Cruise ships promote onshore shops -- for a price

Posted: Thursday, September 27, 2001

SKAGWAY -- When cruise ship passenger Evonne Yfantis attended an on-board lecture listing ''recommended'' shops in Skagway, she had no idea the shops had paid for the exposure.

Yfantis, of Oakland, Calif., said the lecturer on board Royal Caribbean's Rhapsody of the Seas, a woman named Vicki, never mentioned that Skagway businesses had paid to be included in the lectures, which are taped and broadcast on televisions in each passenger cabin.

Yfantis is not alone. Over three days in August and September, the Skagway News surveyed 410 cruise passengers who had listened to a lecture or picked up a brochure on recommended shops. More than three-fourths of the visitors didn't know the businesses had paid to be in the lectures and brochures.

The practice continues to stir emotion among nonparticipating Skagway merchants, who say they lose business because of the lack of disclosure.

''People are very influenced by what they hear on board,'' said Skagway resident Allison Wilson, who worked aboard Princess cruise ships for 10 years and sold shore excursions in Alaska until 1994. ''I fought against it on board. There's no discrimination. They don't pick the best stores. They pick the stores that will pay the money.''

A 1994 Alaska statute says cruise ships must ''clearly and fully disclose'' so a ''reasonable person'' can determine the recommendation is paid, said Ed Sniffen, assistant attorney general.

Yfantis said she and the other passengers suspected links between the cruise lines and the merchants but were unsure.

''We were all saying that the ships must have part ownership of the shops in town,'' Yfantis joked. ''One guy saw her (the lecturer) outside a shop and told her to go collect her commission.''

''It is in the script,'' said Al Parrish, vice president of government and community relations for Holland America Line Westours, of the disclosure. ''I don't know what else we can do.''

Sea Princess shopping guide Tony Fletcher said he informs passengers in the introduction of his lecture that the promotion is paid. Fletcher said he does so the first day at sea. Princess brochures also state on an included Skagway map that the promotion is paid.

Fewer than one-third of the 61 Princess passengers surveyed by the Skagway News realized businesses paid to be in the lecture.

Onboard Media, a Florida-based company, is contracted by the major cruise lines to present shopping lectures and publish shopping brochures, Fletcher said. Onboard Media representative David Mardini said each store provides a script and sample merchandise for the lecture portion and is included in a brochure.

The manager of Distinctive Gemstones in Skagway, Cara Cosgrove, said an Onboard Media representative estimated the program would cost the store $20,000 per year. She and owner Randy Shumate elected not to participate. They believe the advertising program is discriminatory.

''It only works if only a few people participate,'' Shumate said. ''And then they (Onboard personnel) stay away from the other people.''

Mardini said stores are charged a flat rate for advertising in the shopping brochure. After some time in the shopping brochure, Onboard calculates a projected increased revenue for stores on the lecture program. The rate is different for each store, depending on how much each store earns.

''We don't gouge people like in the Caribbean,'' Mardini said.

Eileen Hunter of Hunter's Gallery in Skagway said she would not get any cruise ship business were it not for advertising on the program.

''We are above the bus stop on our street,'' Hunter said of her gallery. ''Unless there's some way to advertise on the cruise ship, we don't get any cruise ship passengers.''

Hunter said the program is advertising dollars well spent. ''I feel like I've hired a sales force of 20 to sell my shop,'' Hunter said.

Skagway City Manager Bob Ward said some version of the port lecture program has existed for 10 years. In 1998, Ward wrote a letter to the Norwegian Cruise Line opposing the program, expressing citizen concerns that the program was misleading due to its assertion that the shops had ''been carefully selected on the basis of quality and fair dealing.''

The assertion implied that an exhaustive survey had been taken and the best shops selected, Ward wrote, and that the shops not on the program must be selling merchandise of inferior quality.

''We both know that this is not the case,'' he wrote. The cruise ships pulled the program in Skagway, Ward said.

Following complaints from Skagway businesses who wished to participate, Ward wrote another letter. He told the North West Cruiseship Association that Skagway was not suggesting it had the right to limit the advertising opportunities of private businesses. The program was reinstated in Skagway without resolution of initial citizen concerns.

The Skagway Chamber of Commerce gathered Sept. 7 to discuss promoting shopping in Skagway as a whole. Rosemary Libert, owner of Lynch and Kennedy, said she worried that Skagway would not be promoted as a shopping destination if stores stopped advertising aboard the cruise ships. Libert said she signed on to the program to compete with stores in Ketchikan and Sitka but recently pulled out.

''It has made Skagway a shopping destination,'' Reeder said. ''It's truly benefiting everyone.''

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