Carnival is rockin’ the boat with shipboard concerts

Author: Marjie Lambert
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The cluster of fans crowding the stage on the Carnival Ecstasy didn’t exactly constitute a mosh pit — well-behaved, with no body slamming, just clapping, shoulder-shimmying and a little restrained fist-pumping when Olivia-Newton John broke into Physical.

But they were as enthusiastic as fans of any favorite performer. They cheered when Newton-John asked if they liked country music, cheered when she talked about overcoming breast cancer, cheered when she said the movie Xanadu provided her with “lovely songs.”

These were serious fans attending one of a new series of shipboard concerts called Carnival Live! Some of the women wore pink satin bowling jackets with “Pink Ladies” in script on the backs, from Grease. Some fans had seen her so often that Newton-John recognized them by name. Some raised their hands when she asked how many had seen Grease more than 20 times — and kept them up when she asked “more than 40 times?”

Some, like Jennifer and Pamela Krisco of Santa Fe, New Mexico, had flown across the country just to see her perform while the ship was docked in Nassau, Bahamas, in June.

“I had never done a cruise. I hadn’t even thought about doing a cruise,” said Jennifer Krisco, who has seen Newton-John in concert “at least 10 times.” But when she heard that Newton-John would be performing on the cruise ship, “I booked it within five minutes.” She and her mother Pamela flew to Miami, where they boarded the Carnival Ecstasy for the three-night cruise.

Krisco is exactly the passenger Carnival was looking for when the line launched the concert series: people who have never taken a cruise, people who are weighing a Carnival cruise against a trip with one of its competitors, people who might otherwise take a land vacation. For some, the concert tips the balance in Carnival’s favor.

“Many, many of our guests tell us they booked their cruise because they wanted to see a performer,” said Bernie Dillon, director of Carnival Live! “We had people who flew in from Los Angeles just to see Foreigner. We are hearing that a lot.”

The concert series launched in April with concerts by STYX and Kansas. Carnival booked 49 performances by 15 acts on eight ships through mid-December. The performers fly into Nassau, Cozumel or Catalina Island (off Los Angeles) for a few days, then perform aboard two or three Carnival ships that visit the port.

With Carnival Live!, the cruise line entered the battle of brand-name entertainment in a big way, a battle in which Carnival’s main competitors, Royal Caribbean and Norwegian Cruise Line, were already entrenched. Both present well-known Broadway musicals such as Legally Blonde and Hairspray in the ship’s theaters as well as offer performances by Blue Man Group (Norwegian) and characters from DreamWorks movies (Royal Caribbean) and Nickelodeon TV (Norwegian).

“We live in a world of brands, and consumers are after brands. Brands will always command a certain premium,” said Carol Schuster, Royal Caribbean’s senior vice president of marketing. “Brands attract guests who might not know us as well, might not have considered us, so brand entertainment does make a difference.”

“The name-brand, high-quality entertainment offered on Norwegian Cruise Line speaks to the overall experience that our guests expect to find onboard,” said CEO Kevin Sheehan. “Whether it’s interacting with characters from Nickelodeon during the Pajama Jam breakfast, or taking in a Broadway show such as Legally Blonde or Rock of Ages, our guests know that they will enjoy a top-notch experience, just as they would find on land. This type of entertainment is also serving to make our ships destinations unto themselves, where the experiences on board are just as much a part of the cruise as the ports of call.”

Some other lines offer brand-name entertainment on a more occasional basis. Holland America, for example, has brought elements of the TV competition Dancing with the Stars on its cruises this year. James Taylor will do two concerts on the Queen Mary 2 during a transatlantic crossing in August.

Carnival, which has offered more generic musical and variety shows, stuck its big toe into the brand-name waters in late 2011 when it introduced “Fun Ship 2.0,” a collection of upgrades that included Guy Fieri’s burgers, Hasbro games and George Lopez as Curator of Comedy in its ships’ comedy clubs. Early this year, Carnival added Dr. Seuss characters and Seuss-themed activities for kids.

The concert series, however, brought Carnival fully into the competition at a time when stage entertainment has become more important to people considering a cruise vacation.

“All the cruise lines ... are upping their game, seeing who can outdo the next one,” said Staci Sanford, a travel agent with Cruise Planners in Kendall. “I would say 50 percent of every cruise has some kind of selling tactic based on the entertainment. It’s not like the old days — now entertainment matters. That is one of the main questions now — what is the entertainment, what is there for each member of the family.”

Sanford, who went to a concert by the rock group Chicago during a recent Carnival cruise, said “I met people who would never go on that cruise, except for the entertainment — Chicago.”

Not every agent is seeing that reaction. Isabel Chalem, who is with the Travel Leaders agency in Aventura, said she has yet to have a single client choose a cruise based on its entertainment offerings. The ship, its itinerary and price are still the determining factors, she said. But after they have chosen a cruise, clients sometimes ask her to help them make reservations for on-board entertainment, and the brand-name entertainment — especially the Broadway musicals and Blue Man Group — is particularly popular, she said.

Schuster said she expects the presence of brand names on cruise ships to grow. She noted that brands don’t show up only in entertainment — Royal Caribbean ships have Starbucks, Johnny Rockets, restaurants by celebrity chefs and retail brands like Coach and Michael Kors, she said. All of those contribute as Royal Caribbean defines its own brand.

“Let’s face it — we live in a competitive world, so every brand is looking to find their advantage,” she said. “Branding is an opportunity to differentiate and to attract new customers.”

Unlike entertainment on the other lines, most of which is free, tickets to the Carnival concerts cost $20 to $40. For $100, fans get VIP treatment — a cocktail party that includes a photo op with the performer and a seat up front.

Dillon said the popularity of the concerts has exceeded Carnival’s expectations. The line is already booking acts for 2015 and expects to add more concerts. Some shows — Jennifer Hudson, Chicago, Foreigner, Martina McBride — sold out before the cruise. Others have tickets available up till showtime; the Newton-John concert was 91 percent sold, Dillon said.

“The concerts have taken us above and beyond what our competitors can do,” he said. “From a branding standpoint, it’s been great for us.”