How cruise lines are talking up their return to the sea

Custom content and b-to-b comms are key in building buzz for a safe comeback.

Above: Norwegian's Joy liner.
Above: Norwegian's Joy liner.

When the pandemic hit, cruise ships were a major focus of the media, with some articles branding them “cesspools” or even “floating Petri dishes.” 

More than a year later, the major cruise lines are set for a return to the open sea this summer amid rising vaccination numbers in the U.S. and around the globe. The industry is looking to take back the narrative that a cruise can be safe and fun. 

“When the pandemic hit and the cruise industry began bearing the brunt of often inaccurate, irresponsible and half-researched news stories, we knew it was time to take matters into our own hands,” says Christine Da Silva, VP of communication and events at Norwegian Cruise Line, which has a fleet of 17 ships. “We knew we needed to find a way to share our own story.”

NCL launched “Embark – The Series, which spans five episodes and follows the brand’s preparations for restarting sailings on July 25. 

The first 30-minute episode, called Great Cruise Comeback, premiered on April 15, and highlights new health and safety protocols that passengers can expect on-board to keep them safe from COVID-19. They include a redesigned onboarding process with a pulse-oximeter reading and a temperature check using no-contact facial recognition software.   

The live-stream of Great Cruise Comeback included a live pre-show conversation and Q&A with NCL executives. It is available on-demand on the brand’s website and on YouTube. Da Silva says it has attracted nearly 700,000 viewers. 

“We understood that we would most powerfully communicate our message if we showed our guests and fans what we are doing to return to cruise versus just telling them,” she says. “That’s when Embark with NCL was born.”

Calling it an “editorial platform,” the Embark website includes the docuseries, as well as Embark: Spotlights, highlighting NCL’s stage shows and other entertainment, and Embark: Stories, which includes crew profiles. It worked with agency partner Viva Creative on the platform. 

Geneva-based MSC Cruises has been hosting journalists on its MSC Grandiosa ship, which takes passengers on a seven-night cruise along the Mediterranean Sea in Italy. 

This has resulted in recent coverage in the Associated Press, with the headline, “Italy may be in Easter lockdown, but the party’s on at sea” as well as from the likes of Good Morning America

The Grandiosa has been at sea since last autumn after adopting strict anti-COVID 19 protocols approved by the Italian government. Luca Biondolillo, MSC’s chief communications officer, is happy to see the focus on those regulations in media coverage, as the brand gets set to add nine more ships to its European sailings.

“Typically, we invite journalists to be pampered by our onboard experience, but this was a return to basics in media relations,” he says. “We wanted the media to go through every single health and safety protocol, just as a regular guest would, including a PCR test for COVID-19 72 hours before coming to the ship and another one before boarding.”

“And while we also told the media things like the floors of the elevators are cleaned 80 times a day, the journalists were able to see it for themselves, which makes a difference in the coverage,” he adds.

It isn’t that cruise ships don’t want to be talking about on-board bells and whistles, like waterslides, dining options and spa. But Biondolillo says ship features are just taking a bit of a backseat for now.

“Of course, the hope is that eventually the current situation will go away and there won’t be as much of a need to focus the conversation and engagement with guests around health and safety,” he says. “But the way in which the industry is going to move forward is in talking about safety protocols. That will build goodwill with current guests, past guests and future and potential guests.”

As much as cruising is a b-to-c industry, Biondolillo notes it is also b-to-b because of relationships with travel agents. 

At the start of the pandemic, he says MSC worked closely with agents “on customer refunds,” saying: “It was an enormous amount of administrative work, but it also presented an opportunity to work together with agents and be in partnership not only when there is money to be made for everyone, but when problems need to be solved.”

It’s still ramping up comms targeting agents. “We’ve had to be more vocal in outreach to them, because so many of their offices were temporarily shut down, through things like webinars and lots of calls, mailings and email updates,” he says. 

Carnival, the largest cruise line operator, with brands including Carnival, Holland America, Princess, Costa and Cunard, has also lifted anchor in Europe. Two of its brands have restarted, and it expects that by this summer, six of their nine lines will be sailing in markets such as the U.K. and Greece. 

On April 22, Carnival also said its luxury Seabourn line will begin sailing out of Barbados in mid-July. 

“We are still uncertain when we will be able to restart cruising in the U.S., but we remain hopeful that we may be able to begin sailing again this summer,” says Roger Frizzell, Carnival’s SVP and CCO. 

In the meantime, he says it is “creating buzz in the marketplace with exciting new ships.” The Mardi Gras scheduled to debut this year out of Port Canaveral, Florida, as is Carnival Celebration out of Miami. Most U.S.-based lines have been restricted from operating this year.

Carnival’s bottom line took a significant hit due to the Pandemic, but it is spotting signs of optimism. Although it posted a $2 billion net loss in fiscal Q1, but also 90% more bookings than the previous quarter. 

One way it is raising awareness is by talking up environmental stewardship. On Earth Day, Carnival revealed the two new ships will be powered by what it touts as a cleaner fuel: liquefied natural gas. It was promoted with a video, LNG Powers the Fun, on YouTube. 

Frizzell says to expect future announcements ABOUT ship features, but like the rest of the industry, Carnival will be tackling the COVID concern head-on. 

“We will continue to communicate about the tremendous experience and great value of cruising, and provide information on our enhanced health and safety protocols being implemented,” he says. 

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