What Can Wine Learn from the Cruise Ship Industry?

Here is a “flashback” column from pre-covid 2017 that asks what wine can learn from the cruise ship industry? That’s an  unexpected question but, as you will see below, I think there are some potential insights.

What does wine have in common with cruise ships? As we have seen, both on-premise wine sales and cruise ship revenues have been badly affected by pandemic restrictions. But there is more to it than that. Package tours are a bit like the “mystery box” wine promotions that I wrote about in May 2021.  Mystery boxes are popular in China these days because they allow wine companies to sell off surplus products without cutting individual product prices in a way that can undermine brand positioning. Very clever, don’t you think?

Cruise packages and proprietary wine clubs (like those sponsored by the New York Times and Wall Street Journal, for example), have more in common than you might think and provide potential insights into the psychology and economics of wine consumer behavior. Enjoy!

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I keep finding cruise brochures folded into the weekend newspapers that arrive here at Wine Economist world headquarters. Ads of various sorts for wine clubs associated with those same papers show up frequently, too. That got me thinking, which is usually a mistake. What do ocean or river cruises and those wine clubs have in common? Intrigued? Read on.

They come in the mail and stuffed in weekend papers — brochures for ocean and river cruises and barge-and-bike tours. It is hard to resist the temptation to thumb through them and imagine visiting all these far-away places. You’ve done it, haven’t you?

Thousands and thousands of full-color printed brochures — this seems like a pretty expensive way to solicit customers. There must be something about having those pages and pictures in your hands that is especially important. Or maybe it is that the demographic that still reads a physical weekend paper and can afford to pay for it is a juicy target.

Experience Deficit Disorder

Several things about the tours strike me as important and relevant to wine. The first is that tours are “experience goods” — you cannot really know if you will like river touring, for example, until you actually try it. And then, if your experience is a good one, the odds of a second trip go way up (and the cost of customer acquisition way down).

The most important thing in marketing an experience good is to get people to try it the first time. The cruise industry seems to be good at this, so perhaps there is something to be learned by studying their strategies.

Wine is obviously also an experience good. Hard to know if you will enjoy a wine (or how much) before you pay the bill and open the bottle. If you like it, you are likely to come back for more. No wonder winemakers go to so much effort and expense to hold tastings of their wines.

The Olive Garden restaurant chain has a very successful wine program that is built around their practice of offering free tastes (as allowed by local law). One taste makes a customer more often than not.

Those colorful cruise brochures and television videos (think  PBS’s “Masterpiece Theater” sponsorship) try do the same — they give potential customers a “taste” of what cruise life is like. But for the most part neither wine now cruise ships can entirely overcome the obvious experience deficit disorder. So they need a strategy around it to give buyers confidence to take the plunge.

A Little of What You Fancy

Since cruise lines and independent “professionally curated” wine clubs of the sort that are often associated with newspapers and airline mileage programs cannot give all their potential customers actual samples of their products, they both seem to sell the glamour and exotic nature of the experience and hedge their bets in an interesting way.

Cruise tours seldom spend more than a few hours in any single port of call. If you love today’s stop, you can always come return on your own, but if you find you hate Venice (is this even possible?), don’t worry. You’ll be back on the boat and headed for another destination before you know it.

Some of the wine clubs that advertise in the weekend papers seem to work in the same way. Don’t worry about getting a case or even a six-pack of a particular wine you don’t like. Each case has at least six and sometimes twelve different wines. Don’t like this wine — don’t worry, because it is gone just like that. But you can order more of anything you fall in love with.

The fact that the details of the experience — the particular wines, the particular travel route — are made by experts, not the buyer, seems important, too. You buy the package and leave the rest to the experts. The modest commitment comes with relatively modest effort and emotional investment.

The low commitment strategy doesn’t appeal to everyone among either tourists or wine buyers, but its persistence in both spaces suggests that there is a market for it. Especially when there is a big discount involved.

Affordable Luxury

Nice wine and ocean and river cruises are luxuries from an economic point of view. No one has to buy them and there are always cheaper alternatives. The trick to getting the weekend newspaper-reading public to try them seems to be to make them simultaneously very luxurious and a tremendous bargain.

Thus the cruise lines advertise stratospheric rack rates for their services, which are then deeply discounted. The “full brochure fare” for the cheapest stateroom on a 10-day Mediterranean cruise in the flyer that arrived a few weeks ago is $9,999 (including economy airfare from certain gateway US airports). Wow, that’s a lot of money. Must be quite a cruise.

But wait, if you act now this wonderful experience can be yours for just $2,999 (airfare included) or $1,999 if you book your own flight. Lifestyles of the rich and famous at a fraction of the list price. Who can resist?

For the record the full brochure price of the most expensive cabin for this 10-day cruise is … wait for it … $33,998! But your price is just $14,999 or $13,999 if you pay your own airfare. Needless to say, this top-of-the-line listing makes the $2,999 of that bottom-tier inside stateroom seem an even better deal than before. Or maybe you would like to upgrade to the $4,599 veranda stateroom?

Wine club ads (and most supermarkets) adopt a similar strategies. Wine club ads seem to stress both the high retail value of the wines and the low low price that you will pay. Sometimes the introductory offer prices are so low that they must be intended solely to entice buyers into the first “experience” purchase, counting on repeat order for profits.

Foot in the Door?

I don’t see anything wrong with how cruise lines and wine clubs market their services. If this low-commitment affordable luxury strategy is successful in introducing people to wine and travel — and if they enjoy themselves — then that’s a plus.

Remember this. Most consumers don’t drink wine (here in the U.S. about 40% of adults don’t consume any alcohol at all). And most of those who do drink wine do it only a couple of times each month. There is much work to be done to introduce these consumers to the pleasures of wine and if thinking about wine as if it were a luxury river cruise can help, I am all for it.

The point of this that sometimes those of us in the wine space think that wine is so special that we fail to see how it relates to other products and experiences. It’s a good idea to pay attention to how other  experience goods present themselves to consumers and to note how those consumers react.

4 responses

  1. I hope there is very little relevance for the wine sector from the struggles the cruise industry is having trying to restart after the shutdowns once Covid struck.

  2. What i see in the cruise business is a realisation of a huge detrimental cost to the environment that they need to explain Think Arctic circle cruises and why cruise ships are being banned from Venice
    The wine business also has its challenges in the debt it is accumulated to the environment – think water consumption, pesticide application , heavy glass bottles etc . In both instances is more consumer demand the solution . Perhaps the discounted cruise should be really sold at its full price and the margin used to compensate the environmental imprint !

  3. Valuable excellent essay on advertising and niche marketing Mike. I’m saving it as a reservoir of good advice.

  4. What both industries have in common is the non-sustainable basis of business. For wine it’s water and for cruise ships it’s fossil-based fuel.

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