Not a great time to woo first time cruisers

In January, Jessica Fricchione and 10 of her family members
booked what would have been her first cruise, a Bermuda sailing out of
Baltimore leaving on May 31. 

Due to the coronavirus crisis, the group’s sailing was
canceled — and they have no interest in taking a future cruise credit.

“No one in the family wants to book a cruise again,” she
said, adding that they were looking into a stay at an all-inclusive resort
instead. “I don’t ever, ever want to be stuck on a cruise ship.”

Justified or not, the cruise industry’s reputation took a
hit from the high-profile Covid-19 outbreaks on a handful of ships in March and
April. 

Industry stakeholders acknowledge that media coverage of
those ships being turned away from ports and, in some cases, of passengers
being quarantined in their cabins for weeks on end is most likely to have an
impact on the potential-cruiser set. 

In a media call last month, Carnival Corp. CEO Arnold Donald
said there was “no question” that the media attention would have an impact on
that market segment. 

“There have been people who may have been considering [a
cruise] who would be having second thoughts at this point in time,” he said. 

The first-time cruiser has always been considered critical to
the growth of cruising. Despite CLIA lines’ global passenger growth of about
60% since 2009, to 30 million in 2019, cruising is still vastly underpenetrated
compared with other vacations: 11.9 million Americans cruised in 2019, only
about 3% of the population.

Travel advisors expect that the crisis will cause a decline
in the new-to-cruise market.

“When you’re dealing with first-time cruisers, you typically
have to overcome some fear of the unknown with cruising, such as seasickness,
boredom, claustrophobia,” said Anthony Hamawy, president of Cruise.com. “The
current negative press around cruising will add to those fears.”

Signature Travel Network CEO Alex Sharpe said that those who’ve
never been on a cruise can’t draw upon personal experience to put into
perspective what they are seeing and hearing from the media.

“If you’ve been watching the news and you’re not a cruiser
and you can’t put what [ships with Covid-19 outbreaks] have been through in any
context with your own family’s great times on a ship, it’s hard to reconcile
that and say, ‘That’s my next vacation,’” Sharpe said. “I think new-to-cruise
will take a hit in the short term. That will take some time.”

Some cruise lines have found that booked passengers who were
new to cruise have been more likely to cancel cruises they had booked during
the current operations pause.

Mark Conroy, Silversea Cruises’ managing director of the
Americas, said that new cruisers have been more likely than past passengers to
cancel and take a refund versus a future cruise credit, because they are “more
nervous.”

Loyalty program members “will come back first,” he said. “They’re
the people that know us and love us and travel with us every year or every
other year. They’re the ones that are eager to go.”

Repeat cruisers will lead the way

Many think that those who were once potential cruisers and
are now on the fence can be swayed back once cruise lines are up and running. 

Charles Sylvia, CLIA’s vice president of membership and
trade relations, said that there will be “more challenges ahead with regard to
the first-time cruisers” but that people returning from cruises with positive
stories will put them at ease. 

“Once they see the resumption of operations and once they
see friends and family members and co-workers going on cruises and coming home
with that same level of enthusiasm and satisfaction, then they will be back — the
first-time cruisers will come to us,” Sylvia said. 

Donald also said that returning cruise passengers, as well
as travel advisors, will be the most important messengers in overcoming the
additional concerns noncruisers have. He added that this is something the
industry is accustomed to dealing with. 

“We were busy knocking down myths before, and we’ll have to
return to that,” he said, adding that the two “most powerful ways” to do that
is through travel advisors, “with their knowledge and experience and personal
relations with their clients,” and the passengers, who will “provide the kind
of testimonials and credibility with their friends and colleagues and
relatives.” 

And as has always been true for travel coming out of every
crisis, for some people, the right price is a big persuader. 

“I think, with time, this will be overcome because the
vacation value will ultimately win out,” Hamawy said.

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