Just as the presidential debate began and played out in pantomime on flat-screen TVs in the corners of the room, the industry party seemed to pick up in energy. For the umpteenth time that night, I found myself in a conversation about the economy, but this one was taking an interesting turn.
Most of the exchanges had been similar: Business is down around 15% to 20%. Forward bookings are definitely soft. And everyone, it seemed, was bracing for a long roller-coaster ride that tracked the ups and downs of the stock market's spiky fever chart.
I thought that my conversation with Mimi Weisband, vice president of public relations for Crystal Cruises, would follow a similar trajectory, albeit at higher volume as the party crowd grew denser. But early into it, after I used the phrase "stock market meltdown," Weisband interrupted.
"Correction," she said.
I thought, perhaps, she was being ironic. Technically, a "correction" in the market is a drop of 10% in a relatively short time rather than the type of volatile free falls and upward jags we've been experiencing. "A hell of a correction," I replied.
It turned out that Weisband was referring to another type of correction, one that has broad implications for the financial sector, society and the travel industry.
As a society, Weisband went on to say, we have gone astray. And it isn't just a matter of greed on Wall Street or imprudent bank loans. We've lost touch with common-sense values across a wide range of behaviors. We have become obsessed with materialism, with things. And we're now in a period of correction that, she believes, will bring us back to traditional values that are ultimately more fulfilling than mere possessions.
I certainly didn't disagree with what she was saying, but I was surprised to hear someone whose business is firmly rooted in the luxury sector saying it so sincerely and passionately. The event we were attending was the Conde Nast Traveler Readers' Choice Awards after-party, and Crystal had just won in the "Cruise Line: Large Ships" category.
During the awards ceremony, I had been struck by feelings akin to guilt, sipping champagne and listening to the seductive descriptions of over-the-top luxury resorts while fully aware that many Americans are in real financial distress. My feelings of unease, I thought, did not bode well for the travel industry. I saw a risk that the glorious excesses of travel's high end could make the industry appear empty, shallow and trivial, and possibly even result in a linkage between the pleasures of travel and financial irresponsibility.
But here was Weisband, whose job description inherently includes advocacy for luxury travel, ruing excess and making a case for society to turn away from its obsession with "things."
I asked whether it would be good for Crystal if people were less focused on the material world.
It can be good for Crystal, and it can be good for travel, she replied. People will come to realize that the most important things in life are experiences, not possessions. In other words, the shift in societal values plays to travel's strengths: We are in the business of providing experiences and are thus perfectly positioned to take advantage of the postcorrection environment.
She's right, and this can play out at all levels of travel, from mass-market tourism to six-star luxury. But for that to happen, companies must take a hard look at the experiences they offer and see if they are reflective of the societal shift in consciousness. Weisband said Crystal was already going through this process and creating experiences that will be meaningful for these times.
I'm sure one could make a convincing parallel argument that, rather than portraying travel as catharsis, it's time to play to another of travel's strengths: escapism. This winter could be the perfect time to flee one's problems by taking a cruise or hitting the beaches of Cancun or the Caribbean (or, if one can afford it, indulge at the Oberoi Udaivilas in India or the Four Seasons Tented Camp Golden Triangle in Thailand, two of the night's most luxurious winners).
The trick, I suspect, will be trying to find middle ground in two apparently irreconcilable concepts: reality and escapism. To do this, marketers will need to listen to their own messages not only through the ears of those who feel the full brunt of our financial crisis but also through the ears of those who see the mess we're in as the fault of people who took extended vacations from responsibility.
Perhaps the middle ground is a pitch for consumers to escape to, rather than away from, meaning and reality.
Email Arnie Weissmann at [email protected].