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Cruise sellers report subdued customer reaction to Concordia

Cruise sellers report subdued customer reaction to Concordia
Several major US cruise retailers told Seatrade Insider reaction to the Costa Concordia tragedy has been surprisingly subdued so far. ‘We haven’t had one cancellation yet and minimal inquiries,’ said Vicky Garcia, evp sales and marketing for the large home-based travel agent network Cruise Planners/American Express.

She surmised that’s because the Concordia capsize is perceived as an isolated incident while ‘cruising has excellent track record and is probably one of the safest vacations you can take.’

Though it’s early days, Garcia—a 25-year travel industry veteran—said people usually react immediately following a disaster ‘and we’re not seeing that happen.’ After 9/11, ‘Calls stopped immediately. We’re not seeing that. We’re taking bookings.’

Landry & Kling, Inc., the Miami-based cruise meetings specialists, fielded just a few questions from corporate clients on Monday.

A group sailing on a Royal Caribbean ship in June asked for data on lifeboats and crew training, while a potential charter client who hasn’t signed yet wanted safety statistics—‘doing his due diligence,’ as L&K president Jo Kling put it. Another client requested a charter contract today, so Concordia did not deter them.

Kling thinks the revelations that the incident was likely caused by human error instead of a systemic problem makes it easier to grasp. ‘People are being analytical and not overreacting. They’re fact-finding and realizing this is not a common event. They’re not throwing the baby out with the bath water,’ she said.

‘It’s so atypical. There is not a sense of this happening all the time so it’s not perceived as personally threatening.’

Meanwhile, at giant World Travel Holdings, the parent of CruiseOne and Cruises Inc., ‘We have not seen any sort of dramatic reaction as of yet,’ said Brad Tolkin, co-chairman and co-ceo. Sales on Saturday and Sunday were slightly down—low single digits—from the same weekend a year ago.

Tolkin said the slight drop could be due to the fact that WTH pulled all its weekend advertising after learning about the Concordia accident on Friday night. The company didn’t want to turn up in information searches on the disaster. But as of today, it has resumed some promotions. ‘The cruise industry must go on,’ Tolkin said.

He expects Concordia will have some negative halo effect on cruise sales, but he can’t quantify that now.

Like Kling, Tolkin said that human error—‘The captain steered off course and he took that decision on his own’—could be less alarming to people weighing the facts than some potentially widespread issue.

‘If it was truly human error, this will not be a black eye on the industry. There is more understanding by the public of a human error,’ he said.

But Tolkin by no means underplays the situation: ‘This was a tragedy. People lost their lives.’ The graphic images will linger so the Concordia ‘has to impact bookings,’ he said. ‘It would be irresponsible to say this will not have an impact.’

Because Costa has a small presence in the US market and the accident took place in Europe, the US retailers said demand by European consumers may be more affected.

And the timing, just as wave season kicks off, is a concern.

But Bill Gibbons, director of the UK’s Passenger Shipping Association, countered that cruising is a global industry and bookings are made year-round for travel throughout the year.

‘The start of the year is, of course, an important booking period, and at this stage it is not possible to access any medium or long-term impact. At present, agents are continuing to receive inquiries and cruise bookings,’ he said.

PSA is working with cruise lines, agents and industry partners and will ‘continue to do everything we need to do to reassure both agents and passengers,’ Gibbons added.

Stateside, the American Society of Travel Agents had a similar message. The group is working with Cruise Lines International Association and Costa to provide ASTA members with updates, including guidance for passenger re-accommodation or refunds for future Concordia bookings.

‘Accidents such as this are extremely rare,’ stated ASTA president and chair Nina Meyer, adding that cruising remains one of the safest forms of vacation travel.

As for wave bookings, Cruise Planners’ Garcia said all indications for her company are ‘extremely strong. We’re trending several percentage points over last year and we had a great year in 2011.’

Cruise Planners is informing its agents about safety so they can reassure clients who have concerns. The network may consider adding some messaging in its marketing to stress cruising’s safety record.

Although at least six people on Concordia died—‘This was tragic,’ Garcia said—she added: ‘The crew did an amazing job of evacuating over 4,000 people and that says a lot about how safe cruising is.’

Before Friday night, WTH was having what Tolkin described as ‘a terrific wave,’ and he said suppliers indicated they were having a terrific wave, too. Now, after Concordia, he thinks lines may have to make some tactical moves to nudge demand.

That said, ‘I believe the cruise industry will recover very quickly,’ Tolkin added.

The WTH chief predicts there will be ‘a lot of positive press about the safety of this industry,’ and a catastrophe like Costa Concordia will lead to safety improvements.

‘A lot of positive things will occur, not just that Costa and Carnival will improve, but all the industry will improve,’ he said.