The cruise experience: The mass market, indvidualized

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Can you identify our ship?
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Can you identify our ship?

Eric and I are heading home after a five-day mini-cruise on a rather large ship. Our family has never cruised before, though we’ve visited cruise ports as part of our independent travels, and were dismayed by the tourist-trap environment. Surely, no one in their right mind would want to be packaged into a tourist box with overpriced souvenirs and cookie-cutter excursions?

Of course, many thousands buy into the experience, and I can see why now that I’ve been through it. (I won’t name the cruise nor the cruise company here because this report isn’t 100 per cent positive, and, for all practical purposes, it doesn’t matter. I believe the large cruise organizations operate in similar manners, with variations to accommodate their own marketing objectives.)

In a practical sense, if you put several thousand people on a boat (with more than 1000 employees to serve the horde), you will get some standard processes — but the absolute crowd size means that the experience will be modified to suit your own circumstances. You can go cheap, or expensive; you can booze and party, or you can avoid the crowds. The cruise company will accommodate different ethnicities, health states, and family types/sizes. So I could comfortably cruise with a 16-year-old son and we both could find enough to keep us occupied. (Eric decided to forgo the organized teenage/youth program.)

It’s Jewish passover. You could order kosher food. We settled for matzoh.  Gays could find a group, and seniors. In other words, the ship is large enough that the sub-sets and specialities and personalities all can be accommodated, all within the standardized and systematized framework.

As for those overpriced excursions, well, you can’t expect an in-depth and comprehensive world view within a few hours, but, equally, you don’t need to think too much about what to do and how to absorb a bit of the local environment.  We touched some sting-rays in the Cayman Island waters, and visited some Mayan ruins in southern Mexico.

Cruise lines make money from the excursions, plus the extras. Alcohol and soft drinks are extras, so is Internet access. These charges add up, even if you are conservative. There are also plenty of opportunities to tip beyond the mandatory gratuities (though no one will force the issue, and, frankly, I felt the mandatory gratuity was enough for us.)

You can see the best-practices of marketing, and some of the problems. Client surveys are part of the story, here, and the Net Promoter Key Performance Indicator, and then the initiatives of staff to win positive scores presumably because these influence their bonuses and recognition. I decided not to bother. The loyalty program I’m sure will kick in with offers and incentives to do it again.

So, will we? And if so, why?

I expect the answer is “yes” if only because there is a place in the vacation universe for escaping responsibility. You can shut out the crowds in the stateroom, you can elect to eat your dinner at the same time and same place, but sample different things; you can meet others, or you can be alone. In the end, when you add up the costs, the comparisons are rather conventional — you will get roughly what you are paying for, and that can be enough to rest and rejuvenate.

Yet, my enthusiasm is tempered with respect for the individuality and freedom of independent travel. Yes, the cruise organization succeeded in overcoming my angst about being part of a horde. However, I realized that I was still a marketing number in their huge database.

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