By: Shwanna Wilson
We have been closely monitoring Hurricane Irma, which is now a Category 5 storm in the Caribbean. Since the safety and security of our guests and crew are our primary concern, it will be necessary to cancel the following cruises given the projected path of the storm:
Carnival Liberty – September 7
Carnival Victory – September 8 (Carnival.com)
Reading the weather advisory notice posted by Carnival Cruise Lines, swiftly turned my graduation cruise plans into a PR (public relations) lesson. With a hurricane headed towards Florida, there was a crisis, and Carnival Cruise Lines had not prepared for the storm.
On September 5, 2017 at 9 p.m. EST it became clear to many travelers that their vacation plans had fell apart. Some future cruisers may have noticed before others that a bright gold weather advisory button appeared above the logo on Carnival.com. Unfortunately, many future cruisers never noticed at all, so at 6:22 p.m. PST (which was 9:22 p.m. EST) Carnival Cruise Lines tweeted, “Due to Irma, a CAT 5 storm, Carnival Liberty, 9/7th & Carnival Victory, 9/8th sailings have been cancelled. Details: http://bit.ly/2veyqHP.” Evidently, Carnival Cruise Lines’ communication department never checked the link that was posted, and at 3:31 a.m. on September 6th, Richard Daniel responded with criticism. He tweeted, “Your link brings up hurricane Harvey information. Are you issuing future sailing discount with refund like all other cruise lines?” The link had failed to redirect the public to a Hurricane Irma weather advisory webpage, which provided real time updates on upcoming cruise cancellations, itinerary changes, and other important port information related to Hurricane Irma.
Upon receiving the reply, Carnival Cruise Lines’ communication department quickly went on twitter, fixed the link error, and responded to Richard Daniels’ question regarding a future sailing discount. At 3:34 a.m. Carnival Cruise Lines tweeted, “Replying to @Richard43069 Unfortunately future sailing discounts will not be offered.” It became clear that Richard Daniel was supposed to be on one of the cancelled cruises because at 3:52 a.m. he tweeted back, “Replying to @CarnivalCruise Will our “FULL” refund include the travel insurance?” At this point, there was a delayed response from Carnival Cruise Lines. It took 13 minutes for the communication department to read the tweet, check the policy, confirm the policy, and then respond to Mr. Daniel. At 4:06 a.m. they tweeted, Replying to @Richard43069 The Carnival Cruise Vacation Protection Plan is non refundable [sic].” Wow… was this fair? Obviously, Shelby McCoy did not think so. She tweeted, “Replying to @CarnivalCruise
@Richard43069 Yikes guys. Rethink some of these policies during this time. Bad pr.” Apparently, Carnival Cruise Lines policies were being criticized, as they were being advised by the court of public opinion. Yet, the refused to reply.
With criticism piling from the public, it did not take long before Carnival Cruise Lines updated their website and the Hurricane Irma weather advisory page. However, the cruise that I had purchased as a graduation present to myself, was still scheduled as planned. It had been over 20 hours since the first alert had been posted online, and as I looked over the updates, I can remember wondering, “Is Carnival Cruise Lines that desperate for money?” Then I became a tad bit nervous, so I immediately stood up, walked over to the glass center table in my front room, and picked up the remote. I pressed power and looked up to see what exactly was on the TV. Noticing that it was not the news, I began to press the gray channel up button continuously until I seen the Nightly News with Lester Holt. “HURRICANE IRMA” read the caption across the screen as the Night News began. Briefly a video appeared of the wind and some debris flying as a result of the Category 5 storm, so I sat down and leaned back in the recliner section of the sofa just as the segment began.
While watching the graphics of the storm, after previewing Americans stuck on islands in the path of the Hurricane Irma, the phone rang. I was a little caught off guard because it was my backup cell phone and not my ZTE Pro. I quickly sat up and grabbed it off the glass of the table top. “1-800-227-6482, Carnival Cruise Lines Agent,” I recited. My eyes opened wide, as my neck turned from right to left. Shaking repeatedly. For a moment, I was in disbelief. I slowly swiped the answer tab to the right, clinched the phone, and took a deep breath as I placed the phone to me ear. A recording began to explain that Carnival Cruise Lines was concerned about the safety of all, and they would be notifying cruisers at least 48 hours before their scheduled cruise, if there is a cancellation of the cruise. A cruise code was then provided along with information on how to receive text alerts of updates. I was startled, it was 6:46 p.m. on the 6th of September, my cruise still had not been cancelled, and I was scheduled to check-in at the port in Miami on September 11th between 1:00-1:30 p.m.
