Yvonne and I take a cruise annually. Every-single-year-since-2001. Each year, we find out something new, about how we can experience things, life, how great the opposite sex looks in their national environments, where to shop for fantastic bargains, what kind of flora and fauna are endemic to the locales (meaning, we go to their zoos and frequent their aquariums) and most of all, we value an experience that's meant to be just that. An experience.
Thing is, though, that the cruise experience is almost the perfect paradigm for measuring and mapping a customer experience so my professional eye (the left one) gets mixed up with my personal eye (the right one) and I tend to view the entire trip in a cross-eyed kind of way.
What the hell does that mean?
Acually, I do know. I not only thoroughly enjoy, and at times, love, the trips (like this one), but I also get a more acute insight into how to think about the customer experience - so there is even some CRM professional value that I get from the trip.
No. I don't use that as a justification to write off the trip. I don't write off the trip. I shouldn't.
Don't answer that.
In any case, there are a number of things that are memorable about cruises.
- Each cruise has a different character with a vastly different experience even if the cruise line is the same and there are facilities in common to all or most ships
- Each port of call has both a unique character and at the same time directly impacts the cruise experience as a whole - and would work diferently if it weren't associated with the cruise itself
- You rely on the peer reviews far more than the marketing materials from the cruise lines - which are almost worthless - yet the peer review impact is far greater when it comes to the ship reviews than when it comes to the port. No one gives a crap about the port - mostly about the ship. It matters greatly there - but you weigh the discussion about each part of the ship appropriately. For example, I put FAR more stock in what I read on cruisecritics.com than on celebritycruises.com.
- Little differences count big when expectations are based on past experiences with cruises. Less so for inexperienced cruisers - because there was no prior experience - and the only expectation of a cruise is that it will be a new kind of experience - which it is.
In fact, there is nothing more "experiential" than a cruise because the entirety of the cruise is designed to be an experience that is far more than its elements. Everything from the design of the lounges to the art on the wall to the level of service provided by the varying attendants and other staff, to (very importantly) the quality and variety of the food, is part of the totality of what you're paying for.
Which also means that since that's the case, a screw-up by the cruise line, depending on what the expectations are for the cruise, is something almost elemental, not just a f-up. It is feels like something really BIG - a core problem within its context, because the expectations within the context of the cruise are so high.
The irony of a bad experience within the high expectations of the journey is that in the grander scheme of things, it isn't much at all - a pipsqueak of a problem, at most. A screw-up on a well-appointed boat in a luxurious environment, is NOTHING by comparison to a missed food delivery to Ethiopia. But, know what? As misplaced as it seems to those of us who are strongly liberal, it feels really bad anyway.
But this isn't the story of screwups. Actually, we are having a great time and what screwups there have been are not mission critical or experience-desecrating in any way. I'll outline one or two later just to give you a flavor of what I mean by this odd statement.
Journey 1: Bermuda, The Cruise and the Smartly Casual
We are having a fantastic time in the Royal Suite of the Azamara Journey as we sit docked in Hamilton Bermuda (we're actually at sea heading back to the U.S), a beautiful town that is both high energy and low key - vibrant with life but enclouded with a rare kind of friendliness that suffuses and enmeshes everyone captured in it. Lovely, friendly folks zipping around on motorscooters, many of the scooters bright red with a couple of monogram letters on the side of them - JR - or something like that. There is something in the air, tonight, oh lord. (Phil Collins, sorry).
In fact, Bermuda is beautiful. Deep azure really does describe the bright Perrier-sparkling waters, and there are zillions of feathery cirrus clouds floating in the equally blue skies. The island is dense with foliage and good human beings who offer their seats to others on crowded buses, and a generally laid back good will.
In fact, Bermuda is not only beautiful but an oddly well run, smart casual country. "Smart casual" is literally the national dress code and the national demeanor. They actually have a dress code for day to day living that says that tank tops and bathing suits are unacceptable as regular attire and that the generally acceptable clothes code is "smart casual" - something a little less "formal" than our (the U.S.) "business casual" - at least during the day. In fact, its not unusual to see men walking around in incredibly well tailored suits - but the pants are Bermuda shorts. Looked smart and casual - but a little strange to my American eyes.
But it isn't Hamilton that drives the cruise experience, though the choice of Bermuda is an integral part of this cruise experience. The ship, the Azamara Journey - the new luxury ship for the Celebrity Cruise line - is the focus of the experience - which can be called "smart casual" as much as Bermuda calls itself that.
Its funny how cruise experiences can be so intense in a sort of comfortable way. Smart casual fits this ship. The very idea of a great Greenberg-savvy cruise experience is that it is intensely easy on you. I'm not using "intensely easy" as a cute literary metaphor either. That intensity is a profound part of the experience itself - and each ship differs - though there are ships with similar personalities - for example, the Azamara Qwest is probably similar to the Journey - though without the mistakes of this initial boat.
