It's not unusual for Frank Del Rio, outgoing president and CEO of Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings, Ltd., to get a rise out of his audience, but at last month's Seatrade Cruise Global conference, he also got me thinking.
"Customers pay, guests don't," he said in response to the cruise industry's insistence on referring to cruisers as guests.
It's not something I'd ever given any thought to. It's standard practice in hospitality to refer to visitors as guests. There's an implication that these "guests" should feel at home during their stay, whether in a hotel or on a cruise ship.
While the other executives on the panel with Del Rio laughed at the comment, it was clear they weren't really onboard, persisting in using the term guest (or sometimes client), only referring to customers in a "whatever you want to call them" offhand manner.
In a totally unscientific poll, I asked seven travel advisors where they weighed in on the question: are cruisers guests or customers?
Unsurprisingly, the term "guest" beat out "customer," with most saying the term "customer" is too transactional.
"A customer completes a transaction and moves on, while a guest enjoys their time with you," one advisor said.
Another said, "The term customer is best used when referring to a transactional experience where a purchase is made at the point of reference. The term guest is best used when referring to a relational experience, where the purchase is separate from the point of reference, and is often ongoing and multi-faceted."
And a third explained, "My feeling is that, in life in general, we show more hospitality to guests than to clients… in the hospitality industry we take care of our clients as if they are guests, even though they are paying."
"Guests are welcomed visitors for whom you do anything to make comfortable and you make sure the guests have a remarkable experience, like a guest in your home," echoed another.
Another advisor went with a little of both, telling me he sees his cruise clients as customers of the cruise line, but considers them his guests/clients.
The more I've thought about it, approaching it both as a cruiser myself and as if I were an advisor, with cruising clients, the more I find myself agreeing with Del Rio.
And, not only because technically, a paying cruiser can't, by definition, be a guest.
When a customer makes a purchase – the Cambridge Dictionary definition of customer is "a person who buys goods or a service" – there are certain implications of what's included, and that includes the customer service that comes with the purchase.
Speaking for myself, as a customer (specifically an American customer) of a cruise line, I expect to be treated with a "the customer is always right" attitude. I expect all the rules of American-style customer service to apply: everything that was promised delivered in a friendly, timely manner.
I don't believe the same can be said of a guest. I'd be a very entitled guest if I expected the same from friends who invited me over for dinner and let me crash at their house.
And while, of course, if I were an advisor I'd want my clients to be treated as graciously as guests usually are, it would be just as important to me that they get what they paid for.
As a customer of the cruise lines, the lines are in a position of obligation. They've received money, now they must deliver on the goods and services purchased.
And, let's be clear, cruisers are purchasing both goods and services when they make a cruise booking. That "guest-style" service that's implied when the cruise lines refer to cruisers as guests, that's part of what cruisers are paying for – especially at the higher end of the cruise market.
Yes, the term "customer" is colder, less personal than "guest," and maybe referring to cruisers as "customers" in marketing doesn't work – "Be our customer" probably isn't going to entice anyone onboard!
Perhaps, ultimately, as one advisor and I agreed after she shared that she's having some issues with a group she's currently sailing with: Cruisers are guests when everything is going smoothly. As soon as something's wrong, those same cruisers become customers who expect the cruise line do right by them.
What do you think? Email me at email@example.com and let me know where you stand on the guest vs. customer question.