In the days following the news about the Costa Concordia, the conflict between our emotional and rational selves has taken center stage. First and foremost, we felt sadness in response to death. Then anger in response to reports of recklessness, worry about those unaccounted for, outrage over senseless loss of human life.
For those of us in the industry, there was also concern about how the very reactions we ourselves were feeling might affect our businesses. Would these emotions, among consumers, create a broad backlash against cruising? Would we face massive cancellations and a significant drop in new bookings? Would the incident be seen as an aberration or an indictment? If consumer confidence dropped, how long might fear of cruising last?
The cruise industry marshaled facts and statistics to reassure concerned partners and consumers that cruising is not only safe but safer than most holiday or transportation alternatives. It is, perhaps, a backhanded compliment of sorts that the media keeps going back 100 years, to the sinking of the Titanic, to find an immediately evocative reference point for disaster at sea involving a cruise ship.
While it's too early to say how deep or lasting any damage to the cruise and broader travel industries might go, it would appear from anecdotal reports from agents and a Travel Weekly readership survey that, so far, the bottom has not fallen out of the cruise market.
In the face of supersaturated media coverage, interviews with angry survivors, investor disenchantment and the many unanswered questions involving the accident itself, this seems counterintuitive.
But there might be a rational explanation rooted in human emotional response mechanisms. Last October, I wrote about a presentation given at Travel Weekly's Mexico Leadership Forum by Nicholas Ludlum, a vice president of Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide and a specialist in crisis management communications.
He said at the time that crisis PR is difficult to manage, in part because we humans are emotionally hard-wired to size up situations quickly to determine who is the hero, the victim and the villain.
Ludlum said that once these things have been decided, it's very difficult to change someone's perspective. For a company to recover from a negative incident, there is a set of necessary steps: Leadership must accept responsibility, apologize, spell out clearly what happened and detail how this will be avoided in the future. And it must be done with authentic human concern, and not by a talking head reading from a script.
If a company has been assigned the "villain" role, it might, in addition, need to present an appeal that thoroughly jars the consumers' preconceptions at a deeply emotional level to offer a credible alternative to preconceived notions and emotions. Straightforward, rational explanations, no matter how credible, might not be enough.
Costa's position is complicated by the fact that investigators still appear to be trying to determine what exactly happened. It has not yet provided details, nor commented on how similar outcomes will be avoided going forward.
Yet it would appear that, for now at least, cruising has not fallen into the villain role among cruisers. Why is that?
The flip side of the aspect of human nature that rushes to position someone as the villain is that once we have decided we like something, it's hard to change that viewpoint, as well. If you favor one political party, you're likely to support them even if, objectively speaking, they work against your interests.
It's possible that some vacationers, as well as many in the industry, are so convinced of the value of cruising that circumstances surrounding the Concordia accident do not shake their faith. They are inclined to see the Concordia disaster as an aberration and are equally likely to be reassured by the overall safety record of cruising over time.
According to the CLIA website, about 24% of the American population has cruised at some point in their lives, and 94% of cruisers report that they are "extremely satisfied" with the experience. In any given year, 60% of passengers are repeat cruisers.
The other 76% who have never cruised might constitute what appears to be the court of public opinion, but that doesn't mean the lines' commercial interest will be damaged to a parallel degree.
In this scenario, the accident could yet create some difficulty in selling first-time cruisers. A period of stagnation, rather than decline, might be what's in store.
Email Arnie Weissmann at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter.