Sunday, February 17, 2013

For Carnival, the chickens have come home to roost

As a guy who has taken a cruise or two in his day, dumb ol' Fredd would like to weigh in on Carnival's woes: something like this was bound to happen, it was just a matter of time.

Carnival Cruise Line operates on the low end of the cruise scale in terms of amenities, luxury and cost.  Carnival has long been widely regarded as the 'K-Mart' of cruise lines.

And Carnival did quite well in that niche - up until about a year ago, when the chickens started coming home to roost, if I may borrow a line from Dr. Rev. Jeremiah Wright.

My family and I have taken five cruises to the Caribbean: two on Carnival (Carnival Victory and the Carnival Ecstasy), two on Princess Cruise Lines (Grand Princess and Ruby Princess), and one cruise last year on Royal Caribbean's Allure of The Seas.

I base my opinion here on what my own eyes have soaked in during my voyages, and the tales of my fellow passengers as to their experiences with various cruises they have all taken in the past.  Without exception, Carnival rated at the bottom of the ladder in each category: amenities, luxury of experience and cost.

Both Princess and Royal Caribbean have meticulously maintained vessels, professionally trained and tenured staff, and above average general cruising experiences. 

Carnival, well, where to begin. 

Before all of their woes made front pages this week, Carnival has had problems in the recent past, to include the capsized Costa Concordia (owned by Carnival), and an engine room fire crippled a Carnival vessel several years ago, stranding passengers much the same as happened to the Carnival Triumph last week.

Carnival is the least expensive cruise available.  The prices are perhaps 15% or more below any other Caribbean line.  They are universally known as the 'party cruise,' since their rates attract the lower income party crowd during Spring Break, and other times when college students crowd the decks, screaming drunkenly into the wee hours of the morning and beyond. 

In order that Carnival offer the cut rate cruises, something has to give: the management at Carnival scrimps on maintenance much more than other lines.  They go longer between refurbishments of each vessel, and the turnaround between each voyage doesn't include a complete coverage of the punch list that develops each voyage from normal wear and tear from passenger use (and abuse).

On both of our Carnival cruises, our staterooms had a minor maintenance issue which we had to report as our cruise was underway.  A maintenance crew member showed up each time, and both times we were informed that the repair could not be effected until after we were back in the U.S. port.  While these problems were minor (trim coming off the walls, and bathroom locking hardware falling apart), we did not notice anything amiss in our staterooms on other cruise line vessels.  Only Carnival.

As K-Mart suffered market loss through their chosen strategy in the retail industry (low cost, low margin), so goes Carnival's brand name in the long run in the cruise line industry.  It is becoming clearer that a lack of maintenance is the culprit behind the crippled Carnival Triumph's problems.  Unless Carnival take drastic steps to change its image, and perhaps jack up its rates enough to handle additional needed maintenance, we may see the line go under, if not in the short run, for sure in the long run.

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