TW illustration by Jenn Martins
TW illustration by Jenn Martins
Prior to Covid-19, cruise marketers targeted new-to-cruise, and promotions avoided health-related issues. Now, some sales and marketing experts advise a different approach.
BY JOHANNA JAINCHILL
As society moves forward with phased reopenings, cruise lines and sellers have entered a challenging marketing environment. What is the right tone and right medium to engage clients for a product that is undergoing structural and experiential changes as a result of new sanitization and health protocols? And for an industry that also endured focused, negative media coverage during the early stages of the Covid-19 crisis?
Travel Weekly spoke with a broad spectrum of sales and marketing experts, including cruise line and travel agency executives and a professor of tourism marketing to solicit advice on how to best approach marketing a modified vacation product in an unfamiliar selling environment.
The contemporary cruise brand
Vicki Freed, senior vice president of sales, trade support and service, Royal Caribbean International
We are saying, “dream now and travel later,” or “dream now and travel now. We’re here and we’re ready to serve you when you’re ready to travel.”
I think it’s important to send out gentle marketing messages. Instead of “deal, deal, deal!” it’s “Let me show you, let me entice you, let me get you interested.” It’s not a hard sell; it’s a conversation, it’s storytelling. Be in front of your customer and prospects now, because when they’re ready, you want to be the person they think of.
Some companies are doing heavy price-and-deal marketing, but they’re talking to an empty theater or one that’s just not that full. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be talking; you should. It’s about the tone.
One thing we all learned from being isolated and stuck at home is that we miss the camaraderie and social part of life. People want to have fun, to live life. They’re tired of being stuck at home.
It’s important to acknowledge that but also to show it can be done in safe environments. People can keep social distancing but also be around people.
We have to talk about the health and safety standards, because it’s on everyone’s minds. The cruise industry has to tell our story and be very upfront and show what our efforts are. Disney can announce social distancing, temperature checks, no character photos, but we’re a much bigger experience than a one-day amusement park.
People who have cruised know we’ll do the right thing. It’s the new-to-cruise consumer who we’ll need to show what we’re doing and be very transparent about it.
The travel agent is the first point of contact. It’s important that agents understand [sanitization] aspects. Stay connected to your client, because when they’re ready, you’d better be the person they call.
Educating is storytelling and inspiring people. That’s the skill of a great travel advisor: You don’t sell your clients anything; you guide them to making the right buying decision, when they’re ready.
The upscale cruise brand
James Rodriguez, executive vice president, sales and marketing, Oceania Cruises
In March and April, our main focus was staying connected with past guests. We were keeping in touch with guests online and creating social media campaigns to keep them abreast of what was happening.
In May, it started changing a bit. They started getting the itch to travel again, so we built experiential engagement programs through social media, like a cruise director hosting trivia on Facebook Live. Our guests’ mindset is that they’re world travelers. Our chefs hosted cooking challenges and demos online. [One chef] did a tutorial on knives. We also had guest lecturers who had been onboard give lectures from their homes.
Our past guests are extremely important to us. We have one of highest return-passenger ratios in the industry, and now they’ll be brand advocates as we move into the recovery stage. They’ll bring new-to-brand guests into cruising.
In May, we also started engaging from the standpoint of offers. We launched an ad campaign called “Remember the Future.” We wanted to inspire them to remember what they loved about the travel experience. Guests really want us to acknowledge that there’s something going on in the world but also want us to inspire them to travel again and remind them why they board our ships, the romance of it all.
It’s a curious time to be a marketer, particularly as regards timing. We’re slowly getting back to direct mail. In addition to traditional marketing, we’re getting more and more active in engaging with guests one-to-one, whether in partnership with an agency hosting a consumer night on Zoom or hosting our own online.
We always have sales around holidays and we get great bookings, so we thought, let’s test it for Memorial Day. We didn’t expect much, but it was our most successful holiday sale ever. There is pent-up demand.
You want to strike the right chord with your audience. It sends the wrong message to try to sell like you used to. Coming out of an event like Covid, where everybody was impacted, many people don’t want to be sold right now. But whether it’s luxury or with our sister brand, Norwegian Cruise Line, there’s a certain bit of inspiration you have to put in your message.
The marketing professor
Robert Kwortnik, associate professor of services marketing at Cornell University’s School of Hotel Administration
Big hotel brands are taking the lead in messaging in a very interesting way, and I think cruise would be wise to follow. Marriott sent a video to its 120 million Bonvoy loyalty program members about what they’re doing and the protocols they’re putting in place, how they’re going to change their processes, sanitization procedures, cleaning standards — narrated by Bill Marriott. They got right out in front and said, “We know that you’re nervous and will perceive risk in travel. We understand, and this is what we’re going to do.”
Hilton is doing a similar thing with the Lysol protection program. They messaged big with that. Typically, coming out with a big “look how clean we are” message is not how you would want to go to market; people don’t want to think about the fact that somebody slept in that bed before or the chance that something is unclean. But under the circumstances, this speaks directly to travelers’ concerns. The name of the game is reducing perceived risk for travelers, and for cruisers in particular.