As residents of Florida attempted to evacuate and prepare for the heavy pours of rain, swirling wind, and an overhead of darkness from one of the strongest storms in history, others like myself, prayed and anxiously waited to drive into the state of emergency. At this point, Hurricane Irma was set to hit Florida on early Sunday morning according to the National Hurricane Center. Florida Governor, Rick Scott, had already issued Executive Order 17-235, which officially declared the entire state, as a state of emergency. Airlines had begun cancelling flights and buses, as well as trains, were interrupting services to and from Florida. So, the only reliable transportation to the port of Miami would be by vehicle. With my first cruise scheduled for 9/11, I pre-planned to begin my journey towards the port on September 9th, no later than September 10th. Well, those plans were ruined because I was required to wait on updates from the cruise line.
As an attempt to relax, I refused to check the weather advisory alert page on Carnival.com for a day, and avoided all Hurricane Irma news. Then I noticed on my back up phone that I had missed a call on September 7th, at 9:24 p.m. Lord behold, “1-800 227-6482 Carnival Cruise Lines Agent” appeared on my HIYA phone app. I never heard the phone ring, so I attempted calling back. However, on the other end, all I could hear was an annoying buzz sound that busy phone lines normally have. Obviously, the telephone number had been set up exclusively for robo calling outbound, which was irritating because if the call was missed, you could not call back and get the informative message. As time passed, the uncertainty involved with attempting to monitor the storm, and its path, as well as updates from Carnival Cruise Lines, became somewhat overwhelming. At some point, I even wondered if I would even enjoy the vacation that I had purchased to celebrate the completion of my undergraduate degree.
While contemplating the possibility of an undesirable cruise, I instantly remembered that I had not bought the travel insurance offered when purchasing the cruise, which devastated me. Luckily, in light of the circumstance, Carnival Cruise Lines had released a statement on their website that explained:
We sincerely apologize for the disruption to your vacation plans. We will automatically process a full refund, including any pre-purchased Carnival Adventures, Fun Shop purchases and beverage packages. The refund will be processed to your original form of payment within three weeks. (Carnival.com)
Unfortunately, I almost looked over the portion below that statement, which expressed that Carnival Cruise Lines would only give cruise vouchers to anyone who decided not to take a scheduled, redirected, or shorter cruise. Meaning that, cruisers would only get a credit and no refund, if they decided to cancel. As a consumer, I wanted my money fully refunded. However, from a business stand point, I understood that Carnival Cruise Lines was attempting to minimize their loss by issuing credit vouchers.
Carnival Cruise Lines continued to encourage people to travel to Florida for their cruises by changing itineraries, destinations, durations, and dates of departures for several of their cruises — merely to prevent fully refunding a large portion of their customers. This clearly jeopardized the safety of many because Florida was in state of emergency, and the Governor asked at several press conferences that everyone in Florida evacuate, if they had the means to. Due to the state of emergency as well as the requested evacuation, the ports in Florida closed.
Nevertheless, instead of cancelling all of their upcoming cruises, Carnival Cruise Lines addressed the closure of the ports on twitter, by tweeting, “We remain in constant contact with Florida port officials & intend to operate cruises once they are reopened.” Nonetheless, this caused shear panic on twitter. Jenni Morisseau tweeted, “@CarnivalCruise The ports have BEEN closed!!’ Stop trying to exploit people for money!!” Tee Baby tweeted, “Replying to @brimandproper @CarnivalCruise Exactly! I don’t think I’ve been this upset before. It makes NO sense. It’s not safe to travel to the port in Miami at all.”
Carnival Cruise Lines’ refusal to fully refund all cruises continued to send several customers into an uproar. On September 9th, when DJ seen a revised and shorter itinerary posted on twitter about the 9/11 Carnival Victory cruise, (in which, I was also scheduled to be on,) he tweeted, “Replying to @CarnivalCruise I didn’t book this cruise to go to Nassau, or even death! Just do the right thing and cancel it. Will you continue until people die?!” DJ was not the only one dissatisfied with the idea of changing the itinerary. Paula George tweeted, “Replying to @CarnivalCruise No thanks I paid for Cozumel because it was a choice you gave me. I’ve already gone to Nassau and hated it!!!!” Maria Lucia Lenna, tweeted, “Replying to @CarnivalCruise My question is weren’t the Bahamas hit by Irma too? Why are you sailing there? My flight has been cancelled.” The comments were consecutive as they poured in, and, most of them asked Carnival Cruise Lines to cancel all cruises scheduled for the upcoming week. However, Stephanie Diehl took more of a PR stance when she tweeted, “Replying to @CarnivalCruise It is socially irresponsible to run cruises at this time!” Unfortunately, Carnival Cruise Lines never replied.
