Saturday, February 1, 2014

Won't you let me take you on a sea cruise?

Sailor. Skipper. Cruiser. Crew. A man for all seasides.

Disney Wonder, at port in Nassau, Bahamas
A few personal nicknames, all reflecting my interest in nautical pursuits. None of these, however, makes me an expert on cruise lines. Experience on watercraft provides only modest preparation for events that can threaten even the most casual of seagoing experiences:
  • I've taken two commercial cruises on those giant floating hotels masquerading as "ocean liners." The Disney Cruise Lines' crew on the Disney Wonder did a better job than Norwegian Cruise Lines' Norwegian Dawn. Both were mostly trouble-free but I helped prevent a potential shipboard fire on one trip.
  • I sailed the Abacos with a Boy Scout troop aboard a 20-year-old Beneteau whose skipper struck a submerged rock on our first night at sea. We limped through the rest of the week-long cruise.
  • I've skippered a small sailboat and a powerboat, wrecking the powerboat engine's prop on a semi-submerged log.
What took place on the Explorer of the Seas last week -- with some 600 passengers and crew taken ill by a virus -- reminds me that it's not easy to prepare for such calamities. But how you respond to an illness on the water can test your PR smarts. PR Daily analyzed Royal Caribbean's response last week, suggesting that the cruise line's CEO can do a better job of responding to outbreaks of mal-de-mer.

What usually takes place? The stricken ship lets off afflicted passengers for treatment or a quick trip home, apologizes, and brings the vessel back to port for a thorough cleanup and sanitization. If the vessel gets an extended bout of negative news coverage, it's not uncommon for the ship to be repainted and rechristened before re-entering service.

In reality, when you pack 2,000 or more people into a confined space for a week or longer, viruses and bacteria have an environment in which to thrive. You'd do yourself a favor by getting a checkup before hitting the gang plank. Beyond that, a bottle of hand sanitizer and some vitamin C, there's little else a passenger can do.

The cruise lines, however, ought to have a pro-active communications strategy in place. They can encourage passenger checkups weeks before the cruise begins. They can work with travel media to demonstrate the extent of their sanitization and health procedures. They can create instructional videos for their websites and YouTube. They can interview physicians on the best preventive measures to follow, pre-cruise and during a voyage.

Instead of saying seaborne illnesses are "common," cruise lines need to recognize that overlooking this issue is an invitation to negative news coverage and a loss of business.

But if you hit a log beneath the surface of Honeoye Lake, you're on your own.