If We Ran the Cruise Line ...

| September 28, 2007

Here are some suggestions for what we would do differently if we were in charge.

Back in 2000 our cruise consumer editor, Tim Rubacky, wrote a piece called "If I Owned a Cruise Line," with excellent suggestions like: "I would give suite passengers discounts on specialty restaurants." Not surprisingly, some cruise lines have adopted many of Tim's ideas. (Also not surprisingly, Tim now works for a cruise line.)

CruiseMates asked its readers what they would do if they owned the cruise lines. Their suggestions can be read in our message board "cruise line suggestions." ( cruisemates.com/forum/viewforum.php?f=57 ). You will see ideas like "give everyone a lanyard" to hold their room keys.

I have some ideas of my own on what I would do if I owned a cruise line, so here they are:

Solo Cruisers We recently ran a report on the psychological aspects of sailing solo. We discussed how most cruise ship passengers travel in couples or larger family groups. That can lead to feelings of loneliness and alienation for a person sailing alone.

Some cruise lines say they always seat solo cruisers together in the dining room, but I hear solos complain that this is not the case. On one of my solo cruises I was matched with a family with two kids, an elderly mother and caretaker daughter, and a retired southern preacher and his wife. A friend who regularly sails solo tells me the dining room is key for solo cruisers because it is their best opportunity to make new friends. When the cruise line screws up the dining arrangements for solo cruisers, they are potentially ruining their entire cruise.

So much about the cruise experience is geared toward couples that it almost seems cruise lines do not really want solo cruisers. Cabins are priced on a double occupancy basis, and many cruise lines charge a "single supplement" equal to the cost of a second passenger's fare; some even charge them for a second person's port fees and taxes. They pay exactly as much as if a second passenger were really with them, eating the food and using the ship facilities. This does not seem fair.

If I ran the cruise line, here is how I would handle solo cruisers:

I would create a wing of solo cruiser cabins, all in the same area, on the same deck. They would be small, with a single bed, bathroom, closet and shower. Having all solo cruisers in close proximity would help them get to know one another, and help them keep track of one another's movements for added security.

I would price these cabins at single person fares -- no singles supplements as all. They might cost slightly more than the per-person fare for a cabin for two, but not much.

I would schedule a meeting for solo cruisers the first night and a pre-dinner cocktail hour for solos every night. This doesn't mean free drinks, but it offers a time and place for them to meet and chat before dinner, giving them a chance to plan their dining together should they choose. Otherwise, especially on open-seating ships, the solo cruiser might end up eating alone.

I would have someone on the ship's staff designated to host these meetings and keep track of solo cruisers. This person would also call each solo cruiser every day, just to ask how they are doing and if they need anything. The idea is to make sure they are safe and secure, and having a good time.

I would offer solo cruisers at least 15 minutes of free Internet access every day so they could keep in touch with family and friends. Also, on the ship's computer network, I would create a "solo-cruiser" chatroom where each solo could drop a line at any time about where they plan to be at any given time. That way, they could find each other for company if they want to, and it would also leave a record for the ship's staff of their whereabouts.

While this program would be optional, meaning a solo cruiser could opt out of all of it if they choose to, solo cruising has been shown as a factor in a few cases where people have gone missing on ships. If a husband or wife goes missing on a cruise it is reported immediately, but when a solo cruiser is unaccounted for it sometimes takes a few days before it is readily apparent.

I would require every solo cruiser to list an emergency contact (all passengers are required to do this anyway), but I would tell them that if the social director did not hear from the solo cruiser at least once a day, either in person, or by their use of the ship's computer network, that the emergency contact would be notified the next day.

For the record, there are already singles cruise companies that use some of these ideas, so I admit I borrowed some of them. One difference is these singles companies have to struggle to put their all of their clients into double occupancy rooms with roommates -- probably one of the largest sources of friction. Or the solo can still choose to pay that expensive singles supplement. But until a cruise line takes my idea for solo cabins to heart, these singles cruise group providers are still the best thing going for single cruisers.

Home Porting of Ships An unexpected benefit of the 9/11 tragedy was the emergence of a trend called "drive-to" cruises. The cruise lines found many people were afraid to fly, but were willing to drive to cruise ships if they were close enough. "Drive-to" cruises became popular for a few years. But after a while, the local population grew tired of having the same ship, doing the same itinerary, week after week.

