Despite the public relations disaster created by the Carnival Triumph catastrophe, travel experts and others say the impact on bookings for Carnival and the cruise industry in general will be short-lived.
The ship lost propulsion power after an engine fire Sunday, leaving it adrift in the Gulf of Mexico. It was towed to Mobile, Ala., where passengers told of sleeping on the deck to get out of the stifling heat in their rooms, and using plastic bags in place of toilets.
“It’s a lot of bad publicity, but they have basically a good product,” said Andrew Coggins Jr., a retired Navy commander and a professor of management at Pace University’s Lubin School of Business in New York.
To minimize the blowback, Carnival Cruise Lines must compensate passengers for the misery they endured and show that company employees did the best they could under difficult conditions, he said.
“They need to get the passengers home smoothly, compensate them for their time and inconvenience, and be generous,” Coggins said.
Carnival has already offered Triumph passengers a refund, cruise credit and $500. Most cruise tickets contain fine print that absolves the company of liability beyond a refund – boilerplate disclaimers upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court – and lawyers are often loath to take the cases due to the odds, said Robert Jarvis, a professor of maritime law at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
“People talk about suing as they get off the boat,” Jarvis said. “Many drop off because they just want to put the incident behind them or they’re satisfied with the offers the cruise line makes.”
But because the incident has attracted so much attention, particularly on social media and travel websites, Jarvis said, Triumph passengers probably have more bargaining power than they realize to extract added compensation from Carnival through upgrades, discounts and other perks.
The Triumph incident was not the first public relations fiasco for Carnival. In 2010, passengers on the Carnival Splendor suffered from toilets that didn’t flush and elevators that didn’t move when an engine fire left the ship adrift off San Diego. Guests dined mostly on Spam and cheese sandwiches. Yet in 2010, Carnival’s parent company reported an 11 percent increase in net income, compared with 2009.
So far, travel agents say vacationers are not abandoning Carnival or cruise trips in huge numbers.
“They are not calling us in droves telling us they want to cancel their cruises,” said Marie Montgomery, a spokeswoman for the Auto Club of Southern California, which books Carnival cruise vacations for its members.
Carnival has developed a reputation as an inexpensive vacation for first-time cruise passengers – the Wal-Mart of the cruise industry, travel agents say. So, mishaps on Carnival do not generate as much outrage, said Jay Johnson, owner of Coastline Travel Advisors in Garden Grove, Calif.
“People realize that it’s Carnival and things like that happen,” he said.
As for bookings on other cruise lines, Johnson said, “We have never been busier.”