Arnie Weissmann
Arnie Weissmann

Forty-five thousand consumers. Fifteen hundred travel agents. Two hundred passengers intercepted midcruise. Twenty focus groups.

Carnival Corp.'s chief strategy officer, Josh Leibowitz, cast a large and wide net that captured all of the above in his effort to understand the psychology of cruising. A former Big Data and analytics specialist with McKinsey & Co., he sifted through the data with the initial goal of understanding why some consumers cruise and others don't. He found that to reach that understanding, he had to deconstruct the underlying vacation decision-making process.

His results are fascinating, and what he learned can help every travel adviser who sells cruises convert more business.

The No. 1 barrier to cruising, it turns out, isn't concern about getting seasick or food choices or entertainment or the compatibility of fellow passengers. It's simply that most people are not even considering cruising when they plan a vacation.

"The first thing in their consideration set is a beach," he said. "The second is other destinations in the United States. The biggest thing that came out of it was understanding that we had to re-frame how we thought of ourselves.

"We're not in the cruise business. We're in the vacation business. We're fighting for share of suitcase."

On average, people will start the process with two vacations in mind, and many will, along the way, consider a third, he said. In the end, 75% will end up choosing one of the first two they thought about, so it's important to be in that initial consideration set.

Often, the challenge is one of overcoming an "I'm not a cruiser" mindset, and that's where travel advisers can play a crucial role. In the same way that Carnival executives had to reframe how they thought about their business, travel counselors can reframe the conversation about vacations and cruising by introducing places that are best seen by water.

"It's where we have an advantage with our primary competition, which are the land-based alternatives" Leibowitz said. "If people say they're not a cruiser, ask them if they've ever considered going to Alaska. We came up with the concept of the 'seven cruise wonders of the world,' attractions or destinations that are best seen by a cruise."

In addition to Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve in Alaska, the other six are Fiordland National Park in New Zealand, the Panama Canal, Shiretoko Peninsula in Japan, the Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio de Janeiro, Trunk Bay in St. John (U.S. Virgin Islands) and Hagia Sophia in Istanbul.  

Getting a vacationer on a ship is crucial for Carnival because once a cruise is experienced, "it becomes an annuity, like the razor blade business," Leibowitz said. "Our net promoter score (used in research as a gauge of loyalty) for cruisers came down to two questions: How likely are you to repeat, and how likely are you to recommend? You get a very nice repeat and recommend rate with cruising."

And once a client has cruised, perceptions about cruising change enormously. Those who have cruised are more likely to perceive cruising as an "excellent value for money" by a 3:1 ratio. An even bigger split, 4:1, occurs in responding to the question of whether cruising provides "freedom to do what I want" while onboard.

"We look at the lifetime value of a cruiser but also having a lifetime relationship with those who sell travel," Leibowitz added.

"We need to reach potential guests higher up in the funnel, when they're making a decision. We need someone who can explain that, when coming on a ship, you will not only get to spend time at the beach, but we will take you to four of the best beaches in the world, in one week."

Travel advisers are also crucial in ensuring that guests are put on the right brand and right ship. He has analyzed the research to create likely guest profiles for each brand, and these in turn inform everything from activities aboard a ship to marketing campaigns.

"We would love to have 100% share of suitcase, but we realize people will have a portfolio of vacations they consider," Leibowitz said.

"We'd be happy to be one out of two -- with more than 100 ships on the water, we'd be happy with that."

I hadn't heard the term "share of suitcase" before, and I thought it might become an industry standard, a metric that measures broader segment competition, such as cruise vs. tours vs. resorts vs. all-inclusives vs. FIT.

It might well enter conversation as such a metric, but the phrase isn't likely to be seen in print much outside of his company's communication. Leibowitz said "share of suitcase" is now a registered trademark of Carnival Corp.

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