Home porting is a great idea, but could be made even better with a simple change. Most cruise ships have to reposition twice a year anyway. Why not send each ship to a different city every year? There should be a change in the class of ship and in the itinerary. A ship that previously sailed from Tampa to Jamaica and Grand Cayman, for example, could sail from Port Canaveral to Key West, Nassau and San Juan instead.

More Affinity Meetings When it comes to satisfaction ratings for cruises, one of the top recommendations is for more enrichment on board: People want to get together for the discussion of topics that interest them.

By setting up simple ways for people of similar interests to meet on board, the lines could create a new venue for enrichment. People interested in painting, card playing, computer games, photography, chess, wine tasting or whatever will really enjoy any opportunity to get together and talk. This will get people out of their cabins and socializing. All it takes is a listing in the daily program of the time and place for each special interest meeting.

A good way to set this up would be to have a box in the library that says "I'm an expert on ..." with forms for people to fill in, describing a topic they can give a 15-minute lecture on. A staff member collects the forms and schedules the 15-minute lecture in a presentation room with 40 minutes for discussion. If people knew that this was going to happen on every ship, they would start to come prepared with materials and give-away items. Soon, every cruise ship would have a series of lectures every day on subjects ranging from ABBA to Zoology.

Art Auctions Meanwhile, one shipboard activity I would do away with is art auctions. I realize some people actually attend these auctions for reasons other than the free champagne, and we have heard of people purchasing art on ships and saying that they feel good about the value. But art auctions are also one of the biggest sources of complaints from our readers -- people billed incorrectly, charged for pieces they did not want, or not receiving the pieces they thought they were going to get.

Buying art for your home should be an informed decision based on in-depth research into the piece you are considering. A 5-minute talk on giclee printing techniques presented with a glass of champagne does not qualify as enough background for you to justify an investment over $1000. We realize this is a controversial topic for the cruise lines, because they make a lot of money from these events. In our opinion, they reek of hucksterism and detract from the overall relaxed air of the ship. Many of our readers agree.

Food Services Admittedly, this is one area that might be hard to improve on. But if we ran the cruise line, we would take a tip from Princess Cruises and keep the buffet area open around-the-clock. You can't beat the convenience of having hot food available 24 hours a day -- especially food you can get in the middle of the night by tiptoeing out of your room, without having a room service delivery disturb your partner.

Speaking of room service, why have such a limited menu? Cruise lines tend to look at room service two ways. The less convenient method is to put a simplified storage galley on every deck close to the staterooms. The better approach, in our opinion, is to create a special room service prep area in the main galley, offering easy access to fresh food items from the dining room menu anytime regular meals are being served. This eases the service crunch in the dining room, and makes in-cabin dining a truly special occasion.

If the ship's best cuisine is readily available in the dining room, why not make it readily available by room service? Many ships already do this, and if we ran the cruise line we would, too.

Entertainment Options I have seen plenty of cruise shows because I worked as a stage manager on cruise ships for several years. Perhaps I am a little jaded, because most passengers appear to enjoy shipboard entertainment a great deal. I have written essays on how I would improve cruise shows, but that is a separate topic.

One innovation I heartily approve of that is now very popular on most cruise ships is outdoor movies on a big screen. They call it "Movies Under the Stars," but they also show them during the day. I love watching movies on cruise ships, but I don't want to sit outdoors in the humidity of stark daylight trying to see details on a screen that reflects the glare of the sun.

We would show the same movies during the daytime in a show lounge on a big screen with Dolby surround sound, just like you would see in your neighborhood theater. Movies under the stars at night are fun and a great addition to the cruise experience, but movies under the stars in the middle of the day just doesn't make sense.

Port Options Have you ever booked a cruise that begins or ends in a place that you really wanted to spend some time in, only to realize too late that the cruise schedule does not give you enough time there?

Many Mediterranean cruises begin or end in Venice. Unfortunately, the ship docks in the morning and does not give you any time to see the city, unless you book a hotel for a night or two. Cruise lines could be better at planning arrivals in the final destination port maybe two days earlier, and use the ship as a hotel for passengers who want to see the city. This is more convenient than moving to a hotel for just one night. If we ran the cruise line we would make more time for passengers to see the sights in embarkation and disembarkation ports.

Shore Excursions Admittedly, shore excursions have gotten better in the last few years. Ten years ago, the typical shore excursions were predictable fodder for shipboard comedians. You would get on a bus, drive by a few points of interest and try to get snapshots through the window.

