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News Analysis: Will Splendor Dampen Consumer Interest?

November 12, 2010 By: Susan Young

Passengers have left the stricken Carnival Splendor, now docked in San Diego, and are heading home. But while the passengers' difficult ordeal is over and their cruise terminated, high-profile media reports including television video and a front page USA Today story Friday are certainly leaving fresh impressions of the incident with consumers around the nation.
No one was injured, a very positive outcome. Yet, some agents are wondering whether the incident might put a damper on future cruise bookings, particularly from first-time cruisers who are unfamiliar with the perks, value and safety of a typical cruise vacation. Travel Agent caught up with Lynn Torrent, senior vice president of sales and guest services, Carnival Cruise Lines and Bob Sharak, executive vice president, Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), on Friday during the Cruise Planners conference in Fort LauderdaleBeach , FL, and asked that question.
Torrent stressed that, first and foremost, Carnival was relieved all passengers are now safely off the ship and on their way home and that the active incident is over. She said Gerry Cahill, the line's president and CEO, was in San Diego to meet the ship and its guests upon their return. He is now onboard the ship actively participating in the investigation and working with the crew.
The line is currently assessing what repairs need to be made. The Carnival Splendor's November 14 cruise has been cancelled, but there is no word yet on subsequent dates. Torrent said that, hopefully when the ship returns to service, memories of the recent incident will fade quickly.
To Carnival's credit, most observers believe the line did the right thing by offering not only a full refund, but also payment for the guests' transportation costs to get home and a free future cruise. In addition, passengers on the ill-fated cruise praised the crew for excellent service, even during a difficult time.
Torrent reported that the incident involved a full-blown emergency response on all levels from Carnival -- both on the ship and at the line's Miami headquarters; she herself was in the headquarters' "situation room," essentially a conference room set up specifically to bring all the resources of the line and company to bear in handling the situation.
One positive, she noted, was having John Heald, the popular cruise director and blogger, at work on Carnival Splendor; he kept the home office informed every 20 minutes or so of the situation. "Our main goal was to get everyone off safely and keep the guests as comfortable as possible [during the incident]," she stressed.
For his part, Heald turned his blogging duties over to his wife during the incident -- as he was busy handling passenger communications and direction on the ship, based on orders from the captain. Just today, he began releasing a riveting blow-by-blow description of how the incident unfolded. Heald's blog has a sizable following and it's likely going to keep people buzzing about the incident with each installment:
Yet, "I don't think people will look back," said Torrent, noting that she personally didn't believe it would have a big selling impact for the industry as a whole moving forward.
As the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) begins its investigation of the incident, Sharak said any negative publicity obviously isn't a good thing. But he also says it's important for everyone to remember that any incident of this type is "quite a rarity."
And he also said the incident brought to the public's attention that "safety and security are job one" for the cruise industry. Sharak said the crew did a good job at controlling the situation and that any incident is a learning experience. In fact, the crew of Carnival Splendor had just successfully completed a U.S. Coast Guard emergency exercise only a short time prior to the incident.
Sharak believes most consumers won't dwell on the situation in making a vacation decision. He emphasized that every year, the industry's 200-plus ships have a huge number of sailings and that CLIA member lines safely carry millions of passengers a year.

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