By Cruise writer
updated 7/17/2006 1:22:02 PM ET 2006-07-17T17:22:02

On a recent Monday in June, Carnival Cruise Lines’ “Cruise Talk” bulletin board had 11 posts about dining aboard the Carnival Glory, all debating the question whether to eat early or late. Meanwhile, over on the Cruise West “Journey Blog,” readers were gushing over photos taken during a recent Alaska cruise aboard the Spirit of Endeavour. Over on the SeaDream Yacht Club blog, cruise officials were had posted a provocative question: “How big is big enough?”

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These company bulletin boards aren’t just places where readers can share personal memories. They’re places where potential passengers can get valuable information to help them decide on a ship or an itinerary. Will they change the way cruisers get their cruise information?

Valuable communications tool
Three cruise lines have become more “online-accessible” to their customers recently. Taking its cue from popular online cruise communities like Cruise Critic, which has dozens of bulletin boards, Carnival Cruise Lines has created CarnivalConnections.com, a separate customer Web site that offers bulletin boards dedicated to each Carnival ship as well as to the line’s many destinations. Meanwhile, two small-ship operators, Cruise West and SeaDream Yacht Club, have created blog spaces that allow customers to post their shipboard experiences or respond to queries and comments from a cruise line administrator. So far, each cruise line’s little corner of the Web has proven to be quite popular with users.

“The message boards have been the most-used sections of the Web site,” says Carnival spokesman Vance Gullicksen. What’s in it for Carnival? Word-of-mouth marketing. Carnival hopes all that happy chat on the boards will result in new bookings that are both enthusiastic and well-informed.

At Cruise West, it’s more about making personal connections between the company and its passengers. “Through the blog, we are able to share real-time experiences with our future guests and those who are contemplating a trip,” says Leigh Strinsky, Cruise West’s manager of online initiatives. “It’s really a way for us to share our style with the public in a very noncommercial, sincere way.”

Larry Pimentel, president and chief executive officer of SeaDream Yacht Club, says, “Our blog features items of interest about the company along with news and commentary about travel and tourism and just about anything else that comes to mind.”

Customers get heard
The new online communities are teaching the cruise lines a lot about their own businesses.

“The message boards help us see what consumers really value as part of their vacation experience,” says Gullicksen, the Carnival spokesman. Preferences and complaints about particular Carnival products quickly become evident, and this helps with quality control. “When we find a consistent thread on one of the boards relating to a particular aspect of our product, we forward it to the appropriate department for review,” he says.

Strinsky sees an additional benefit. In the past, she says, Cruise West would get amazing real-time stories from passengers or crew about weddings, wildlife sightings or other shipboard experiences, but the cruise line couldn’t share them with readers until they were printed in brochures -- some six to 12 months later. “Now, with the blog, we can share these stories quickly with everyone,” she says.

SeaDream hopes to use its recently launched online space to track customer thinking. “The blog openly seeks opinions and gives us an opportunity to find out what various segments of the public think we are doing right and, on occasion, what the respondent thinks we are doing wrong,” Pimental says. “Both are important and can help us to provide a better product.”

What about the independents?
Will the company boards and blogs spell the end of independent online cruise communities? Maybe.

Alan Wilson, editor of Cruise News Daily, sees company bulletin boards as a potential threat to large cruise forums like Cruise Critic and Cruise Addicts. Cruise-line Web sites already have high traffic and visibility and they provide users with accurate information, Wilson points out. With that draw already in place, there is incentive for passengers to visit the new company boards – and maybe use them exclusively. The clincher, Wilson suggests, would be online participation by a cruise-line staffer who can provide authoritative answers to consumers’ questions (the independent boards don’t do this). Another key ingredient for success: unedited passenger comment, good and bad.

“Once cruise lines do those things, their bulletin boards will decimate the traffic regarding their product on the generic boards,” Wilson says.

“If you believe in your product, as we do, the consumer’s voice can serve as a virtual sales tool to a consumer segment which demands unbiased product information,” Gullicksen says. ”The Internet has proven to be the perfect medium for this.”

Carnival’s success in its online endeavor can only lead to speculation that other cruise lines will follow.

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Anita Dunham-Potter is a Pittsburgh-based travel journalist specializing in cruise travel. Anita's columns have appeared in major newspapers and many Internet outlets, and she is a contributor to Fodor's "Complete Guide to Caribbean Cruises 2006." E-mail Anitaor visit her Web site anitavacation.com.

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