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Do Low Fares Attract the Wrong Crowd?
A week after P&O's Ventura returned to Barbados from her Christmas and New Year's cruise on January 3, yesterday's "Sunday Times" ran a story headed "Ocean cruise ends in almighty brawl." It reported that discounted fares had attracted a rowdy crowd that had caused mayhem on this 15-night fly/cruise.
Arguments between two families from Manchester, under-age drinking, food fights and arson attempts were all reported. Even the captain was said to have been booed when he tried to count down the New Year and two unruly passengers had to be put ashore at St Vincent.
Aside from the fact that the two families arguing may have been say only 10 people out of 3,300 on board and the fact that P&O denied "unduly" discounting this cruise, the question remains as to whether discounted fares during the downturn will attract the "wrong kind of people."
There is a precedent to this, and that is what occurred after the events of September 11, 2001, when cruise lines did something similar.
Until the 1990s, the British cruise market had been the preserve of those well enough off to afford relatively expensive two-week cruises on lines such as P&O, the traditional market leader. But when tour operators such as Airtours and Thomson came along in the mid-1990s and started to offer cheap 7-day fly/cruises from Majorca did the UK market really start to grow, to the state where it has grown from 663,000 in 1998 to close to 1.5 million cruisers today.
The success of the tour operators was shared for a while by Royal Caribbean, which teamed up with First Choice in two-ship brand Island Cruises while P&O formed its own Ocean Village based on the same concept.
Many comments were heard when the tour operators started into cruising that they were not attracting the usual cruisers and that tattoos and ear rings had made their appearance on UK market cruise ships. Some even commented that the new passengers were drinking beer directly from the can.
Strangely enough, however, Airtours left the cruising business after a decade while Island Cruises and Ocean Village are now being closed down, leaving only Thomson Cruises, now part of TUI, to serve this market as such. Meanwhile, of course the UK's traditional brands such as P&O, Fred Olsen and Cunard Line have continued their own growth, with P&O having grown from just one ship to half a dozen large ships now.
The Australian Experience
This kind of hijinks experienced on the Ventura is not exactly new. The Cruise Examiner once cruised from Sydney in P&O's Canberra, back in the 1908s, and when he boarded the ship forty feet of the starboard promenade deck rail was missing and several deck chairs had been thrown overboard on the cruise before (which had also happened to be a New Year's cruise).
And just as in this case, two passengers had been put ashore mid-cruise (in this case at Auckland) after rowdy behaviour. In those days it was traditional for Australian football fans to book cruises in groups and the solution that P&O found was ultimately to carry off-duty New South Wales police constables on board to keep the peace. This has not completely kept P&O Australia out of the newspapers for trouble on board their ships, however.
The American Experience
The main problem in America has been marauding university students on March college breaks, who were also in the habit of booking cruises in large groups as a rather boisterous get-away celebration. The ultimate solution in the American case was that every cabin must now have at least one occupant of age 21 or above. This prevents too many under-age university students from all booking together.
Security guards are also more in evidence on American ships now, and particularly on NCL and Carnival. As cruise ships have become more like shopping malls, the average American passenger just thinks this is normal and has not really noticed the change. But if it keeps the peace, a few more uniforms of a different type is not a bad price to pay.
With so many large cruise ships having been delivered recently, and even more on the way, all cruise lines are in a position where they have to maximize their utilization. The fact that a downturn in the economic downturn has come along at the same time is something that was obviously not foreseen, but in order to keep their ships full, prices are coming down.
Some lines take the view that bringing people on board for even the lowest fare will have the effect of maintaining their levels of on-board revenue. Others that ships are long-term investments and they will get it back later.
Keeping The Customer Happy
The real problem, and this has occurred before, is that cutting fares too far really can attract a whole different stratum of society, in the British case the type of people who used to holiday in the cheaper resorts of Benidorm, Majorca and Cyprus who love the high life and almost exist to go clubbing every night.
Too many of these people creates a real problem on board and not only acts as a disincentive to repeat cruisers, but also to some first-timers who may come on board thinking that this is the norm and not wish to return.
After September 11, there were even anecdotal accounts of rowdier passengers booking on upmarket lines such as Silversea, a line that has always wanted to stay away from anything to do with the word discount. The difficulty is thus for the cruise lines, and maybe more particularly in the UK, to meet their commercial targets without alienating their own core market.
This may be particularly true for P&O.
The Question for P&O
Some time ago, P&O started differentiating ships within its own fleet, something that was sometimes difficult for even travel agents to understand. Some ships were adults only, some were traditional and some were contemporary, but they all wore the same colours.
P&O even invented an adults-only ship called Adonia, presumably in honour of that phrase.
But aside from this internal differentiation, possibly the big question for P&O now is what will happen to the Ocean Village crowd now that is has decided to close that line down.
This is especially true as at the time of the announcement they reminded us that their own Azura and sister line Cunard Line's Queen Elizabeth would be coming on stream at about the same time. But will the crowd that "doesn't do cruises" fit in with P&O's main product or will they be in danger of being lost to the likes of Thomson?
They have a couple of years to decide what to do next as the second Ocean Village ship does not phase out until late 2010.
David Dingle Awarded a CBE
Ironically, at the very time that some of the passengers on the Ventura were booing the captain, it was announced that Carnival UK's CEO David Dingle had been made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire in the Queen's New Year list.
However, it was not so much for services to cruising as for services to shipping, Mr Dingle having served as president of the UK Chamber of Shipping and chairman of the European Cruise Council in addition to his thirty-year career at P&O.
While there is no doubt that there was an element of exaggeration in press reports of the Ventura cruise, Dingle and his executives at Carnival UK will clearly have their job cut out to keep customers happy now that four brands are being shrunk to three (the third being Princess Cruises' UK marketing operation).
Always Look On The Bright Side of Life
Still, the big advantage of the recession is that never has it been cheaper to cruise. Now, those who could not afford to cruise in the past can sample this kind of holiday. And those that could afford it can cruise more often. Just like the price of computers, electronics and televisions, the price of cruising has been coming down for some time, particularly as economies of scale have been gained by building bigger ships. This has widened the market substantially.
But while there is a ship for everyone, not everyone is for the same ship, and travel agents have a role to play here in helping newcomers choose a ship that is suitable for their lifestyle. In other words, this may be a transitional phase, just as it was post-September 11 before the market rebounded.
The wrong crowd may have been put on the wrong ship but that doesn't diminish the cruise product as certain newspaper journalists would like to maintain. As the Monty Python song says, one must "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life."
(Source: By Mark Tré - Cybercruises.com)