Tim Wood | April 18, 2016 1:00 PM ET
Fathom Has Textbook Week in Travel Crisis Management
I have used this space in the past to air my frustrations at the amateur approaches to customer relations and crisis management that cruise lines have exhibited in the past, with pleas and suggestions on how to improve.
So it is only fair and quite proper that we give credit as fast as we levy criticism. Carnival Corporation and specifically, the folks behind the Fathom brand, have given a master class on how to handle a wide array of crises in this past week. Their actions and proactive approach to informing consumers and acting on customer frustrations turned what could have been a disastrous week into a textbook example of how to both get ahead of PR nightmares and, more simply, do right by the customer.
The week started with bad news, as the first-ever scheduled sailing was delayed and ultimately cancelled. The Adonia, a ship previously operated by corporate sibling P&O Cruises in Britain, did not pass inspections by the U.S. Coast Guard on April 17, the scheduled launch day. As hundreds of passengers waited in the PortMiami terminal to board the ship, delays mounted.
These kind of expected delays are a norm in the cruise industry, but still, most cruise lines are severely lacking when it comes to proactive communications with the passengers.
Fathom officials were timely with updates, both at the terminal and throughout the next 24 hours as it was ultimately determined the sailing would be cancelled. Hotels were provided, expenses were covered, and most importantly, passengers were treated as important and valued.
Gone are the days when these incidents are largely unreported. Passengers have an instant method of voicing frustrations and informing friends and family of their disgust. Social media is far from a new invention, yet many cruise lines and travel companies act as if their actions still take place in an impenetrable vacuum.
Fathom set a new standard here, and with that customer-first attention in the middle of a crushing corporate setback, the cruise line turned what could have been a Twitter and Facebook disaster into an outpouring of support and appreciation for the company, even as passengers left Miami and returned home disappointed their cruise wasn’t happening.
Meal per-diems were offered along with hotel and airfare credits, a full reimbursement of the cruise fare and a credit for future cruising.
Delays and cancellations like this cost cruise lines and airlines millions of dollars, so the unfortunate first reaction is often to skimp out in dealing with the consumer. Fathom likely footed a giant bill in customer credits here, but the karma and positive PR will more than make up for the huge costs.
As the Dominican Republic sailing issues were happening, the company was also dealing with a larger international issue. On Monday, reports surfaced that Carnival Corp. was not allowing Cuban-born American travelers to book on the Fathom cruises to Cuba. The company was falling in line with Cuban officials’ mandate of adherence to an archaic and spiteful law barring natives from traveling to Cuba by boat.
This was a gigantic blow for Cuban-born Americans and at first, the narrative and optics were predictable for the skeptics among us: Corporate behemoth chooses profits over human rights. Wow, shocker.
But Carnival Corp. made it clear it was fighting Cuban officials. They had president and CEO Arnold Donald do national media appearances to explain the situation and make it clear that the company was fighting back. Donald specifically pointed to the fact that Cuban-born Americans could already fly to Cuba and used this to exert the proper pressure on Cuban officials.
Would we have rather the company said it wasn’t kowtowing to Cuban officials from the outset, especially given the humanitarian roots of the new Fathom brand? Of course, but it is perhaps more impressive to see a major corporation react to consumer outrage and decide that principle is more important than profits, as they did Monday in announcing that Fathom sailings to Cuba would not happen until Cuba allowed Cuban-born Americans to be part of the trip.
Will Cuba relent? Will the cruise line launch the Cuba journeys on May 1 or will it cost them millions in delays? That part of the story is still to play out.
North Carolina governor Pat McCrory has shown how not to handle PR explosions over the past few weeks, passing and doubling down support for backwards-thinking anti-gay restrictions that will likely cost the state millions, if not billions, in corporate and tourism revenue. And I was reminded of the sleaziest parts of PR when viewing the HBO movie “Confirmation” this weekend on the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill Supreme Court scandal of the early 1990s, a dark reminder of how good-ole-boy ethics (or lack thereof) have often prevailed over what is right and just.
There is much to learn in these crises and unfortunately, the travel industry usually repeats history in all the wrong ways.
Hopefully, others in the cruise industry, and the travel industry as a whole, will learn from Fathom’s past week.
The company has rewritten the textbook on crisis management and putting customers first in moments where every communication delay can cost them millions in future business.
More by Tim Wood
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