By Anita Dunham-Potter Travel columnist
updated 5/19/2008 5:52:32 PM ET 2008-05-19T21:52:32

Cleveland residents Brenda and Gerald Moran are experienced cruisers and big fans of Royal Caribbean. They were so happy with the cruise line they averaged two cruises a year for the past three years. They even bought the company’s stock.

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Still, the Morans encountered problems on each cruise — everything from a plumbing problem to being locked out of their cabins — which they itemized and detailed in correspondence to the cruise line. Royal Caribbean worked with the couple to solve problems and offered discounts and onboard credits to keep the couple’s business.

Until it decided it no longer wanted the Morans’ business.

Last November, Royal Caribbean abruptly notified the couple that they were no longer welcome on any Royal Caribbean International ship, including the company’s subsidiaries Celebrity and Azamara. Ever.

What on earth did they do to get lifetime ban? They complained, and they complained loudly.

The cruise critics
Feisty Brenda Moran is certainly one not to hold back her opinion. Over the course of three years sailing on Royal Caribbean and Celebrity, she documented many problems during her cruises that ran the gamut from her birthday greeting being delivered to the wrong stateroom to her husband being locked out on the balcony for three hours because the door latch jammed.

Last September, during a 14-night Alaska and Northwest sailing onboard Radiance of the Seas, their stateroom had a plumbing problem that ended up with sewage all over the bathroom that overflowed onto the room’s carpet. Even with cleaning, the room wasn’t acceptable. The Morans asked repeatedly to be moved to another stateroom, but was told the ship was full.

The couple did the best they could to cope. “We had to keep the balcony door open in 40-degree weather the entire cruise just so we could breathe and not smell the horrible odors,” says Brenda.

Then on the last night the couple received a letter from the ship’s hotel director apologizing for the inconvenience and offered the couple a 20 percent discount on their next cruise. The Morans felt that was fair compensation and went and booked their next cruise with the line.

When Brenda returned home she wrote her usual post-cruise review on Cruise Critic and posted notes on their forums that started vigorous feedback from fellow cruisers.

Two weeks after returning home, the Morans received a phone call from Bill Weeks, an executive assistant in customer service. Weeks apologized for the couple’s treatment and offered an additional $500 to their 20 percent discount, the Morans were very happy with the offer. Again, Brenda posted her experience with Weeks on Cruise Critic’s forums.

Some board members felt the Morans had complained their way to an unfair discount and posted their displeasure. They felt that the Morans were teaching others how to “scam” Royal Caribbean. Some went so far as to contact Royal Caribbean’s president and chief executive, Adam Goldstein to complain about the Morans getting any compensation at all.

A few weeks later the Morans received a phone call from a man named Sebastian who identified himself as Bill Weeks’ boss. Sebastian was unhappy that Brenda had posted a negative review and had shared the compensation information on Cruise Critic’s boards. He asked Brenda to take down her review “at once.” Brenda refused and cited her right to free speech.

The following day the Morans received another phone call from Sebastian stating the couple was banned forever from the cruise line. The Morans were stunned. They didn’t believe it was true until an official letter was delivered citing the ban. It also contained a $500 check — their additional promised cruise credit.

Royal Caribbean speaks
I contacted Michael Sheehan, Royal Caribbean’s associate vice president of corporate communications, to get the cruise line’s side of the story. Sheehan says since 2004, the Morans sailed six voyages with two of the company’s lines. “On all but one of those sailing the Morans felt there were a variety of service failures they experienced,” he said. “In a small number of cases we agreed and compensated them appropriately. In most cases, however, we disagreed. Having concluded that we are unable to meet the expectations of the Morans, we have told them that they would be best served by sailing with another company.”

Cruising the message boards
Royal Caribbean is certainly entitled to ban whomever from their ships. Nevertheless, to ban someone for posting their cruise experience on an Internet message board raises serious questions about the lengths the company is going to keep negative reviews from public consumption. When I asked Sheehan if Royal Caribbean has an official policy on asking negative posts to be removed from Internet forums, he denied there was a policy.

Still, Internet postings are on the mind of Royal Caribbean’s top executives. In an e-mail obtained by Tripso, one Celebrity executive cites Cruise Critic’s message boards. “They love finding fault with Azamara even when things go great,” the executive complains. “How do we get over that?”

It appears that one step the company is taking to “get over that” is to intimidate posters of negative reviews and in some cases even going so far as to contact the publishers. Paul Motter, editor of Cruise Mates, was contacted by a Royal Caribbean staffer last November to have a negative review removed or at least amended.

In the e-mail, the staffer tells him the issue with the customer was resolved and asks if he can “make changes” to the posting. Motter did not take down or amend the review.

I spoke with Laura Sterling, Cruise Critic’s chief board moderator. Sterling says in her 13 years of moderating she’s never been approached by a cruise line to remove a review. She adds, “It is our policy to not entertain requests to remove negative reviews, at the request of cruise lines or anyone else.”

I asked other cruise lines about their rules and most said they have no policy at all toward Internet posts. A Carnival spokesperson, Jennifer de la Cruz, says the line has never banned someone for posting negative reviews. But the company pays attention to online discussions. “As a company we do like to maintain a feel for what’s being discussed online,” she says. “The message boards are a great source of consumer feedback.”

Indeed, Internet feedback is a hot commodity. Last year, Carnival started its own online community with message boards along with cruise director, John Heald’s popular blog. Just two weeks ago, Royal Caribbean launched its own online community called RoyalConnect with message boards for past cruisers of the line.

So, what does all this mean for you? Simply put, when you post a cruise review on a Web site, your post is likely being read by someone at the cruise line. Most cruise lines welcome feedback, even Royal Caribbean.

But if you go too far don’t be surprised if you end up with an e-mail or phone call from the cruise line.

As for the Morans, it appears there was a light at the end of walking Royal Caribbean’s plank. They’ve discovered “Freestyle Cruising” on Norwegian Cruise Line. “They are so much better than Royal Caribbean,” says Brenda.

Sound off! Do you have a comment, an idea, a complaint or a problem for Anita to solve? Send her an e-mail and you might find yourself in her next column. And check out her blog, ExpertCruiser.com.

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