The Great Floating Wal-Mart

by francine Hardaway on October 4, 2006

The Great Floating Wal-Mart chugs idly through the Mediterranean, saving on fuel by proceeding one knot (1.12 nautical miles) an hour. For an entrepreneur-Type A like me, the speed of the cruise itself is intolerably slow. Today is a �day at sea,� which means a day of massages, spa treatments–cocktails of sunscreen and alcohol.

I much preferred being in the small outboard that took us out into the Blue Grotto, darting in and out among the caves and rock formations off the coast of Malta, showing us up close and personal how sandstone formations can be beautiful, especially against turquoise water.

Malta, like most places when you really get into them, is fascinating. It�s a country made up of three islands, and like most of Europe, it has been overrun by everybody from the Phoenicians to the Brits. The Brits were the last conquerors before Maltese independence happened in the 60s, and they left the islands with the dubious distinction of driving on the left.

But the previous conquerors left much more, including a tradition of native sandstone architecture, and a language half way between Arabic and French.

I have to be thankful to the GFWM, which has taken me to places I never would have chosen on my own, such as Naples, Sicily, and Malta. I just wish its marketing brochures were more truthful, because it promises a lot that it never delivers, including the lure of fine food, and the lure of being connected to the Internet and TV while on the sea. Branding, as everyone knows, creates a set of expectations. And if you don�t fulfill those expectations you damage the brand. For me, the Celebrity brand has been damaged big time by its failure to connect me with the Internet and its failure to connect my daughter to some athletic shore excursions.

Apparently, Celebrity Cruises has made a deal to outsource its network to a company called High Seas Internet, which provides connectivity to most of the cruise ships. About half way through the cruise, after I had complained about the slowness of the Internet connection, I was told that it is a 56k modem connecting to a satellite. The man who told me this was apologetic, and acted as if I should know that only a 56k speed is possible from a satellite.

Well, I have had both satellite TV and satellite Internet in the past, and have represented Hughes Direct when it first got into the business many years ago. I also know that in the 90s, dark fiber was laid under all the sea by companies enthusiastically trying to connect the world before they themselves went broke.

So I know that, for the same reasons that it chooses to travel at 1 knot per hour, Celebrity has chosen to connect at 56k, and then charge its guests $.75 a minute for service that is worthy of a third world country. But worse than that, the connection has been down almost half the time, due to hardware issues. These issues get resolved, and then mysteriously unresolved. In the mean time, I pay through the nose, trying to get on.

There is a market here: supplying people on cruise ships, who after all want to email their digital photos home no matter how old, infirm, drunk, or non-technical they are, with a good connection that can actually be used. Every time I�m in the Internet caf�, I see people coming in to complain about their Internet connection. We are an unsatisfied market.

Even no connection at all, and no promise of a connection, would be better than what we have. Then we would all get off the boat and trot dutifully off to an Internet caf� at each port, which I have done anyway so I don�t break my own bank.

So I think the worst part of the cruise is the disappointments: the endless flyers about spa treatments that cost $250 if you sign up for them in advance and are suddenly on sale for $89 on the ship after a week; the shore excursions that are carefully chosen by each guest and cancelled at the last minute if they don�t have enough signups; and the AcquaSpa, which doesn�t even have a place to swim.

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