After the bus trip, you were taken to a remote "factory" or craft site to see the process of making some local commodity, which also happened to be for sale in the gift shop. On most excursions, you were trapped in this remote setting, held captive until it was time to go back to the ship, with no other shopping opportunities.

If we ran the cruise line, shopping would still be part of every shore excursion, but the obligatory sales stop at a local "factory" would be replaced with free time and in the area of the public markets. There would be plenty of time for people to see all the shops they wanted, and then they would return to the bus for the ride back to the ship.

It's the passenger's tour, and unless the factory's product is really unique to the port, don't make it part of the tour. It is obvious there is some kind of a payoff for the tour operator and that's embarrassing for the cruise line. The island of Murano offers free tours to anyone staying in a hotel in Venice, for example. If the factory is willing to pay the cruise line for visitors, the cruise line shouldn't charge the passengers to go there.

Photographers Onboard photography has always been a pain to me, but I do not like getting my picture taken. Shipboard photographers who interrupt me on the gangway, or trying to eat, are frustrating enough, but what I've noticed lately makes the whole process unbearable.

The cost of onboard photographs has skyrocketed. It is not unusual to see a single 8 x 6 picture selling for $15, printed on flimsy paper. For $15 you would think they could manage a nice high gloss or satin finish.

At least one luxury line, Silversea Cruises, has done away with onboard photographers. For a while they offered the services of a photographer if a passenger requested them, but few people did, so shipboard photography was dropped. Good move, Silversea.

Onboard photography is a big revenue producer. So if we ran the cruise line, we would let the photographers stay. But we wouldn't let them take pictures during dinner or on the gangways. Only voluntary sit-down portraits and (OK -- we give) candid shots would be allowed.

Prints would be sold for reasonable prices, like a few dollars apiece. To add to the revenue, we would make all of the pictures available online after the cruise, inviting people to come back to our cruise line web site and purchase more prints.

Daily Schedules We asked our message boards for suggestions, and one comment we heard a few times is that people would like to see the entertainment schedule for the entire cruise listed the first day. They would like to know which days have an early show for late-seating diners, for example. Thus they would be better prepared to plan spa visits and outfit selections for formal nights.

We would like to see a full list of phone numbers, dining room times, hours of the spa, the kids programs, the shows, time in port, etc, all in one master list distributed to passengers at the beginning of the cruise. The process for making an alternative restaurant reservation would then be reduced by several steps.

Elevators One of the most frustrating things on some of the nicest ships is the elevator operation. Why is it that a bank of atrium elevators next to a bank of standard elevators work on separate controls? Yes, we understand some elevators only go to certain floors, but that doesn't mean both sets are not equally useful to most people.

If you walk to the atrium area of your deck (seven, for example) and want to go to deck 12, the main bank of elevators and the atrium elevators will both get you there, but they are on separate controls. So all the people waiting will push the buttons for both sets of elevators -- and that means half the time when one of the elevators stops, the riders have already left. Put all elevators on the same controls; if the "wrong" elevator stops, people will quickly learn they can still take it and walk a few stairs, or they can push the button again until the right elevator stops.

Internet Access Internet access these days is as important as TV or bathrooms. Every cabin should have an Internet access jack or wireless access. There's no reason why a person using a laptop should have to walk to a lobby area just to get online. The more accessible the Internet is, the more money the cruise lines will make selling access time. Speaking of that, Internet access really should be cheaper. Everyone knows the cruise lines are getting Internet access at a bulk rate, not measured. Make it cheaper and more people will use it for longer periods of time, and people who rely on the Internet for their business will be able to cruise much more often.

Final Improvement -- The Public Suggestion Box Like the old suggestion box, this would be a public place where passengers can submit suggestions to management. But this would be a computer with a public screen and keyboard. If something on the ship needs to be fixed -- more towels by the pool, a cold hot tub, an empty ice-cream dispenser -- people can enter it publicly and it will be displayed, with the time it was entered, for all to see. If the problem is being fixed, management can mark it as "in progress" and no more people can add to it. If it is not being fixed, everyone will know it. Problems will get resolved more quickly this way.

If you have a suggestion for "how I would run a cruise line," go to our "cruise line suggestions" cruisemates.com/forum/viewforum.php?f=57 message board and add your own topic. Lets see what we can come up with.

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