Sector has been hit hard but has the credentials to be buoyant again, says Digital Drums’ Steve Dunne

As Lenin, the founder of the Soviet Union, once said: “There are decades where nothing happens, and there are weeks where decades happen.”

Right now, that must be how it feels for most travel businesses and tourism boards the world over.

Until recently, many airlines were enjoying good growth; now they face unbelievable challenges of survival. The same goes for hotels, resorts and destinations, not to mention operators and travel agents. Everywhere, travel brands are remodelling their businesses to adapt to a new world.

Cruise impact

The sector of the industry that has arguably seen its world turned upside down the most is cruise.

From being the industry’s poster boy, with year-on-year growth that other sectors could only dream of, it suddenly looks like it could be damaged for a generation or more.

For many travel consumers in the UK, their very first awareness of Covid-19 – and the ravages it would bring – were highlighted by media reports of a cruise ship [Diamond Princess] not being allowed to dock in Japan and its many British passengers being confined on board.

The daily media reports and online interviews with those on board did much to rekindle negative views of cruising that the industry had done so well to combat over the years. Close proximities of large numbers of people confined to one vessel; mass catering in buffets; the ages of those interviewed; and the inability to leave their location – all these underpinned many of the unfounded prejudices of the non-cruise and new-to-cruise audiences.

So how should the cruise sector market itself when the world returns, adjusted behaviour and all, to the prospect of travel?

Recovery strategy

For many industries that experience a sudden or seismic impact to their image or reputation, the soundest recovery strategy is to focus on strengths.

And when focusing on those market or brand strengths, the proven approach is to zero in on three points: building on one’s natural strengths; flipping one’s perceived weaknesses into strengths; and harnessing what marketers call the brand’s ‘tribe’.

The cruise sector has an abundance of assets in each of those areas. Here I should declare my hand. I am passionate about cruise. I am a big ambassador of cruise and have converted many friends, family members and neighbours to the cruise experience.

I point this out for one reason. I will cruise again. There isn’t much that would dissuade me from embarking on one as soon as possible.

Cruise has perhaps the most fiercely loyal and passionate enthusiasts of any travel sector. The tribe will be an easy group to reinvigorate when the time comes; they will need little persuasion.

Secondly, you turn your perceived weaknesses into a strength. To me, the cruise sector has always seemed highly sensitive about its rigorous attendance to health and cleanliness regimes on board. No doubt rooted in the dreadful PR that a ship-wide norovirus outbreak could bring, the sector hasn’t made anywhere near the noise it should do about its unbelievably high standards. In the new era, I’d urge the cruise sector to go big on its cleanliness and health regimes.

Finally, the sector’s strengths. One of the many strengths cruise has is the versatility of its ships. The interiors can be re-engineered quickly to accommodate social distancing and ergonomics far quicker than a hotel building or airport can.

Ships’ versatility

And then there’s the versatility of being able to change itineraries quickly, meaning that future outbreaks globally can be avoided far easier than travellers in a hotel or resort can be repatriated.

The list of all these strengths, weaknesses-cum-strengths and tribe features for the sector is impressively large. And, if focused on and developed by the marketers of the cruise sector, the cruise market’s future could be just as bright as it was before the Covid-19 crisis.