Editor’s Note: Following our previous CEO interview series in online travelhospitality, and destinations, Skift has launched a new series, this time focused on Chief Marketing Officers.

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To better understand the big marketing challenges facing travel brands in an age when consumers are in control, Skift’s What Keeps CMOs Up at Night will talk with the leading voices in global marketing from across all the industry’s sectors.

These interviews with leaders of hotels, airlines, tourism boards, digital players, agents, tour operators and more will explore both shared and unique challenges they are facing, where they get insights, and how they best leverage digital insights to make smarter decisions.

This is the latest interview in the series.

Princess Cruises has a claim to fame that few cruise lines enjoy: a history that includes a long-running network television show (with a recognizable theme song).

The Love Boat debuted in 1977 and ran for about a decade, introducing viewers to Julie the cruise director, Capt. Stubing and several Princess Cruises ships. But the brand — part of giant Carnival Corporation — is trying to keep things exciting and new for today’s generation of cruisers.

Enter Gordon Ho, senior vice president of global marketing and North American sales. He joined Princess in 2013 after a career that included 18 years at Disney, where his last role was as executive vice president of worldwide marketing for the company’s home entertainment division.

Since Ho arrived, the line has launched an advertising campaign inviting passengers to “come back new” after their vacation; established partnerships with the Discovery Channel and celebrity chef Curtis Stone; sponsored content in Condé Nast Traveler identifying seven sites best seen by ship; and created a mobile site that lets users swipe through images to find a cruise that matches their preferences.

Ho spoke to Skift about forming new partnerships, launching a destination matchmaking tool, and making sure to tell the story of the dessert.

Skift: Can you just run down what some of your biggest successes have been in marketing, over the last year?

Ho: I know this sounds kind of broad, but insight-driven guest experiences in marketing. An example of that has been really getting to know our audience very well, both our current guests and prospective guests and really knowing what they’re looking for in their vacation experiences.

For example, in terms of culinary, we know that’s probably the fastest growing trend. Desires for culinary travel and experiencing local food drove our desire to create regional food menus on all of our ships and approach chefs like Curtis Stone, who happens to be one of the most popular chefs in Australia as well as being one of the top chefs here in the U.S.

The other example is Discovery At Sea. We found that more and more people love cruising but they wanted to have maybe more unique, more specialized shore excursions. Partnering with Discovery and Animal Planet, we launched Discovery and Animal Planet exclusive shore excursions. People could do a number of things that they can’t do with anybody else. That really creates this sense of meaningful travel. When you go around South America, we’re the only ones that can let you see the sloth sanctuary in Costa Rica.

[Guests] really want to interact and get into these immersive experiences, and that’s probably one of the biggest things I’m really proud of across the entire team of marketing [and] working with the guest experience team. Again, creating these extraordinary experiences, which of course leads to amazing satisfaction and then of course storytelling and shared content — the whole circle of content marketing, if you will.

Skift: And when you talk about insight-driven guest experience, where are those insights coming from? Is this part of consumer focus group testing? Where are you learning this information?

Ho: We probably did one of the most extensive cross-brand vacation studies across  Carnival Corp., combined with the fact that we have regular survey data that we pulse out to the group longitudinally every month. I would say over the course of this year, we’re going to do a hundred specific insight surveys to our guests asking them about particular product offerings, experiences that they’ve had, things that they want. That ranges from a massive consumer study to individual product studies that we are doing specifically against Princess guests and prospective guests that are driving these insights, which are turned into marketing action and guest experience development.

Skift: What would you say are some failures or challenges that you’ve learned from over the past year?

Ho: We always have so many inventions. We’ve had regular brainstorms together between the marketing and guest experience team and other teams within the commercial side, and we have a list of a number of missions that we want to get at.

I think what we’ve realized is that maybe sometimes we bite off more than we can execute. I think probably it’s this realization that as we try to do these guest experiences and marketing programs across all of our ships, across the fleet being implemented to our wonderful crew, there’s so much for them to learn and do it’s important for us to remember to keep things simple, keep things prioritized.

Part of it is this understanding that as we implement our experiences across the fleet it’s really realizing that down to the end detail of how we share these stories all the way to each passenger takes a certain amount of rigor.  I think what we have realized is that we learn just like a startup: We fail fast, we course correct. That’s what I’m really proud of is that with these mistakes we said “Boy, now everybody knows that story, how do we course correct along the way?”

Skift: What keeps you up at night when it comes to marketing at Princess?

Ho: What keeps me up at night? Well I think part of it is really assessing attribution and really figuring out are we doing all the right things. The most important things are going to drive our business forward, because we have so many things that we can be doing. Our job is to constantly try new things and to course correct so that we can deliver the highest ROI.