The intense easiness is characterized by its lack of decision-making. Pretty much the most important decision you have to make is are you going to take the elevator or the stairs to dinner.
Thing that makes this different from any other cruise is our past history with cruises and thus our expectations and the nature of how this particular line of cruise experiences is constructed. Not the ships, not the amenities, not just the environment, but the cruise experience as a whole.
For those of you who've read me for god-knows-what-reasons, you'll understand this one. Because I've been harping on the fact that the new business models are built around the idea of the company as the aggregator of the products, services, tools and environments necessary to create what the customer perceives to be an authentic (thank you, Joe Pine 2) experience that's suited for them - and yet can be shared with others so that its value becomes social.
What that means is that every single feature of a cruise, which all in all is a vacation getaway, has to be sculpted to both address a certain financial strata and yet at the same time, create a specific ambiance that each customer/cruiser wants his/her vacation to be.
In the case of the Azamara Journey, it was born of a collaboration between the small Azamara Cruise line and the more mega-cruiseline, Celebrity, owned by the oh-so-very-mega cruiseline Royal Caribbean, to provide a luxurious experience that is low key and laid back.
The differences between it and the regular Celebrity experience and other cruise lines are notable.
First, the ship is smaller than a typical Celebritiy cruise experience. On a Celebrity ship, there are 1700 passengers (about 3/5 of the passengers on a Royal Caribbean Blank of the Seas ship). On the Azamara Journey there are 700 passengers. On the Celebrity, around 850 crew (1:2 ratio to passengers) - on the Journey 400 crew (4:7 ratio - whatever that is - better than 1:2 though). On the Celebrity, the Royal Suite, which Yvonne and I bought for a 2-weeker to Hawaii last year, was 850 square feet of contemporary good taste and TV sets and internet connectivity. Here the Royal Suite, which we were upgraded to (great experience #1) - twice actually (see bad experiences below if you have a second), it is perhaps 600 square feet but is entirely comfortable. One big interesting difference. On this one - complimentary bar including a bottle of Perrier-Jouet Grand Brut NV. Didn't have that on the last ship. Also a bottle of J &B Rare Scotch, Absolut Vodka and another sparkling bubby - Bouvet Signature Brut - to add to the alcoloot. Plus complimentary soft drinks and Evian to either add to the spirits or to swallow frequently. Even though the room was not quite the wonderful Royal Suite of the Celebrity ship, the amenities were better and thus the feeling of luxury greater. Plus if we want to, we can take them home. Though we drank the Perrier-Jouet, opened the J&B and had a little, but won't be taking the other bottles home. Too much to carry given the other things we bought in Bermuda.
Additional examples, movies that were the $11.00 per variety on pay per view on the last ship (Celebrity Zenith), such as Will Ferrell's best ever in "Stranger Than Fiction" and "Flags of Our Fathers" etc. are all free here and "free" is part of the ambiance. So we've watched a lot of movies, which may seem ridiculous to many since we're sitting in Bermuda, (BTW, which we did extensively tour and shop in. Awesome Zoo and Aquarium), but it added to the laid back coziness we were looking for on this trip.
Another thing is that theater-style entertainment on this trip is largely nonexistent. Most cruises have elaborate shows with things like pro-level figure skaters doing ice shows on board the ships in the middle of the Caribbean as you pass by active volcanoes, or small budget shows that appears to look big budget but are entertaining B-level Broadway show tunes singers and dancers. But here, there is no real entertainment - in fact, so little that the first three days consisted of a magician, a dance contest for the passengers and an encore for the magician.
That suits us fine. We are just looking to do little more than relax.
But, this is all part of the experience.
Journey 2: Carnival Cruises, Styx, REO Speedwagon and, Oh, Journey
Let me take you to somewhere else for a minute. I'm reading Chuck Klosterman's IV: A Decade of Curious People And Dangerous Ideas, an enormously entertaining series of his always funny, sometimes great essays on pop culture. He's known for his pretty damned cogent take on the meaning of pop culture which he identifies by viewing things from the eyes of pop culture - (Pop-eye?) and with a very "I'm cool, but not faking it" perspective.
He has one essay in this book on a cruise called "Deep Blue Something: That '70s Cruise" that he wrote in 2005 about a "Rock & Roll Cruise" that featured (the real) Styx, REO Speedwagon, and Journey. And he points out that its not the cruise in this case as much as the idea that these rock bands from the 70s are on it - and they know how to play unlike contemporary musicians (this is of course disputable, but don't shoot me, I'm the messenger here) - and that's why people are willing to pay to see REO Speedwagon on a boat. The other reason that he says that it's meaningful for these guys to pay $3K per person is that these rock stars are also normal people which becomes apparent when they are comingling on the boat and people "f-ing LOVE that." That's right. They rock to pay the mortgage. The experience that THESE cruisers are having is intensely PERSONAL with these rockers and that is the dream that is real (my phrase, not his) for these ordinary folk-cruisers. That their rock heroes are like them - and thus, of course, ARE them, also.
