Tiding over: how operators are staying in touch with customers amid Covid-19
Covid-19 may have confined the industry’s cruise liners at port, but cruise companies are working hard to keep lines of communication open with customers. From virtual cruises and horn salutes to revised booking policies, how are cruise operators keeping their customer base engaged? Chris Lo finds out.
ith the global Covid-19 pandemic tightening its grip on the world, the vast majority of global cruise operators have suspended new sailings until May or beyond, and the prospect of voyages resuming in that timeframe remains highly uncertain.
Empty ships, shuttered cruise terminals and tumbling share prices have created one of the worst crises the cruise industry has ever faced, threatening the liquidity of smaller operators and generating huge costs across the sector.
“When you have 3,500 people booked on one of these mega-cruises and the boat doesn’t go, it’s an enormous expense,” Boston University senior professor of hospitality administration Dr Christopher Muller told The Guardian in March. “Someone’s paying for that boat that’s sitting idle in the harbour and it’s very hard to recapture those ongoing fixed-cost losses.”
But as the bounceback after 9/11 demonstrated, the cruise industry is resilient, with the capacity to rebound in the wake of a disaster. And in the midst of the pandemic, cruise operators are already positioning themselves for post-Covid success by doing what they’ve always done – engaging with the passionate demographic of cruise enthusiasts and fostering a strong community, which has long been a great strength of the industry’s regular customer base.
How exactly are cruise firms working to keep their powder dry during Covid-19 and stay in touch with passengers while they’re cooped up in lockdown?
virtual cruise programmes set sail
Many cruise operators were already regularly engaging with large online cruise communities before the Covid-19 outbreak, so it hasn’t taken the industry long to ramp up its digital presence during the crisis. These kinds of mass-scale customer engagement exercises are forming an important part of operators’ marketing efforts while ships remain in port, keeping their services at the forefront of prospective customers’ minds while attempting to build or maintain positive associations with their brands.
Viking Cruises has launched its own website called Viking.TV
Examples include Crystal Cruises’ ‘Crystal@Home’ programme, a ‘virtual cruise experience’ comprised of daily online events and content releases from the company’s cruise staff, including workout tips from fitness instructors, new episodes of the Crystal Storytellers podcast and weekly cooking videos from guest chef Jon Ashton. Holland America Line is planning something similar with its own ‘HAL@Home’ series, while Silversea has been posting cocktail recipes on YouTube, taken from the Sea And Land Taste (S.A.L.T.) culinary concept, which is due to launch aboard Silver Moon in August this year.
Lindblad Expeditions, meanwhile, has set up 'virtual expeditions' during weekdays, with daily content including photography tutorials, kids’ activities and guided previews of the company’s new ice-breaking expedition ship, National Geographic Endurance. Viking Cruises has launched its own website called Viking.TV with guest speakers, resident historians and Oslo’s Munch Museum all contributing content.
“Viking.TV is a way for us to continue exploring the world in comfort – from the comfort of our homes,” said Viking executive vice president Karine Hagen in April. “And as soon as actual travel is less complicated again, we are ready to welcome you on board.”
Covid-19: heartwarming gestures, and good PR
Throughout March and April, there has been no shortage of supportive action and gestures of solidarity, both large and small, from the cruise industry. Operators including Carnival, MSC and Saga have offered vessels as floating medical centres and emergency accommodation, while smaller-scale US firms American Queen Steamboat Company (AQSC) and Victory Cruise Lines (VCL) have been in discussions to use their ships for the housing of quarantined US military personnel.
Passenger-less ships idling at sea have also taken advantage of the downtime to draw pictures with their digital navigation routes
“Cities where the AQSC and VCL vessels could potentially be stationed include Seattle, San Diego, St. Louis, New Orleans, Norfolk and Miami,” AQSC said in a statement.
Other firms are engaging in much more symbolic gestures of solidarity. Ships belonging to Holland America Line and others anchored at Grand Bahama have been coordinating nightly horn salutes from 20 March to show solidarity for those ashore, under the social media hashtag #HopeFloats.
“We sound our horns to let our crew and the world know that while we are strong, safe, and healthy on board, we are thinking of those at home and hoping the same for them,” wrote Celebrity Edge captain Kate McCue in a 25 March Instagram post.
Other supportive gestures have included messages in lights from docked cruise ships, from Carnival’s fleet-wide ‘we will be back’ to P&O Cruises celebrating the UK’s National Health Service from the side of its flagship Britannia in Southampton. Passenger-less ships idling at sea have also taken advantage of the downtime to draw encouraging (and sometimes brand-savvy) pictures with their digital navigation routes. The crew of Seabourn Encore ‘drew’ a heart off the coast of Australia on 25 March, while Tui’s Marella Discovery 2 traced out the company’s ‘smile’ logo during routine manoeuvres before docking in Montego Bay, Jamaica.
Building flexibility into new bookings
Of course, as well as keeping in touch with customers, cruise firms must make the case for them to continue booking cruises for this summer and the months beyond. For those weighing up whether to book a cruise in 2020, no degree of online engagement will outweigh a potential risk to their family’s health, or the financial risk of sudden cancellations.
Many cruise lines are also looking to reduce the financial barrier to entry for prospective passengers
In response, cruise companies are introducing interim booking policies to mitigate this risk for travellers. Royal Caribbean’s ‘Cruise with Confidence’ policy allows cancellations up to 48 hours prior to departure for cruises to 1 September, with credit provided for a future cruise in 2020 or 2021. It’s a line that has been echoed across the industry, to various extents and in various configurations. Operators virtually across the board are suspending cancellation fees.
Many cruise lines are also looking to reduce the financial barrier to entry for prospective passengers amid the economic uncertainties of 2020. Luxury expedition provider Ponant, for example, announced on 11 March that new bookings for 2020 sailings would require only a 10% deposit, with final payment relaxed by 30 days. For departures in 2020, 2021 and 2022, the company has said that customers may cancel up to 90 days after confirmation for a full refund or cruise credit.
From a marketing perspective, cruise operators are tackling the unprecedented challenges of Covid-19 by making themselves as available as they can to prospective customers under the circumstances, and on flexible terms. Only time will tell how deeply the ongoing pandemic will wound the industry, and how loyal the famously passionate cruise community will prove to be after the short-term crisis is over.
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