Musing on Cruising #6 Should you go on a cruise or is it the ultimate in luxury non-travel?

imageOf all the aspects of why people go cruising the psychology fascinates me the most. Cruising is a multibillion dollar business serving millions of passengers every year but the great question for me is why do people choose to take this most peculiar type of holiday.

Imagine for a moment the following fictitious ad for a new hotel

Come to the Hotel Queen Mary 2

Applications are now being taken for holidays at the Queen May 2 hotel. You will join over 2000 other passengers in a 1200 feet long hotel from which you will not be allowed to leave for up to seven days. You can walk around the deck in 70mph winds if you wish. The hotel will spend most of its time passing identical martime scenery and the may list uncomfortably if the sea conditions or wind are unfavourable.

You may experience prolonged periods of nausea but highly priced medical services are available. You will not however be permitted to leave the hotel in mid-holiday.

You can spend your time eating and drinking to excess and then exercise in one of the ships 7 minute hip-baths we laughingly refer to as swimming pools.

There are a wide variety of diverting entertainment few of which you would ever consider attending if you were not staying at the hotel Queen Mary 2 and in the evening a draconian dress code will be enforced together with a ridged class system in order that those with more money feel extra privileged.

Due to poplar demand bookings are now being taken for 2018

It doesn’t sound too appealing but the strange thing is that cruising actually works and I thought I’d spend a while trying to decipher why this strange and bizarre form of tourism isn’t just popular but is thriving.

Having spent almost three weeks at sea both crossing the Atlantic and the Caribbean I am convinced that Cunard are probably the most sophisticated psychological marketers on earth. By the use of a large variety of subtle psychological techniques and triggers they not only shape and control the experience of over 2300 people they manage to make it highly enjoyable.

There are so many things that simply shouldn’t work but they do and in many cases work spectacularly well. In no particular order here are my thoughts

Branding and identity

Cunard models itself and the experience it provides on a recreation of the golden age of transatlantic liners from the twenties and thirties. The typography is art deco and the interior design harkens back to a grand age when sea travel was romantic and the preserve of the wealthy and well bred. It is cleverly done and the persistent use of terms like stateroom (not bedroom), voyage (not cruise), guest (not passenger) all contributes to create an environment of old fashioned luxury albeit with a modern twist. The public areas are called things like the Chart Room, Sir Samuels, Kings Court, Winter Garden and Queens Grill. So as I mentioned in an earlier post Cunardworld like Disneyworld is a place where reality is on hold. This combination of luxury and nostalgia help create an atmosphere where passengers can suspend disbelief and fully commit to an idealised version of reality. You don’t see hotels delivering this level of brand identity in anywhere near as complete a form, probably because their guests are far more transitory.

It is a very complex brand juggling exercise as they need to appeal to iPad-toting younger cruisers in their forties and hide-bound traditionalists in their late eighties and above. They do this by using formality and dress code together with class segregation to amplify the effect they wish to convey.

Class distinction

Class is both prevalent and essential on a cruise ship like Queen Mary 2. Like an airline, all of the passengers will experience the same weather and arrive at their destination same time, so Cunard needs to rewards the wealthy in ways that provide tangible meaning to these passengers.

We decided to travel in the Queens Grill or the equivalent of First Class on an aeroplane. At the simplest level that mean a suite rather than a room with a balcony and far more space, twice as much as a standard balcony cabin. But of course accommodation alone is not enough. Given that public spaces are open to all, the first class passengers also get with separate dining room, bar, Concierge and sundeck complete with hot tub. This doesn’t even begin to touch on the butler whose services kick the notion of privilege into a completely new dimension.

Nothing justifies the 10x multiple on your room price like a man bringing you canapes while you dress and mixing your pre-cocktail cocktail. However, this class segregation has serious drawbacks as the first class passengers can eat where they choose but the other passengers can’t ‘trade up’ so we met people in a bar who we will most likely never see again because of the segregation in drinking and dining. We may see them at a ball or we may not.

So class operates not only to provide a top tier of comfort for some passengers but it also thins down the crowd so almost whatever event you attend you never see more than 400 people from a passenger roster of over 2000. This adds to the perception of uncrowded luxury.

Information removal

Companies like Disney understand that strictly controlling the experience is essential for creating the maximum happiness. Cunard use time and information control to achieve this.

I am used to planning ahead, to knowing what I’m doing in the next few days if not the next few weeks. On board Queen Mary 2 your time horizon is precisely 24 hours. Each day you receive a Daily Programme that lists the bewildering array of activities in the next 24 hours. But nothing further ahead. So if a film or show is scheduled for tomorrow you have no idea whether it will come around again or if this is your only chance to see it. This creates an intentional tension in passengers who feel compelled to see every event in case they miss it forever.

