Carnival Splendor Stranded at Sea(rch)

On November 9, 2010, a fire erupted in the engine room of the relatively new, 4,500-passenger Carnival Splendor while sailing off the coast of Mexico.  Despite no injuries on board, passengers were stranded at sea for three days and the ship had to be towed back to San Diego harbor.  While obviously creating a major travel disruption for Splendor cruisers, the event was picked up by the major news services bringing the fire to the attention of more than just those on board.

cruise ship
To investigate the extent to which the Splendor fire impacted consumer online research, Compete used its ability to track search across the internet to uncover variances in the way specific keywords refer traffic.  We assessed referrals to categories of websites as well as to Carnival.com and the sites of two major cruise rivals: Norwegian and Royal Caribbean.   We include the term set “Carnival Splendor” and for context “Carnival Dream” and “Norwegian Epic,” to assess same brand and cross-brand variances.   This helps expose how the Splendor event altered consumer research behavior and, subsequently, website traffic.

Cruise Site Traffic Sources: Upon first glance, traffic sources to the three major cruise brand sites, Carnival.com, NCL.com and RoyalCaribbean.com, were fairly consistent across source categories.  For instance, Direct Referrals accounted for 21% of site traffic across all three brands while traffic from Web Portals and Search accounted for between 27% (NCL.com) and 32% (Carnival.com).

cruise ship site referralsCruise Site Referrals by Category (November 2010)
Most common website categories by cruise site

Search Category Destinations by Term: However, a deeper dive into actual search referrals and key search terms tells a different story.  Searches on the keyword “Carnival Splendor” referred users to news or personal networking sites more than 40% of the time over the past three months, compared to 3% for searches on “Carnival Dream” and 9% for “Norwegian Epic.”  This has had a direct impact on the share of searches actually driving traffic to the brand site itself: Only 9% of searches on “Carnival Splendor” referred traffic to Carnival.com vs. 31% for “Carnival Dream” and 40% for “Norwegian Epic” (to NCL.com).

cruise ship website searches

Search to Site Propensity, by Category (9.15.2010-12.14.2010)
Leading referral categories by search term set

Search Category Destinations by Term: The fact that four times as many “Carnival Splendor” searchers ended up on sites such as USAToday.com or Facebook.com instead of Carnival.com means a potential loss of revenue for Carnival: one, because the pattern-altering news could negatively impact brand perception, and the disruption in searchers reaching the Carnival site presents a risk of lost bookings.  It also further highlights the impact social media continues to play in the arena of information sharing and gathering.

cruise ship website searches

Search to Site Propensity, by Site (9.15.2010-12.14.2010)
Leading referral sites by search term set

This event triggered a significant change in the way internet users consumed cruise-related content which in turn altered their browsing behavior around cruise sites.  “Carnival Splendor” was in the top 0.1% of all keyword referrals to Facebook.com over the past three months, and there were nearly three million referring keywords to that site.  “Carnival Dream” and “Norwegian Epic” weren’t even in the top 100,000.  “Carnival Splendor” also ranked 146 out 29,006 keyword referrals to USAToday.com.  This isn’t to say “Carnival Dream” isn’t a good comparison term as this keyword actually generated more referrals to Carnival.com than “Carnival Splendor” did over the same time frame.  But perhaps this also further emphasizes our point – the newsworthy events off the coast of Mexico back in early November definitely generated buzz for Carnival Cruises, but the buzz resulted in increased demand across a broad suite of sites not named Carnival.com.

Events of this magnitude create waves of change in the way search is used for travel research and booking but brands such as Carnival.com can weather the storm by (1) being aware of the shift in traffic patterns and (2) adapting their search and advertising strategies to actually benefit from the increased exposure, despite the negative repercussions.

These results show that there was an impact on online consumer behavior from an offline event.  To gauge that impact more completely, key additional questions include:
1.    Did the Splendor fire impact online behavior only briefly or long-term?
2.    Were the impacts different among travel shoppers in general vs. cruise shoppers specifically—notably those searching for “Carnival Splendor?”
3.    How were impacts different for shoppers of Carnival cruises vs. those shopping for rivals?

Logical follow up research would be a survey of in-market cruise shoppers to monitor changes in awareness and perception around their brand and their ships, at which point Carnival should possess the tools necessary to counteract some of the detrimental effects associated with the Splendor fire and be even better equipped to benefit from future news events.

About Ryan Williams:
Ryan Williams is the Director of Travel at Compete. At Compete, Ryan is responsible for interpreting online consumer behavior data and delivering custom competitive insight and recommendations to top brands across the travel industry. Prior to joining Compete, Ryan spent 14 years with major online retail and travel brands such as Expedia and Amazon. Connect with Ryan on LinkedIn at http://www.linkedin.com/in/ryanewilliams.