Ever wonder what happens when you get a telemarketing offer that seems too good to be true, but instead of hanging up, you stay on the line to learn the catch?
I did. And in the process, I got to to know a wonderfully clever woman named Caroline, who went all “Glengarry Glen Ross” on me as she tried to get my credit card number to reserve my spot for a “free” cruise getaway.
I’ve always been fascinated by the tactics of people in sales who make hard-sell pitches. To make the sale, they need an answer for every objection, and Caroline’s performance with me was brilliant. Here’s how it went down …
The cruise offer
In an automated phone call I received last week, a jovial man asked me to take a phone survey, and in return I would receive a free cruise getaway. After I took the survey and registered for the promotion, a woman called me a few days later. She identified herself as “Caroline,” a senior cruise line specialist with Caribbean Cruise Line. The number on my caller ID was 561-424-0845, which is in Palm Beach County.
Caroline sounded like a pleasant woman in her 50s. She assured me I was one of the lucky few who qualified for this promotion.
“We have a lot of people who register but the computer doesn’t pull everybody up,” she said.
She asked if I’ve ever been on a cruise and I told her no.
“You’re in for a treat. Because cruising is definitely the best way to vacation, especially with us.”
Before she gave me the “exciting details,” she asked if I was over the age of 18, and told me a minimum of two people could go on the free cruise. She then addressed the proverbial elephant in the room — why would a cruise line give away a free cruise?
“I know everybody wonders why,” she said. The answer was that it’s a “win-win situation.” The customer gets “the best food, the best service, and the best amenities.” And in return, the company receives precious word-of-mouth advertising. The customer might come back for more trips, or persuade friends and family to take the cruise. “We want you to go home and tell everyone you had a great time,” she said.
The hard sell
She described the ship as “a floating resort full of non-stop fun.” I’d get to eat three gourmet meals a day, watch Las Vegas style shows, gamble, relax in a glass swimming pool, go down a 180-foot water slide, and visit the spa and fitness center.
Caroline said there were a limited number of cabins and here’s where I finally got to hear the catch: I had to give Caroline my credit card number to pony up $118 in port taxes for me and my guest. By paying that fee now, it entitled me to a 75 percent discount off their “extended stay packages.” To me, it sounded like the cruise line wanted to give me yet another sales pitch to upgrade my free trip and spend more money, once I committed to the trip.
“The only thing we need is a major credit card,” Caroline said. “Which one would you be using?”
At that point the game was up. I said I wasn’t ready to make a decision yet, and asked if I could call back.
“Usually we don’t have any call backs,” she replied. “We appreciate that you want some time to think about it. But you have to understand this is a promotion. It’s not going to last long.”
There were people waiting in line for this deal, she assured me. “It’s a one-time opportunity.”
I said I simply wasn’t comfortable giving out my credit information.
“I appreciate your concern about credit cards,” she said. “We should all be concerned.” She said the cruise line couldn’t stay in business if it defrauded people. Paying the port tax saved my spot on the cruise ship, she said. “We’re going to hold your cabin for you.”
I wasn’t budging.
“Is there anything I could do or say?” she asked. “We’ve been in business a long time. We’re with the Better Business Bureau.”
A friendly grandma
Caroline took it to a warm, cozy, personal level. “I’m a grandmom,” she said. “I wouldn’t do anything that wasn’t proper.”
She said the cruise line was a “certified company” with the credit card companies.
“We’re not going to jeopardize our reputation or have any problem with $118. Trust me.”
I said I really ought to talk this over with my girlfriend. Caroline pointed out I had 16 months to take the cruise, so we could travel just about any time we wanted.
“That’s why we give you a year and a half,” she said. “We know you’re going to sit down with your family or whoever’s coming with you and discuss your travel plans. We understand your concerns.”
Again I declined.
“There’s nothing that’s going to hurt you,” she assured me. “It’s only $118. It’s not a whole bunch of money. So let’s just get you signed up.”
I declined yet again. Caroline finally tired of the chase and gave up.
“Sorry I have to let it go,” she said.
The real Caribbean Cruise Line
So is this a scam or did I pass up a fantastic cruise vacation?
There is a company called Caribbean Cruise Line, and it hired Carmen Electra as a sexy travel guide in a Web video promoting a cruise ship, the Bahamas Celebration.
But wait. If you Google “Bahamas Celebration,” a different company comes up as the owner: Celebration Cruise Line, which has similar logos and a similar promotional video starring Daisy Fuentes. The cruise line’s flagship — and only ship — is the Bahamas Celebration, which was originally a Norwegian cruise ferry. You can read reviews of the ship, many of which are unflattering, at Cruise Critic.
So who actually owns the ship?
Glenn Ryerson, vice president of marketing for Celebration Cruise Line, said his company owns and operates the Bahamas Celebration. Caribbean Cruise Line is an entirely different firm that markets vacation packages. It’s not actually a cruise line.
“It’s really an outside company that puts together packages that they sell,” Ryerson said.
That makes sense. The incorporation papers of Celebration and Caribbean list different addresses in Florida, and different company officers. Robert Mitchell is named as Caribbean’s corporate director.
And while Celebration only filed papers to do business in Florida, Caribbean Cruise Line filed incorporation papers in Florida and many other states, including Texas, which suggests Caribbean conducts a broad marketing effort across the country. In addition to telemarketing, Caribbean Cruise Line also mass-mails vouchers promising cheap vacation deals.
Why the hard sell from Caribbean Cruise Line?
“I can’t speak to that. It’s not our company,” Ryerson said. “We just do traditional cruises.”
But Celebration at least approves of the sales tactics, I pointed out, since they’re doing business with Caribbean. Ryerson chuckled when I told him about Caroline’s grandmom comment, but he emphasized that Caribbean conducts its own marketing efforts.
“We give net rates to a number of wholesalers,” he said. The wholesalers, he said, are the ones who market the deals, which is no different from any other cruise line.
My conversation with Ryerson was the closest thing to the truth I had heard from either company. When I called back the number Caroline had called me from, I got the telemarketing center for Caribbean Cruise Line, and the man who answered insisted Caribbean owned the cruise ship. He acted like he had never heard of Celebration Cruise Line.
And during my phone call with Caroline, she was incorrect in her claim that Caribbean Cruise Line is a member of the Better Business Bureau. There are several companies under that name that are listed in a directory produced by the Better Business Bureau, but none is an accredited member, and one of the companies racked up more than 180 complaints from customers who claimed they did not receive refunds.
It turns out there was one more catch that Caroline hadn’t told me. The “terms and conditions” page on Caribbean’s Web site says participants must listen to a time-share presentation during the getaway.
So the sales pitches don’t end when you hang up the phone.