Psychologically this creates a day-to-day, hand to mouth view of time passing which actually makes the holiday seem longer. We arrive in St Thomas in 24 hours but I have no idea yet when we arrive, how we disembark or when we leave. This strict information management forces passengers to work on a rhythm dictated by Cunard not by the larger outside world. After a week crossing the Atlantic I had no idea of what day it was what was happening beyond that evening’s delivery of the daily Programme.

This rationing of information has a very calming effect on passengers. We know just enough to plan a few hours ahead but not enough to measure the passage of our holiday beyond the ships position on a map.

Timing, schedules, attention span and routine

On Queen Mary 2 as with all cruise ships the evenings are the main focus of activity but the cruise line has to fill the blank periods between meals with something so a huge array of incredibly disparate activities are on offer. They seem to be grouped into three main areas: doing things like dancing or playing bridge, leaning things like flower arranging or using your iPad and experiencing things like talks and movies.

These are all scheduled so that it is impossible to do all of them or even the best ones as inevitably they would be over attended. The variety is truly mind-boggling. Yesterday there was a forensic specialist giving a talk on the DNA investigations in to the Romanov remains or you could have attended a class on scrapbooking. If that didn’t appeal try a course of photo retouching or carol singing.

In short if you are bored on board it is really your problem not theirs

Stockholm Syndrome and the ship

One thing I have noticed is the accommodation equivalent of Stockholm Syndrome. The ship provides you with everything you could ever want and does it in extreme comfort and so anything else may be mildly diverting or interesting but at the back of your mind you know that the womb-like comfort of your stateroom is always in the background beckoning you home.

Two days ago we arrived in New York after 7 days at sea. I had a cold and it was grey and raining. Elly and I jumped in a cab fought through hideous traffic to mid-town and had a coffee, looked at the Christmas decorations but quickly decided that actually the ship was a far nicer place to be.

The Caribbean islands we’re the same. Seen one tropical island for a few hours and you’ve seen them all. Yes they were mildly interesting but at the end of the day the ship itself was physically sitting in port ready to provide all of your creature comforts.

The reality is you don’t really visit anywhere or experience anything when cruising. You look at parts of the world within a five star bubble. Nothing wrong with that but it isn’t travel.

Food and Money

Food is a major part of cruising and the cause of the massive popularity of what are known as ‘Buffet Slacks’ amongst cruisers. People eat ALL day on board. The restaurants and grazing station are open 20 hour a day and if you get peckish there is the 24 hour room service for a top up. All food on board is free with the exception of a couple of premium upgrade options.

This endless opportunity to eat means everyone is putting on weight, some visibly, and everyone jokes about how much weight they are putting on, usually over dinner. The problem is that the food, especially in first class, is very good. Add to this that in the Queens Grill you can ask for anything to be prepared for you and you are looking at a full Jubba The Hut experience. We discovered that you can order a full caviar service in your room while dressing for dinner, so we have.

There is also an endless supply of extras being pushed at you at every opportunity. Sunbathe on the Queens Grill Terrace and someone will offer you little sandwiches at 10am in case the yawning void between breakfast and an early lunch becomes unbearable. Finish your meal and they provide petit four with your coffee but then also have a chocolate station between your table and the lifts in case your sugar level drops.

None of this is charged for. The only things you pay for are drink and shopping and these are all charged to your magic on board account so you are completely disconnected from actual money while cruising. After 20 days I really have no idea what I am spending. Nor to be honest care at this point.

So should you go on a cruise?

I was convinced that going on a cruise was the travel equivalent of a stair lift. It was the realisation that you had given up independent travel and had become an old person. It was the anodyne path of least resistance, the travel equivalent of sensible shoes, the Werthers Original of experience, a prawn cocktail in a world of spicy Pho.

This is true but cruising is great fun. We have met more genuinely interesting people we will stay in touch with in three weeks on board than we have in twenty years travelling independently.

The ship, especially in first class, would rank in a top 10 of the best hotels I have ever stayed in and that includes some of the world’s fines. The service is almost as breath-taking as the Far East.

The food is excellent and the staff friendly.  The one word I would use if comfort. From the seamless check-in to the whole of life on board the experience is supremely comfortable and easy. So what is the downside?

Travel to me has always been about experience. You go to a place to experience the culture, food, landscape, language and people from a country different from your own. You don’t get any of this cruising. Instead you travel the world in a supremely comfortable 5 star hotel and look at a place for a few hours and then move on.

It’s like watching a film of a distant land from the comfort of a warm cinema while eating a good meal. Interesting but not like being there.

So would I go on a cruise again. Yes, definitely. The next time we are looking for a supremely comfortable three weeks in the sun we’ll be there ready to Foxtrot into the wee small hours.

Now pass me my elasticated trousers, it’s time for lunch.

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