Carnival Cruise remained silent, and on Sunday, September 10th, most media outlets were reporting that Hurricane Irma had begun to tear apart the Keys of Florida. It was apparent that anyone risking a trip to the ports in Florida, were actually risking their lives. Nevertheless, many people were willing to take the chance (including myself). I decided to wait until Monday, September 11th, to leave Atlanta because the 9/11 Carnival Victory had been rescheduled for September 12th, and the hurricane was headed for Georgia. It was forecasted to approach most areas as a Category 1 tropical storm throughout Monday, so a large portion of the state had a mandatory evacuation in place. Georgia Governor, Nathan Deal, had executed a state of emergency in those counties as well. Non-stop rain began pouring that Sunday night. All I could do was pray that I would have a safe trip the next day.
Opening my eyes on 9/11 was surreal, I sat up in bed and listened to what sounded like a waterfall at my window. I twisted around, and used one finger to press down on the white blinds behind my headboard to get a glimpse. All I could see was what I had heard, a waterfall, outside my window ledge. So, I grabbed my ZTE Pro off the nightstand. As I sat in the bed, I navigated my web browser to Carnival.com to see if the cruise had been cancelled. Despite everything, even the ongoing closure of the ports, the cruise was still scheduled to port. So I got up, showered, dressed, and prepared to leave. Loading the car in the rain was horrible, however getting on the road and driving in windy rain was a nightmare. The car felt as if it was going to fly up, like a kite. Holding the steering wheel was like clinching the bars on a terrifying roller coaster ride. There was not many vehicles on the highway because Governor Deal had took to all media mediums, asking that every business in Georgia close and that everyone stay in place for 48 hours.
After I drove about 25 miles on what appeared to be an abandoned highway, my backup phone rang. I automatically assumed it was Carnival Cruise Lines, unfortunately it was not. It was ADT with an agent on the line notifying me that my alarm was sounding from my backdoor. I offered to go back and check it out myself because I had just recently left. So, I drove back home and went down the street beside my complex to enter from the rear. I noticed limbs all over the street but thought nothing of it. As I drove up to my complex, I seen a trees roots out of the ground, and as I looked up, a gigantic tree was laying on my entire complex. I was stunned. I walked to my back door and noticed that my gated screen door was locked, yet, my backdoor was opened. I unlocked the screen door, went in, turned off the alarm, reset it and left back out the house in less the 60 seconds. I walked back to my car with my mouth wide open and my head shaking right to left in disbelief. I had just missed the beginning of what the storm was going to do to my neighborhood. I drove off praying for everyone.
Driving out of Georgia into Florida took longer than expected because of the severe weather storm. It took over 9 hours to get to Orlando, which was only 431 miles away. However, arriving in Orlando in the middle of the night was scary because there was a curfew, (not many people out) and no gas at over 95% of the gas stations. The shocking visual of unbelievable police lights lit up the majority of the streets, debris was scattered, areas were flooded, and it was a catastrophe. After looking for gas until I was just about out, a gentleman gave me half of a gallon out of a gas can which allowed me to make it to the only gas station that I could find online that had gas. At this point, I was exhausted, and as I went online to check the status of the cruise, I became furious. At 7:30 p.m. on September 11th, Carnival Cruise Lines tweeted, “Carnival Victory 9/11 sailing has been canceled.” Wow… less than 18 hours before port boarding, Carnival Cruise Lines cancelled. The 48 hour cancellation notice that was promised by the company, was a lie.
Upon noticing that the cruise had been cancelled, many customers replied on twitter. Tineke Cutler tweeted, “Replying to @CarnivalCruise Got evacuated and then spent several days stuck in a hotel! Now you cancel 19 hours before sailing! Waisted flights from London+ hotel costs!” Cabrio tweeted, “This is no way to run a company, less then [sic] 24 hr [sic] noticed. I won’t be sailing you for a very long time.” Unfortunately, Carnival Cruise Lines had upset a lot of their customers. Some customers even vowed to have family and friends place a ban on the cruise line. Vio tweeted, “You are right, @copadebrandy. All @CarnivalCruise words are BS. None of my friends or family is gonna [sic] cruise with them after this.” The dissatisfying communication, customer service, and public relations displayed during this crisis by Carnival Cruise Lines, apparently existed because they had not properly prepared for the storm. Obviously, the company used a reactive stance and never authorized the proactive plan that was supposed to be prepared, long before a crisis of this magnitude. Hopefully this will be their lesson in PR.