Costa Cruises learns by trial and error in the Chinese market

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As the number of vacationing Chinese is expected to grow by 20 million by 2010, Carnival Corp. one year ago announced it would deploy the Costa Allegra out of Shanghai for the Chinese market, a first for the global cruise industry.

Costa was the natural Carnival brand for the job, considering the line's expertise in handling a diverse international clientele.

Still, from the beginning, Costa President Gianni Onorato acknowledged the challenges the line would face introducing cruise vacations to the Chinese.

According to Clem Cimini, the Costa Marina cruise director who spent time on the Allegra last year, the company is still adjusting.

While the key positions on the ship, such as hotel manager, are held by Europeans in order to maintain the Costa product, Cimini said that one of the two co-cruise directors is Chinese.

Even with the Chinese cruise director, language differences were an issue between staff and passengers. The Shanghai dialect, for example, is quite different than standard Mandarin.

Furthermore, many of the customs and habits of Chinese travelers proved to be different than expected.   

"We found that Chinese tend to stay in their cabins and socialize there. They eat early, don't like to go to bars and are not as interested in the casino as was assumed," Cimini said.

On the other hand, she noted that they loved the entertainment and arts-and-crafts classes.

Just six months after the experiment began, the challenges of serving the Chinese market led to a re-evaluation of the paradigm.

In January, Carnival announced that Allegra sailings out of Hong Kong and Shanghai would be open to Americans, as well. Plus, the Costa Marina, which mostly marketed to Europeans for its Asia cruises out of Singapore this past winter, will spend next winter off the coast of eastern Africa, leaving one ship in the region to cater to all markets.

Onorato said demand from the Chinese market had been strong during certain periods of the year and weak at other times. Citing strong interest from Europeans and Americans for the itineraries, which call in ports in Singapore, Vietnam, Japan and Korea, these markets will be targeted to fill the void during low periods in the Chinese market.

"We expect to have more European and American guests on the new longer cruises in May, June, November and December and see a majority of Chinese and Asian guests on the five-day itineraries in March, April, July, September and October," Onorato said.

"We've learned a lot about the habits of Chinese and Asian guests and about the importance of marketing and communications to support our presence in these countries," he said.

"It's a huge market with a very high growth potential, but it needs more time and investment for the customers and travel agents to understand and appreciate a brand new and innovative product such as our cruises."

To contact the reporter who wrote this article, send e-mail to [email protected].

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For more details on this article, see "Costa Marina makes many nationalities feel welcome."

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