Image by Peggy und Marco Lachmann-Anke from Pixabay

The public relations business thrives on awards, or, more accurately, the awards business thrives on public relations. Clients love receiving awards and so public relations practitioners are willing to spend time and sometimes money to “win” them.

Three recent awards presentations have gotten my hackles up about the whole shameful business.

I begin with the Travel Weekly Magellan Awards, which some consider the “Oscars of the travel industry”. Travel Weekly cultivates a reputation as the “newspaper of record “in travel, and the publication has been giving away Magellans for a decade to “recognize the very best examples of design and promotion in an extraordinarily competitive environment.”

When the Magellan Awards were announced last fall, I couldn’t help but notice the judges were mostly old white guys. Out of 27 judges, only three were women and none were persons of color.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2017 Americans employed in the “travel assignments and reservations services” sector were 63.5 percent women, 78 percent white, 10 percent black or African-American, 6 percent Asian and 16 percent Hispanic or Latino. Compare that to the Magellan Awards judges and you find that just 11 percent are women and 100 percent are white.

Not very representative of the industry, is it? Maybe it’s because they are unremunerated volunteers. File this under You Get What You Pay for ….

The second awards program I have a problem with is the Porthole Readers’ Survey Awards, presented by Porthole Cruise Magazine. The publication has been giving out these awards for 20 years, supposedly on the basis of reader opinions. For the past 17 years our client, Costa Cruises, has been named Best for Mediterranean Itineraries. This year, they weren’t.

It’s not because they lost out to another cruise line. Instead, the category was eliminated, along with every other itinerary category except world cruise, which, oddly, was lumped into the destinations category. Porthole did away with a bunch of other categories in a fit of whimsy. As a result, Carnival Cruise Line, which received six awards last year got three this year and Holland America Line saw their total drop from eight to five.

By way of explanation, the magazine offered this: “We at Porthole have been doing this for 20 years, so in honor of our platinum anniversary we decided to shake things up in 2018. We added some categories and streamlined others in order to get more of the information you, the readers, care most about.”

As the youngsters say, that’s random.

Finally, the worst of the awards programs has to be U.S. News & World Report’s Best Cruise Line Awards. The magazine goes to great lengths to create the appearance of a scientific method to their rankings. Here’s the ranking methodology, in short form:

  • 30 percent is based on the magazine’s editors’ ranking of ships based on a 1 to 5 scale of luxury, based on their “analysis of a ship’s atmosphere, facilities, activities, cabins, cuisine and service.”
  • 50 percent is weighted based on consumer reviews on Cruiseline.com, a site where anybody can sign up and review cruises, ships and lines by just having a confirmable email address.
  • 20 percent is based on a “health rating” derived using complex math from Centers for Disease Control scores based on USPH inspections of cruise ships sailing from U.S. ports.
  • The rest is conjured up based on “traveler type,” “region” and “price class.”

If it sounds complicated, it’s supposed to because complicated implies unbiased. Unless the editors sail on every ship of the 17 cruise lines included in the rankings, their ratings are based on … gut feelings, chicken entrails, tea leaves?

And the review site Cruiseline.com actually sells cruises, which means there’s a commercial incentive for the site not to give really bad rankings. A quick survey of ship rankings showed that most ships have been reviewed by between 2,400 and 3,000 reviewers — the numbers are eerily consistent within that range. And the ship rankings fall almost universally between 3.5 and 4 stars.

The CDC scores are based on extremely thorough health inspections, and arbitrarily assigning numerical values to score ranges merely smooths out any subtlety in the scores.

In other words, try as they might to make it scientific, U.S. News & World Report’s rankings are just as much biased and arbitrary as Douglas Ward’s ratings in the “Berlitz Guide to Cruises and Cruise Ships,” the undisputed granddaddy of all arbitrary and opinionated cruise ratings.

The trouble with travel industry awards is, they are inherently biased, arbitrarily bestowed and ultimately meaningless. Any meaning they accrue comes from those in the industry who value them, who covet them and who are willing to invest the time sometimes outlandish sums to enter the contests.

The best I can say about these three award schemes is, at least there is no pay to play. But each in its own way is flawed and yet strives to cover itself with the mantle of gravitas in the case of Travel Weekly, the “voice of the people” in Porthole’s awards or a specious methodology that has more in common with alchemy than science in the case of U.S. News & World Report.

Cruise lines and travel companies would be better served by striving to deliver on their promises of service and quality than by chasing meaningless and misleading awards.

UPDATE: I was contacted by a representative or Cruiseline.com who noted that the site does not actually sell cruises, though it does everything but, including providing mechanisms to find and compare prices and to “recommend” cruises. This is how the rep said it: “We collect reviews and feedback from real travelers who have sailed on their reviewed ship. Our rankings are unbiased and transparent in how our users rate each ship and cruise line.”

I asked if the reviews are moderated, but did not receive a response. In contrast, Cruise Critic does moderate consumer reviews to ensure that someone with a bone to pick or axe to grind doesn’t just write a bunch of bad reviews to harm a brand. 

So, my apologies, Cruiseline.com — you don’t sell cruises. But that doesn’t mean the editors at U.S. News & World Report should use your unmoderated consumer reviews as “unbiased.”

 

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