How can you characterize this unique and singular cruise-not cruise experience? By the brilliant last sentence that Klosterman pens in the essay to the cruisers themselves:
"Don't ever stop believing. I mean it. Don't."
And if you read the essay, you'd realize he really does mean it.
What It All Means to CRM If You Really Care About That Part
What did I just tell you about, though? A cruise ship. An experience. But one entirely different than ours and one that I suspect that I would have loved too - if it had different groups. But you get the picture. These are designed to provide you with something that is memorable enough for you to want to repeat it with a particular and potentially different set of expectations for the next time out.
Some of the Glitches
Before I get to the final part - the nitty gritty - a few (very few) of the problems on the ship and in one case, before we ever got on and a brief discussion of how we weighed them (and why this means anything at all)
- Our cruise agent (who is very good by the way), got us upgraded to the Royal Suite - twice. The first time, she sent us an email while we were away and said that she was waiting to hear from us as to whether or not we wanted the upgrade. We responded within 24 hours when we saw the email and the Royal Suite had already been taken. We were upset because our expectations had been raised - and then dashed. Better to not have raised the expectations at all in this case and I let her know it. Also, we were puzzled as to why she would hesitate to take advantage of this when offered. Who doesn't want a significant upgrade? This was very important and rectified when she went and somehow got a different Royal Suite upgrade for us. But the raising and dashing of the expectations weighed heavily at the beginning. "Better to have loved and lost, then to not have loved at all." Whoever wrote that is nuts.
- There is what is now called opening seating or freestyle cruising. That means, rather than the standard approach to cruise dining - which is early or main seating (which is late actually) that is planned for and with you, you can eat when you want. Sounds great - and if the dining room wasn't jammed with tables so that a two person table felt like a six person table, it would be great but the dining room ambiance wasn't so good and it affected the idea. Again, its always personal preferences that determine the weight placed on this part of the experience. People who like six person tables would like this - even at a two person. (I'll bet you're thinking, "oh, he's right" or "wouldn't matter to me" as you read this. And that would be my point exactly).
- The attendant service levels for our room were not as crisp or as good as the ones that we had in the Royal Suite on our cruise to Hawaii. This is an instance where the prior experience shaped the expectations. Without it, the service for the Suite would be no problem at all. But our expectations were sculpted from our last cruise, where the service was exceptional.
That's just three of the issues. Again, I don't want you to think that this was some bad cruise. It was great (though, the question is, should I care what you think? I do, but why is that - to get all existential on you for a bit - we had a great time, which really is enough, isn't it?). We would do it again in a heartbeat and I know I feel refreshed - which will probably last me all of another week.
That's what its all about, isn't it?
But you can't underestimate the need to share these things. Its not just a matter of how great it was for you - no matter how much you protest it was - it matters that you can tell someone about it. BTW, the business value of knowing that humans like to share, as obvious as that is, is immense.
CRM Lessons: The Art & Science of Sharing Experiences
Again, I quote that wise pop culture dude, Chuck Klosterman on this. He says in his essay on Johnny Carson, written when J.C. died in 2005, that art and culture's biggest social benefits are when it can provide "shared experiences (which) are how we connect with other people and how we understand our own identity." But the "pockets of shared experience" (the individual personalized experiences) may not be experiences that are easy to share. There is no guarantee that experiences by nature can be shared. There have to be vehicles created to share them.
These vehicles can be YouTube - I can't create the video on YouTube, but I can share it. It can be a Facebook application. The most popular applications - with downloads often in the million are the ones that can compare your likes and dislikes to those of your friends - ILike, the music sharing application, for example.
But the vehicle can be as simple as telling a story and the means to do that on a blog (like this one) or a social review site (like the aforementioned cruisecritics.com). The idea is that each time you read something about the cruise Yvonne and I took and the experience we had, you're not only reflecting on the experience we had, but the "what-if" experience you might have had, also. You are weighing and judging what we had.
But we get to tell the story and it feels good.
I hope the business value of this is obvious to you - my left eye shows me you see that. A great experience that I had and propagate can drive further customers - so its in the interest of Celebrity/Azamara to provide me with what I need to not just have a great experience but to tell a great story about it. And that means cruise veteran evangelists. That story leads to(potentially) new business as y'all who read this who want to go on a good cruise might consider Celebrity/Azarmara because I seemed to enjoy it. And Celebrity/Azamara might read this because it points out what they have to do to make me improve my story next time.
Oh yeah, one postscript. Probably because this ship left from Bayonne, NJ, there is an INCREDIBLE number of Yankees fans on the ship - I'd estimate (no joke) about 1/3 of the ship - rife with hats and teeshirts saying Posada, Jeter, and just the everpresent NY Yankees logo. The Yankees discussions (all diehards - of course, like me) was a way of bonding with people. Seriously. It was amazing.