Tips for Cruise Lines and Other Travel Providers: How to Keep your Customers

Travel planning, for many people I know, is a bit of a paradox. It’s both a spur of the moment decision and a careful, deliberate planning process. This is especially true among the cruise crowd.

When a new ship, new itinerary, or a “special” cruise is announced (such as John Heald’s Blogger cruises, themed cruises, or those with well-known entertainers), it stirs up a lot of enthusiasm and excitement. People are eager to “book it, Dano” (apologies to those who are too young to get the reference) – right now. The careful and deliberate planning comes later.

excited - let's do it

But there’s nothing more frustrating than to be told a potentially great cruise is going to happen, but not know exactly when – or know the details but not be able to book it.  That’s been happening a lot lately to Carnival cruisers. Sadly, Carnival is not only losing bookings for those particular cruises, but appears to be actually losing some long-time cruisers to other cruise lines out of frustration.

One of Carnival’s greatest strengths in marketing its cruises is its brand ambassador, John Heald, whose blog (originally) and now his Facebook fan page draw a huge number of readers (more than 160,000 social media users at the time of this writing) – many of whom don’t even cruises but enjoy following John’s adventures at sea and his opinions on various topics of the day, both cruise-related and not.

The combination of John’s dry and sometimes silly sense of humor along with his incredible generosity and eagerness to help with problems has made him the object of much admiration, along with harsh criticism from those who seek unsuccessfully to take advantage of his kindness and some fans of competing cruise lines.

This strength, however, is also a weakness. John’s desire to keep his fan base happy and informed sometimes leads to disappointment when his implied promises regarding the timelines for announcements are – through no fault of his own, I’m sure – off base.  People who were perched on the edges of their (virtual) seats, ready to grab the carrot that had been dangled in front of them, start to feel let down as time goes on with no firm information.

sad - waiting

The excitement slowly seeps away, the “must book now” compulsion that grips you in the midst of cruise fever begins to let go, and your mind clears and you start to think maybe you should rethink whether you really want to go on this particular cruise – especially if you’re limited by time constraints or budget to cruising only a few times per year. Perhaps it would make more sense to look at more options.

Or maybe the fever, instead of dissipating, grows so strong that you just can’t wait around anymore, and just give up and book something else. Sometimes that “something else” is on a different CCL line or even a competing cruise line.

Tom Petty got it right. The waiting really is the hardest part.

This very situation is going on as I write this, regarding the eleventh annual Blogger Cruise (BC11). It’s a special cruise that John hosts every year, with a number of special “Blogger” activities for those who sign up for them, and of course the fun of sailing with John. For the past couple of years, at the end of each BC, the ship and cruise date for the next one was announced.

BC10 coming soon

This year, however, it’s been well over a month (50 days for those who are counting – and many are) since we got off the Carnival Glory on the last day of BC10, and Carnival still hasn’t “officially” announced the date and ship for BC11.

It was over a month before we were assured that it was “99%” going to be on the Feb. 3, 2018 sailing of the Magic out of Port Canaveral.

People don’t want to book the cruise until they know the date. And as we waited for word, we watched some sales pop up and then expire, and we saw the fares for the Magic’s February cruises increase.

More important, from Carnival’s point of view, as as each day went by without an announcement, we watched the posts in the BC cruise groups turn from eager to annoyed, and one by one many of those who had been in attendance on multiple Blogger cruises have announced that they’ll be skipping it this year. Sub-groups have even broken off to book alternate cruises for that time frame – and some of those aren’t on Carnival ships.

UPDATE: John announced today, again, that he is still waiting patiently for permission to make the BC11 info official, and that there are “good reasons” for the delays. I’d love to know what those reasons are. It appears to me that Carnival is losing some loyal customers – and John is getting the blame for something that isn’t his fault – as time passes. 

Sometimes it’s not that the wait is so long, but that after a buildup of anticipation, the announcement itself is a disappointment. One recent example of this was the inaugural season of Carnival’s next Vista class ship that will launch in spring 2018, the Horizon.

