Bob Zalk, who took me on a tour of the Disney Fantasy the day before its christening in New York last week, is an "imagineer." He's part of the Disney division that conceives and oversees execution of everything from theme park rides to resort lobby furnishings to cruise ship cutlery.
Informing everything that Disney and its teams of imagineers do is a story, i.e., an overarching theme that guides both creativity and engineering. Zalk, who has a degree in film studies, tends to think in terms of cinematic stories. As we walked aboard the Fantasy and into the ship's atrium, he said, "I like to think of this as 'Scene 1.'"
Storytelling saturates the Disney culture. It is a conscious process that shapes every decision. But, in reality, storytelling permeates every business. CEOs and brand managers are certainly aware of this, as are a corporation's marketing and public relations departments.
Although Disney is comfortable discussing the role the story plays in its individual attractions, where creative artifice is characterized as "magic," most companies link their story to corporate history, culture and standards. Apple, Starbucks, Zappos and Disney itself are examples of corporations that have strong company stories.
And, to take it further, entire industries have story lines. Think about the tobacco companies in aggregate. Hollywood. The petroleum industry. You can populate each with a cast of characters, and you're familiar with their robust narrative. In fact, humans are hardwired to see things in terms of stories and myths. From an evolutionary perspective, it's an efficient way to look at the world.
The cruise industry has a somewhat complicated, and less universally shared, story line. The story embraced by initiates -- the cruise industry itself, those who have experienced a cruise and those who sell cruises -- is one of fun, romance, excitement and satisfaction. Perhaps glamour, perhaps education, perhaps exoticism, perhaps a taste of the fine life. Overall, a very positive story.
According to CLIA statistics released last week, only about 3% of Americans cruised last year, and only about 24% have cruised at some point in their lives. I say "only," but to put that in perspective, it's still a young industry. It has seen a remarkable annualized passenger growth rate of 7.5% since 1980 and even experienced a 10% increase last year under challenging economic conditions.
Since the industry also enjoys a high repeat-cruiser rate, it would appear the industry's deliverables match its story line to a remarkable degree. But the fact remains that those who have first-hand experience with cruising are clearly in the minority.
As viewed by the majority, the industry story may be positive, negative or malleable. And in just six weeks of this relatively young year, the industry story line has been strongly challenged.
Coverage of the Concordia tragedy boosted subsequent media interest in the stranding of the Allegra, the Carnival shore excursion robbery in Mexico and the refusal by Argentine authorities to allow Princess and P&O ships to dock after they had previously called at the Falkland Islands. Congressional hearings last week kept cruise safety issues in the spotlight.
What's interesting to me is that actual, though isolated "real world" events resulting from politics, crime, mechanical failure and poor judgment could foster a view of the industry that is less reflective of reality than the more mythic industry insider story. The latter grew out of collective and contextual experiences rather than incidents that are connected primarily by a compressed timeline.
As has been cited by CLIA representatives and acknowledged by some news media, the industry's safety record is exceptional.
Safety tends not to be something one features in a vacation brochure, but cruise lines might want to introduce a safety leitmotif into their story line. The airlines did it masterfully when flight attendants concluded their parting message with, "Now that the safest part of your journey has ended, be sure to drive carefully to your destination."
It would appear from statements made by Carnival and Royal Caribbean that with the exception of the Costa brand, cruise sales are not being seriously affected by the challenge to cruising's story line. The chapter "2012" has begun with more drama than usual, but unless the balance of the year has additional unfortunate twists and turns, the story line will likely play out to be one of safety, customer satisfaction and industry growth.
Email Arnie Weissmann at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter.