Marketing Post-COVID: Gordon Ho, Chief Marketing Officer, Princess Cruises

Brian Erickson:
Thanks for joining the Cardwell Beach marketing podcast. My name is Brian Erickson, chief strategy officer and partner at Cardwell Beach. In this series, we’re interviewing senior marketers across industries to develop perspective on what marketing will look like in a post COVID-19 world.

Brian Erickson:
Today’s guest is Gordon Ho the chief marketing officer for Princess Cruises, one of the world’s leading cruise lines. Prior to joining Princess Gordon was an executive vice president at the Walt Disney company and a startup founder. Gordon, thanks so much for joining us today.

Gordon Ho:
Glad to be here. Thanks, Brian.

Brian Erickson:
So Gordon, obviously it’s been a tough few months for the travel industry with COVID-19 from cruises, to airlines, to hotels. Really all recreational travel has been shut down. I imagine this was not something that you had planned for or anticipated, but I guess as CMO at Princess, were there any contingency plans in place or was this level of disruption truly unprecedented?

Gordon Ho:
Well, we do have emergency response plans. We do lots of drills. We have real situations that arise that we prepare for, but as you suggested, I don’t think anyone could have predicted the COVID-19 crisis and its widespread implications and how it impacted business throughout the world.

Brian Erickson:
Of course. So you had probably the whole world’s attention at a certain point in time with some of what was going on. How did you deal with that attention and what was that like in the moment, on the ground, as it was going down?

Gordon Ho:
I think the most important priority for Princess, and I think for so many companies around the world, for us it was really the safety and health of our guests and crew. So during this crisis, as our crisis began in early February in Japan with Diamond Princess, we stood up our emergency response teams, making sure across all the different channels, be it medical, maritime, supply chain, our port operations, communications, that we were all working together and that we had teams to support the care efforts that were taking place on the ship. And then later off the ship.

Gordon Ho:
And I think that, for us, and particularly within marketing and communications, it was important for us to do as much as we can to communicate continually as much information as we gathered to keep our guests informed, to keep our guests and crew cared for. And that not only included updates on the situation as they unfolded, but to also provide care, and in some cases, some elements of entertainment and wellbeing, where we could, and that was done through our in room video channels, through the announcements we’ve done, through even the food deliveries that our brave crew were delivering all throughout. Everything we did was really the best efforts on our part together with the Japanese Ministry of Health, for example, in providing the best care that we could for our guests and crew.

Brian Erickson:
Absolutely. I’m sure that was not an easy time. I’m sure at this point you’re looking forward to hopefully return into some sense of normalcy. What safety measures and contingency plans have come into place as you’re moving forward and how are you planning on communicating these to some of the key audiences? I’m sure internally there’s a lot of communication that has to happen as well.

Gordon Ho:
Yeah. We’re continually working on our revised onboard procedures, our health protocols, but I will say that we’ve done some initial communications of our health protocols through our crews with confidence communications, which are on our website, that lists out the different areas that we’re focusing on.

Gordon Ho:
For example, before guests will come to the terminal, there’s a number of steps and preparations we are doing with the guests in terms of making sure that people who go to the terminals are healthy and understand the procedures, to the terminal itself, what we’re doing to sanitize and ensure screening procedures, and of course onboard the ship in terms of how we’re making sure that from a sanitization standpoint, from a guest care standpoint, grew our medical facilities on board, to everything that we’re doing in terms of the revised guest experience. Those are things that we’re communicating and we’ll continue to revise and update as we eventually resume sailing.

Gordon Ho:
One of the things that we have done to make it easy for guests to understand cruising in the future, and vacations in the future with Princess, is creating infographics. So we’re trying to make it very simple and understandable for guests to understand what are the protocols that we’ve developed, and are developing for the future, in addition, what we are asking guests to be aware of. In terms of safe traveling, there are lots of tips that we’ve adopted and created using protocols from the CDC and WHO. So those are being developed to make sure that the guests can play their part in safe, healthy cruising.

