MARKETRENDS;STORMY WEATHER BUFFETS CRUISES

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When the Pacific Hurricane Henriette forced Carnival Cruise Lines on Sept. 3 to alter its "Mexican Riviera" itinerary, executives at the Miami-based line thought passengers would understand.

They didn't.

The crew of The Jubilee waited until the ship was under way to inform passengers their itinerary had changed due to the ravages of the storm, and when the ship returned to its home port of Los Angeles, some 200 cruisers staged a sit-in until Carnival granted cost concessions on future trips.

When it comes to bad weather, this year has been a blowout for the travel industry. While weather is always a factor in a business that sells sun and fun, 1995 is becoming the tempest that rocked the teapot, providing some marketing lessons for the industry.

Carnival executives chalked up their customers' dockside mutiny as a learning experience, said Vicki Freed, senior VP-sales and marketing.

"We made a mistake by not mentioning it until the ship sailed," she said. "That's the lesson: You've got to get people information as quickly as you have it."

Two weeks later, Hurricane Marilyn forced the closing of the San Juan, Puerto Rico, airport, delaying all flights to the island. This time, Carnival flew four staffers from Miami to Atlanta to meet 400 customers bound for a cruise from San Juan.

Through Oct. 30, 19 named storms had formed in the tropical Atlantic, two short of 1933, which spawned 21 by the Nov. 30 season end, said Frank Lepore, public affairs director with the National Weather Service.

Half of all U.S. cruises sail the Caribbean, generating $4 billion in revenue. More than 2.2 million passengers were served in '94, according to the Florida Caribbean Cruise Association, Miami.

With such big bucks at stake, marketers recognize that it's increasingly important to fashion contingency plans to respond to the capricious moods of Mother Nature. For example, after changing its Mexican itinerary, Carnival was forced to rewrite its itinerary for the Caribbean following Hurricanes Luis and Marilyn. Though it wasn't the first time Carnival had changed an itinerary, these were the longest and most extensive changes for the line, said Jennifer de la Cruz, public relations supervisor.

"I can't recall a change that lasted consecutive weeks, or what looks like it could turn into a couple of months," she said. "It's definitely affected the cruise industry unlike any other hurricane season."

The loss of ports of call and cancellations have left cruise bookings down for the fall, though it's too soon to quantify, said Jay Lewis, president of Market Scope, a Miami-based travel research company. Cruise lines are ill-prepared to refill ships quickly, he said.

"I don't want to tell you how much marketing and promotion effort is going to have to be expended, plus discounting, to change people's minds," Mr. Lewis said. "Mother Nature has made for a very expensive situation this year."

Florida tourism officials have acted quickly to soften that blow. When a USA Today headline said that Florida tourism statewide would suffer from Hurricane Opal in October, tourism officials moved to set the record straight quickly.

The state began 11 days of daily faxed advisories on the storm, damage cost estimates and areas affected. Finally, on Oct. 13, Florida ran a half-page b&w ad in USA Today with a map of the state and details of which areas were and were not affected by Opal.

The hope was to silence the rumors, said Ginger Watters, senior VP-management supervisor at Fahlgren Benito, Tampa, which handles the Florida Department of Tourism.

After surviving Hurricanes Luis and Marilyn, Puerto Rico has also suffered from sagging tourism caused by rumors of damage as well as from the loss of cruise liners sailing out of the storm-shocked eastern Caribbean.

Though the hurricane season is winding down, the storm is hardly over for the Caribbean. Destinations perceived to have been damaged face a difficult future. In an annual survey of 1,200 households, the RY&P/Yankelovich Partners 1995 Travel Monitor found that top among 25 vacation attributes were perceived safety of destinations and accommodations, said Peter Yesawich, president-CEO of Robinson, Yesawich & Pepperdine, Orlando.

Key to the future success of the tourism industry in destinations hit by a storm is the targeting of both the travel trade and consumer markets with correct data to dispel myths, he said.

"You would expect there to be a short-term impact on call volumes and reservations. And that's exactly what the industry is seeing."

Aggressive marketing and communications are aided by a natural tendency by people to forget the details of such events, he added. Within 18 to 24 months, cycles reverse.

"You have to take your lumps for a year. But if you come back aggressively, it will pay big dividends," Mr. Yesawich said.

The quick reaction to such disasters by hoteliers, cruise lines and tour packagers shows how far the industry has come, said Brian Robb, VP-retail marketing at Carlson Wagonlit Network, a Minneapolis-based travel company.

Packagers have diverted short-term business in the Caribbean and Florida's panhandle to central and southern Florida, the U.S. Southwest (California, Phoenix and Las Vegas), Hawaii and the Mexican Pacific.

But there's been little guerrilla marketing by destinations.

"The subtle background noise has been elevated, but they've been very sensitive to the negative sell under the assumption that `It could have been us,"' Mr. Robb said.

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