To Woo Uneasy First-Time Cruisers, Carnival Launches Post–‘Poop Cruise’ Guarantee

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Eager to convince the public that its ships are up to snuff, Carnival Cruise Lines is introducing a guarantee promising unsatisfied customers a 110% refund and a free (and speedy) trip back home.

Within the travel industry, it is often claimed that, despite the cruise business’s rapid expansion — from 11 million passengers worldwide in 2005 to over 20 million last year — there is still huge potential for growth. A 2011 report from the Cruise Lines International Association noted that at that point, “approximately 24% of the U.S. population has ever cruised.” In other words, roughly three-quarters of Americans have never boarded a cruise. Cruise lines naturally want to keep on attracting their best customers, cruise veterans. But because the never cruised crowd is so large, wooing the first-time cruiser is a priority throughout the industry. Even if just a tiny percentage of this group is converted to cruising, sales would soar.

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The problem, from cruise lines’ perspective, is that it’s difficult to get consumers to take that leap and board their first ship. The task has been especially tough in recent months, thanks to a string of ugly incidents at sea — most notoriously, the so-called poop-cruise Carnival Triumph, on which passengers were stranded for days without electricity or working toilets. In March, mere weeks after the Triumph episode made news, the results of a Harris Interactive poll indicated that consumers who had never been on a cruise were far more wary of going to sea than folks who have experience on cruise ships. Only 25% of the never cruised agreed that cruises are “worry-free,” compared with 53% of cruise veterans. What’s more, nearly 6 in 10 of the never cruised population said they were less likely than a year prior to book a cruise, compared with 43% of cruise veterans.

The sentiment is especially troubling for Carnival, not only because its reputation has suffered more than other cruise lines over the past year, but also because Carnival has traditionally been known as a good option for first-time cruisers, according to Carolyn Spencer Brown, editor of Cruise Critic. “Before Carnival, cruising tended to be very formal, very regimented,” says Brown. “Carnival changed that. They launched the ‘fun ship,’ and that created buzz — a different atmosphere that lured land vacationers.” Carnival’s lower price points and many options for shorter-length voyages have also appealed to first-timers, who don’t want to risk a lot of money and precious vacation time on an experience that they’re unsure about.

To get those nervous first-timers back into the mix, Carnival introduced a new and unprecedented Great Vacation Guarantee last week. Any passenger who isn’t happy can head to guest services within 24 hours of the ship’s departure and ask to get off. Carnival says it will comply in “no questions asked” fashion, and book complimentary transportation home for the disgruntled passengers at the next port of call. Customers also receive a 110% refund, plus a $100 ship credit in the (probably very unlikely) event the passenger chooses to board a Carnival cruise in the future.

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Gerry Cahill, president and CEO of Carnival, told the Miami Herald that the program is aimed mainly at travelers who have never cruised, or at least never cruised with Carnival. “Among people — not so much people who have cruised with us, but more among people who have never tried the Carnival brand — they got a bad perception of the brand,” he said. “Because they’d never been on a cruise ship, they don’t know how seriously we take safety, they don’t know how seriously we take providing a great guest experience.”

At first glance, the guarantee may seem a risky outlay for Carnival, which could be on the hook for big bucks should passengers take the company up on its promise. But Carnival has reason to believe that won’t happen. The official company line is that the “guarantee is a chance to show just how confident we are in our product and also give cruisers more peace of mind in selecting Carnival,” Jim Berra, Carnival’s chief marketing officer, told Cruise Critic.

Carnival is also fairly confident that the guarantee won’t wind up costing them much, if any, money. The company has offered a similar, if slightly less generous, guarantee since the mid-’90s. The older guarantee, which refunded only the portion of the cruise not taken and promised dissatisfied customers a free trip back to the departure port (not necessarily home), saw few takers: reportedly some tiny fraction of 1%. Indeed, Carnival is calling the program “the greatest guarantee you’ll never need to use.”

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In fact, Carnival is banking on passengers never using it. That doesn’t mean the guarantee amounts to empty promises, though. “It’s a great program, really, not just for Carnival, but for the cruise business in general,” says Cruise Critic’s Brown. “It takes the concerns a lot of people have — first-timers especially — right off the table.”

Now there’s a recourse for Carnival passengers who want to jump ship because of awful weather, subpar cabin conditions, a flu outbreak or perhaps events taking place far away that have caused them to be uneasy about their cruise. The only big caveat is that passengers are in the odd position of hoping that if anything does go wrong with the ship, that it goes wrong within 24 days of getting on board.