Has the Carnival Triumph Episode Hurt Cruise Sales?

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Cruise industry insiders say that in the weeks after the Carnival Triumph debacle made news, cruise sales have remained strong, prices have remained steady, and overall, travelers today are just as likely to book a cruise as they ever were. The results of a new poll suggest otherwise.

By some accounts, cruise prices dropped 12% in the aftermath of last year’s Costa Concordia disaster, in which the ship sunk off the coast of Italy and 32 people died.

No one died on the Triumph, but because the ship received so much bad publicity while it was stranded for five days at sea, and because the conditions on board were so atrocious, the widespread assumption was that the episode would damage Carnival’s reputation and sales—and perhaps even hurt the cruise industry as a whole.

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So, has the cruise industry been hurting in the weeks since the Triumph was the subject of so much unwanted attention? Cruise agents—who have an obvious interest in spreading the word that business is good—say that (you guessed it) business has been good.

The week after Triumph passengers made it back to land—which happened to be around Valentine’s Day—agents in South Florida were telling the Sun Sentinel that sales hadn’t decreased in the slightest. In fact, they say just the opposite happened:

“We saw an unbelievable increase of 76 percent this Valentine’s day compared to last Valentine’s Day,” [iCruise.com’s Don] Walker said. “Our clients are certainly feeling the love right now with an amazing array of promotions in the market including free gratuities, free beverage packages and ship board spending credits.”

Stewart Chiron, known as “The Cruise Guy,” wrote:

The good news is that there hasn’t been a negative consumer response relating to Triumph. The current wave season continues to be strong for the industry, as evidenced by higher pricing, year-over-year. None of the cruise lines have engaged in “panic pricing.”

When asked by CruiseCritic if there had been a falloff in demand, one agent said, “On the contrary! Our agency (CruiseOne) in Miami has shown a rise in cruise sales of 40 percent when compared to last year, since the event on the Triumph occurred.” (Note that this is a comparison to the sales period right after the Concordia disaster.)

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At the end of February, according to USA Today, Wells Fargo analyst Tim Conder wrote that it appeared as if cruisers hadn’t been scared off by the Triumph debacle:

“Consistent with historical precedent following other ship incidents, our industry checks indicate that at this point … there has been no impact on experienced cruise customer bookings/pricing patterns, and … very minimal evidence that bookings/pricing among first-time cruisers has been impacted for any brand with the exception of the Carnival brand, (and) this to a limited degree,” Conder writes.

Cruise defenders say that travelers “understand that things happen,” and that problems like the Triumph fire are “outliers” or “blips” in what’s normally a safe, reliable industry. They also point out that, in their opinion, Carnival handled the situation as best as it could — by being upfront with the media, acknowledging its mistakes, and proactively offering compensation to passengers.

Considering the class action suits being brought against Carnival, as well as complaints from passengers stating that the cruise line has been trying to back off its promise to refund airfare expenses to customers, not everyone shares that positive opinion regarding Carnival’s response. In an online poll among cruise enthusiasts at CruiseCritic, 30% said that Carnival hadn’t done enough to make things up to passengers, compared to 37% who were satisfied with the cruise line’s efforts.

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Regardless of the “news” that cruise sales remain stable, and possibly even quite strong, the results of a new Harris Interactive poll indicate that the perception of Carnival and the larger cruise industry has, in fact, suffered lately:

“Not only is purchase intent in decline for Carnival – it’s down across the industry’s top brands, on average,” points out Harris Poll Insights Vice President Deana Percassi. “What’s more, while purchase intent is dropping for some brands, those lost potential sales are not being captured by any of the other tested cruise lines. Those potential customers are simply sailing away.”

More than half (53%) of those surveyed said they “somewhat agree” or “strongly agree” with the statement “I am less likely to take a cruise now than I was a year ago.” (Granted, many surveyed might not remember that a year ago, the world had just seen photos of a half-sunk, slumped-over Concordia in Italy.) Scores given to Carnival Cruise Lines for Quality, Trust, and Purchase Intent were the lowest in the industry to begin with, and they declined more substantially than other brands after the Triumph fire. Carnival’s Trust and Quality ratings dipped by 17% and 18%, respectively, and perhaps most importantly, Purchase Intent was down 13%.

What’s more, the BrandIndex, which tracks consumer perception of brands and overall “buzz,” indicates that Carnival’s reputation took a beating after the Triumph fire. “The [Carnival] brand has experienced one of the steepest drops in consumer perception for a brand since the twin crises of BP and Toyota in 2010,” a BrandIndex report states.