Fans just off the current newest ship, Vista, who had sailed in Europe on its 2016 inaugural season, were hyped up and eagerly awaiting “what comes next.” Those who had done several Med cruises were hoping for something different with Horizon, such as the British Isles or the Baltic. Many who didn’t get to sail the Mediterranean on Vista were looking forward to the opportunity to do it next summer on Horizon.

 

Following Vista’s European season, John solicited input on his Facebook page regarding what itineraries cruisers would like to see for Horizon. Choices included the Baltic and the British Isles. Many of the most experienced cruisers – who are most likely to actually book the overseas cruises – clamored for one of those, having already done the Med multiple times.

I was hoping for the Baltic, myself, but felt it was a long shot after Carnival announced that it would be launching two new megaships in 2020 and 2022 that would be built in Finland. It makes more sense to do the northern itineraries from there, but I still held out hope for the UK, or maybe a northerly transatlantic crossing that would stop in Iceland. Failing all that, my backup plan was to do the maiden voyage from Fincantieri shipyard so I could fly into Venice and have a day or two in that city.

Related imageThen the big news, when it arrived, was a total fizzle. There would be only a handful of European sailings, with itineraries similar to Vista’s. The TA would happen in May, rather than the ship staying in Europe all summer and crossing in the fall as Vista had done. All European sailings would be out of Barcelona – the first journey from the Adriatic around to Spain would be crew only. And the TA ports were uninspiring, most of them in Spain.

This is the reason I’m checking out alternative cruise lines for future European cruises. I’d prefer to sail on Carnival – but I want to go to new places and see new sights.  Closer to home (literally), many of us who live in Texas and cruise from Galveston are very tired of the same three itineraries: Belize/Roatan/Cozumel, Jamaica/Caymans/Cozumel, and Key West/Bahamas. We’ve been there, done that, way too many times.

To be fair, Carnival has been good to Galveston, giving us the newest ships after they do their initial stint in Miami (which, as the company headquarters, is the logical place for them to begin their lives). They’ve increased the number of ships based in Texas from two to three. They’ve even thrown us a few bones such as the Journeys partial Panama Canal transit on Freedom.

I know it’s difficult to do anything different from Galveston due to simple logistics. It takes longer to get to the eastern or southern Caribbean than is feasible for the typical seven day cruise. Still, the fourteen day Journeys are too long for many of us who can’t leave home, work, pets and family for two full weeks. It would be nice if they could figure out a few 9 or 10 day sailings to the USVI or down to the ABC islands.

Even if it included fewer ports and more sea days, I think there are many Texas cruisers who would book them – and Carnival could benefit from the sea day casino and on board shopping revenues. Just a thought.

Image result for market research

Now, I realize cruise lines have big market research operations that collect customer feedback and other data to help execs make the decisions they make. Maybe I’m all wet and the things that matter to me and the many fellow travelers I’ve talked to aren’t significant enough to matter in the overall scheme of things.

Maybe the push to focus on getting new customers rather than keeping long-time ones happy (which is rampant not just in the travel industry but in the business world in general these days, it seems) is the best strategy for the bottom line – at least in the short run. I just know it makes me sad when I and so many others who, two years ago, said we didn’t anticipate ever switching to another cruise line are now booking or thinking about booking on MSC, NCL, RCL and other lines outside the CCL corporate umbrella.

And it’s happening because those lines are offering things we want from Carnival, including solo cabins or at least solo rates that aren’t 200% of the double occupancy per-person fare, drink packages that don’t require everyone in the cabin purchase them even if one of those people is a teetotaler or medically unable to consume alcohol, and “all inclusive” drink packages that are truly unlimited.

MSC is luring other cruise lines’ long-time customers by offering a loyalty status match program. One powerful deterrent to “breaking ranks” and trying another company has been the specter of having to start all over again at the bottom of the loyalty club ladder. Now with MSC, Carnival’s Diamond, Platinum and Gold cruisers can come in as Black Card, Gold Card or Silver Card holders on their very first MSC cruise.

