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Marketing Lessons From an Unforgettable Carnival Cruise


Adrian on a boat

This past week I had an amazing cruise with my wife and extended family (sans-kids) through Honduras, Belize, Cozumel and an unexpected stop in the Florida keys. Having been on only a few cruises over the last ten years, I can tell you that cruises in some ways have perfected their craft while in other areas they still miss the mark. A cruise is this perfect business petri dish for a marketing experiment because almost every interaction can be contained and scripted and the results can be measured. While I should have been enjoying the perfect sunset and downing pina coladas, I was taking marketing notes on the Carnival Magic (our cruise ship) and I think they are relevant to almost every business.

Lesson 1: Create the Disney experience

Carnival did an awesome job scripting out every moment in the first couple hours of the cruise. Instead of waiting in line to get on the ship, everyone has their tickets checked and is herded into a large air-conditioned room with big comfortable chairs (airports could take a lesson from this.) I had taken a red-eye flight, and was ready to just get right on the ship, but it takes time to offload the 3,000 guests from the previous week and get the ship ready. The moment we got on the ship there was a buffet and BBQ joint ready to serve hungry passengers. The BBQ joint had excellent food. I mean, this wasn't fake BBQ – it was obviously created using a template reminiscent of some of the best BBQ joints I've been to from Charleston to St. Louis. Our stateroom wasn't going to be ready for an hour or so, but there was plenty to eat and drink until our room was ready. In every business setting, from restaurants to law firms, the biggest impression is made at the beginning and end of your experience. Carnival got this right.

Lesson 2: Make it personal

Our stateroom attendant, Cindy, stopped by and learned our names and gave us a checklist where we could request extra towels, get nightly turndown service, find extra hangers or anything else that would make us more comfortable. A short while later, and for the rest of the week, she always greeted us with a smile and got us everything we needed. At our nightly dinner, our server Anand was amazing. He learned our names the first night, and after that, he never missed our names and if anybody was missing he would ask about them. He probably had hundreds of guests to serve each week, but he made us feel like family, knowing names and our food and beverage preferences. He is also an incredible dancer, during these cheesy interludes when all the servers would pause to do a little dance for the all the diners (think Macarena) he would always add some of his own moves and eventually got us all up dancing with him. The service from Anand was absolutely a high point of the cruise.

Lesson 3: Create memorable experiences

IMG_6288The other highlight for me was the lip sync battle. There was a little dance off on the first day at sea during the cruise, and I advanced to the "Epic Lip Sync Battle,"  where I faced off against another passenger on the cruise. We each performed two songs, including one involving synchronized lights and choreographed dances from the entire production team. My family got to sit in the front row for the competition and Liv from the Fun Squad and the entire production team on Carnival just absolutely crushed the execution and made me feel like a celebrity (or at least like a Carnival Cruise Celebrity.) In the end, I didn't win the battle, but Carnival definitely got big points in my book not just for giving me a great experience but also giving the hundreds of passengers that attended our show the chance to live vicariously through our show. 


 Lesson 4: Pigs get fat, hogs get slaughtered

The one major misstep from Carnival was picking the wrong moments to push costly upgrades. Let me explain: There are tons of freebies on the ship. The buffet is free, pizza 24-hours a day is free, towels are free, water, ice cream, and lemonade are free. Cheap buffet coffee is free as well. To get the super fancy coffee, you have to pay for it. I think these types of upgrades are great, since they provide an incentive for the cruise ship to make the fancy stuff available for those that absolutely need their pseudo-Starbucks experience. There is also top-shelf liquor, a fancy steakhouse and an Italian restaurant on board that all follow this same model. I think these upgrades enhance the experience and give people the freedom to customize their experience.

So where does Carnival miss the mark? The fitness center and spa. Every massage, every pedicure, every fitness class ends with a hard sell to buy something. The end of a massage is this amazing moment when you have completely melted on the table. You are finally relaxed, practically asleep. That's when they hit you with a 15-minute pitch to buy "relaxing lotion" or "magic powder." I don't care if the sell works 25% of the time, it upsets and ruins the massage experience for the other 75% of the guests. Your therapist should be there deliver an amazing experience (for which you just paid $100/hour), not to try and earn a commission. The same thing happened after some of the exercise classes, where the instructor tried to sell add-ons that were based on junk science. These up-sells were during the classes you paid for, and you were still getting pitched. Don't even get me started on the free class to "increase your posture" which was really just a marketing pitch for over-priced plastic insoles promising to change your life and cure every malady imaginable.

My message to Carnival is the same as my message to professionals looking to market on social media: stop selling. Create great experiences, make it personal, and know when to stop talking and let people enjoy the after-glow of watching the sunset on a perfect evening.

Carnival did an amazing job of running their cruise, and I highly recommend the Carnival Cruise Line. The organization and planning that went into every part of the cruise were very impressive. The food was the best food I've ever had on a cruise and the staff was the best trained and most accommodating I've experienced as well. I'd heard that Carnival is the "party cruise-line" and honestly I think that is just plain inaccurate. There were always places to go to drink and dance, but there were also other activities as well as quiet places on the ship to go and relax. I'm going to miss the evening dinners with Anand and my favorite people in the world, but my heart won't miss bacon for breakfast every day.

Adrian Dayton is the Founder of Clearview Social, an internationally recognized speaker on social media for business development and author of multiple books and white papers including most recently the strategy guide, “10X Your Website Traffic.” 

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