seas ahead, Carnival Corp. should fare better than many other leisure companies, its vice chairman said Wednesday at its annual shareholder meeting.

“Our business model is such that we will always outperform in a tough economic environment versus other types of leisure activities,” Carnival Vice Chairman and Chief Operating Officer Howard Frank said. “We won’t suffer the kind of volatility that other leisure companies do.”

Analysts say cruise lines are in relatively better shape than other travel companies because they are still profitable and have more flexibility to change their prices and itineraries. Since fares typically include lodging and most food, people also perceive cruises to be a good value.

For 2008, Carnival’s earnings per share fell 2% year-over-year, while its biggest competitor, Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd.’s declined 5%, Frank said. By the same measure, hotel chains Wynn Resorts Ltd. and Marriott International Inc. saw their profits drop 18% and 20%, respectively.

At BBB+, Carnival still has the highest credit rating in the leisure industry, Frank added.

The company’s share price, off about 35% in the last 12 months, is also holding up better than its peers. Wynn’s shares, for example, are off about 67% during the same period.

Carnival shares recently changed hands up 42 cents, or 1.7%, to $25.70.

Still, it’s not entirely smooth sailing for Carnival. The largest cruise ship operator by market share has had to significantly discount trips in order to attract increasingly more cost-conscious consumers who generally are making vacation plans more last-minute. When they do cruise, they’re usually choosing shorter, less-expensive trips and typically spending less onboard.

However, consumers are responding to those price cuts. During the last eight weeks, Carnival has seen a 15% increase in booking volume for its North American brands, which include its namesake and Princess lines. For European brands like Cunard and Aida, bookings have increased 26%.