Image result for loyalty

Carnival would do well to at least recognize loyalty status across some or all of the CCL-owned lines (Princess, Holland America, Cunard, P&O, etc.). It’s something they’ve talked about for a while, but still haven’t implemented. If I want to sail an itinerary that Carnival doesn’t offer but that is offered by both Princess and MSC at similar cost, I’m mightily tempted to pick the one that gives me instant status (although the issue is complicated for those of us who own CCL stock, since the shareholder on-board credit benefit is applicable on all CCL lines).

Yet another way Carnival could (but likely never will) broaden their customer base would be to do a few sailings, on a few ships, that cater to the many older and younger couples and singles who would prefer an “adults only” vacation. Carnival has positioned itself as a “family” cruise line and that’s certainly an important market, but many of its most loyal cruisers are now retirement age and might enjoy the occasional cruise that doesn’t include the chance of screaming babies in the dining room or youngsters running up and down the hallways and dumping ice cream cones on the floors (not that some so-called grownups can’t be just as annoying).

Image result for adults only

They have given a nod to this demographic with the Havana areas on their Vista class ships, which are restricted to 12 years and older, but the premium prices put them out of reach of many who would like to try them.  Still, I think there are many more who would pay a more modest extra charge to book a cabin on a deck advertised as “adults only.”  It would also help if the Serenity (over 21) areas on so many of the ships weren’t situated right by the waterworks, and if the age restriction were actually enforced; I’ve seen many children wander into those areas.

What else? I have plenty of ideas.  There have been numerous complaints about some of the changes that Carnival has made over the last few years to cut costs. I understand budgeting and the need to keep fares competitive in the face of rising prices from suppliers and the added cost of complying with ever-increasing government regulations. But what some perceive as “death by a thousand cuts” is losing my favorite cruise line some customers.

How about more “experience upgrade packages” that would add back some of those former perks, for a modest price? Other cruise lines offer different “experience levels” and maybe it’s time for Carnival to look into that, too.  One idea is improved dining experiences; you could have a dining room that provides the basic (and cheaper) Image result for upgradeAmerican fare that many cruisers prefer and another that’s geared more toward foodies, who pay a slightly higher cruise fare but at a cost that’s lower than going to specialty restaurants every night.  Some cruise lines have one dining room that’s formal every night, for those who like to dress to the nines, while the others are casual. There are many ways to make more people happy and still recoup the cost.

A premium experience package could also include things like chocolates on the pillows (something that was terribly missed by some – not me – when it disappeared), perhaps a couple of drink vouchers (that could be used when and where you want, rather than within a narrow time frame), special velour robes, free Internet, or whatever other perks surveys show some customers value highly while others don’t care.

I hope these suggestions aren’t interpreted as complaints or “ragging” on Carnival. I love Carnival – I love their overall excellent customer service, the wonderful friendliness of their crews and staff members, their ships and cabins, their on-board activities, and the great value for the dollar.

I know the response to many of my suggestions will be, from some, “If you want that, you can go cruise on another cruise line.” That’s true, and maybe Carnival’s entire game plan is be the entry-level cruise line and not try to go beyond that. After all, they have their own “other cruise lines” that cater more to older cruisers, more upscale cruisers, childless cruisers, etc. And that bring us back to the one suggestion I mentioned earlier that would make this strategy make sense: extend the loyalty status and perks across those lines so that when we do venture away from our first cruise line love, we’ll keep it in the family.

 

About debshinder

Technology analyst and author, specializing in enterprise security. Author of or contributor to over 25 books, including "Scene of the Cybercrime." Fourteen-year Microsoft MVP, married to Microsoft FTE Tom Shinder, and proud mom of two wonderful grown-up human children and three amazing Japanese Chin pups. In my spare time, I love to travel - especially on cruise ships - and write about my grand adventures.
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