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 in Miami.

When the travel industry was smaller and fewer people traveled, less importance was placed--by industry and consumer alike--on details of travel changes. Though no statistics exist on how many people visit the hurricane-affected regions of the Southeast U.S. and Caribbean, the total U.S. travel industry generated $417 billion in 1994, according to the Travel Industry Association of America, Washington.

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, lessons from Hurricane Andrew in 1992 told tourism officials to set the record straight as quickly as possible.

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. Copies of the ad were shipped to tourism offices in Canada, Germany and the U.K.

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. Ms. Watters added: "We were ready with more if we needed to be." While it's too early to document changes in tourists' plans or the effectiveness of the state's efforts, tourism officials are optimistic they've silenced the rumor mill.

The rumor mill can be devastating. Florida tourism officials learned that with Hurricane Andrew, when they felt the media exaggerated reports of the damage that occurred beyond the Miami area.

Puerto Rico is learning a similar lesson this year. After surviving Hurricanes Luis and Marilyn with little damage, 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 to the western Caribbean.

For some spots in the Caribbean, the reports of severe damage are all too real. A survey of hard-hit islands St. Thomas and Dutch Sint Maarten showed that 31 of 54 hotels would re-open no sooner than Nov. 17.

But visits by cruise liners are the staple of these islands' economies. Some 1.9 million people visited the U.S. Virgin Islands last year, spending more than $919 million. Few are expecting similar travel numbers for 1995-96, especially in St. Thomas, the epicenter of both tourism and Marilyn.

In 1994, 718,000 people visited Sint Maarten by cruise, according to the Florida Caribbean Cruise Association. In the week after Hurricane Luis, ships were diverted from Sint Maarten to the U.S. Virgin Islands, tripling the tourist business there, said Jon Newman, senior media counselor with Martin Public Relations, the Richmond, Va.-based P.R. agency for the islands.

Ads for the islands that were scheduled to break in October have been shelved at least until November, when an interim campaign discussing the cleanup breaks, added David Kiley, VP-marketing communications with Lowe & Partners, New York. The money that would have been spent on advertising has been diverted into public relations. Ads for St. Thomas, the hardest hit island, won't break until January, he said.

"The last thing we want to do is entice people to go down there before the island is ready," he said.

While its airport was to remain closed to commercial traffic until Nov. 1, Sint Maarten welcomed its first cruise ship since the storms on Oct. 21, said Jim Pepperdine, exec VP-chief operating officer with the island's P.R. and ad agency Robinson, Yesawich & Pepperdine, Orlando. That signaled a return to business.

Where the island's trade ads will break a six-week flight Nov. 15 with before-and-after pictures of the storm to convince travel agents that the island has rebuilt, consumer ads scheduled for November issues will stick with the pre-storm message, he said. "It did not make sense two months down the road to even mention the hurricane," he said.

Though the hurricane season is winding down, the storm is hardly over for the Caribbean. Destinations perceived by consumers 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.

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

"Clearly, the publicity surrounding these storms serves to heighten the anxiety of prospective travelers," Mr. Yesawich 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, like Florida's effort that focused on highlighting those destinations that weren't hurt by the storm, are aided by a natural tendency by people to forget the details of such events, he added. Within 18 to 24 months, cycles reverse and a destination like Panama City Beach, which lost some hotels and much of its shoreline to Opal, should return to normal, he said.

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

The day following Opal's landfall, Richard Tarzian was in contact with hoteliers in Panama City Beach. As one of the largest spring break promoters, the president of Intercollegiate Communications, Inc., Leonia, N.J., arranged to have crews on the scene helping with cleanup.

By late February or early March, the annual pilgrimage of 400,000 college students will descend upon the coastal town. In his fall tour of 100 college campuses east of the Mississippi, and on his Internet site, Mr. Tarzian will tell students Panama City Beach will be ready to party.

"The students will know that their plans don't need to change," he said. "[Opal] has set the community back. But it's nothing that a couple of bulldozers and some hard work won't take care of."

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 that booked 150,000 people to the Caribbean last year.

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. A few of those destinations have picked up travel trade public relations efforts to let packagers know availability, he said.

But there has been little guerrilla marketing by destinations hoping to lure traffic. "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. "I think what we're seeing is a maturation of the industry."

Copyright November 1995 Crain Communications Inc.

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