Brian Erickson:
In this time when so many of us are desperate for entertainment and a sense of relief and a sense of social connection, how do entertainment brands, cruises included, match their marketing to meet those needs in your perspective?

Gordon Ho:
Yeah. Good question. I think the essential goal for marketers is to really help ensure that guests get the information, entertainment and experiences they want. For example, while guests can’t cruise right now, we know that through speaking with them, they really want information about not only our health protocols, but our ships and crew, how are they doing, latest information on Princess experiences.

Gordon Ho:
So, for example, in our case, we’ve created Princess at home, a digital newsletter featuring our crew. For example, they’ve done videos, sharing music, magic shows, yoga instructions, destination cams. So guests can virtually visit places that they are looking forward to in the future, even menu and drink recipes from our partners like Curtis Stone and Rob Floyd, and even sleep tips from our sleep doctor, Michael Breus. All of these experiences reinforce this expression that we’ve heard. Content, and I would say more broadly content experiences, are king. It’s about ensuring that we can deliver these experiences to our customers at home on the appropriate platforms.

Brian Erickson:
So that’s a pretty big ask, kind of turn on a dime and create. How was that experience launching that? And what advice would you give to folks that are trying to recreate maybe an in person experience or to supplement that in these sort of times?

Gordon Ho:
Yeah, I think it’s really incumbent upon them having a great team and great partners who were all vested together ultimately in providing value and information and experiences to our guests. And I think that’s the unifying principle that grounds us all. And that allowed us to stand this up rather quickly, in terms of this Princess at home digital experiences that we’re sending.

Gordon Ho:
I think for anybody it’s similar, it’s like having this common goal. In our case, we had insights that said our guests wanted it. And so very clearly we were all unified that said, “This is what our guests want, and this is what our guests are looking forward to.” And then it was just enabling the folks through a process and really teamwork and allowing this to happen. I think anybody can do it. And I think I’ve seen other people do forms of this. This could take place through social platforms, web platforms, email platforms. I think the key is just to find the collaboration and the partners to create that content and get it out there.

Brian Erickson:
It really is about creating a sense of community. And it’s about understanding, from your perspective as a marketer, that that is the value that you’re providing to people, whether it’s on a cruise ship or at home. So I guess, do you feel that communal entertainment is going to come roaring back? Let’s say in the in-person sense, because people are hungry for connection, or do you think it’s going to kind of take place a little bit more gradually and scale up over time?

Gordon Ho:
I think people are hungry for connections and community. It makes us who we are. We know that happiness and contentment for most of us, it really comes from strong social connections. And that’s why I think cruise has always been one of the highest rated vacations that people take because of the connections that it enables.

Gordon Ho:
So I think moving forward, whether it’s a sporting event, a restaurant, or even a cruise, I do think these communal experiences will come back, particularly if we can instill confidence in the health and safety of our guests. At the same time, I think we have to realize that folks have discovered connections at home, whether it’s Zoom happy hours or communal games, there’s so many things that they’ve now become adept at at home. Now, I think that’s why ultimately some of them can’t wait to get out of home to enjoy communal experiences, but ultimately it’s going to be incumbent upon us to make sure that what we deliver as these communal experiences are compelling enough and entertaining enough that people will do it. And that’s always been the case, and I think it’s more important than ever.

Brian Erickson:
Absolutely. And Zoom happy hours are great, but what I would really love to see from Princess is the Zoom midnight buffet, I could definitely get on board with that.

Gordon Ho:
Well, I think it’s interesting you mention that, because I think what’s happening as we’ve provided guests with food recipes, drink recipes, various tools for them to stay connected with us, we’ve had guests create virtual cruise experiences at home. I don’t know if anyone’s done the midnight buffet per se, but I think there’s people who’ve created culinary experiences and other things at home. People are being very creative. And I think this is just a testament that a number of people just can’t wait to enjoy a cruise in the near future.

Brian Erickson:
I’m sure everyone is antsy to get back out there. So if you could go back to the moment where you realized that this was actually happening, and this was going down and you could give yourself one piece of advice, what would you say to yourself?

Gordon Ho:
Yeah, that’s a great question. It takes a team, it takes a village, to provide the ability to be flexible, to deal with the crisis management that we’ve all had to do. Certainly a spirit of resilience, empathy. I mean, who would have thought that our entire workforce, right now we’re largely working from home. So it’s being empathetic to the conditions and how everyone is giving it their all. Those are some things that I think we’ve employed quite well.

Gordon Ho:
But I think that there’s no question empathy for our fellow employees, empathy for our crews, and empathy for our guests in terms of this challenging and unprecedented time that we’re going through. I would encourage all of us, and I would remind myself that, that’s what we need more than ever to get through this. And I think we’re doing a very good job, but it continues.

Brian Erickson:
It’s not an easy thing. I mean, you’re not suffering, or other people aren’t suffering, who have to remember to be empathetic. You’re being empathetic through that suffering and it takes a lot of discipline.

Gordon Ho:
Yeah, I agree. I mean, it does take discipline. I think that patience, positivity, all of these things have played such a critical role as we try to navigate this crisis.

Gordon Ho:
I’ll give you an example. We started a hashtag called “hang in there Diamond Princess.” It was actually trending in Japan and we adopted it globally to allow people around the world to express their support for the crew and passengers aboard Diamond Princess. And I think it really made a difference. We saw even the people on board start using it as they started sharing their stories of compassion and support for each other. And I think that the human spirit and what people do to support each other, it’s really remarkable. And you really saw the best of that come through during times of crisis like this.

Brian Erickson:
Mm-hmm (affirmative). There is always a silver lining if you look hard enough for it.

Gordon Ho:
Yeah. I think you’ll see that everywhere. I think more than ever, if you look at even as something as simple as the US postal service. Maybe we took for granted that the mail came to our house and homes every day, but now that we’re home, I think we have this new found appreciation and empathy for the postal carrier. I think the postal service is now at a 92, 93% favorable rating, an all time high, because we now have this new found appreciation, because we’re actually seeing this person come to our door, and it’s a face. Some of us may have already known them, but I think more of us now, more so than ever. And I think it’s those moments of compassion that we see for the people that are delivering valuable services, valuable content, valuable experiences, that we all crave during this challenging time.

Brian Erickson:
Yeah, it really is an act of courage. To show up to work every day in a job where you didn’t really sign up to have to be courageous initially, in that sense at least, to keep things going. So it really is amazing how the healthcare heroes and everyone else who is an essential worker has stepped up. Definitely agree it’s important to be empathetic to folks more than it ever has been.

Brian Erickson:
I guess I would ask, are we going to be able to carry some of this forward? What’s going to come next? Because I think we can all agree that the world has forever changed, but what is that going to look like do you think?

Gordon Ho:
Yeah, I think that’s a great question. I think we have to take it day by day, monitoring the situation. I think there’s no question, based on our research and insights, we do know that our guests, you just look at your neighbors and friends, people want to be able to try to return back to the normal or new normal. I think that slowly but surely that’s happening.

Gordon Ho:
But I think what we can take away about what comes next is that certainly all of us at home has gotten more adept at work from home technologies, other elements of being at home, whether you’re being more exposed to delivery services for food, cooking at home, being entertained at home. And I think while some people, again, can’t wait to not do those things and resume maybe what they normally do. I think others may have become accustomed to it.

Gordon Ho:
And so I think for all of us, there could very well be a higher bar of like, “Hey, I can do a lot of this stuff at home.” For those of us who are offering services that may be, are predominantly out of home we are going to have to more than ever focus on those unique experiences and providing that exceptional value to our guests and customers.

Gordon Ho:
For some people now money’s tighter than ever. And so the value equation becomes that much more important. We’ve always known this, but I think there’s going to be potentially a new bar about those choices that people make as they’ve been exposed to a whole new suite of services due to the last few months of being at home. And I think that’s going to be part of the new normal, and I think everyone’s going to have to bring their A-game as they always do. And the focus on experiences and communications and marketing is going to be tighter than ever before.

Brian Erickson:
Definitely a new normal. What does that new normal look like with respect to the travel industry specifically, and within the travel industry, messaging and marketing communications? How do you think the way that you’re going to connect with customers and relay your value proposition is going to change?

Gordon Ho:
Well, I think that table stakes, if you will, is going to be until there’s a vaccine, is my prediction. It will be about ensuring the safety, wellbeing, and confidence of our guests. That’s going to have to be a baseline. And following that, I think for us in terms of travel, it’s communicating the experiences, the new normal future experiences that will be offered in travel on cruise ships and so forth. And I think in many ways they’ll be reframed because some things will be different, other things will be same. I think it’s going to be up to the marketers and communicators to find ways to describe them accurately, but also to frame them in a way so guests can appreciate, “Yeah, things are different, but in some ways they can be better.” Different can be better in many cases. Things will have to change during the transition. And I think everyone should be up to that.

Brian Erickson:
Have you seen any of the coronavirus ad mashups on YouTube where they take like the first couple seconds of 10 or 20 different ads and say, “We’re all in this together. Together at home.” If feel like I talk about this all the time, but the point that they’re trying to illustrate is that a lot of the marketing messaging that we’re seeing across industries, at least on a consumer level, is very similar and undifferentiated. How do you toe that line and differentiate while still being empathetic and not going too far in the other direction?

Gordon Ho:
Well, I think part of the reasons why maybe there’s some commonality is right now, again, as we talk, I need to show compassion and empathy because being sold to in a very hard way, I think most marketers most delivers a product and companies would say, “That’s not appropriate right now in light of the situation we’re in.” But I think in terms of how you be unique and differentiated, I think everyone has to look at what they uniquely offer, whether it’s sporting events, how they do it in different ways as they come back in the business. And I think some of them have turned to e-gaming and e-sports, or other ways of showing sports.

Gordon Ho:
In the case, for example, of travel and vacations as I mentioned, Princess has adopted this idea of Princess at home, being able to have guests virtually experience elements of what they love about Princess, hearing from the crew, what are they doing, how are they preparing for resuming of service, being entertained by our crew and our partners so that they can recreate the Princess experience in some form at home. And I think every travel company, every vacation company in some form can do that. And they just have to dig deep and find out what’s unique about what we have either through location or services and find a way to deliver it.

Brian Erickson:
Yeah. It really does come down to reflecting and looking inward. And reevaluating, “Okay, how does my core position and my core consumer insight handle this specific situation. It’s not that you have to change necessarily, but you have to just see what’s true to you about the situation.

Gordon Ho:
Yeah, exactly. And I think it’s also utilizing the community and customers you’ve already fostered. The community of guests, whether they’re Princess guests, or the community of folks from other companies, or other vacation company, they’re strong and hopefully they’re loyal. And in many ways they may foster a sense of shared experiences about, a, what are you doing during the time when you can’t cruise? And it’s amazing what people are doing to share their tips, what they’re looking forward to, even their past vacation experiences and memories, and all of that lends itself for people to share.

Gordon Ho:
We’ve seen cases where people said, “Oh my goodness, I never went there. What was that like?” And so you’re facilitating the communications, but they’re also a future anticipation of a vacation that will come hopefully in the near future. And I think beyond how we all try to figure out how we convey our experiences in this when we can’t sail, I think a lot of what all of us, as marketers, try to do is how we can facilitate the community to support each other, care for each other, but also dream together when things start to resume back to the new normal.

Brian Erickson:
Yeah. It’s important to have that forward looking aspect. Another forward looking question, but a little more zoomed in on the tactical aspect of marketing, how do you see just from a marketing mix standpoint, things changing, if at all, for the next six months to two years, as we come out of this, hopefully and recovered, do you think there will be a different way that budgets are allocated and sliced? Or, do you think certain tactics will come into the spotlight a little bit more than they had previously?

Gordon Ho:
Yeah, that’s a good question. Time will tell. I think marketers have always been and continue to be driven by ROI. So I think that day by day, week by week, marketers are going to say what is working, what is not working. And also of course, beyond just what’s working, it’s being sensitive to the receptivity of guests and their customers, to different messages, different types of content. So I think this is going to be very dynamic as we move forward.

Gordon Ho:
I think it’s premature for me to predict, tactically, what is going to shift because for any given marketer, for any given company, I think it is going to shift based on what they find is more effective. I think, for now, many companies who maybe aren’t able to travel or who aren’t able to deliver their services or have significantly lower volume of guests or revenue, clearly we’ve taken an approach of being very prudent with any investments of our costs. So I think you’ve seen that change dramatically now. And I think there will be a resumption of these types of services, but again, all based on test and learn as we resume our services and our offerings.

Brian Erickson:
So maybe not so much of a tactical shift as a sharpening of the pencil and a little bit more attention to return on investment.

Gordon Ho:
Absolutely. I think that’s always been the case and I don’t think we should take for granted, “Hey, we did this before. Let’s do it again.” I think so many people now are zero basing their plans and their go forward business. And I think that’s prudent.

Brian Erickson:
So Gordon, who do you see as the big winners coming out of this and who’s going to struggle and why do you think that is?

Gordon Ho:
Well, I think we’ve all kind of greed. There’s going to be some new winners that are providing valuable services and content. You know, Zoom clearly has become a household name, Netflix, Disney+, other direct to consumer streaming services have done well. And I already mentioned the US postal service where we now, more than ever, appreciate getting the daily mail that gets to our home and the person behind that that makes it happen.

Gordon Ho:
Princess. I made reference to our Princess at home content that we are delivering to guests so they can virtually experience some elements of cruise while they’re home, as they wait for cruises to resume. But I think the other big winners that are going to come out of this are those who really, really took care of their guests in some exceptional ways, or really tried to provide care.

Brian Erickson:
So having navigated the COVID-19 pandemic so far, pretty much in the hottest of hot seats, what is one piece of advice that you would give to those industries? Let’s say travel, restaurants, hospitality, events, that have been hit most hard by this virus.

Gordon Ho:
That’s a good question. Maybe there’s two tips. I think one is you’ve worked hard to build equity with your guests. And I think now more than ever, hopefully you’ve maintained that equity through communications and finding new ways of delivering value and content to your guests because they’re going to be the first to come back. And I think it’s more important when you say, “Hey, establishing this connection to your loyal guests and past guests.” It’s going to be the base of where we resumed back to service, I think for all of us.

Gordon Ho:
And then number two, as I mentioned before, because all of us have been exposed to a new set of experiences at home, or many of us have been exposed to a new set of experiences at home, whether it’s because of necessity or other reason, again, I think the bar is higher. So my piece of advice is don’t take anything for granted. Look at the new landscape, look at the new environment you are resuming service into, and make sure that the offerings you have, the experiences you have, are delivering that extraordinary value that your guests want and are willing to provide their time and money for it. Because more than ever, they have lots of options. Don’t forget that value equation and the idea that you have to deliver exceptional, unique experiences. And that’s what made them your customer in the first place and your guests in the first place. And I think you may have to re-examine and continually look at that as we resume service.

Brian Erickson:
Reflection and back to basics, right, on all fronts.

Gordon Ho:
Yeah. And I think the basics of what we’ve all made our brand on, I think that core is always there, but the specific tactics, and maybe even the experiences that we offer, may vary moving forward. And so I think we just have to take stock and make sure is this on brand and is this highly valued by our guests? Because they ultimately are the decision makers. They ultimately control how they spend their time. And we should never take that for granted.

Brian Erickson:
That is an evergreen approach. I definitely agree. Well, Gordon, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us today. I really appreciate it.

Gordon Ho:
You’re welcome, Brian. Really enjoyed it. Thank you.

Brian Erickson:
Great. Well make sure to look Gordon Ho of Princess Cruise Lines up on social media and follow some of the other great content that he’s putting out. This is Brian Erickson with Cardwell Beach. Thanks again for listening. And please make sure to check back for more senior marketers sharing their perspective on what marketing will look like in the post COVID-19 world.

Sign up to receive our weekly marketing advice.

Share This