For cruise lines, it’s been one black eye after another, even for circumstances where, arguably, the blame shouldn’t rest with the cruise lines. But after what happened with the ships where passengers couldn’t get off, people worried: How do I know if fellow cruisers aren’t sick? If something happens, can I get off, and can you get that sick person off?
Previously, cruise lines didn’t promote that, for at least the past 10 years, your cabin gets cleaned really well three times a day and that there’s always someone walking around sanitizing handrails. Cruise has always been way out in front — more than hotels, more than airplanes — in terms of sanitization. It’s just that people didn’t know it.
Go after your base, and the message will filter down. Avid cruisers are fanatics and love to tell other people about their cruises. It was a real vote of confidence that so many people who didn’t cruise this year just rolled their reservations over.
So convince the base that it’s safe and also that their experience will not have changed that dramatically. Part of the fun of cruising is the social aspect, and part of the message has to be that it will still be there, but we will make sure it’s safe. We’re seeing casino table games where the chairs are separated and every other slot machine is turned off. The message is, “We know you want to be back, and we will help make sure that you are safe.”
To try and convert land vacationers to cruising under the circumstances would just be an enormous task. Cruises always required education to help people understand what a cruise is. Mass broadcasting doesn’t make much sense for cruise lines now. Go first with email and video communication to agents and your customer base.
There is no better time to rededicate marketing efforts to the travel trade. You’re just going to have to. I tell my students, who are you going to trust right now? Travel agents are going to be super important.
It’s more about education than persuasion, whether in trade advertising, or getting the business development folks back on the streets, or doing informative webinars or live presentations. It’s about helping people understand how cruise lines have addressed this crisis and are moving forward.
The travel advisors
Vicky Garcia, Cruise Planners COO and co-owner
We took a different approach when this whole thing started. A lot of companies went dark and didn’t market at all. We said, let’s stay in front of our customers because we’re talking about travel, not buying a luxury purse or shoes. People wanted to see pictures of travel. It’s relaxing and inspiring. We stayed in front of the customer with very light, thoughtful marketing: “We’re thinking of you during this time. Do you need something to daydream about while you’re stuck at home? Something that takes you off the living room couch?” We tried to be a bit playful without being disrespectful or in-your-face.
We started including some click-to-see pricing after the first few weeks. They were interested, and they clicked. We were getting bookings — not at the pace of last year, but they were clicking.
Now we are doing a lot more pricing. Not tons, but at the end of day, people are going stir-crazy at home, and what better to do than plan your next trip?
So we’re staying in front of them. The open rate on emails that are specific to people with a future cruise credit (FCC) is upward of 50%. Cruise Planners tend to be 10% to 12% because our agents are so personal with clients, but the national email rate is just 2% to 3%. So 50% to 60% is just insane. We’re seeing really good pickups on rebooking FCCs.
When we get the new protocols from the cruise lines, it will help consumer confidence. I have no doubt cruise lines have always been the cleanest, most sanitary form of travel. How do we articulate that without being too clinical and scaring the heck out of the consumer and make sure it is still an enjoyable trip? Is it a video like on airplanes, cute and quirky? How do you put that into digestible nuggets without it coming off as a memo?
Brad Tolkin, Co-CEO, World Travel Holdings
Homeport cruising will be the first to return. People are still concerned about getting on airplanes and on ships, and a double-whammy concern is not a healthy thing. What we’re marketing and will be marketing is to consumers within a 500-mile radius of a port that a ship is departing from.
This is different from the aftermath of 9/11, because cruise got a black eye in this crisis. A very unbalanced black eye, but it is what it is, and you can’t fight it.
Because of that perception, we can’t market first to the new-to-cruise market but rather to the millions of people in our vast email database who have cruised in the past. Targeting is important. We know where they live and what they have been interested in in the past. It’s our belief that the experienced cruisers will come back first.
They know the safety of the product. Cruisers know that from the moment they enter the port or sit down at any onboard restaurant, good sanitization is in place. The experienced cruisers know that the cruise industry is built to handle the additional protocols being put into place. They can visualize it.
The new-to-cruise market might be very soft until a vaccine is out there. So our marketing will change. We’re not going to be that aggressive in the new-to-cruise market until we feel that, as a society, we’re ready: when our children go to school again, when people go to theaters again. That will give us the signals that we’re ready to again pursue people who have never cruised before.
We’re marketing with a traditional cruising message to the people who hold an FCC and made a conscious choice that they didn’t want a refund. They made that decision: “I want to cruise again.”
And to people who have cruised or visited our website and are interested in cruising but don’t have an FCC, we’re messaging that the value out there is tremendous. We’re getting a lot of take from that.
We are not marketing in the search engine auctions. If you put “Caribbean cruises” into a search engine, you’ll see that none of the Big Three cruise lines are bidding on search terms. That’s unheard of, but it’s understandable. That’s an avenue for new-to-cruise, and they’re not shopping.