Cruise ships in peril (only you can help them)


If Russell Davies will forgive me, I have a new assignment for his Account Planning School of the Web. 

The topic: the cruise ship industry. 

The question: what the hell happened? 

The task: break down the problem, build up the industry.

Your assignment (should you accept it):

save this industry with a cunning piece of meaning management.  First the analysis.  Then the creative.  For God’s sake, Tom, do something!


It’s no fair asking others to do what you will not do yourself.  So here’s my 5 cents worth, just to get things started.  I expect submissions to be vastly better than what follows. 

1) Pirates!

The real world seemed to become a theater for cruise ship misadventure.  Terrorists killed an Israeli citizen on one cruise ship.  A mysterious disease broke out on another.  Staff members were accused of sexual impropriety on a third.  And for one Greenwich man featured on 60 Minutes (or something), a honeymoon cruise ended in death.   

All of this is from memory, and that is as it should be.  The idea "cruise ship," once idyllic and peaceful, is now crowded with violent images and vague fears.  Something tells me a cruise ship was actually even boarded by pirates.  I may be thinking of The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou but the point is "Cruise ship" is now a semantic space that invites "boarding" by malevolent creatures and unhappy imaginings of every kind.

2) A suburb at sea

Something about the idea of cruise ship is suggests that even if things go well, the possibility of captivity is still quite likely. I mean, what if you get stuck at a table with real drones.  What if there is no TV, and all the films are Gidget.  What if you really feel like getting away from it all?  Where are you going to go?  It’s as if cruise ship stayed still and the ocean moved beneath it.  Somehow I think of the cruise ship as a suburb at sea, predictable and tedious.  Sure, you can get off in port.  What, and go shopping?  Cruise ships feel like a world with the dynamism removed.  (And perhaps this is why we are now so prepared to imagine bad things.  Perhaps we trying to put the dynamism back in.  We merely over corrected.) 

3) Resort culture

There was a time, the 1950s, say, when this culture worshipped lots of things that were bad for you: sugar, sun, fat, salt, alcohol, smoking and Wayne Newton.  People went to Vegas and other resorts to relax.  But it’s a wonder they made it home alive.  Some part of me imagines (falsely, I’m sure) that cruise ships just happen to be the place that resort culture went to die.  I imagine that some where out there on the ocean are little worlds of smorgasbord, free drinks, lounge acts, gambling, sun burns and frightening quantities of cholesterol.  The old Vegas.  In technocolor.  Out there on the high seas.  Vegas before Circe and Steve.  Vegas without the drugs and prostitution to give the place the tang of criminality and lawlessness.  Vegas with no mobsters to add drama and snappy dressing. 

4) the anti-Cuba

Someone once persuaded me that the future was going to look like Cuba before the revolution, that it would become a place of unimaginable contrast, cruelty, and extravagance.  I don’t that this is true, but by this standard, cruise ships, as opportunities for new experience and engagement, feel a little like toys for the bathtub, tiny, plastic ships that can negotiate the  miniature, well enamelled sea, but no other.  Adventure or excitement?  Forget it.   By this reckoning, what the cruise ship does, effectively, is to lock the traveller away from the world. 

Ok, that’s enough.  Feel free to discard, rewrite, or render intelligible, as you want.  Now for the assignment.

1) do your own (better) analysis.  What are the systematic properties of cruise ships before the fall.  (Or am I kidding myself?)  What happened to bring the industry low?  What were the deeper cultural trends that drove this descent?  What were the more immediate causes?  What was happening in the industry itself?  (I am not sure how you find this part out, but, hey, if you want to get a degree from Russell Davies, you will learn to be resourceful.  Make it up if you have to.) 

2) give us a strategic plan

What needs to happen here?  Map the strategic space.  Lots of fields.  Lots of arrows.  Lots of powerpointing.  How does the cruise ship industry need to do to restore itself?

3) give us an action plan

What do we do now, in the next 12 months, 2 years, and 5 years.

Good luck and God speed.

14 thoughts on “Cruise ships in peril (only you can help them)

  1. Steve Portigal

    Every so often I read about a themed cruise (and I don’t count “Norwalk-like virus” as a theme) – describes a cruise for scrappers (and no, that’s not puglists, it’s scrapbook enthusiasts). What do we make of this narrowcasting er um I mean mass-specialization? That may be the only way I’d get on a cruise – if it was some specific event that would be concentrated and engaging for the duration of the cruise (I can’t imagine what theme that would possibly be, however – anyone got any ideas?).

    I wonder sometimes if cruises are some lowest-common-denominator of vacation? As people are spread out, and leading different lifestyles as their ages and incomes and geographies afford, perhaps the cruises serve (like Vegas) as something that everyone will equally not-enjoy.

    Maybe MSI2007 should be on a cruise?

