Monday, June 10, 2013

Cruise Line Perceptions Sink

The results of recent polling by Harris Interactive, one of the world's leading market research firms, indicated what most travel agents and industry watchers probably already realized—the cruise industry took some tough perceptual hits earlier this year following several high publicity incidents, most notably the Carnival Triumph's heavily reported limp to shore after a fire and loss of power on board. A March Harris Poll found that Quality, Trust and Purchase Intent scores recorded in the week immediately following the Triumph's return to shore ("Post") showed notable drops when compared to scores recorded prior to the incident ("Pre")—not just for Carnival, but across many top cruise brands.

It was suggested by many at the time that these drops, due to widespread questions of quality standards and shipboard safety, were likely a temporary setback, and that perceptions would soon bounce back. However, a more recent Harris Poll of 2,052 U.S. adults surveyed online between May 14 and 16, 2013 (prior to the fire aboard Royal Caribbean's Grandeur of the Seas) by Harris Interactive, finds that perceptions for the top cruise industry brands have not only remained below their pre-incident levels, but have continued to decline. Results are compared, where applicable, to Harris Poll EquiTrend® data collected from January 11, 2013 to February 8, 2013 (the Carnival Triumph incident lasted from February 10-14, 2013) and a Harris Poll of 2,230 U.S. adults surveyed online between February 19 and 21, 2013.

Worsening Waters
Looking at specific perceptual measures, the average perceived Quality score across the seven brands tested is down by 13% vs. its pre incident level and 6% compared to the post incident wave of testing. While Carnival's Quality score shows the steepest declines (down 28% vs. pre and 12% vs. post), all of the other brands tested ranged individually from 8%-11% below pre levels.

The average Trust score across the seven brands tested is also down in comparison to both pre (down 12%) and post (down 5%) incident; as with Quality, Trust shows the steepest decline for Carnival Cruise Lines (down 26% vs. pre, 11% vs. post). However, the six other brands tested remain between 8%-12% below pre incident Trust levels.

Purchase Intent has declined, on average, 11% from its pre incident level (and 5% from its post incident level). While this again affects most of the brands tested (with most down between 7%-15% vs. pre levels), it is worth noting that Holland America's Purchase Intent score has largely weathered this perceptual storm, holding at just 2% below its pre level. Carnival is again hardest hit, down 20% vs. pre, 8% vs. post.

Air Travel Gains Altitude over Cruises
Revisiting statements comparing the cruise industry to air travel—a comparison first made in the February Harris Poll—Americans' inclination to favor air travel over cruises has only increased. Over six in ten Americans (62%) agree that air travel is much more reliable than taking cruises (up from 57% in February), and the majority (56%) agree that air travel is much safer than taking cruises (up from 50% in February).

Roughly half of Americans (51%, roughly even with February's 53%) agree that they're less likely to take a cruise now than they were a year ago, with this sentiment once again proving stronger among those who have never taken a cruise (56%) than among those who have (43%).

One-third of Americans (32%) agree that cruises are "worry-free," down slightly from 35% in February, with past cruise experience again appearing to have a considerable impact on this perception: those who have taken a cruise (51%) are again more than twice as likely to agree that cruises are "worry free" as those who have not (22%).

"When we first addressed this topic in March, even we were open to the idea that a 'recency bias' of sorts might be impacting the results so soon after the Triumph fiasco, creating a low tide for the industry as a whole," concedes Harris Poll Insights Vice President Deana Percassi. "But these more recent findings, coupled with reports of heavily discounted pricing on Carnival cruises, indicate that the industry as a whole, as well as the Carnival brand specifically, may still be facing rough seas."

As a traveler who's sailed on a number of cruise ships and flown on several airlines in the past year, Cruise Diva is puzzled by the public perception that air travel is more reliable than cruise travel. Some of my flights have been cancelled or delayed and I came very close to missing a connection to Europe just last March. My husband and I prefer to drive to our cruise embarkation ports when it's practical simply because flying has become such a hassle. While I don't question the Harris Poll methodology, I do feel that their results are somewhat suspect in regard to the inclination of Americans to favor air travel over cruises. None of our cruises have been as unreliable as air travel and I believe the majority of well-traveled individuals would agree.

UPDATE: On a positive note, late last night it was learned that Bob Dickinson, the highly regarded former Carnival Cruise Lines President and CEO who retired in 2007, has been retained as a consultant to Carnival Corporation, the parent company of Carnival Cruise Lines and its other North American brands. As reported by Seatrade Insider, a leading industry publication, Dickinson's primary focus will be working with travel agents and he "will be conducting a gap analysis—looking at 'where they are in terms of travel agents and consumer perception, where they were five or six years ago and where they strengthened or weakened versus competitors.'" Dickinson will report to Carnival Corporation’s COO Howard Frank.

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