Beware: Cruise Line Perceptions Continue to Sink

carnival triumphThe cruise industry took some tough perceptual hits earlier this year, with several high publicity incidents - most notably the Carnival Triumph's heavily covered limp to shore - leading to widespread questions of quality standards and shipboard safety, according to a March Harris Poll

The poll found that Quality, Trust and Purchase Intent scores recorded in the week immediately following the Triumph's return to shore ("Post") showed notable drops when compared to scores recorded prior to the incident ("Pre") - not just for Carnival, but across many top cruise brands.

Many suggested at the time that these drops were likely a temporary setback, and that perceptions would soon bounce back. However, a recent Harris Poll of 2,052 U.S. adults surveyed online between May 14 and 16, 2013 (prior to the recent fire aboard Royal Caribbean's Grandeur of the Seas) by Harris Interactive, finds that perceptions for the top cruise industry brands have not only remained below their pre-incident levels, but have continued to decline, the report notes.

Results are compared, where applicable, to Harris Poll EquiTrend data collected from January 11, 2013 to February 8, 2013 (the Carnival Triumph incident lasted from February 10-14, 2013) and a Harris Poll of 2,230 U.S. adults surveyed online between February 19 and 21, 2013.

Worsening Waters: Looking at specific perceptual measures, the average perceived Quality score across the seven brands tested is down by 13 percent vs. its pre incident level and 6 percent compared to the post incident wave of testing. While Carnival's Quality score shows the steepest declines (down 28 percent vs. pre and 12 percent vs. post), all of the other brands tested ranged individually from 8-11 percent below pre levels.

The average Trust score across the seven brands tested is also down in comparison to both pre (down 12 percent) and post (down 5 percent) incident; as with Quality, Trust shows the steepest decline for Carnival Cruise Lines (down 26 percent vs. pre, 11 percent vs. post). However, the six other brands tested remain between 8-12 percent below pre incident Trust levels.

Purchase Intent has declined, on average, 11 percent from its pre incident level (and 5 percent from its post incident level). While this again affects most of the brands tested (with most down between 7 percent-15 percent vs. pre levels), it is worth noting that Holland America's Purchase Intent score has largely weathered this perceptual storm, holding at just 2 percent below its pre level. Carnival is again hardest hit, down 20 percent vs. pre, 8 percent vs. post.

Air Travel Gains Altitude over Cruises: Revisiting statements comparing the cruise industry to air travel - a comparison first made in the February Harris Poll - Americans' inclination to favor air travel over cruises has only increased. Over six in ten Americans (62 percent) agree that air travel is much more reliable than taking cruises (up from 57 percent in February), and the majority (56 percent) agree that air travel is much safer than taking cruises (up from 50 percent in February).

Roughly half of Americans (51 percent, roughly even with February's 53 percent) agree that they're less likely to take a cruise now than they were a year ago, with this sentiment once again proving stronger among those who have never taken a cruise (56 percent) than among those who have (43 percent).

One-third of Americans (32 percent) agree that cruises are "worry-free," down slightly from 35 percent in February, with past cruise experience again appearing to have a considerable impact on this perception: those who have taken a cruise (51 percent) are again more than twice as likely to agree that cruises are "worry free" as those who have not (22 percent).

"When we first addressed this topic in March, even we were open to the idea that a 'recency bias' of sorts might be impacting the results so soon after the Triumph fiasco, creating a low tide for the industry as a whole," concedes Harris Poll Insights Vice President Deana Percassi. "But these more recent findings, coupled with reports of heavily discounted pricing on Carnival cruises, indicate that the industry as a whole, as well as the Carnival brand specifically, may still be facing rough seas."


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