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Story of the 2004
Mardi Gras Cruise

Written by Rick Archer
March 1, 2004


 Story One: Lost in Gulfport, Mississippi

Our first story from this year's Mardi Gras Cruise is a fascinating lesson in marketing, customer relations, and an inside glimpse at how the two leading behemoths do battle in the high-stakes world of the cruise industry.

In a situation eerily reminiscent of the 2001 SSQQ Vera Cruz trip, the moment our group of 39 got on board the Rhapsody, we were met with the news that there was a good chance our trip would be re-routed to the town of Gulfport, Mississippi.

This sent most of us racing to our maps only to realize we had forgotten our maps. We soon discovered Gulfport is about 60 miles due east of New Orleans.

It seems that there had been a terrible accident involving a small ship and a barge right at the mouth of the Mississippi at 5 am on Saturday, February 21. As the result of the collision, 5 men were missing and 30,000 gallons of oil stored in barrels had dropped to the bottom of the river.

As a result, the Coast Guard closed the Mississippi River to all outgoing and incoming ships. This move caused massive headaches not only for our ship but a hundred other ships as well. There was the possibility that the river would re-open just in time for us to sneak into New Orleans for Mardi Gras, but as we drew nearer and nearer to Louisiana, no progress had been made at finding the missing 5 men. Consequently on Monday, February 23, we docked in Gulfport. Oh boy!

There were some very bitter people on board our ship. The reason most passengers had signed up for this expensive trip was to have the luxury of haven just blocks away from the Madness of Mardi Gras. The proximity of the New Orleans pier to the Charles Street parades put us within an 8 block walking distance of Mardi Gras and allowed us to return at any time for a meal and a change of clothes.

Many members of our group were first-time visitors to Mardi Gras. Speaking for myself, I have always been intimidated by tales of drunken excess, unruly crowds, pickpockets, and disgusting odors. The security of the castle-like Rhapsody and the moat of the Mississippi was the edge we were counting on to give us the courage to adventure into the Danger Zone.

Now our retreat plans were completely ruined and our edge was GONE.

I was surprised and quite pleased to discover the Royal Caribbean Cruise Line was very concerned about our frustration. After keeping us informed of developments through periodic announcements and a looped videotape that could be seen in every cabin, the moment all hope of docking in New Orleans was gone, they immediately stepped up to provide buses from Gulfport into New Orleans. Initial estimates of the drive put the time at 2 to 3 hours one way. We all groaned. 3 hours on a bus seemed like an eternity.

My initial reaction was that I didn't even want to go. Better luck next year. The thought of a 6 hour round trip on a day that would require immense amounts of energy was discouraging. I found out I wasn't the only one who felt exactly the same way.

At the same time, I was still impressed that Royal Caribbean had quickly arranged this alternative at no further cost to the passengers. What a great move! After all, no matter how mad we were at having our luxury security blanket pulled from our arms, it was clear that these efforts had at least given us a ladder if we were willing to do a little climbing.

This thoughtful move quickly reduced much of the bitterness to a manageable level. The impression I got was that someone understood our frustration and at no small expense was going to help. Good move!!  We were all pleased that Royal Caribbean had acted so quickly.

As a business owner myself, I can say the unexpected can bring enormous headaches. As all Houstonians know full well, there are days when the weather makes life miserable for all of us. The enduring symbol of our flooding problems will always be the June 2001 Tropical Storm Allison Disaster, but even seemingly harmless rains can be just as damaging due to our antiquated bayou system. For example, just three months ago an early morning rain here in Houston wasn't bad enough to prevent people from going to work and taking children to school. However it continued to rain steadily throughout the day. By the late afternoon, practically the entire city was stuck in traffic. Kids were stranded at school, parents were going nuts, and people were unable to move on freeways throughout the city. Even though we have seen worse flooding, the timing of the rain served to trap everyone in the wrong place. Gridlock took over, people spent hours sitting in traffic, and the entire city was about three hours late getting home.

That night making it to dance class didn't seem terribly important. Just getting home was most people's objective, but I still had to answer about 30 emails from people wondering how to get a make-up for their missed class.

At the time I thought this was a big problem, but it took the Mississippi disaster to help me put my minor league woes into perspective.

