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Cruise Industry Offers Mixed Response To Irma

[by Nora Jacobs, Hennes Communications]

As my husband and I spent the weekend watching the news reports coming out of the Caribbean covering the aftermath of Irma, we both felt a deep sadness for those small islands and the people who live there.  It will take years – perhaps decades – for places like St. Martin and St. John to recover.  It will be a long time until the cruise ships call again.  And that will spell devastation for many of these economies that rely heavily on tourist dollars.

I suspect the various cruise lines are in full crisis mode themselves today as well.  Winter is prime cruising time in the Caribbean, and there isn’t a major line that does not have multiple ships sailing those waters during the time of year when other parts of the world are too cold or too dangerous for most paying passengers.  No doubt, most of the lines have assigned all available resources to staff customer service lines, work with local authorities to redeploy upcoming cruises to undamaged ports and salvage bookings whenever possible.

How much the Caribbean season contributes to any line’s profit margin is impossible for me to say, but I do know that all of the lines make good money at these ports of call.  It was surprising, therefore, to see the mixed – and largely absent – public response to Irma when I took a quick visit on the Monday after Irma hit Florida to the websites of eight leading cruise lines.

All of the lines whose sites I visited boast heavy schedules in the Caribbean.  Yet as of midday on Monday, September 11, half still had websites running that likely had been set up months ago.  Several still listed upcoming trips to destinations like St. Martin, which now is in ruins, or others including Cuba and the British Virgin Islands, both with significant damage.  On the other hand, one has deleted all its upcoming Caribbean cruises for the next year, simply noting “no voyages available.”  The site says nothing else about the storm.  Another notes simply that its office in Miami is closed because of the storm.  Again, no message of empathy or concern for those affected.  Nor did a quick social media sweep turn up much.

To their credit, both Royal Caribbean and Celebrity have updated their home pages with a new message providing visitors an opportunity to donate to Hurricane Irma relief efforts.  With the exception of a lengthy message from Norwegian detailing how it is caring for passengers caught in the middle of storm-interrupted voyages on the Sky and the Escape, the rest of the industry currently is notably silent.

I suspect we will begin to see new landing pages for the other lines in the days ahead. In the meantime, however, the fact that one of the industries most dependent on the well-being of the Caribbean Archipelago is largely ignoring the enormous human and environmental toll this storm has wreaked is odd and, for those who are fans of the cruise industry, troubling.

We often counsel our clients that good crisis preparedness can help an organization emerge from a crisis event with its reputation intact and sometimes, even enhanced.  I’m confident both Royal Caribbean and Celebrity mounted their relief efforts because they and their employees care about those who lives have been devastated by Irma.  I’m confident neither company saw the storm as an opportunity to build their brand.  I’m sure all the other cruise lines feel the same. But if you were shopping websites today for an upcoming cruise, which line would speak to you as a caring, compassionate organization you’d want to spend your vacation dollars with?  And, from a crisis preparedness perspective, which lines likely did the advance planning that allowed them to change out a critical stakeholder communication tool in the midst of a seismic industry event and which lines did not?

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