December 1, 2001
Editor's Note: Cruise industry expert Mike Driscoll, editor of the travel trade publication Cruise Week, recently ran a story in which some travel agents suggested that passengers are returning home less satisfied with their seagoing vacation than they have been in the past. After reading Mike's article below, please give CruiseMates YOUR input on this subject.
You've all heard the reasons given for unsatisfactory (i.e. deep discount) pricing this summer: a cloudy economic picture, too many new ships, travel agents not keeping pace with the growth, etc. Veteran agent Dan Schneck of Cruises Only in Canton, Ohio (no relation to the larger Cruises Only in Florida), says there's another factor that's been overlooked--deteriorating word of mouth.
"One of the reasons this industry grew was because people who didn't want to cruise in the first place came back from a cruise and quickly told their friends how they had the time of their life," says Schneck. "So their friends tried a cruise, and they too came back talking up the vacation. But if people don't come back happy, they don't send their seven friends, and their seven friends don't send their seven friends.
"Our feedback is telling us that the product in the past few years, while technologically more advanced, is not consistent enough that they bring the friends back. With this erosion of consumer satisfaction comes the erosion of prices."
Schneck says some first-timers are coming back flat-out disappointed--and it's not because the travel agents created unreal expectations. The satisfaction level varies from product to product, from cruise to cruise, with enough so-so's in there to make a difference in future bookings.
He contends the cruise lines are turning a deaf ear to criticisms. "They have their sheets proving 98.3% of the cruisers came back saying this was better than any vacation they've ever taken before," he says. "If agents report honest feedback, the cruise execs pooh-pooh it, ignore it and say we should be better salespeople."
We called a handful of other agents to get their opinions about word-of-mouth. Some paused before answering, but they generally agreed with Schneck's comments --and these are impassioned sellers of cruises, true believers in the product and successful sales people.
Without exactly pinpointing the reason why (again, it seemed to vary from line to line), they concurred that the 'wow factor' of cruising is not what it once was. There is one other thing they all agreed upon: About the only thing clients consistently like more now about mainstream cruising is the price. Any common thoughts about what's missing? Agents say service levels have declined as ships have grown in size. Cruising is less intimate, more homogenized.
Another factor making cruising less special--the nickel and diming: prices for photos, alcoholic drinks, gift shops, shore excursions and, of course, the specialty restaurant surcharges. It's not the cost per se, it's just that people want to relax and forget about money when they're on a cruise.
The cruise lines may well dismiss the argument that passengers are not as thrilled as they once were. Even with the huge expansion in capacity, ships are filled. But what did it take to fill ships? A drastic lowering of prices. The lines want to make up for it, so they nickel and dime, and increase ship size for economies of scale, but if agents are right, then the lines are just creating a vicious circle with service and prices spiraling down.
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