A few simple actions by Carnival employees merit loyalty from one family for over 100 cruises.
When one person has sailed 40 cruises, all of them on one cruise line, you wonder how that cruise line earned such loyalty. Such is the case with David and Linda, known in CruiseMates by the username LHP.
David has been on 44 Carnival cruises - and has never sailed on any other line. At age 22 the single David cruised once a year before he met his wife to be, Linda, at age 30. Nine years of nuptial bliss later David introduced Linda to cruising. Now she has sailed on 35 cruises, all of them on Carnival.
All together, David, Linda and kids have taken well over 100 cruises on Carnival. "As a family, we started out like everyone else, once a year in 1998, 1999, 2000 and 2001. We took two in 2002, three in 2003, two in 2004, one in 2005, three in 2006, four in 2007, eight (!) in 2008 once our oldest son graduated and six in 2009. We will have five for 2010 plus one or two penciled in for October."
My job as a cruise reviewer and reporter is to compare cruise lines. I constantly assess the differences between cruise ships and make judgments on what kinds of ships appeal to specific cruisers.
David and Linda gave me an identity crisis. But also the over-riding realization that Carnival deserves a ton of credit for its ability to satisfy them so completely they have never considered another cruise line. That is truly amazing.
David's Love Affair with Carnival As a young, single man David liked the party atmosphere Carnival offered. David's first ship, Carnival's Festivale, was only 38,000-tons for 1432 passengers and had a huge casino that took up nearly an entire deck.
"At the time, I was 22 years old and single," David says. "I had a Travel Agent who I told I was looking for something new and interesting. She asked if I had ever taken a cruise and I said no. She said Carnival was the best fit for me. She booked the cruise and airfare with arrival on the day of the cruise."
What surprised him the most on his first cruise?
"It was an entertainment complex within itself. Back then, there was less "selling" on the ships so it had more of an all inclusive feel. (Even though alcohol was an extra) I really liked the idea of being able to drink and party without having to drive, and the cruise provided a large group to party with."
Was he hooked immediately? We all know that first impressions are important, but in David's case they eventually led to over 100 cruise bookings on Carnival ships for David and his immediate family.
"My second cruise was on the (Carnival) Mardi Gras two years later - May, 1984. Usually I sailed with a group of friends and to be honest we used to call it a "booze and booty" cruise. I was in my early 20's and single and it was a great way to party. Sometimes I cruised solo, that was back when Carnival would match solo cruisers to share a cabin." (Only Holland America still does that). After my second cruise I sailed on Carnival every year until I got married"
Back then cruises were targeted to singles and Carnival provided a party at sea. The names of the ships, Carnivale and Festivale, said "party" and the catchphrase "Fun Ship" was invented.
But Carnival cruisers started growing up and getting married, David being the perfect example. To the line's credit, as their clientele changed so did Carnival.
David got married at 30 and didn't cruise for nine years. He had a wife and kids, one of them, DJ, with autism. When David first suggested a cruise to Linda she had concern for DJ. Linda tells me the one thing that triggers DJ's panic attacks is costumed characters like sports team mascots. Carnival has one called "Fun-ship Freddie."
Vicki Freed, a long time Carnival executive (formerly; now at Royal Caribbean) stepped in personally to give Linda a solution. She put Linda in contact with the cruise director of every ship before each cruise so Linda could get Freddie's schedule. As long as they avoided Freddie, DJ could cope.
The Story of DJ I had a chance to meet DJ on a John Heald Bloggers cruise in 2009, often in the ship's atrium contemplating the posters and other artwork. I admired his independence as a 16 year old with autism. And I know from speaking with Linda that he couldn't possibly be more loved.
Linda takes up the story...
"Because of the exposure to Freddie over the years DJ has learned to compensate. Instead of panicking and hurting himself he extracts himself from the situation safely. DJ won't be having his picture taken with Freddie any time soon, but he can actually be in the same large room (like the main theater) now as long as there are lots of chairs between them. DJ will watch Freddie from a distance."
"Since the cruise ship is a controlled environment, we now let DJ leave the main dining room about five minutes early. This has taught him little things like how to get in the cabin by himself. Now that he can tell time and wears a watch he has become very responsible when we tell him to be in the cabin by a certain time."
"Now at the age of 18 he gets to enjoy his independence. He walks up and down the Promenade, Lido buffet or any public area about a thousand times a day. He knows he is not allowed in any cabin area unless it is our deck. He checks in with us during the evening and knows he can always find me at karaoke and Dad at the shows or listening to music. He has learned to order room service and we leave $1 bills in the drawer so that he can tip."
"I truly feel that the level of development DJ has achieved is directly related to the amount of cruising he has been blessed to do."
Real Family Cruising That story sums up the true reason for Carnival's success to me. As loyal customers like David grew up and made families, Carnival made itself into a family cruise line. And they didn't just change their image The effort made by Vicki Freed to help Linda personally, even as an executive vice president of a multi-billion dollar company, shows a real personal commitment to offering family cruises.
