Sentiment of the Week: Romance in the Luxury Cruise Industry
April 23, 2015
Outstretching her arms, Kate Winslet stands vulnerable, supported by Leonardo DiCaprio on the bow of the Titanic. At that moment she looks weightless, golden in the waning glow of the setting sun. Her long windswept hair flutters in unison with the cresting gray waves. Behind her, DiCaprio is locked in an amorous embrace, looking on with a deep, sultry romantic gaze.
It’s perhaps the most iconic image in romance films of the past 20 years – and it’s no surprise that it takes place on a cruise ship. The ocean, ever-changing, vast, and mysterious has a timeless appeal. There is something magical and dream-like about a temporary life at sea, a sense of escape but also of possibility. Even among hundreds of people, cruise ships offer quiet and intimate moments.
This unique customer experience has had staying power. Despite the convenience of modern air travel and all-inclusive resorts, cruising has grown to be a major part of the tourism industry. Today, cruise ships bring in annual revenue of $39.6 billion and serve over 18 million customers in North America. Unlike air travel, which has grown less luxurious as it has expanded its customer base, cruise ships have only grown bigger, more encompassing, and more comfortable as time has passed. Since the days of the Love Boat in the 1970s, cruise ships have transformed from deck chairs and umbrella drinks to floating cities replete with gyms, water parks, restaurants, and libraries.
This week we analyzed cruise ship experience data from online review sites regarding four popular brands: Carnival, Royal-Caribbean, Norwegian, and Princess. I used the Clarabridge sentiment score, a measure of positivity or negativity on an 11 point scale from -5 to +5, 0 being neutral to examine customer sentiment. Overall, it’s very clear that travelers have a very positive opinion on cruise lines irrespective of brand. Royal-Caribbean has the highest overall sentiment score of .49, with 66% of all comments for the brand registering as positive. Carnival and Princess are close behind, both with positive comments making up over 60% of their total reviews. In comparison, we have found that brands on Facebook score an average of -.12 and around 30% positive comments.
Overall, sentiment was highest for first time cruisers. Sentiment and satisfaction dropped successively with additional cruises. This was caused in large part to food comments and port excursions, which declined in sentiment with higher cruise experience. Sentiment was highest with those who travelled as a couple, giving some statistical backing to the romantic nature of cruises. Interestingly, in the category of Room Size the lowest sentiment is expressed regarding suites, which are the priciest option. Suites suffer from missed expectations from customers who often complain about the lack of size in mini-suites.
E.g.: “Balconies too small, and cabin corridors much too narrow. The kitchen table was too small to eat room service.”
Overall, customers mention Ship Experience and Food and Beverage most often in reviews. Both categories feature in nearly 17% of reviews and are both positive in sentiment. Staff service is clearly a driver of positive sentiment, as it features the highest sentiment score overall. Price and payment process, followed by Check-In, feature the lowest overall sentiment scores. Every one of the top categories by volume scores a positive sentiment overall.
Clarabridge sentiment scores also allow us to see how much impact positive or negative comments have on overall rating score (1-5) across different topics.
Stateroom, food & beverage, price and payment, and staff and service were negative drivers of performance, because positive comments about these topics did not improve overall review rating significantly. Food & Beverage, the largest topic by volume, tends to skew reviews lower; when food/beverage quality is mentioned negatively, overall rating drops substantially. .
If there was consistency with Dinner, it was A) Always cold, B) Always terrible, and C) Always wrong. The buffets were disappointing, usually the lines were pretty long, the food was pretty bland and boring, and usually lukewarm at best.
Check In and Check Out were both positive drivers of performance – an easy experience to embark and disembark led customers to give above average review ratings. Parking factored in significantly to Check In experience scores, as ports with good terminals and parking greatly improved customers review rating. Check Out performance was dictated by efficiency of disembarkation, with many customers pleasantly surprised at the speed at which ships are emptied. EZ-Cruise Parking, an independent cruise parking service, is highly touted by customers for its ease and convenience.
Overall, front desk experience and shore excursions are critical drivers of review rating. The difference between negative and positive experiences in these two touch points creates an average review rating impact of over 1 point, which is the difference between a loyal customer and a merely passive one.
Front desk efficiency was the leading driver of positive sentiment and high review ratings. Desk staff that prepared rooms on time and presented helpful information drove average satisfaction to nearly 4.5. Negative experiences dropped average review rating to disloyal levels.
Eg 1: “The Pursers desk had plenty of staff and all remarkably helpful, something you do not always see on a ship.”
Eg 2: “A trip to the pursers desk, a 30 minute wait, and dealing with a rude purser who blamed the credit card provider and myself for the error when in fact a mistake was made at check-in when the cruise card was not assigned to any outside charge account.”
Shore excursions were another key driver of review rating. Happy customers remarked that their excursions added variety, were well-planned, and were packed with experiences that were well worth the additional costs. Negative experiences usually occurred at tendered ports, where ports are too shallow for cruise ships and small boats take customers to shore. Unfortunately, long waiting lines and cancellation of excursions can occur in these situations. Excursions are also often cancelled due to lack of participation. Both of these situations can discolor an otherwise great cruise experience.
“We had one problem when our shore excursion in Rome was cancelled at the last moment.”
“Our excursion got canceled one day prior due to lack of interest -snorkling.”
“Negative – Due to local conditions, our ship was unable to tender from our planned anchorage near Georgetown, and our excursion (scuba) was cancelled.”
The common thread among these customer emotions is one of romance. Cruise ships offer a getaway experience that is unlike any other tourism option. Our analysis finds that innovations and improvements can be made to food quality and selection, shore excursions and suite rooms. However, it’s clear that although Titanic featured a pair of star-crossed lovers, the romance with cruise lines will continue long into the future.
Dheepan Ramanan is a data scientist at Clarabridge. Follow him on Twitter @DheepanRamanan.