What keeps me up at night is just wondering, boy should we have done this or we didn’t have a chance to do this this week or this month. It’s realizing it’s OK, we have to prioritize, but there’s always that notion that we could be doing more. As we know in marketing, there’s just so much more that is coming our way to be done. In the area of digital and social alone, there’s been an explosion of opportunities for us to try.

Skift: What is working the best for you in social media? I don’t want to just confine that to Facebook and Instagram. But in this social space, what’s working the best for you guys?

Ho: I think we’re trying all of them and we’re seeing success in all the different channels. I would say Facebook has been a great partner for us and when you look at what Facebook does for promoted posts, video sequencing … have all done extraordinarily well for us in generating leads and potential customers.

YouTube, with the continued rise of video, videos making up so much of the content that is now of course what people access. I think YouTube has done a great job and been a great partner for us in terms of us educating people about the experiences they will have on a Princess Cruise vacation, as well as educating them from how to even pack for a cruise or how to prepare for a cruise. So many people now are using YouTube to help them have a more informed vacation, whether you choose a Princess Cruise or then figure out how to prepare for it. YouTube has become such an invaluable source of information for us and for our guests.

Skift: You guys recently introduced Places To Sea, which is a swipe-to-like tool. I know some people kind of jokingly compare it to Tinder, and I don’t know if that comparison was intentional and kind of tongue-in-cheek. But how and why did you introduce that, and what’s the purpose?

Ho: The reason that came about was quite frankly so much of the way people choose vacations is by destination. Where do we want to go? So we thought, why not make this a much more interactive, fun way to look at potential destinations. By doing so, we actually got people to think about cruising as a way to get to the destination that otherwise may not have thought so. The idea of swiping left, right is something simple and fun. For those who use Tinder, obviously they get it, or similar apps.

Its a nice, modern, easy way for them to cruise types of destination offerings, and I think the surprise and delight moment is that, “Wow I didn’t know this could be done on a cruise vacation,” whether it’s on a Mediterranean cruise or a Panama Canal cruise, or an Alaska cruise.

Skift: I think the idea behind the Seven Cruise Wonders campaign was similar. It was: Here are destinations that are great to visit via cruise. Can you talk a little bit about the back story of that? I’m not sure if it was purely an advertorial product with Condé Nast Traveler, or how it came about and how you felt like it performed for you.

Ho: Yeah, the Seven Cruise Wonders is a good example. Basically, the insight was very simple. It was that a lot of people will go on that one cruise. I think a lot of these great destinations like Alaska — people have heard of Alaska, they want to go to Alaska. That’s one of the things that they will do as a cruise because they’ve heard the Alaska cruise is the best way to see Alaska. But there’s a number of people who are one-and-doners. They might go to Alaska or another destination, and they don’t go on another cruise. There’s a large percentage of people who do that.

What we found out through our insights is that they said “Well we went to Alaska, we had a great time, but we did it as a cruise because that was the best and only way to see Alaska is what we’ve been told.” So what we said is “Well wait a minute, did you know there’s other places like Alaska, for example, that are best seen by cruise ship?” That was the insight which led to the idea of Seven Cruise Wonders of the World. What are those vacations that are best seen by cruise and by ocean? That lead to it.

Quite frankly, the partnership with Condé Nast is because the order to add authenticity, to help us spread the word about this idea. Condé Nast thought it was a wonderful idea and they had brought in one of their writers to help identify what are some of these cruise wonder vacations that, quite frankly, are amazing best seen by ocean. Now that we have that content, it is proving to be a wonderful platform. Whether it’s across YouTube or our website or our advertising, to promote this concept like, hey there are seven vacations you must do in your lifetime that have to be on a cruise ship. It’s worked great for us. We’ve seen a lot of people searching on it, whether it’s on Google, they’ve heard about this idea. They’re searching on it, they’re finding it on our website.

It’s increasing the number of people who are looking at these cruise vacations that contain one of these cruise wonders of the world. We’re able to label it in our brochures. We’re able to label it on our website. It’s really creating this thought-provoking look at certain destinations that they may not have considered as something that they need to do by cruise. It’s worked wonderfully in that regard.

Skift: Was this all branded content in advertisement that Princess paid for, or was it a real editorial project that you benefited from? Does that make sense?

Ho: It was definitely branded Princess and Condé Nast so it was an advertorial that their writer wrote from a pure editorial standpoint, but clearly we sponsored it. We were able to then augment that content through our distribution channels.

Skift: With Princess, that was your first entry into the cruise world professionally. So, 18 years at Disney, even though it wasn’t on their travel side…obviously Disney is well respected in marketing, in all of their segments. What do you think about your time their has been relevant to your work at Princess?

Ho: A few areas. I think one is within Disney there was a constant focus on exceptional content and experiences, and that’s what we’re striving for here because we have a belief that someone who has a great experience on their vacation, they’ll talk about it, and they’ll bring new cruisers to us. That’s why were spending so much time with this Discovery At Sea, using the Animal Planet shore excursions, the Curtis Stone culinary, or Stephen Schwartz and [the musical] Magic To Do; the composer of Wicked is now creating his next four musicals exclusively for Princess.

Those guest experiences together will likely get someone to say, “Oh my goodness, that was the best vacation I’ve ever had,” they proceed to tell 20 of their friends, that brings new cruisers.

When we launched DVD and then Blu-ray what we found is that people were blown away by their experience with their first DVD. Whether it was Lion King or maybe it was Lost on DVD that we worked on, it was creating a product that exceeded their expectations such that they were just blown away whether its Easter eggs or value added content. Just something that they didn’t think they could bring into their home, and that’s what drove that category, and it became huge.

I think people, when they go on a cruise, they realize oh my goodness: Beyond the experiences, whatever it may be — whether it’s star gazing, or trying a Curtis Stone meal, or going on and seeing the sloth sanctuary in Costa Rica — I think the one magical experience that people often forget is meeting new people. When you go on vacation, most people say “Oh it was great,” rarely do they say they really met and made some new friends. One of the things we found is that once they get out of the cruise and in particular Princess, they tend to walk home with some new friends that they’ve met, whether its at dinner or seeing something. What we found is that is probably the greatest predictor of someone saying that was a great, happy vacation.

I think the human element of connecting is what we inherently enjoy to do. People want to experience local culture, they want to meet local people. They want to learn. I think that’s what were finding and cruise enables that to happen, not only at the local port, because they can again meet the people who take care of the sloths in the sloth sanctuary, and that’s a great story, but they meet other interested people on the ship as they’re getting there. That’s what makes the vacation so awesome when they go on a Princess cruise.

The other thing I’ll mention about Disney that I really appreciate is that I spent a lot of time on expanding Disney overseas in China and so forth and that has proven to be very, very timely and helpful for me as we expand in Asia. China of course is probably the biggest growth opportunity for us in cruise. I think having spent time in China has been immensely helpful.

A third thing would just be the idea of personalized marketing. At Disney we created the Disney Movie Rewards which is the entertainment industry’s biggest loyalty program. It allowed us to do a lot of one-to-one communications with our guests.

Princess has such a very strong relationship with its guests — our database, our CRM system — and that is going to prove to be a competitive point of difference as we try to make our messaging and our experiences that much more personalized and relevant. In this day and age of big data, it’s being able to harness that data for personalization that is going to provide the competitive point of difference for companies like Princess.

Skift: I know that Princess has its place in pop culture history, thanks to the Love Boat, but obviously, that’s history. It’s not modern ages. How is the brand defining itself at this moment in time, especially since it’s not in a category that’s competing as a low-price leader?

Ho: Princess, we believe, is one of the top-tier premium cruise lines. If you look at our experience as what we do, our ad campaign is “Come Back New.” We use that as a mantra for all of us, shore-side and ship-side to say we are trying to bring experiences that people will say, “I learned something different, I tried a new wine, I experienced a new shore excursion in Alaska that wasn’t available elsewhere, I made a new friend.” It’s all these new experiences that people have aboard, so what we like to say is that we are really trying to provide these amazing destionational experiences that help satisfy the curious mind that people have, that our guests have.

Our end goal is for them to come home and say, “Wow, I did come back new,” in the sense that they really experienced something they’d never thought they would. That’s what enables us to continue to innovate, because we’re always trying to figure out are we delivering the best regional cuisine, are we offering the shore excursions that are tapping into what people want to see? Areas like culinary, cultural, etc. are what people are clamoring for and our goal is to provide them those opportunities on a Princess cruise.
In terms of just summarizing it all in terms of positioning, we basically say we’re the number one choice for the meaningful traveler. Most people want meaningful vacations and those learning moments that can happen, whether it’s by yourself, with friends, with family and loved ones. Its working, we are seeing wonderful numbers

Over the course of the last year we were number one in our earned media generated. We keep track of earned media stories and PR and we have like a 98% positive sentiment.

All the things that we’re working towards in terms of experiences we’re providing, the stories that are being generated by our guests and by our marketing teams — there seems to be a great, perfect storm of positivity that we’re so proud of. It seems to be carrying us forward through this year and hopefully well into the next few years.

This series is presented by Boxever. The Skift content team maintains complete editorial control over these interviews and the selection of subjects.

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