My first report from Carnival Breeze. Is the image problem an illusion?
This week I am sailing on a regular 8-day cruise on Carnival Breeze with no travel agents or other reporters with me. The only passengers I see are the same ones who populate the vast, vast majority of cruise staterooms week after week - thousands of people apparently having a fantastic time.
This is my first taste of the new Carnival FunShip 2.0. Unfortunately, with the horridly sensationalized reporting Carnival has experienced from CNN and other mainstream news sources in the last few years Carnival has became somewhat “gun-shy” of mainstream, consumer media. Who can blame them?
Coming on Board
I have been working in the cruise news and commentary business for over 15 years now. I am not a cruise cheerleader, however, because I believe that ultimately the things I say only make cruising better. Here is a good example:
In the past I criticized the practice of having waiters working the crowds on day one to offer “welcome aboard” drinks without mentioning that those drinks had a price. Now I see Carnival has added a large price tag to the trays of drinks to show the price of those drinks. That is above and beyond solving the problem.
I spent last week aboard the first run of a mainstream European cruise ship that has just arrived in Miami to sell Caribbean cruises to the American market. Based on what I see here on Carnival, I can’t help thinking that cruise line will face a larger-than-anticipated challenge.
To sum up what I am seeing here, let’s acknowledge the drop off in the number of first time cruisers. There is an upside to that situation; it means that experienced cruisers now dominate the passenger experience – and that changes a lot of things.
Today’s cruise consumers are not “gee-whiz” neophytes easily impressed with vague promises. Today’s experienced cruisers are imbued with informed expectations; including the timeliness of stateroom service, the size and process of a proper meal service and a true shore experience versus a “tourist trap” tour.
In other words, experienced cruisers are now driving the onboard experience and that is bringing out the best in the crewmembers on ships, and the best in less experienced cruisers. On “Elegant Dress” night I was very surprised to see that virtually everyone on board was dressed to the nines, in accordance to the good old formal dress code of gowns, skirts, blouses and scarves; or jackets, slacks, dress shirts and ties.
I am even more surprised to see a resurgence in traditional dining where people are assigned specific dining times, tables and waiters which they honor the entire cruise. “Anytime dining” is still offered, but only about 30% of the available dining room tables are dedicated to it. The majority of dining time and space is going to traditional dining; and this is on Carnival which is known as a more casual cruise line.
I remember when the advent of anytime dining was considered revolutionary. The implication was that cruise buyers had demanded a change and the stodgy cruise lines finally given in. In retrospect, the cruise lines had been giving most cruisers exactly what they wanted all along and the “revolution” was really just a minor addition.
The Staff is Equally Experienced
The modern cruise industry is close to 40 years old now which means it has a huge base of experienced crewmembers to draw upon. When I came aboard Carnival Breeze I was immediately welcomed by a staff member who spoke perfect English. She asked for my room number and told me exactly how to find it. Compare this to just 10 years ago when the cruise industry was growing so fast that many new crewmembers struggled with English.
The Image Discrepancy
This is both ironic and challenging.
Carnival has become relatively gun-shy about the regular media in the last few years, and I can hardly blame them, but I am surprised by how wrong my perception had become. Even I expected to see a somewhat pedestrian clientele based on what I had read in the regular media lately, such as people who primarily shop at TJ-Maxx for their sleeveless T–shirts and baseball caps. But ironically, while we all know the biggest demographic loss for Carnival has been with first-time cruisers, that may be bad for business, but it has had a positive impact on the cruise experience.
The number of sightings I had of the “invading cruise barbarian” on day one lessened as the cruise progressed. Now that we are a few nights in it appears that the experienced cruisers who respect the old standards and traditions of cruising are dominating, and influencing the new cruisers to step it up. Most people are more than properly dressed on this cruise; they are dressed to the nines and obviously enjoying it. Many have mentioned to me how rare such opportunities have become in modern life.
Most importantly, I am not meeting anyone who is complaining about this cruise. People like the décor, the crew and the Carnival food - which has always been known as better than average. I am not hearing any complaints about a stateroom not being ready, bathrooms being dirty, funny smells or missing towels or toiletries. My room steward and my waiters all address me by name and double check to make sure I have everything I need.
The Image Answer
The only other reporters outside of the travel industry who even cover cruise ships these days are financial analysts who tend to focus on Carnival’s image problem. But an “image problem” is a false premise by definition; not a true problem. It is a schism in perception between reputation and reality. That kind of problem can be fixed easily, assuming the cruise line has the confidence to address its detractors and set the record straight.
The food and service are as good as ever. The prices are better than ever (taking into account the cost of living) and the ships are new, efficient and accommodating. Even more importantly, the crew is experienced, efficient and eager to please and the clientele is receptive to what they are receiving.
It seems that everyone on this ship, passengers and Carnival employees, understands the “image problem” that Carnival faces on the outside. So the “problem” is not on the ships; but on the land with the image of cruising.
The Value Proposition
Carnival has always done cruising well and still offers an exceptional vacation value. The price of a Carnival cruise is as low as ever – especially taking into account the hidden inflation in fuel, entertainment, food products, etc. we have seen in the last few years. The cost of air fare to get to this cruise was almost identical to the price of a 7-day cruise for an adult in a verandah stateroom.
Today’s consumer is bombarded by travel deals all the time, from cruises and other options like All-inclusives. It’s a little like pharmaceutical companies advertising medications, while you should not make your prescription decisions entirely on your own, you can have influence over your own decision makers.
It is up to everyone to have an informed opinion about travel these days, and if you trust the opinions of experienced cruisers, you can trust Carnival as a smart vacation choice.