Arnie Weissmann
Arnie Weissmann

Chinese travel agents, like anxious parents, seemed a bit panicky when their infant cruise industry began to behave out of sorts and look a bit pale. (See related story, "Cruise execs beam optimism about China despite challenges.") Selling cabins on chartered ships became challenging in the face of a heavy typhoon season and fears related to an outbreak of Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) in South Korea.

It didn't help that the economy slowed and the currency was devalued.

But substitute hurricane for typhoon, Norovirus for MERS and the 2008 recession for currency weakness, and we've all heard the story before: Challenging events occur, and prices plummet. In this instance, it was not the lines that lowered the price, but agencies chartering ships.

Many Chinese agents, new to both cruising and capitalism, don't have the historical perspective to recognize that challenges are cyclical. And at Travel Weekly's CruiseWorld China last week, Carnival Corp. CEO Arnold Donald, Norwegian Cruise Holdings' CEO Frank Del Rio, MSC CEO Gianni Onorato and Dr. Zinan Liu, Royal Caribbean International's president of the North Asia and Pacific region, took turns playing the role of reassuring pediatrician, having seen their share of infants with colds grow up to be, for the most part, healthy and strong.

Few of the Chinese agents selling cruises have actually been on a cruise, and I suspect that many will be invited aboard ships on fam sailings in the coming years.

No doubt that will help them sell, but if the lines also want to train how to emerge from business challenges stronger, I'd recommend a fam to La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland.

Timely La Chaux-de-Fonds

The history of La Chaux-de-Fonds provides a fascinating lesson in patience, salesmanship and keeping cool in the face of business adversity.

When you arrive in La Chaux-de-Fonds, you immediately see that it resembles no other town in Switzerland (or anywhere else in Western Europe, for that matter).

It's on a grid, and if you have a keen eye, you'll notice other anomalies. The buildings have many windows on their eastern and western exposures. The streets are wide. There are generously-spaced gardens between the buildings.

Why?

The town had been the center of a farming region, but not a very prosperous one. Winters were long, cold and boring. In the 1700s, local farmers decided to make some extra money participating in a new technology: watchmaking.

Wearable clocks were new, and watchmaking, an industry with no dust, noise or large machinery, could be done in home workshops.

The turning point for La Chaux-de-Fonds came when a fire wiped out the town in 1794. City leaders decided that watchmaking had a future, and that they could capitalize on the gentle upward slope of the town to capture a resource that was essential to watchmaking at the time: sunlight. Then, as now, watches were made of many tiny parts. The orientation and size of the windows, the width of the streets, the spacing of gardens -- all were designed to avoid shadows and capture daylight.

That La Chaux-de-Fonds remains to this day the capital of Swiss watchmaking is a testament to its business leaders' ability to turn threats into opportunities.

A hurricane can disrupt cruising for a week, but American factories, producing cheaper watches more easily and quickly, threatened La Chaux-de-Fonds with ruin toward the end of the 19th century. The town responded by taking the best of what they saw -- it was more efficient to gather watchmakers in centralized locations -- but their "factories" continued, for the most part, to produce high-quality products.

The business community created a local supply chain with specialized companies, right in town, manufacturing nothing but, for example, faces or hands for different watchmakers.

An even bigger threat arose from the Japanese quartz-movement boom in the 1960s. Extremely accurate, cheap timepieces flooded the market.

Again facing the prospect of ruination, the Swiss watchmaking community had a crucial insight; as summed up by my local guide, Claudine Buehler, they realized that the Japanese "didn't propose a watch, but a price."

Today, La Chaux-de-Fonds thrives, proposing and producing watches. I toured the Corum factory, where an entry-level watch costs $2,000 and, depending on how many jewels you want encrusting your timepiece, you can spend a great deal more.

We passed by a new entrant (by Swiss standards) to watchmaking, 10-year-old Greubel Forsey, which makes a watch that sells for $1 million. That model is apparently very complicated to make (each has more than 500 pieces and takes more than 500 hours to construct and polish), and they are rare (only six are made each year). But the only thing that could drive an otherwise rational human being to purchase one is its story, which even includes the "factory" where it's made: It rises out of the ground at a distinctive, sharp angle.

Buehler at one point said of La Chaux-de-Fonds, "We should not exist. We are not near water; we were not near a main road; we are at too high an altitude."

It's not just Chinese agents who would be inspired by a trip to La Chaux-de-Fonds, the town that should not exist, yet prospers. From CEOs to retailers, the question should reoccur to travel providers: Am I proposing an experience, or a price?

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