I watched how RCCL handled this difficult situation with a bemused smile. Initially I cynically expected the worst, but once I saw how Captain Charles Teige and his staff handled the problem, instead I had to clap my hands in admiration. I received a marvelous first-hand lesson in customer service.

Not only did we now have a way to get to New Orleans, the Captain of the ship bravely conducted a face-to-face meeting with the passengers and took a huge tongue-lashing for his effort.

Although I did not witness this event personally, I have been told Captain Teige weathered some extremely bitter barbs including being called a liar and a con artist. There was a lot of hostility directed at him. The biggest complaint was that the Captain knew about the accident before we boarded ship and decided to inform us once we are on board. Although there was an element of truth to this position, at the time the decision had been the crisis was new and the odds were definitely in favor that the problem would be solved by the time we made it to Louisiana.

In particular several travel agents banded together to demand a free cruise for all their customers. Their logic was that since they signed up for a trip to New Orleans Mardi Gras and were not about to receive it, they were due serious compensation. I was told these travel agents were tough negotiators, going so far as demanding a free cruise for all their customers. The RCCL position was they were prevented by an accident completely out of their control and they were doing the best that they could.

Haven't I seen this before? I smiled to myself ironically as an overwhelming sense of déjà vu swept over me. As I mentioned earlier, I experienced a similar incident on the SSQQ Vera Cruz Cruise three years earlier. This trip was a fiasco. A hundred SSQQ cruisers and a thousand-plus other passengers had signed up for a trip to Cancun and Cozumel. Unfortunately a hurricane coming from another direction planned to meet us head on in these ports. Without giving the passengers any say so in the decision, we were sent over to Vera Cruz instead. Most of us had never even heard of Vera Cruz, but we kept an open mind until we discovered the truth.

There was a good reason no other cruise ship in history had ever been to Vera Cruz. This place turned out to be a third world mess. For starters the stinking water and dirty beaches of the area prevented any water sports at all. Furthermore, sorry to say, Vera Cruz itself was so run down it was at best equivalent to a Houston slum. Nor was the town prepared to be a tourist destination. Although the good will of the citizens was obvious, this still didn't make for much excitement. The nightlife was non-existent. This town went to bed at 9 pm. Furthermore we had paid for two ports and received only one. So the cruise ship decided to stay there two days instead of one to fulfill its legal obligation. As you can imagine, we were all pretty angry.

Vera Cruz had been rammed down our throats and nothing was done to make us feel any better. For starters there was no open meeting with Carnival's captain. At least the Rhapsody captain gave the passengers a chance to voice their grievances. Let me add how much I regret how he was forced to endure extremely disrespectful treatment on the part of several people. However his gutsy move paid off. By answering every question with candor and explaining the reasons behind each of his steps, a lot of steam began to dissipate. I might add I observed that he also gained a lot of respect from his staff in the way he handled things. It is impressive to watch a good leader at work.

As for Carnival's Vera Cruz Captain, this man hid in secrecy. I never saw him. Nor did anyone else. As a result, an angry group organized a passengers-only meeting to protest Carnival's decision to re-route us to Vera Cruz. With representatives of Carnival watching from the doorway but saying nothing, these people worked themselves into something just short of a mob. Although a lynching seemed rather unlikely, I can report there were a lot of very angry people. After all, we did not like Vera Cruz and we did not like the way it was shoved down our throats. The mob decided to circulate a petition demanding some sort of refund, etc.

I did not sign the petition because I thought we could get a rebate of some sort on our next trip the following year by working behind the scenes. I now regret the decision not to protest at the time. Of course the decision to go to Vera Cruz was caused by act of nature, but I still naively expected that Carnival would respond to our disappointment in a classy way. I didn't see any point in embarrassing them with a nasty scene. Boy, was I wrong!!

Four months later I decided to plan an ssqq cruise for the following summer. I wrote a letter to Carnival management respectfully asking for a simple $100 rebate on our next trip for the passengers of the previous trip. I told Carnival at the time that if they would work with me, I believed I could double the number of people in my group. I pointed out that rewarding the patience of the returning passengers would likely result in a word of mouth campaign to bring their friends along.

