Royal Caribbean Champions Defend Their Impartiality in The Wake of “Paid Cheerleader” Accusations

Regardless of how neutral we try to be, all “reporters” have some sort of agenda to promote. For a journalist, that agenda may be to “spin” an article to promote sales or views. For a cruise blogger, like me, it is simply to share my love of cruising, and bring members to my sight. For most bloggers and cruise chat room users it is probably to share their love of cruising and exchange information with other cruisers. Most cruise chat rooms, like Cruise Critic, and our own Cruise Talk Forum, are generally anonymous chat rooms where cruisers can gather to exchange information about their cruising experiences. Because of that anonymity, there are possibly a small number of posters who may work for a cruise line and have a vested interest in promoting one particular cruise line over another. There are also a small number who simply like to “stir the pot” and cause conflict. However, a recently exposed the Royal Caribbean marketing campaign sought to utilize real, enthusiastic Royal Caribbean posters to spread ‘buzz’ about their new ship and overall brand.

Earlier this month, reports surfaced that Royal Caribbean Cruise Line had intended to utilize internet cruise chat rooms, in particular Cruise Critic, in order to “Spread the Word” about their brand. The cruise posters and bloggers identified through analysis of online activity received nothing more in compensation than the current standard industry practice for travel agents and journalists. While few critics have been questioning free pre-inaugural cruises and receptions influencing those journalist and travel agents, the “Royal Champions” have received a deluge of personal attacks disputing the value of their posts and reviews. The other posters who feel the “Royal Champions” have been unduly influenced and have even go so far as to call them “Paid Cheerleaders.” Are those attacks over reaching or right on target? Cruise Talk seeks to present all sides of the story, and hopefully provide our readers with enough information for them to decide for themselves.

Royal Champions Program

In 2007, Royal Caribbean wanted to utilize frequent posters on cruise chat rooms to spread the word about their new ship, Liberty of the Seas, and the brand in general. They worked with a third party to determine candidates whom they thought would most likely report, and report positively about the RCCL brand based on past posts on Cruise Critic and other on line chat rooms. Then Royal Caribbean contacted Cruise Critic to ask them if they will give them of these poster’s email addresses.

Officials at Cruise Critic initially said “No, that violates our privacy policy.” However, Cruise Critic offered to contact the the posters and get permission for RCCL to contact them. The members who gave permission were then contacted by RCCL. However, they were not really sure why RCCL was contacting them. They suspected that it must have something to do with their past cruises or frequent posts. At some point during this process, the frequent posters, most of whom were also very frequent cruisers, were contacted either by RCCL or their marketing firm and surveyed. Around fifty of these posters were then invited to the “Liberty of the Seas” pre-inaugural cruise. A pre-inaugural cruise is generally a short “cruise to no where” that serves as both an introduction of the ship and a “shake down” cruise to refine processes and procedures. The cruisers had to provide their own transportation to the port of Miami, but the two day “Cruise to No-Where” was free. It also included many amenities like alcohol or specialty beverages, which are normally at an extra charge. Other passengers on this cruise included travel agents, members of the press and VIP’s. The cruise poster/bloggers also reported a special reception being held for them by the management at RCCL. At the reception, management presented them with a gift bag and a tumbler that said “Royal Champions”. They were not instructed to report back on their blogs or Cruise Critic about the experience, but simply told that they are “Royal Champions.” Some of these posters disclosed their “club membership” by adding “Royal Champion” to their signature.

Flash forward to 2009, several internet postings revealed the “Champions” program. Some posters call into question the impartiality of these posters since they got something free from the cruise line. Many of these cruise chat rooms got very nasty and included name calling. Posts had to be deleted because they were so vicious. For the most part, the Royal Champions were happy to answer questions about their experience, and vehemently defended their impartiality. Many of these posters stated that they were already fans of the RCCL product, and were simply reporting back on their experiences to others who might be interested in the ship or cruise experience. There was a lot of misinformation passed around online implying that these “Champions” may have received a variety of compensation in express return for writing favorable online reviews. That implication seems to be patently false. The reviews posted after the trip included both positive and negative aspects of the cruise and ship.

Responses to Criticism

Since most of the “Champions” were identified as having 10,000 or more posts on the Cruise Critic website, Cruise Critic, which is owned by Expedia, responded to the harsh criticism of this practice by posting the following two statements from both Royal Caribbean and Cruise Critic

Royal Caribbean’s Statement

“Royal Champions are a small group of passionate travel enthusiasts and prolific individuals, who were identified by an independent third party on behalf of Royal Caribbean International, as frequently engaging in online discussions and sharing information about cruising on the internet. With the proliferation of online social networks, blogs and discussion boards on the internet – many of which serve as forums where vacationers visit consistently in search for travel information and advice – Royal Caribbean decided to engage these enthusiasts knowing that they would be a valuable source of information for our current and prospective customers. Thus in early 2007, in keeping with our legacy of innovation, we initiated a program in which the Royal Champions were invited to learn more about our brand, our ships and our amenities.”

