Monday, June 12, 2006

Promoters lure cruise dollars

Promoters lure cruise dollarsTwo South Florida companies have taken over job of steering passengers to port shops.

By SI LIBERMAN, Special To The Daily News
Sunday, June 11, 2006

Fanciful Disney images grace the cruise ship Disney Magic. Disney and other cruise lines use services of Onboard Media to offer shopping advice for passengers.
It used to be routine. Before arriving at a Caribbean island, in a scheduled lecture, the cruise director would recommend places to shop, dine, buy souvenirs or maybe even suggest a tour. For his referrals, an especially enterprising cruise director could expect to be rewarded monetarily, with merchandise or a free meal by the merchants.

Not anymore.

A couple of South Florida promotion companies, one of which is headed by a former Carnival cruise director, now handle the shopping lectures on most major cruise lines. Via live presentations, in-cabin TV and printed ads, they heavily promote merchant clients. And it's apparently a win-win situation for the cruise lines, promotion companies, merchants and perhaps even for some passengers.

The competing promotion companies — Panoff Publishing of Fort Lauderdale, headed by ex-cruise director Bill Panoff, and Onboard Media from Miami Beach — pay cruise lines for providing a cabin and lecture platform for employees and for onboard print and TV advertising privileges. The promotion companies are paid a flat fee and may get a percentage of sales from some of their clients, and passengers are assured of a conditional 30-day guarantee for repair or replacement of any unsatisfactory items.

Panoff Publishing, known as PPI Group, operates shopping guide and/or customized programs on Carnival, Holland America, P&O Cruises, Costa Cruises, Sea Dream Yacht Club, Windstar and Regent Seven Seas (formerly Radisson) cruise lines. Onboard runs comparable programs on Royal Caribbean, Celebrity, Crystal and Disney lines.

Norwegian Cruise Line, according to spokeswoman Susan Robison, uses its own personnel to promote and advertise portside shops, and charges merchants a fee, plus added fees tied to sales.

For the most part, the operations and merchandise guarantees are similar.

If there's a fly in the ointment, it's that passengers usually are not informed by shopping guide lecturers that they're paid to plug products and merchants. Captive audiences often are left with the impression that the speaker is a crew member and the merchants mentioned have been carefully scrutinized.

But if travelers read the fine print guarantee box behind the sads, they learn that participating merchants have paid an advertising fee and that the promotion companies — not the merchants — handle customer claims and complaints.

"Shop with confidence, knowing that all merchandise . . . have been carefully selected and each offers a 30-day guarantee to cruise line passengers," reads one Onboard Media guarantee box. "This guarantee ensures buyers that all recommended merchants will repair or replace any unsatisfactory item, excluding buyer's negligence or buyer's remorse. . . . Please inquire about individual store policies before finalizing any purchase."

Onboard Media authorities declined to answer questions about its operations. "Onboard Media does not wish to participate in this story," was the e-mailed response from executive assistant Cassie Barasch.

The company, founded in 1989, is a wholly owned subsidiary of the $17 billion a year Louis Vuitton, Moet Hennessy Co. French conglomerate.

Bill Panoff, 48, founded PPI Group in 1986 after eight years as a Carnival cruise director. Ten years later, he launched Porthole Cruise Magazine, serving as its publisher and editor-in-chief. It's a slick bimonthly publication, spotlighting exotic destinations and reviews of new cruise ships.

Speaking for Panoff, who was said to be traveling, Mitchell Pizik, PPI's vice president in charge of sales and marketing, explained, "We're a privately owned company with over 350 merchant clients around the world. We also produce in-cabin publications for cruise ships and magazine-type publications for other companies like Spirit Airlines, Fisher Island and KSL Resorts, among others.

"We get calls daily from passengers," PIzik said. "I wouldn't say they're all complaints. Maybe half pertain to the 30-day merchandise guarantee. Could be that it's just a question or that a stone fell out of a piece of jewelry and needs to be replaced. In the latter case, we'll act as the liaison between the passenger and merchant in arranging for a stone to be reinstalled. When you consider cruise ships carry millions of passengers, who are buying things, hearing from some daily isn't unusual.

"With regards to charges, cabins, etc., each of our cruise line contracts varies, depending on what was negotiated and all information in the contracts is confidential."

Shopping lecturers usually are recent college graduates with a gift for gab and yen for travel. Onboard trolls for candidates on the Internet, listing a detailed description of the job and its requirements.

"The primary function of a PSG (port shopping guide) onboard each ship," it notes, "is to promote shoreside duty-free stores contracted by Onboard Media. The promotion involves various presentations, including live and videotaped port and shopping talks. Most of the products promoted are luxury goods: gemstones, fine jewelry, Swiss watches, crystal, electronics, etc. During the port calls, the PSG meets with representatives from the contracted stores to monitor the effectiveness of their promotion and discuss strategies for future promotions."

Two major chains, Diamonds International and Columbian Emeralds International, have long held promotion and advertising contracts with PPI and Onboard. Diamonds International, a privately owned, New York-based company, operates 120 stores on Caribbean islands, in Alaska and Mexico, and Columbia Emeralds, a United Kingdom-based chain, has 60 outlets on 14 islands.

"They do a good job for us," said Dave Nanni, Diamonds International sales manager. "Besides their promotions, they act as a go-between, helping passengers with exchanges and refunds."
The Better Business Bureau for Southeast Florida and the Caribbean has had three complaints against Onboard Media and two against PPI, according to Al Polizzi, bureau spokesman. They involved guarantee and merchandise repair issues.

Both PPI complaints have been resolved, he said, as have two of Onboard Media's. As of mid-May, however, one Onboard Media complaint remained unsettled, Polizzi added.

Bottom line: Read and make sure you fully understand the 30-day merchandise guarantee. It does not provide for a refund if you have second thoughts about the item you bought. Most importantly, check with the store manager to learn the shop's return and refund policies before that purchase.

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