Before Carnival announced its Faster to the Fun program last week, the only way to get priority boarding and tendering was earning your way to the top tier of Carnival’s loyalty program or booking one of the limited number suites on board. With the new program in place on some ships, anyone can now get this particular service for a fee of $49.95 per cabin. Many long-time Carnival customers that have reached the very top tiers of the loyalty program are upset, and marketing experts aren’t surprised.
“The outrage of the elite cruisers is to be expected,” says Roger Dooley, author of Brainfluence
and the blog Neuromarketing. “One key motivator for humans is social status. Being a “diamond” member signals prestige to other cruisers, and this status was attained by spending tens, or even hundreds, of thousands of dollars on cruises. When any joker in a John Deere t-shirt and cargo shorts can board at the same time by paying fifty bucks, the elite members will feel a lot less elite.”
Some passengers, mostly those who have not reached high levels of loyalty status, welcome the program. Having faster access to your luggage after a red-eye flight, or lessening the time spent wrangling multiple children can be extraordinarily valuable to a select group of passengers. Likely a value higher than $49. They also say the program is similar to the airline experience of first-class. Some like to pay for it, and some are bumped because they are frequent flyers. Dooley says that cruise-lines shouldn’t necessarily model their loyalty programs on airlines.
“It’s no surprise that airlines tend to be unpopular brands, as they have evolved from a seamless travel experience into one where everything has a price tag attached to it,” says Dooley. “The one airline that IS a well-liked brand is Southwest. JetBlue also scores with women. It’s no surprise that these airlines have many fewer random charges and tend to treat their passengers more equally.”
The new policy suggests that Carnival is focused more on providing options to the masses of new or relatively inexperienced cruisers rather than their most fiercely loyal customers. It isn’t uncommon for a business to focus on the majority of its customers – but it would be wise for the Carnival brand to create programs that cater to both segments as each have significant value.
Loyal cruisers are brand advocates – that is – not just someone who will tell you what a great cruise they experienced when asked, but those who will go out of their way to share experiences and stories with friends (friends likely able to afford such luxuries), promote their experiences on online forums and message boards, comment on blogs, and even defend the brand against unfavorable comments in any of the above situations. Advocates are extremely valuable, but policies like this can leave them feeling hurt or unappreciated.
If Carnival decides to keep the policy or expand it to other ships, they should strongly consider adding a perk of significant value for its loyalty members, above and beyond extending the Faster to the Fun benefits at no charge. Currently, when one reaches the Diamond level of Carnival’s VIFP Loyalty Program (meaning they’ve sailed over 200 days with Carnival), cruisers get a one-time complimentary meal for two at a specialty restaurant. Instead of one-time, perhaps Carnival could reward its most loyal customers with this perk on every cruise, or every other cruise. Or maybe even an exclusive group-dinner with the captain at a specialty restaurant that is only available for the highest tiers. It’s a small investment to the company(around $50) that may help cushion the perceived dilution of perks to brand advocates.