Princess Puts Pain into Cruising

Regular cruise ship passengers almost always say that cruising is the least painful way to travel. Once you are on the ship, there’s no packing or unpacking as you visit new destinations, and you are pampered 24/7. Your cabin is straightened and cleaned several times per day, and an endless cornucopia of food is available. Passengers can see live entertainment, attend lectures, play games, or do nothing at all if they so choose. For many, that’s a painless way to spend one’s travel time.

One of the kinds of pain we talk about here at Neuromarketing is the “pain of paying” or buying pain – brain scans show that shelling out cash can activate the pain centers in the brain. (See The Pain of Buying.) Cruising generally excels at minimizing this kind of pain, too; once the cruise has been paid for (often many months before the actual cruise), almost everything is included. Elegant dinners, sumptuous buffets, Broadway-style entertainment, and much more is “free” on board the ship. For customers who feel the pain of paying more acutely than others, cruising is about as pain-free as you can get. Want more lobster? It’s free. Care to watch a recently-released movie after the performance by a concert pianist, and then hang out at the disco until dawn? It’s all free. Cruise lines further minimize paying pain by ensuring that their passengers pay for nothing with cash – one’s “cruise card” is a combination room key and shipboard credit card that one can use to buy anything on the ship. (In almost every case, an automatic service charge obviates the need to calculate a tip or even look at the amount one signed for – a great way to further minimize buying pain.)

The nature of cruising is that you are often thrust into contact with other passengers as you share a dinner table, sit next to each other at a show, and so on. Introductions always involve first names and where one lives. By far the most frequent opening conversational gambits are how many cruises one has been on, which lines and itineraries are the best, and what one thinks of the current cruise in the context of past cruises. Aboard the Crown Princess on a cruise I just completed, a new topic cropped up in perhaps half of these random encounters: the small charges that seemed to be mushrooming all over the ship.

There have always been some items that cost extra on most cruise ships – spa and beauty services, alcoholic beverages, photos, and so on. Just about all food has traditionally been part of the price, although many cruise ships have added specialty restaurants with a nominal fee for their use. Occasionally, one finds charges for items served outside the normal dining venues, like ice cream confections and specialty coffees. The Crown Princess, though, seemed to be packed with opportunities to spend a little extra. Brewed coffee, free in most areas of the ship, cost $1 in the coffee shop. And while many food items in the International Cafe were free, a couple of scoops of gelato would set you back all of $1.50. Tapas were available in the evening for an additional charge. Orange juice was free at breakfast, but ordering fresh-squeezed juice in another venue cost $2.75. If you wanted to spend four hours in a relaxing pool area called the Sanctuary, your cruise card would be billed $10. To eat at the Crown Grill steakhouse, a specialty dining venue, a $25 charge applied. And, if you were audacious enough to order lobster, a further $9 fee would be assessed.

I thought at first that it was a minor ratcheting up of the normal trivial charges, but the “nickel and diming” aspect was raised by so many fellow passengers that it was clear that Princess was putting the pain back into cruising. The odd thing is how meaningless most of these charges are. A typical passenger paid thousands of dollars for the cruise, and most of the passengers I met were well-heeled enough to not care in the least about an extra dollar or two. Many I spoke to clearly had annual travel budgets in the tens of thousands of dollars. Nevertheless, they WERE irritated by these tiny charges. If you asked them, they would say it’s the principle that’s involved – they didn’t like being subjected to miniscule additional charges after paying thousands for what they thought was a more inclusive cruise. In neuromarketing terms, though, their brain’s pain center was getting a tweak when they had to pay for something they might well have expected to be provided at no charge.

It isn’t clear to me what Princess is up to with this strategy. Is it even worth processing a $1 or $1.50 charge ticket? It seems likely that this is a ‘throttling’ or demand control strategy – the gelato line might be long if it was free, but just about non-existent if there was a small charge. (Indeed, Princess employs a different kind of demand control strategy with their “secret” ice cream service. For a one hour period each afternoon, they serve free ice cream to passengers along with sundae fixings. What they don’t do is publicize this in their daily schedules. Not only is there no signage for this daily event, but to reach the ice cream service passengers need to ignore and walk around a “Dining Room Closed” sign.)

I can’t help thinking that almost all of the cruisers I spoke to would have paid an extra $20, or $50 – a trivial sum considering the entire cost of the cruise, air travel, shore excursions, and so on – if all of these niggling charges went away. In general, people prefer a single lump-sum price to a series of pay-as-you-go transactions, even if they aren’t really saving any money by paying that way. (See Painful Sushi and Other Pricing Blunders.) Would consumption of coffee-shop coffee and specialty ice cream increase? Of course – but on a ship with continuous and unlimited food availability, how much more are people really going to consume?

I’m sure it’s tempting to control demand and pad the bottom line a bit with charges for “special” items, but if cruising is to be perceived as the most painless way to travel, the pain of paying needs to be a key consideration. Those extra-charge items need to be restricted to a small number of products and services that passengers would reasonably expect to pay for separately. All cruise lines are diligent about collecting customer feedback after each cruise, and I expect that Princess will hear what I heard from so many passengers. (We’re not the only ones to notice this trend – veteran travel writer Arthur Frommer has also weighed in on the topic – see Frommer blasts cruise ship nickel-and-diming.)

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Roger Dooley writes and speaks about marketing, and in particular the use of neuroscience and behavioral research to make advertising, marketing, and products better. He is the primary author at Neuromarketing, and founder of Dooley Direct LLC, a marketing consultancy. Follow him on Twitter.

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