New Yorkers sometimes speak with more passion than logic but that often gets them right to the heart of the matter. So it was yesterday with a woman disembarking from a cruise who was interviewed on a local radio station. Things like the grounding of the cruise ship Costa Concordia off the coast of Tuscany aren’t supposed to happen “after the Titanic,” she averred.
Indeed, even Theresa Norton Masek, editor-in-chief of Vacation Agent magazine and cruise editor of Travel Pulse, writes that up to the “sickening moment” that she first saw a photo of the half-submerged Costa Concordia, which is owned by a subsidiary of Carnival, on her iPhone, she “would have confidently assured anyone that such a disaster was impossible in this day and age.”
Most consumers aren’t silly enough to think that natural disasters such as hurricanes can be entirely avoided but they have come to expect that certain safety standards are uniform across the industry. When their expectations are vainly and inexcusably violated -- as they apparently were by Capt. Francesco Schettino, as has been widely reported -– the folly of one man rips through the industry like a tsunami.
“The outrageous growth of the cruise industry has had everything to do with the perception of cruises as safe and hassle-free,” writes Andrew Burmon in Huffington Post.
A Seattle Times editorial yesterday warned the industry to “brace for rough water” as the disaster raises a lot of questions revolving around the notion that international rules and standards are being “ignored in pursuit of the best passenger experience, with safety in second place?”
And, as a reader who identifies as “a wise grandfather” comments, the impact of such doubts will not only impact the cruise lines themselves but also the ports that they sail from and visit.
“There will be a "ripple" effect that will hit Seattle next cruise season,” he predicts. “I expect 15%+ less cruise ships coming to Seattle next year. The economic pinch will be felt here.”
The accident came at the worst possible time for cruise-ship owners, Jad Mouawad reports in Wednesday’s New York Times, as this is “the beginning of the so-called wave season, a period when cruise lines typically book a third to half of their reservations for the entire year.”
Carnival chairman and CEO Micky Arison issued a statement yesterday that says: “I give my personal assurance that we will take care of each and every one of our guests, crew and their families affected by this tragic event. Our company was founded on this principle and it will remain our focus,” Seatrade Insider reports. But the company is coming under fire for what is seen as a weak response.
“Public relations experts have chastised Carnival for being slow to address the disaster and vague about its response and efforts to prevent similar incidents in the future,” writes Reuters Martinne Geller.
“On a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being ‘outstanding,’ Carnival's public relations strategy in the immediate wake of the disaster gets a four,” Allyson Stewart-Allen, director of International Marketing Partners, tells Geller.
Citigroup analyst Gregory Badishkanian foresees a 6 to 10% decline in cruise bookings following the disaster, which has resulted in 11 confirmed deaths with 23 people still missing, but at the same time he says, “There is no major passenger fear of cruising thus far,” Mouawad reports.
The Cruise Lines International Assn. (CLIA) is featuring a “Costa Concordia Update” link on its home page that leads to a release from Monday assuring consumers that “accidents such as this one are an extremely rare occurrence in the cruise industry, and cruising continues to be one of safest means of travel among all types of vacationing."
The industry is counting on consumers’ short-term memory to pull through the crisis, as it always has. Unsafe on the High Seas author Charles Lipcon tells Burmon that “the incident and the lawsuits that have already begun to follow are unlikely to force the cruise industry to better communicate the fuzzy legalities governing life on board. ‘They seem to weather these types of setbacks,’” says Lipcon, an attorney who practices cruise line law.
The industry has another motivating option up its sleeve, of course.
Steve Cosgrove, the owner of Dynamic Travel in Southlake, Texas, tells Travel Agents’ Norton Masek that “we as agents and the industry have to be proactive and put things into perspective.” To wit, the overwhelming majority of many millions of cruisers have had positive experiences. And besides, you can always cut a deal if bookings start to drop.
“And people will say ‘I’ll go; it’s really not that dangerous,’” Cosgrove says.