    I’m sure the cruise people have someone who reaches out to all the Visitor Convention Bureau type people – the conference planners – to try to get events on board, but I wonder if they actually need to be creating new events, not simply relocating other events. There are lots of reasons why MSI2007 shouldn’t be on a cruise. But maybe the Corporate Ethnography Standards Retreat *should*.

  2. Grant

    Steve, Gee, I am glad you are taking this so well. A little defensive, are we? There are some blogs that welcome juvenile humor. This is not one of them. Thanks, Grant

  3. John Galvin

    The Flaming Lips have, for at least a couple (maybe more) years now, organized an annual event that they call Xingolati ( It’s a multi-day concert/festival that is held on a cruise ship. The programming appears to be varied and compelling and all very, well, Flaming Lips-y. They organize regular, smaller events under the Xingolati name that are often in the form of shorter cruises. I, for one, would never go on a “normal” cruise…and would dearly, dearly love to attend Xingolati. Moreover, its placement on a cruise makes it much more attractive to me than if it were a routine Lollapalooza-style outdoor music/arts festival. This confirms and illustrates Steve’s point…Xingolati may not be his idea of a great cruise (or maybe it is), but there you go — there’s at least one real-world example of somebody who found a way to make a cruise very compelling, to someone otherwise unlikely to be so inclined, by programming it to a narrow bandwidth of interest.

  4. Steve Portigal

    Juvenile humor? I am confused by your response, Grant! There must be an unintentional fart joke in my post or something. Grant, if I start working blue, you’ll know!

  5. John Galvin

    I, too, re-read Steve’s comment multiple times, wondering what qualified as ‘juvenile humor.’

    Also: the extent of the audience captivity that the cruise ship offers, especially when it comes to an event/venue like Xingolati, continues to enthrall me thoroughly after reading this post. Steve, and the scrappers, and the Flaming Lips, are surely onto something…aren’t they? There have to be a LOT of people that will pay for complete immersion in a temporary culture that is designed to bend around their particular aesthetic indulgences. I mean, there are — but I’m talking way smaller than Burning Man here — and the cruise ship is uniquely positioned to capitalize on this, isn’t it?

  6. Matt

    Old Vegas? Please.

    (Just for example, you could smoke in Old Vegas. Hell, you can still smoke in Las Vegas _today_. Try that on a cruise ship, and you’d better hope you know how to swim.)

  7. Steve Portigal

    Arthur Frommer’s column today
    refers to ” the recent upsurge in cruise bookings, and the sold-out nature of many cruises”

    BTW, it’s an intersting article about the disappearance of the gentleman host “gentleman host is a man ages 45 to 72 who is (or should be) a good conversationalist, an excellent ballroom dancer and a kindly, moral person. These individuals, numbering as many as six per cruise ship, are dressed in blue blazers or white dinner jackets bearing a decal identifying them as employees of the line. They are carried free of charge aboard the cruise and given a daily allowance for a reasonable number of drinks and substantial laundry privileges. Apart from the free cruise, they are not paid and often owe a fee to the employment agency that has recommended them.

    The gentleman host dances with unaccompanied women, generally of senior age, and is expected to go immediately from dinner to the ship’s ballroom and to stay there, asking women to dance throughout the evening. Earlier, they have dinner at tables usually with four or five unaccompanied women, engaging in pleasant conversation on noncontroversial topics. They cannot favor any particular woman with their attentions. Often, they accompany groups of mature or elderly women on optional excursions departing from port cities. ”


  8. a.d.

    Interesting assignment, but (echoing Steve’s comment) I think the picture of a cruise holiday industry in decline is dubious – at least going by recent statements in the travel industry press. Despite the examples of disastrous stories about unfinished liners, outbreaks of illness etc, the industry is reckoned to be seeing 8% annual growth.

    Still an interesting subject to think about though.

  9. zhafran

    Many families enjoy summer vacations aboard a cruise ship, but even more don’t consider it as a possibility. If you are looking for a different way to spend quality time with your family, you are urged to at least considering taking a family cruise. Cruise ships are a great location to have your next vacation. If given the opportunity, many parents would choose to take a cruise alone. This isn’t because of a lack of love, but because of a common misconception among parents and cruise ships. Many individuals, including parents, believe that cruise ships are not designed for children, but that is simply not true.

    If you believe this popular misconception, you could be missing out on one of the greatest opportunities of your life. There are a large number of cruise lines, each offering different cruises. With all of the cruise ships available, you are sure to find at least one that can offer your family fun on the water.


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    i would wish to have a link exchange,i find your site very interesting, Im an Africa tour operator based in Nairobi that specializes in Mountain climbing, Disability tourism, Wildlife safaris, Birding, Lake Victoria safaris in Kenya Uganda, Rwanda,Burundi and Tanzania including Pemba and Zanzibar Islands.

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