“We have provided the Royal Champions with the opportunity to experience our product during pre-inaugural sailings so that they can provide their independent opinions in the online spaces they are participating in. On a few occasions, they also have served as focus groups providing us with valuable feedback on a number of topics. Royal Champions have been invited – along with traditional media, top travel partners, and loyal Crown & Anchor Society members – to preview new ships and programs and share their opinions if, when and how they see fit. They are responsible for their own travel arrangements and expenses, which are not paid by Royal Caribbean. Royal Champions do not receive any compensation for their participation nor do we influence what they share, where they share it, or how they participate in their online discussions.”

“We are gratified by the enthusiasm these Royal Champions have for cruising and our goal is to continue to incorporate their insights to continually improve the Royal Caribbean vacation experience for all of our guests.”

Cruise Critic’s Statement:

“Royal Caribbean contacted Cruise Critic and asked us to obtain permission from a group of members they gave us, so that they could extend an invitation to Liberty of the Seas pre-inaugural sailings in May, 2007. We agreed to forward the information on to this group of members, and asked for their permission to share their contact information with Royal Caribbean. This is Cruise Critic’s sole involvement in this program. We did not help develop the program, nor did we help choose the participants. At the time of the request there was no formal name associated with this group or program; we were merely asked to forward an invitation to an event on behalf of Royal Caribbean. We received a second, similar request, in October, 2008.”

“We have absolutely no reason to believe that any Royal Champion has done anything other than express his or her own candid opinion about Royal Caribbean’s products. They share both positive and negative opinions and give helpful advice and information. They did this before they became a Royal Champion and they continued to do so after. As a result, Cruise Critic welcomes them along with any other member who wants to share his or her opinions about Royal Caribbean in this forum.”

“Some have requested that Cruise Critic have a formal policy requiring Royal Champions to identify themselves as such. While we can suggest that members disclose their affiliations, it’s unrealistic for us to require it and impossible to enforce. We are operating an anonymous online community and there’s no way for us to verify that anyone is or isn’t who they say they are. As a result it will continue to be a policy that we will not require Royal Champions or any member of any other group to identify themselves.”

“At this time, we have decided that it is not in Cruise Critic’s best interest going forward to contact members on behalf of Royal Caribbean or any other cruise line.”

Cruise Talk Investigates

Cruise Talk has contacted several of the participants to inquire as to whether there was any express or implied “quid pro quo”. One of these members reports:

“We went to a reception on board attended by Richard Fain, Adam Goldstein and Alice Norsworthy. A as we left we got a cheap duffel bag with a tumbler engraved with the date, ship and the words “Royal Champion”, first we had seen or heard those words. We all went home thinking it was great and a one time thing. A few months later we got an invite to NYC for the Oasis media event. We went and enjoyed it, got a brochure, some watered down drinks. On the way out we got chocolate horse heads on a stick to represent the onboard carousel. The 2 freebies from RCCL cost my wife and I about $3000. I joke if they invite us to many more free things, we might have to file bankruptcy. We didn’t know anything about the marketing deal.”

The same cruiser pointed out the one of his most outspoken critics may have been expressing “sour grapes.” The critic of Royal Champions program had previously expressed a desire to attend these events and was “practically begging to be invited to go on the pre-inaugural Liberty cruise.”

We also contacted another frequent cruiser and Cruise Critic poster and asked him if he could comment on exactly what happened. This is his response:

“I had been sailing with RCL for a couple of years and was a huge fan, when I was approached.”

“I was contacted by the moderator of Cruise Critic a couple of years ago, saying that RCL would like my contact information and asked if could they pass it along. The reason was that RCL wanted to invite a group of posters on a pre-inaugural of Liberty. I didn’t say yes immediately but instead went to the boards to see if others had received this email (I feared it was a hoax). They had and so I gave my contact information to CC to pass along. I recall wondering what this was really all about but at the same time, I didn’t gave any more information than would be available in a public telephone book.”

