Greenberg’s ‘Cruise Inc.’ not just
for ‘newlyweds and nearly dead’

          Posted Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Some features on the cruise industry would give in to the temptation to show bikini after bikini. The goal of Peter Greenberg's "Cruise Inc.: Big Money on the High Seas" is to show how a cruise line makes money — or how it might lose it. The fact it's a little light on swimwear (especially in a splendidly HD broadcast) suggests he is targeting a more "mature" demographic.

What Greenberg delivers in the financial respect is less than startling. The cruise line wants the ship completely booked, then it wants the passengers to spend money on drinks and entertainment. Greenberg could've stayed land-bound and done a report on a Vegas casino, and the resulting documentary would look much the same.

Here, there seems a neat little trade-off: Norwegian Cruise Line has granted Greenberg extraordinary access — not just to the ship and passengers and crew, but a few of the proprietary financials — in exchange for an hourlong program that, in our estimation, does indeed serve as something of a healthy advertisement for the company, which ranks third with only 10% of the market. It must be wondered if Norwegian loaded up this particular cruise with top-notch officers, knowing Greenberg was aboard. The company, and ship, seem well-run, offering a decent way to spend a week in the Caribbean.

NCL executive VP Andy Stuart and the Norwegian Pearl staff talk about some of the things they do differently — specifically, the "freestyle" cruise, which does not lock guests into pre-scheduled entertainment, but allows them to pick and choose. Sounds like a refreshing idea, but does raise the question of whether people might expect to get into the more popular events only to find they're sold out.

Stuart also discussed the industry's safety concerns. Virus outbreaks on cruise ships tend to grab headlines. Stuart notes norovirus is common far beyond cruise ships, and Greenberg dutifully shows a clip of people using hand sanitizers, which he says are abundant. The lifeboats look well-equipped and rock solid. Stuart and Greenberg spent a fair amount of time on the surveillance camera system, but the story about a woman who went overboard (Jennifer Ellis-Seitz) left something out and was confusingly open-ended. Apparently Stuart wanted everyone to know she wasn't pushed.

Greenberg says the industry emerged around 40 years ago and now boasts 13 million passengers a year on hundreds of boats. No question that anyone old enough to plan their own vacation realizes this is essentially a mature industry, a popular pastime but not really a new thing to do. There might be gimmicks, such as singles-only or retirees-only options, but Greenberg doesn't mention those, so the standard way of making money is what we see: fully book the boat. There is steady demand, but probably no surging demand anytime soon.

Greenberg jokes with Stuart that it was often said cruise passengers fit two profiles, "newlywed and nearly dead." Stuart said the "average age has come down." He seems correct.

Viewers should spend a lot of time looking at the faces to see who is on these ships. Indeed on this cruise there was a wide range of ages — the guess here is probably 50somethings own the plurality — including kids. It's mostly whites, but a decent level of diversity, though that's represented far more in the staff. Greenberg says "NCL's bread and butter is the middle-class family."

In the early boarding scenes, nearly everyone is smiling. Later on, passengers are a bit more subdued, but most seem satisfied. The scenes of the various activities get blipped through in a hurry, to the point it's too hard to determine if people really are having a good time, say around the pool, or just happen to be there because there's nothing else to do.

Many of the passengers Greenberg interviews have been on cruises before. He says that half of the industry total in 2008 was first-time passengers. This is no doubt similar to package tours in general, or stays in places like Vegas or DisneyWorld. They're reliant on repeat business.

It's hard for a short documentary to show the simple appeal of sailing, though clearly many guests just enjoy being on the water. If they didn't, they might as well go to Vegas, the beach, or the mall. Everything they can possibly spend money on screams "tourist thing," including the stop in Honduras, which is a nice win-win-win for the locals, NCL and the passengers. Not surprisingly, in a tough economy and with the cruise's profit coming from discretionary spending, the room rates are low. A few of the interesting numbers thrown out are $35 (the cheapest nightly rate for a room with no view), $800 (the price — apiece — paid by a couple for their accommodations for the whole week, or a little more than a $100 a day), and $112,000 (amount of alcohol sales needed to break even for the week).

Disappointingly, Greenberg doesn't ask guests after disembarking whether they considered their cruise worth it or will take another. This would be of great use to both the viewers and the NCL brass, learning what worked and what didn't. It might be that he did ask, and the reactions were considered too uninteresting, or many praised it, and Greenberg didn't want the show to serve as an overt advertisement, or many weren't excited, perhaps because of poor weather in certain stops, and Greenberg felt that unfair. Nevertheless, it seems odd to report so thoroughly on all the financial angles involved and not even get closing comments as to whether the passenger experience was positive.

"Cruise Inc." will be most useful to prospective passengers who have never taken a cruise and wonder what it's like. Many will find the package appealing; others will deem it not for them. But over time it will be viewed by some who haven't considered the option, a plus for the cruise lines.

Greenberg's closing comments — explaining how passengers are getting great deals because of the economy — come across as almost an endorsement, if not for the Norwegian Pearl, then the industry. Greenberg is a travel expert and travel experts are paid to analyze the situation, so his point of view is needed and OK. Because like most CNBC documentaries this will probably air for more than a year, he doesn't analyze the company in macroeconomic terms, though he makes clear it's a tough economy. The various numbers tossed out will matter only to industry insiders, but potential passengers will get a good look at what it's all about.

"Cruise Inc." is a one-trick pony. It's unknown how well NCL is competing with its peers, Carnival and Royal Caribbean. Both might've wished by the end that they had been the ones to invite Greenberg's crew.

Other reviews of "Cruise Inc.: Big Money on the High Seas":

Paul Motter, Greenberg's "investigation turns up a surprisingly rosy picture of the cruise industry"

"Cruise Inc.: Big Money on the High Seas"

Featuring: Michael Klieverik, Andy Stuart, Simon Murray, Marco Mantel, Jean Ann Ryan, Kevin Sheehan, Julio Galindo, Robin Farley

Correspondent: Peter Greenberg

Executive producer: Mitch Weitzner
Senior producer: Ian P. Paisley
Senior producer: Alison O'Brien
Coordinating producer: Christie Gripenburg
Editors: Richard Korn, Allison Stedman
Additional editing: Patrick Ahearn, David Gross
Camera: Christopher Balcom, Marco Mastrorilli, Gerard Miller
Audio: David Foerder, David Grogan, Everett Wong
Jib operator: Dennis Dillon
Steadicam operator: Peter Voitikhov
Grips: Michael T. Banner, Malcolm Jolley
Additional camera: Jim Craven, Dennis Dillon, Joseph DeWitt, Jorge Pujo
Designer/animator: Wale Adekanbi
Designer: Laura Zito
3D animator: Joseph Stipo
Engineer: Julio Peguero
Media coordinator: Richard Marko
Unit manager: Pamela Gaskins
Additional audio: Edward B. Jones, Raul Hernandez, Michael Concepcion, Francis Collins
Field producer: Lauren Kesner
Aerial camera: Robin Russell
Pilot: Dean Ramsowr
Creative director: Victoria Todis
Senior animator: Jackie Dessel
Manager of digital post-production: Vito Tattoli
Chief photographer: Angel Perez
Special thanks: Jungle Island, Rusty Pelican, Smith & Wollensky, WTVJ-NBC6
Senior vice president, business news: Jonathan Wald

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