UPDATE: See below for latest response from Royal Caribbean’s Adam Goldstein
The damage caused by Hurricane Irene was not limited to uprooted trees, wrecked buildings and flooded streets in a swathe from the Caribbean to New York – it also blew a huge hole in the reputation of giant cruise company Royal Caribbean.
While rival Carnival has won praise for the way it dealt with stranded passengers, Royal is still struggling to recover from the bad call it made right at the start of the storm’s devastating passage.
As Irene headed for the island of Puerto Rico, the authorities at San Juan decided to close the port, where Royal’s Serenade of the Seas, together with Carnival Victory, were waiting to embark passengers – many of them arriving by plane from mainland USA.
Victory was forced to depart four hours ahead of schedule, stranding about 300 passengers. Arrangements were immediately made to provide them with hotel accommodation, and those with passports were flown to join the ship in Barbados. All of this was complimentary – and the passengers unable to take their cruise were given a future cruise credit equal to the amount they had paid.
The way Royal Caribbean dealt with passengers left behind when Serenade of the Seas left port three hours ahead of schedule was somewhat different. Some of them arrived at the cruise terminal to find that not only was there no ship, there was no-one at the check-in desks to tell them what was happening.
Of the 145 passengers affected, only those who had booked their flights through the cruise line – just 15 of them – were provided with hotel accommodation in San Juan and flights to join the ship in Aruba. The other 130, who had booked their own flights, were left to make their own arrangements, at their own expense.
A spokesman said: “We apologize for any inconvenience this may have caused our guests, but this decision was made by the Port of San Juan to ensure the safe transit of all guests and crew through the port. Since this decision was made on Sunday while the ship was docked alongside, there was no way to notify our guests of this change in departure time.
“Independent guests were advised of hotel availability in San Juan, but the expense was their responsibility since it was a weather-related event.”
Unsurprisingly, Royal came under fire for the way it had treated its customers, and it took several days before news emerged via Cruise Critic that compensation was being offered – leaked by a travel agent rather than being announced by the cruise line.
Passengers who caught up with the ship in Aruba will be offered a future cruise credit of 30 per cent of their fare, although there has been no indication whether they would be reimbursed for the cost of their hotel stays in San Juan or the extra flights.
Passengers who missed the entire cruise will also be compensated, but the details have not been revealed. Royal say: “As a gesture of goodwill, and in recognition of the time they missed onboard Serenade of the Seas, Royal Caribbean provided each guest who was not able to arrive to the ship before it departed San Juan but met the ship later, with a future cruise certificate for 30 per cent of the cruise fare paid for their sailing.
“We are in the process of contacting those guests who were not able to sail with us at all to inform them of their compensation, and would prefer that the impacted guests learn of the amount directly from the line before it is disclosed publicly. We are compensating these passengers because we understand that this was an unusual situation, and we want to provide our guests with another opportunity to sail with Royal Caribbean International in the near future.”
Hardly an admission that they made the wrong decision in the first place, and nothing by way of apology to the affected passengers.
After all this, it beggars belief that Royal should attempt to restore its tarnished reputation by publicising an unrelated incident in which a family’s cruise on Oasis of the Seas was rescued by the pier staff team at Fort Lauderdale.
When they arrived at the terminal one of the family realised they had left their passport on the plane after a flight from Newark, New Jersey. Royal contacted the airline and managed to recover the passport in the nick of time – it was thrown from the cockpit window to a member of ground staff – and the family were able to continue with their cruise.
Relating the story on company president Adam Goldstein’s Why Not? blog, Craig Milan, senior vice-president of land operations, says he was so impressed with the efforts of his team that “I thought it important to share. Our brand has many great WOW moments and this was one of them.”
I doubt if those passengers left stranded in San Juan would endorse the claim.
►Allow me one more comment about Royal Caribbean and president Adam Goldstein (left). In a blog entry describing a recent visit to Oasis of the Seas, he made a passing reference to the fact that he was unhappy about an aspect of the ship’s operation. He’s the boss, he’s entitled to make his feelings known, and has a right to expect action to be taken.
As he said himself: ” It would be shocking if I had nothing to say after observing our product for 23 years. I make notes as I go along and write them up for the Hotel Director and Lisa Bauer
Intrigued, I asked Royal Caribbean what “aspects of the art program” had upset the boss. Surely, I thought to myself, Adam himself would have demanded further detail if a member of his staff had made a remark on those lines. And he did it in a blog which he publishes for the world to read.
The team in the UK had to contact head office in America to ask Adam to provide a little more detail, which they did – on August 19. Days passed. They waited patiently for a response, answering politely and apologetically each time I reminded them I had heard nothing back.
Finally, a reply arrived from Miami. I quote it here in full, word-for-word.
“When Adam is onboard ships he likes to walk around to observe, get caught up and stay abreast of what the experience we are providing our guests is.
“During that time on the ship in question, he made certain observations on how the art program was conducted and was disappointed because he simply did not think it was up to the high level of standards we always hold ourselves up to – hence his comment. In the meantime, he has addressed his concerns and the appropriate people are looking to see how we can improve the experience for our guests.”
A full two weeks to come up with that masterpiece of obfuscation.
Are you any wiser? I know I’m not. Perhaps Royal Caribbean should come up with a new slogan. Instead of “The Nation of Why Not?” how about “The Nation of Why?”
UPDATE: Adam Goldstein has now admitted that the situation in Puerto Rico, which I described above, could have been handled better. He also appears to agree it was unfortunate timing to use his blog to boast about the passport rescue story in the light of the Hurricane Irene events.
In a new blog entry, he accepts that Royal Caribbean failed to read the situation and that it would have been better if they had acted faster to help stranded passsengers join the ship in Aruba. In particular, he now accepts that those who had not booked their flights through Royal should not have been left to fend for themselves.
“The forced departure of the ship, albeit out of our control, created an out of the norm situation,” he writes. “Earlier recognition would have resulted in us providing the best and fastest alternative travel arrangements to reach the ship.” He also concedes they should have done more to help passengers find hotel accommodation in San Juan.
“I apologise that our situation awareness was not at its customary high level. We have learned some valuable lessons for the future,” he adds.