Is the cruise industry outgrowing itself?


Cruise ships have made several major headlines in recent years, and sad to say that few of those headlines, if any, were positive. That being said, the cruise industry is still booming, raking in about $29 billion annually, with 21.7 million annual travelers who represent only 4% of the traveling public. With newer and bigger ships coming out every year, it draws the question of when will enough be enough? Sure it’s nifty that the latest Royal Caribbean super ship has a skydiving simulator and bumper cars on board, but at what point will the cruise liners push the line too far straight into another disaster? With the help of social media, all of the recent disasters on board cruise lines have been made very public, to terrifyingly detailed extents, and despite a drop in sales and empty cabins on almost every ship, there are over 36 newer and bigger ships planned for the next 4 years! That’s adding almost 70,000 beds to a market which is getting older and depleting fast, failing to rake in younger and newer passengers for their fun new ships. With the sales recovery time after each mishap getting longer and more financially painful, will anyone be able to escape without going bankrupt?

First things first, the pool for repeat cruisers is quickly depleting with age. Cruises are more stereotypically associated with senior citizens taking an “easy” vacation, with lots of scheduled activities, strict/tight schedules, and formal dinners. This image misses the interests of the young active people with disposable time and income who can also travel on the off season, not just during school vacations. This growing group of adults is between the ages of 25-37, they are busy professionals but seek adventure and relaxation to get away from the mundane. They prefer to travel during the off season, and will often go with one or more friends or a significant other, no kids. These hard working adults need a vacation as much as busy parents, but avoid cruises because everything with cruises is geared either towards families with kids or older people. And worst of all: you have to pay for the alcohol! If only word of mouth and social media would be a better way to reach that tech-savvy group of young adults, and to inform them that they have the cruise industry misconstrued into a boring mundane experience when really it isn’t. Unfortunately however, otherwise great marketing tools such as Twitter and Facebook have been part of the cause for that age group avoiding cruises, but for an entirely different reason.

Carnival Cruise Lines has had it rough these past few years, facing PR disaster after PR disaster. And social media hasn’t exactly helped to keep these events manageable, often times making the situation look even worse than it is thanks to bleak firsthand accounts. It used to take time before news stories broke, especially when it happened in the middle of the ocean, and updates were scarce. But now with everyone and their grandmother carrying a personal recording device at all times, the world can quickly and easily be informed of anything happening onboard in the greatest of real-time details. Cue the infamous Carnival Triumph “poop cruise” disaster of 2013. 4,500 people were stranded in the middle of the ocean for five days after a fire in the engine room left the ship without power, A/C, and a working septic system. Thanks to social media, combined with tortured and disgruntled passengers with nothing to do, everyone in the world got a firsthand account of life on board the “poop cruise”, as CNN cleverly dubbed it. This was not an outbreak, or a sickness, simply a plumbing issue that left thousands of people with a bad taste in their mouth, pun intended. Passengers were taking pictures of their buckets, their sad faces wrapped up in their bathrobes, recounting in great detail the tragic life on board the ship, and everyone in the world was following and retweeting. This was by far the ugliest of disasters on board a cruise ship, beating out any norovirus outbreak that has plagued the cruise industry for decades. Accounts like this not only leave past passengers questioning the safety of the super ships, but also leave potential customers frightened of the what-ifs. With more bad news than good, every additional mishap pushes those potential customers farther and farther away.

To make matters worse, it seems that instances like these are not as rare as the executives would like to have you believe. According to the blog Cruise Junkie, between 2009 and 2013 there have been over 350 incidents involving mechanical problems or accidents in the industry, most of them just didn’t make headlines. Truth is viral outbreaks are fairly common on board cruise ships, the worst of which plagued 700 people on board Royal Caribbean’s Explorer of the Seas. Lesser common events include the tragic sinking of the Costa Concordia that happened back in January of 2012 when the Captain wanted to impress his female companion and brought the ship so close to shore that he crashed it less than 100 feet from land, killing 32 and injuring 64 of the 4,200 passengers and crew on board. With hundreds of sailings each year, and maybe only a few incidents here and there, the odds of ending up on an ill-fated cruise are slim. In fact, out of the seven norovirus outbreaks last year, a total of 1,238 passengers were affected, which represents only .006% of all cruise passengers for the year. But the headlines, combined with social media complaints by the people unlucky enough to be affected results in an over dramatized view on the “dangers” of cruising. Unfortunately, nobody is interested in reporting about all the successfully completed cruises.

So the question remains if the cruise industry will survive if it fails to draw in the younger generations. At this point, the best methods will be to address all the bad press head-on, and explain the statistical realities behind these instances in real terms. By avoiding the issue, the fear of getting sick on cruise ships keeps growing out of proportion. What the cruise lines need to do instead is educate the public and not only address but also fix the issues by implementing new health procedures to mitigate spread of infections. The cruise industry is already making very low margins as they try to fill empty rooms by cutting down prices. With every subsequent misfortune onboard a ship, the passengers are going to be harder and harder to convince to return, which will inevitably keep the prices low for the near future. This poses a problem for all the newer high tech ships being built which will only be able to survive if they can charge premiums over the older ships, and still reach capacity.

All in all, with a shrinking public, why build so many new ships? The cruise industry seems to follow an “if we build it, they will come” mantra, but they need to hold off on building until they can attract the future generations of cruisers to fill those ships. Otherwise, it’s only a matter of time until they start going bankrupt one by one.

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