“We heard from a man at RCCL about three weeks later, saying that we were being invited as RCCL’s guest to the pre-inaugural. We would be responsible to get ourselves to the ship but then most other expenses would be covered. The cruise was a two day cruise to nowhere which is very common for a new ship needing to drum up buzz and business. Besides the 20 or so Champions on my cruise, the rest of the passengers were made up of the press, travel agents, tourism officials and tour operators. There were three pre-inaugurals (two from Florida and one from New York) that typically sail at about 2/3 occupancy so that the ship seems uncrowded. I understood that there were 50 people approached to be Royal Champions.”

“During the cruise, we all wondered how we had come to be chosen. Some were seasoned cruisers and some had only a few cruises to their credit. Some had thousands and thousands of posts on CC while others were new, too. Most were cheerful CC posters but some were a bit cranky at times.”

“During the cruise, there was a reception for the Champions in the small room off of the Viking Crown. The executives were all there and they told us that they invited us because they do watch the boards (something people always wonder about) and they wanted to express their appreciation for our enthusiasm in talking about cruising. Each of us was given a gift bag that had a travel mug and a pen. We were told then that we were the Royal Champions (which is why folks started adding it to their sigs when they returned) but in all honesty, we thought at that time that it was a one shot deal and that we had won the karma lottery.”

“We were not asked to blog about the Liberty (although I think there is obviously some presumption there, when you invite enthusiastic cruisers and put them on the newest ship you own) and we were not told to only say nice things. We were not told that there was any obligation or expectation from us at all. In fact, the invitation was offered based on previous posting activity (as has been widely reported) but there was no presumption going forward that we would post anything. We were certainly not given instruction nor were any future rewards promised or even inferred. In all honesty, we thought the Liberty Pre-inagural was it. We were not aware that there was a Royal Champions Program, at that point. We just thought that our enthusiastic posting had been noticed and rewarded.”

“There was an interesting energy onboard those two days. Our sailing had a couple dozen Champions and a couple hundred (my wild guess) Diamond Plus members who had been invited by Crown and Anchor as well as hundred of travel agents.(Diamond Plus Crown & Anchor Members Have Cruised 24 or more times with Royal Caribbean.) My companion and I were sitting in the coffee shop one afternoon and heard quite a number of the Diamond Plus folks mumbling to each other saying things like “see, I told you I would not like this ship.” “It’s too big for my taste” “I’m glad we got this free 2-nighter because I would never pay for this.” It was interesting to me that so many who come on these freebies were so openly critical and would likely go home and either not blog about it or would blog negatively. That’s when I thought RCCL was likely pretty smart to invite some folk they recognized as enthusiasts.”

“So, at the end of the day, we returned home and many of the RCs, of course, wrote reviews. Most loved the ship but some did not. Most posted comments and answered questions. At that time, there was a very critical group of people on cruise critic who were incensed that some posters got invited on this. They felt that RCs were taking up space that should have been given over to Diamond Plus people. Some were furious not to be named RCs themselves when others they felt less deserving had.”

Area of Concern:

Cruise Talk finds one area of concern regarding the whole Royal Champions issue. An online internet marketing blog reported that the Royal Champions would be monitored in terms of their on line activity. Presumably, they would be measuring how positive and prolific the posters would be in their reports about the ship and their subsequent cruises. As mentioned in the above quote, they probably wanted to see if their investment in offering a free two day cruise to these posters provided more “Positive Buzz” than the traditional invitees like Diamond Plus members, travel agents, and press. However, since the posters were never told “We’ll be watching you,” I don’t believe that their neutrality has been significantly compromised, but it just seems a bit too like “Big Brother” might be watching.

Cruise Talk Full Disclosure:

Here at Cruise Talk we share our cruise experiences and welcome the input of other cruisers. No one cruise line fits all needs, so one man’s ideal vacation might be another’s nightmare. While we try not to promote one cruise line over another, our first hand editorial reporting is simply limited to the cruise lines we have sailed. We also try promote general ideas like excellent service and traditional style cruising because we value these aspects of cruising and would hate to see them disappear from the market place.

In the interest of full disclosure we will always report to our readers any “free” things we receive from a cruise lines. Here is a list of every thing I can think of that we have gotten for free from various cruise lines:

Holland America: Free Bottle of Champagne from our room steward (was left behind by previous guests), silver plated picture frame for talent show participation, and a key chain on Rotterdam, 1993

Celebrity: Free bottle of Champagne from bartender on Celebrity Mercury 2003,
Free upgrade from an ocean view to a balcony on the Infinity, 2005. (We think a larger family needed the original room we booked since it held 5 and was adjoining another.)
Various prizes like gift bags, key chains, luggage tags, back packs, and wallets for winning trivia or other on board games.
A free diet coke or refill on a drink or two from time to time from a bar tender or hotel manager.