David adds this, "DJ got sick on our first cruise. We took a ship excursion to Busch Gardens in Tampa, and after we sailed DJ came down with a fever of 103. We took him to the ship doctor who gave him Tylenol and the next morning he was fine."
"I will never forget how kind the cabin steward was. He had two boys the same age as Josh and DJ. He brought Linda dinner from the main dining room and brought Jello and crackers for DJ until about midnight."
This was on David's first cruise back in nine years and Linda's first cruise ever. Needless to say, Carnival won them over; for the second time with David.
Today's Carnival in David and Linda's Eyes
I asked David and Linda what they think of Carnival after decades and dozens of cruises.
David says, "Carnival has changed the most for me, since I remember their party days, but I think it is for the better. They appeal to families now, which they had to do to retain their clientele, but I still think they have the 'fun factor.'"
Linda adds, "Carnival has changed since 1998 and I agree for the better. When our children were small, Carnival concentrated on providing a good experience for them. As our children have grown, Carnival has refined and improved Camp Carnival. The best change over the years has been Carnival's smoking restrictions, although they still do not go far enough."
"We both understand that Carnival has had to make some changes in order to prosper in difficult economic times. While we do not care for the "selling" (spa, shore excursions, gift shop, bingo) that goes on, it does not impact our cruise since we don't participate. Any "cuts" these past two years have not impacted our cruise experience."
I had to ask them about the one thing that distinguishes Carnival from other cruise lines the most for me, the truly outlandish décor by master ship designer Joe Farcus. There is no mistaking the audacity of a Farcus interior.
The pair said they never really noticed it(!). It seems they just assume that is how every cruise ship is decorated. I asked what they like best about Carnival compared to what they know about other cruise lines.
"Price is definitely a factor. However, it is more the "value" that you get for that price and not just the dollar cost itself. In the past, Carnival has been inexpensive without feeling "cheap". To us there is a difference. We are not "foodies," however; having vacationed at 5-star resorts like The Cloister (which is known for its food) we are just as satisfied with the food on Carnival as we were there. While we are blessed in that we can afford to cruise with almost any line I have not been able to justify the additional $1,000 to cruise a similar product for our family of four."
Have they sailed on all of the Carnival ships? Not yet, but very soon. Linda explains...
"We are booked on Elation (Mobile - August 19), Liberty (Miami - Nov 27) and Destiny (Miami Dec 4). We are doing the Liberty and Destiny in a weird back to back - getting off the Liberty and on the Destiny the same day. And then all the Carnival ships will have been sailed by at least one member of our family (except the Carnivale)."
"Also by then, DJ will have sailed on all the Carnival ships that were sailing when he started cruising. After our Destiny cruise, when someone asks, 'why do you people sail the same Carnival ship more than once?' I can say 'because we have already sailed them all...we don't have any choice.'"
They know their ships, even if they have only sailed on Carnival. We all agree on the best Carnival ships.
"The Spirit class is our favorite class of ship. The Dream was too big for our taste. And while we are not crazy about the size of the Conquest class we loved the Splendor, which is a little larger, because of the Spa Cabins being non-smoking and the Lido being completely non-smoking. Once we have completed all the Carnival ships at the end of this year, we will probably stick to the Spirit class."
I also agree with their finding of the older Fantasy class as their least favorite Carnival ships. "On the Fantasy-class there is no way to protect children from exposure to second hand smoke. The Casino and Casino bar open onto the Promenade where smoking is allowed and are close enough to be a burn hazard to anyone (especially children not paying attention) on top of the smoke exposure."
Moving on to Other Cruise Lines Both David and Linda have platinum status now, the top level in the Carnival loyalty program, which means they enjoy special perks every time they cruise. But as David says, they realize it may be time to finally look for a different cruise line. The kids are becoming independent and they are outgrowing the "family cruise" model Carnival provides.
"We never 'planned' to cruise only Carnival," Linda says. "It was the cruise line that my husband started with and since their assistance with DJ was excellent, it is the cruise line we have stayed with all these years.
But now they want to go to places where Carnival does not sail, like Europe, so they are thinking about other lines. I recommended Princess to them since it is in the Carnival family and their platinum status should carry over. Like Carnival, Princess offers bigger ships with plenty of onboard activities, but it is less crowded and more subdued, and it doesn't have any character costumes.
"I hate to admit it, but we are getting older and the very things that drew me to Carnival as a young adult may be the very things that send us looking for other cruise lines in the future. That isn't anything negative about Carnival. It is just how tastes change as we age," David says.
"Over the years, Carnival has been our only choice because our son was comfortable there. As you know, change is not the friend of Autism. The only thing we would change about Carnival product is their liberal smoking policy of allowing smoking in the cabins and indoor public areas. These two issues (destinations and especially the smoking) will probably be the things that direct us to other cruise lines, once DJ feels ready to accept a change."
There You have It Now you see how a cruise line wins loyalty from its customers. In the end it was the attention paid by a few Carnival employees to a very special need. A little bit of effort in that area led to an amazing story of brand loyalty. I think this is one lesson every cruise line could take to the bank.