How cruise lines are anchoring on marketing to break COVID-19 stigma

It has been almost nine months since the cruise industry first got hit with the COVID-19 pandemic. The Diamond Princess cruise line first quarantined at Yokohama, near Tokyo, after some of its passengers were infected by the coronavirus. Following which, another ship of the Princess Cruises, Grand Princess, was also quarantined for 14 days after more than a dozen people were tested COVID-19 positive on board. Subsequently, many other cruises were left stranded at sea as ports around the world started turning them away in fear of the coronoavirus. According to The Guardian, Holland America cruise ships Zaandam and Westerdam were also stranded for days at sea after being refused by ports of various countries, even though there were no positive cases aboard the Westerdam.

In March, cruise lines in the United States were also ordered to stop sailing for a month from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Cruise lines around the world subsequently paused their sailings, sending the industry into a draught for almost the rest of the year. In the same month, the Singapore Tourism Board even reported a 52% fall in cruise passenger traffic.

Given the slew of negative headlines following the incident, it might seem understandable that some consumers still continue to be hesitant to return onboard cruises for their vacations. However, a recent report on The Straits Times shone a glimmer of hope when it reported that Genting Cruise Lines, which now has approval to start sailing in Singapore again, received more than 6,000 bookings for its expedition just five days after it made bookings available.

In a conversation with MARKETING-INTERACTIVE, Michael Goh, president of Dream Cruises and head of international sales, Genting Cruise Lines said there has been no rest for the team which has been busy actively communicating and engaging with consumers. The pandemic forced Dream Cruises to ramp up its digital and content marketing efforts, and currently it is banking on the powers of celebrities and key opinion leaders to create awareness and reinforce its brand positioning.

"Right now, we are continuing our digital efforts and highlighting the high standards of preventive and safety measures that we have in place to instill confidence and peace of mind," he said. "Complementing our digital marketing, we will continue to also maximise our exposure through both online and offline media platforms such as print, radio and TV. We are also working closely with our travel partners to equip them with training andright  collaterals on the enhanced measures in place," Goh said.

Shifting its marketing messaging to emphasise and underscore its corporate responsibility in handling the COVID-19 pandemic, and also address current consumer sentiments surrounding travel, has been crucial for the brand. As travel norms and expectations continue to change due to the pandemic, Goh explains that it is critical that the public is educated on the enhanced safety and preventive measures on board its ships and that its messages effectively convey to customers that their well-being is priority. 

Goh added that prior to Genting Cruise Lines' sailing approval, the cruise company also ensured its marketing machine was kept running through social posts and its “Sea You Soon” campaign that ran across Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn.

Meanwhile, competitor Cruise liner Royal Caribbean has extended its suspension of sailings for the rest of the year - barring sailing from Singapore. This means its planned sailings from Australia, New Zealand, Asia, South Africa, and South America are currently put on hold.  However, Angie Stephen, managing director, Asia Pacific, Royal Caribbean Group, remains optimistic that the pilot cruises in Singapore will not only help support Royal Caribbean’s restart efforts, but will also help to reignite the local economy and bring back jobs and services supporting the travel industry.

"Ultimately, cruising remains an important sector of the tourism industry, and we remain committed to supporting the reopening of Singapore’s tourism economy through safe cruising," Stephen added. 

To promote its cruises, Royal Caribbean will be focusing its marketing efforts on digital, social media and customer-relationship management.

The marketing message will also aim to provide comprehensive messaging around its cruise, as well as new health and safety protocols.

These include mandatory testing for all passengers and crew prior to embarkation and upon debarkation, upgraded air filtration systems to ensure fresh air is continuously filtered in from the outdoors, and upgraded medical facilities and medical care onboard.

"Our marketing efforts are focused on showing, rather than telling, so that the public is aware of what to expect on our upcoming sailings," Stephen said, adding that it will be doing so by creating infographics that illustrate how the new protocols onboard will look like, as well as producing real-time video footage of its sailings once the ship is in operation.

The company is also in close cooperation with local health authorities, which has helped in creating informed and well thought through marketing messages. "By understanding the concerns and priorities of Singaporeans when it comes to health and safety, we remain laser focused in communicating messaging that matter. Through our marketing, we also hope to inspire more travel by encouraging consumers to upgrade their staycation experience on land to a sail-cation at sea."

According to Stephen, Royal Caribbean's local marketing landscape comprises of a good balance between traditional and digital marketing, as well as a healthy mix of branding and retail messaging. While traditional media will continue to play an important role in maintaining its leadership position in brand awareness and preference, the company has also seen a growing increase in digital media consumption and its effectiveness, as more audiences start to adopt digital technologies. 

"As a company, we are continuously adapting, innovating and evaluating cutting-edge technologies in order to enhance the cruising experience for guests. Royal Caribbean has always been best known for its bold approach to evolving our cruise offerings. We continue to deliver innovations that thrill families, providing them with one-of-a-kind experiences onboard our ships," Stephen told MARKETING-INTERACTIVE.

Royal Caribbean's redeployment of cruises has been seeing ups and downs. The company first announced a global suspension of all its cruises on 14 March, adding that its US cruise service is expected to resume in April. It has since extended the suspension until late this year, resuming its cruise services in Hong Kong.

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(Photo courtesy: 123RF)

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