Carnival in Hot Water with Drag Queens

| Wednesday, 28 Nov 2012

Drag Stars at Sea - "Arrrgh-meow"

Even though CruiseMates has large gay community, I admit I very rarely visit it, and that is on purpose. The gay hosts that we have been privileged to call staff members here have explained to me that gay marketing is extremely nuanced. So, it is always better to leave it to the people on the inside.

Carnival Cruise Line just received a similar lesson.

When Al and Chuck Travel organized the "Drag Stars at Sea" cruise based upon characters from the popular television show RuPaul's Drag Race on LOGO TV they probably should have planned better.

First step; instead of chartering an entire ship they opted for a partial charter, meaning their guests would be mingling with regular cruisers booked on a shared sailing. Somewhere along the line they changed from an Norwegian Cruise Line charter to the larger Carnival Glory, although we don't know why.

It could be because some 1500 people booked the cruise, a group big enough that it could have justified chartering an entire ship like Holland America Statendam, a line that charters full ships all of the time.

Both full ship charters, and partial charters, are common for gay events, but it is well known that when gays cruise with "civilians" they usually remain quite low-key, being courteous and respectful to the prevailing atmosphere. It appears that most of the people on partial charter group cruises are experienced cruisers.

Who did the right thing here? Tell us here: Cruise Forum

But there are also gay events where the participants want to "be themselves," and when the entire theme is "dressing in drag" - to be told that doing so will get you kicked off the cruise with no refund probably came as quite a slap in the face. Especially if, as I suspect, a large number of the people booking this cruise had never taken a cruise before.

How did they find out they would not be allowed to bring out the boas? It started when a spokesperson for Carnival Cruise Line sent a letter out to group participants saying that while the stars of the show would be allowed to dress in drag, that would only in the theater and only during special group events. But none of the group's regular guests would ever be allowed to dress in drag - even in the theater during the shows.

According to the letter, "Carnival attracts a number of families with children and for this reason we strive to present a family-friendly atmosphere. It is important to all of us that all guests are comfortable with every aspect of the cruise. Arrangements have been made for Drag performances in the main theater featuring stars from LOGO TV, these functions will be private and only the performers are permitted to dress in drag while in the theater. Guests are not allowed to dress in drag for the performances or in public areas at any time during the cruise. We're sorry to say that any guest to violate our policies and or whose behavior affects the comfort and enjoyment of other guests will be disembarked at their own expense and no refund will be given.

This last paragraph was especially shocking to the people who had not only already booked the cruise, but had also already gone shopping for brand new outfits including Manolo Blahnik high heels.

Following that letter the travel agency then made its own ill-advised move by defending Carnival in a second letter citing "a well-known security policy of not allowing any costumes implemented after 9/11 that applies to all passengers equally" as the reason for the first letter.

It didn't take long for group members to figure out that Carnival has sponsored Halloween costume cruises and other similar events over the years. At that point Carnival issued a third letter citing a "misunderstanding" and saying they would therefore be happy to give a full refund to anyone who chose not to take the cruise.

But massive cancellations with full refunds at the last minute are bad news for any cruise line, they not only ruin a cruise, but it also means tons of lost revenue from onboard sales of liquor and other extras, which dual-income no-kids gay couples are famous for buying. To their surprise, people started cancelling.

And so Carnival Cruise Lines followed up just this week with a final letter to the group apologizing for the "misunderstanding" and saying that they will now allow anyone who wishes to dress up in drag.

My guess is that Carnival then hoped that people would not choose to cancel any of the complicated plans they had made to get on that cruise. But instead, several posts in a brand-new Facebook website called Boycott Carnival - Refund the Drag Race at Sea Cruise!! which now has close to 1800 members, recommends that everyone take up Carnival on the offer for a refund.

The FaceBook protests included a note from one of the biggest stars of the show, Sharon Needles who put on her own Facebook page:

This letter [from Carnival] is completely against my values and hopefully everyone else's as well. Before the drag race nothing was more exciting to me than dressing up and watching my idols perform. I love that my fans dressed up at my shows. Freaks stand up! You are born naked and the rest is Drag!!

Getting back to what I said before - gay marketing is extremely nuanced. Several very big gay-specialist travel agencies have gone out of business, and when they do just turning off the phones seems to be a pretty typical way to shut down. I hope this situation does not turn out this way - but if it does the lesson to be learned is this - be very clear about what you are offering from the beginning and do not over-promise. Also - for Carnival Cruise Line, leave the gay marketing to the people who know the community best, because you never know what you will find.

The comments in various non-cruise related celebrity gossip sites seem to sum up the situation better than most:

  • "ah yes, the classic miscommunication excuse"
  • "probably soon to be followed by a very public donation to a very large LGBT charity"
  • "I blame the terrorists"
  • "more than enough backpedaling to power the entire cruise ship"

Who did the right thing here? Tell us here: Cruise Forum

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