This week I listened to the multi-millionaire cruise executives praise the cruise industry at the "state of the cruise industry" at the Cruise Shipping Miami (CSM 2014) trade show.
As anticipated, Carnival's CEO and former Monsanto chemical executive Arnold Donald said cruise ship accidents are "so rare . . . cruising is safe." Royal Caribbean's long time executive Richard Fain claimed that cruise lines are "heavily regulated." The audience of travel agents and vendors tied to the cruise lines all politely clapped.
The speeches contained little substance, no statistical support, and virtually all self-serving opinions. I felt like I was at a motivational speaker convention sponsored by Amway.
The telling comments at the conference came from Norwegian Cruise Line's CEO Kevin Sheehan. He said: "we are ruled by public opinion; unless we can keep our business running right will always be on defensive." The NCL boss added: "a period of operational excellence and no media incidents are needed."
Of course, this was the real insight into the state of the cruise industry - the cruise lines are on the defensive. The cruise lines seem nervous as they claim that their troubles are behind them. They are in the business of selling fantasy dream-like vacations to ports in the Caribbean which are becoming more and more violent. They are praying that the media doesn't bash them after a cruise ship catches on fire or a family is gunned down in the streets of Nassau.
What's the industry's plan to pull itself out of the harsh media scrutiny? I didn't hear one at CSM. The cruise lines, it seems to me, are just hanging in the balance hoping for the best.
But history tells us that more trouble lies ahead.
There have been over 90 fires on cruise ships since 1990, according to testimony at one of the many Congressional hearing on cruise ships disasters. Some fires were big, some were small although there is nothing really insignificant about any type of fire on the high seas.
Last year, the big story involved the Carnival Triumph, of course, which CNN covered non-stop. But the more significant fire involved the Royal Caribbean Grandeur of the Seas which burned for two hours. Most people seem to have already forgotten the fire on the Grandeur. Yes there will be cruise ship fires this year; hopefully minor ones only with no injuries. The public knows that accidents happen. The most important issue is whether the cruise lines respond promptly and responsibly (like Royal Caribbean did after the Grandeur fire) or delays unreasonably (like Carnival after the Triumph fire) and / or acts outrageously (like Carnival after the Concordia disaster)
The cruise industry's image problem is not just because of ship fires and Concordia-like disasters. The continuous stories about bad medical care, mistreatment of crew members, sexual assaults, children victimization, missing passengers, and so forth, coupled with a callous PR response, have more of an effect on the cruise industry's image. Its like reputation death by a thousand cuts.
Last December, I published Top 10 Most Outrageous Cruise Ship Stories of 2013 & the "Worst Cruise Line in the World" Award.
In my assessment, the factors which most harmed the cruise lines' reputation last year didn't involve accidents at all. Rather, the most damage came from incidents showing the cruise lines' egregious disregard of the law and a lack of care and compassion of their passengers and crew. The real damage comes from events like mishandling cases involving persons disappearing at sea, ignoring the man overboard laws, crew members arrested and sentenced to jail for child porn, fleecing crew members of their tips and retirement benefits, and a family cruise line aiding and abetting a child predator escape justice.
One of the most embarrassing stories last year involved Silversea Cruises which was caught by the USPH hiding perishable food down in the crew quarters. We were contacted by crew members who complained about this, but Silversea ignored us when we contacted them. We sent the story to CNN. The special that CNN produced tarnished not only this luxury line but cast the entire industry in a bad light. The entire chain of events could have been avoided by Silversea just being honest and transparent.
The cruise lines suffer, in my opinion, from a combination of being arrogant and rattlebrained. The cruise industry engages in some really bad conduct on a continuous basis. It often makes things substantially worse when confronted by the media and bloggers like myself.
Last week, former crew members sent us video and photographs which seem to suggest that MSC Cruises has been dumping garbage, plastics and debris into the water in violation of international pollution law.
We asked MSC for an explanation. MSC ignored us just like Silversea Cruises did last year. MSC claims that un-named authorities in Brazil are investigating the allegations, but it refuses to identify the authorities or provide contact information. MSC is digging itself and the cruise industry into a deeper hole.
Cruise lines like MSC tout that they treat the maritime environment like this when in truth they may be treating the waters like this. When the major media networks latch onto a story, the cruise industry is forced to make a statement, but the cruise lines often sound and appear evasive and unbelievable.
Until cruise lines act responsibly and treat all of their crew members, guests and the earth with respect and act with transparency toward the media, the cruise industry's reputation will continue to suffer.