I was turned down cold. My second letter did no better. Nor did my third letter. Their position was they had no control over the hurricane and it was our tough luck. Hmm.

So we sailed the following summer on Royal Caribbean. My guess is Carnival's obstinacy cost them directly $100,000 in cash flow. Nor did they get the bounce of good will that could have led to even more people signing up to join the veterans.

Instead these same dollars flowed right in the pockets of RCCL. How I wish an executive at Carnival could look at this story and witness the stupidity of their position. A mere $100 a person. Or at least try to bargain, yes? At least counter-offer $50, but for heaven's sake don't brush us off. After all they saved themselves port costs that we paid for but received no credit for. Why not pass some of this money back as a good will gesture?

Let's say 100 people took Carnival up on the offer. Do you think a $10,000 rebate is justified in return for $100,000 in expenditures plus a lot of good will that would likely attract extra passengers? A Wharton MBA could answer these questions more accurately, but a little common sense seems like it is a worthy gamble, especially when the alternative is losing these same customers to a bitter rival.

Although I am jumping ahead a bit in this story, let me add that not only did RCCL supplying all those expensive buses, two days later Rhapsody made the announcement that each passenger would also be compensated an extra $50 off our final bill.

I was flabbergasted. It had not even crossed my mind that we were due any further compensation. It was a very nice gesture on the part of this cruise line.

And I couldn't help but recall that a mere $50 would have prevented us from leaving Carnival in the first place.

Carnival entered the Texas cruise market well before RCCL in the 90s and enjoyed immediate success. However once RCCL entered the same market, Carnival encountered serious competition for control of the Texas cruise dollars. For starters, RCCL put a terrific ship into Galveston. The Rhapsody is a veritable floating palace whereas Carnival insists on putting ships like last year's Jubilee into Galveston. This floating piece of junk was at best one step from entering Dead Man's Sea. I have heard its replacement the Ecstasy is much better, but nothing will ever make me forget the embarrassment of taking 150 of my friends from SSQQ aboard Carnival's hulk last year.

I am not sure just how much Carnival is hurting just yet in the control for Texas. It is true that Carnival continues to fill its ships consistently. Despite mistakes like Vera Cruz and putting inferior ships into Galveston, the demand in the Texas market for cruise vacations is so high that both lines run close to capacity. However further down the road it looks dark for Carnival if they keep getting beat not only in the quality of their ships, but in the quality of the care given to their customers.

We may have been lost in Gulfport, but thanks to the Rhapsody's aggressive steps, as you will see in the next chapter, Mardi Gras turned out to be everything we had hoped for despite the detour.

The bus trip turned out to only last an hour and a half and it was smooth sailing both ways.  Plus RCCL had a terrific food spread awaiting us when we got to New Orleans. 

This unexpected meal was timely since it meant we wouldn't have to eat again until we decided to return to the ship that evening.

In the Texas Battle of the Titans, Carnival does a good job too. This cruise line didn't get to be as big and famous as it is by accident. There are still many things that Carnival does better or slightly better that RCCL that keeps them in the game. In the tug of war between these two giants being fought in the Texas market, RCCL seems to be surging ahead, but don't count Carnival out just yet.

For one thing, they offer more sailing dates with two ships departing from Galveston as opposed to RCCL's one. For this reason SSQQ will use Carnival for our cruise this summer simply because they have a Galveston sailing date over the 4th of July that fits our schedule better than RCCL.

Plus Carnival's trips are shorter. This allows Carnival to offer much cheaper fares and allows them to hit a different end of the Texas cruise market.

However after watching in admiration at how RCCL handled the Mardi Gras misfortune versus how Carnival handled the Vera Cruz situation, quite frankly if it ever boils down to a choice between the Rhapsody and Carnival where both offer trips at a time we want, our dance studio would not hesitate to sail on RCCL first.

As of 2004, the gap between the two companies in the product they deliver is large and seems to be widening. If Royal Caribbean ever puts a second ship in this market and runs a few shorter, less expensive trips, Carnival could be in trouble unless they bring a better ship of their own into Galveston that is competitive with the beauty of the Rhapsody.

Story Two: SSQQ Visits Mardi Gras!!

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