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Are the cruise lines becoming airlines?

Two recent additions to Carnival’s marketing arsenal, “My Awesome Bar Program” and “Faster To The Fun,” have some industry observers wondering if the cruise lines are learning all the wrong lessons from the airline industry. The former, now being tested, charges passengers $49 a day (with tip) to drink themselves silly on anything (soft or hard) that costs less than $10; the latter, also in beta, offers passengers perks such as priority boarding, faster luggage delivery, priority dining seating, and a choice of debarkation time for $49 per cabin.

I couldn’t help but think of Meshulam Zonis, one of the more colorful figures from Carnival’s early days, who was quoted by Kristoffer Garin in his vastly entertaining book Devils on the Deep Blue Sea. “A cruise passenger is like a wet towel,” he’d say with a smile, making a back-and-forth wringing motion with his hands. “First you squeeze him this way, and then you squeeze him this way.”

Travel agents have a few reasons to gripe (not that they’ve ever needed an excuse).

These add-ons are not commissionable and they add to the ever-lengthening list of things we need to know to better advise our clients. And there is a faint whiff of “nickel and diming” about them. But are they really “ancillary fees” in the same sense the term is used in the airline industry? I’m not sure that claim survives scrutiny.

“Beverage packages” are not new, of course. Many cruise lines sell wine packages that allow a passenger to purchase all the wine they plan to drink on a cruise in one fell swoop. And Oceania beat Carnival to the “all-you-can-drink” punch (no pun intended) with its $50 a day Prestige Select program. Still, given Carnival’s size and the potential for rollout across brands, the “Awesome Bar Program” could have an effect on the industry that would be, well, awesome.

Putting aside the question of whether it is a good idea to encourage people to over-indulge in booze, is Carnival doing anything it hasn’t been doing all along with it’s silken voiced poolside waiters offering what many first timers think are complimentary “welcome aboard” Mai Tais? They may even wind up losing money on some passengers. But are they mimicking the airlines?

The airlines have always charged for booze; except of course, in first class, and if they tried doing it there, the term “air rage” would take on a whole new meaning. What has earned the airlines the undying enmity of many people is charging for formerly free services; and that just doesn’t apply here in the cruise industry–yet. What’s being offered is a more convenient and, for some, a more economical way to pay for your beverage consumption while on board. It requires a cost-benefit analysis and, for better or worse, travel agents should be prepared to provide counsel by having the numbers at their fingertips.

“Faster to the Fun” gets a little closer to the airline comparison and it will be interesting to see how frequent cruisers, who have earned some perks for their loyalty, will react to first-timers buying their way to the front of the line, assuming they even realize that’s what’s happening.

For the most part, this new program doesn’t offer much that cannot be obtained with some planning and artful schmoozing. For starters, arriving at the dock in a timely fashion can minimize boarding hassles, something all travel agents should advise their cruising clients to do anyway. Nonetheless, Carnival will no doubt have some takers and, once again, agents will have to verse themselves on the pros and cons to provide good advice. What you or I may perceive as minor improvements could be a big deal to some clients and it is the client’s perception of his or her needs, not ours, that wins the day.

So, I for one am absolving Carnival of the “just like the airlines” charge. Cruising, like so many other businesses, has always been about deriving maximum value from every customer. The heirs to Meshulam Zonis have simply discovered a new way to squeeze the towel.

Kelly Monaghan, CTC, is a writer and publisher who has been covering the home-based travel agent scene since 1994. Prior to his entry into the travel industry he was a sales trainer for major companies such as AT&T, Arrow Electronics, and Brinks and wrote widely on sales and marketing for a number of professional publications. OSSN and The Travel Institute have endorsed his Home-Based Travel Agent Success Course. His publishing company, The Intrepid Traveler specializes in Orlando area attractions and offers discounts to travel agents who wish to use its guides as gifts or premiums.

 

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