How Princess Cruises Went Upscale for China, With Tango and Afternoon Tea

Marketers Are Reinventing the Cruise for Chinese Travelers

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To market to Americans and other English-speaking travelers, Princess Cruises' slogan is "come back new." It's about switching off, relaxing. And that, the company found, is not what Chinese consumers want.

"In America when someone relaxes, they're going to sit by the pool, read a book, and then it put it over their face for three hours," said David deMerlier, VP-international marketing for Princess Cruises. "In China, in those three hours they'll go through at least five activities, if not 10."

Princess, one of Carnival Corp.'s brands, offers Chinese travelers Argentine tango lessons, English afternoon tea, tai chi, wine tasting, social etiquette classes and a dinner modeled on 18th century royal French meals – experiences the company spotlights in a new brand film from McCann Shanghai. (Watch the video above.) Princess, which entered China in 2014, has gone upscale in China. Casting itself as a "global travel master," it's appealing to upper-middle class consumers who value self-cultivation and personal growth.

Princess and other brands are reinventing the cruise as they rush into the China market, trying to convince people to try a still-novel form of travel.

China's economic slowdown isn't denting the appetite for travel; people made 120 million trips out of the mainland last year, up from 109 million in 2014, according to the China National Tourism Association.

The cruise industry is still small but growing fast. More than 1.1 million passengers boarded ships in local ports last year, up 50% from 2014, the China Cruise & Yacht Industry Association said. Because so many new cruise offerings have flooded the market, supply is getting ahead of demand, pushing prices down, as analysts have noted. Still, the industry is betting that it has a big future in China.

Royal Caribbean is basing two more ships there this year. Norwegian will enter next year, and the Carnival brand in 2018. China's online travel booking platform, Ctrip, even bought a cruise ship from Royal Caribbean.

Princess and Norwegian are both building ships customized for the China market. What does that entail exactly? For Princess' ship, there will be more restaurants and fewer bars.

There's also a covered pool, since many Asians avoid the sun, and less big open pool space in general, "because people don't stay in one place all day long," Mr. deMerlier said. Princess now has two ships in China, one of them to be based there full-time starting in May; the custom ship will join them next year.

For its new campaign in China, Princess hired two celebrity models, Emma Pei and Rojamtic Wang, who are married in real life. The goal is to appeal to passengers in their 20s and 30s, which make up a bigger share of Princess' passengers in China than elsewhere.

While cruising is often a multi-generational vacation activity in China, with grandparents and kids included, the ad shows the potential for romance. ("The Love Boat," after all, was filmed on Princess' ships.)

"Even when (Chinese couples) go with their parents on the boat, and their children as well, they do take separate moments alone, they will go to dinner alone," said Cia Hatzi, regional business director of McCann Worldgroup.

The brand film was shot in a 2 ½-minute version and edited into shorter commercials. The campaign will also appear in billboards and on WeChat, the popular chat app. Interestingly, the film was shot with 3,500 other passengers on board, because cruise ships lose big money if they're empty.