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Jul 11

Around the month of March, I received an email from Norwegian Cruise Line giving me the opportunity to be a part of an inaugural cruise in Miami, Florida for the Norwegian EPIC, the most expensive and luxurious cruise ship by NCL. The EPIC is the largest cruise ship ever attempted by Norwegian. That means it will have the most staterooms and luxury suites of any cruise liner ship, in their entire fleet. This is not where this story started. It began many months before, when cruising on the Norwegian SUN.

A cruise credit was nearing its finals days before it expired and so I started looking for options on the cruise line that I have traveled on the most, which is Norwegian. I was looking for a slightly longer cruise that a family member and possibly a friend could go on as well. We had all traveled together before, on a few cruises over the years, so we knew the drill. After the 11 day Mexican Riviera cruise was identified, we started preparing for the vacation by looking into what at sea communication options were available. We found out that the SUN had a cellular to satellite link and that it was GSM compatible. This is key because of the type of cell phone we would eventually use on the cruise ship.

We then looked to see if Norwegian had started using Twitter, Facebook and or YouTube. We found out that Norwegian had started using Twitter and Facebook. Then the planning started on how we would approach a brand like Norwegian with what we all wanted to accomplish with the help of the brand. My brother and I have a lot of experience approaches like this to brands as we live in Las Vegas, Nevada with some of the largest, five star hotels in the world. As you can imagine, Norwegian receives a lot of proposals from people and companies around the world. We think that a lot of luck, some previous experiences under our belt, in working with big brands and having a large travel background, helped Norwegian take a chance on a future customer; our idea and us.

We embarked on our 11 day Norwegian cruise on the SUN in San Francisco, California and switched on our GSM cellular to satellite connection. From then on, we Tweeted on Twitter, posted on Facebook and uploaded photos and videos on many services. We made sure we setup services that would alert us when people were chatting back, so we could continue the engagement live as events were happening. Some of the most talked about photos and videos were during breakfast, lunch and dinner. We even took a cool tour of the ship to see behind the scenes work that it takes to keep a ship of several thousand people running.

We created a hashtag on Twitter, #NCLSun, to track all of the tweets that we felt should be part of the cruise discussion. At this point, we had about a combined total of Twitter followers at 23,000 between three of us. The hashtag was posted to the Facebook Fan page of Norwegian, so that their fans could engage with us live during the cruise. A world wide brand actually wanted to send people to a social networking service outside of their control. This is where trust, a desire to show what works and the experiment turned very real. Fortunately for everyone involved, the experiment worked extremely well.

Now we’ve arrived at the ROI or ROR, as some people have suggested, return on investment, return on relationships gets explained. Through the chats between what people were observing, many confirmed bookings occurred and other decisions were made as to if people were going to take a standard cruise or upgrade some of their options. Our approach to marketing what we were doing was to show and engage. Direct push marketing was not the intent of the experiment; it was to engage to the point where potential customers could make their own decisions.

After the cruise in late 2009, all of us kept in contact with our new friends at Norwegian. Then it became time to plan for the Luxury Travel Expo, which occurs every December in Las Vegas. This was a perfect opportunity to work with our big luxury travel brand friend, Norwegian. So we talked about some ideas and what we all came up with was a Tweetup. The venue for the Tweetup was the Centrifuge lounge inside of the MGM Grand Las Vegas hotel, which also happened to be a big brand that we had engaged with on several occasions. The Tweetup saw about 300 people, about 75% of them were already using Twitter. The people not on Twitter or Facebook were welcomed to sign up with just their name. Why turn away anyone who would enjoy interactive with Norwegian live? Many travel agencies sent their top sales people to the event, which had several representatives from Norwegian on hand to answer questions about a new ship coming mid 2010, the EPIC. Even Harrah’s got involved in the event by sponsoring several prize packages to lucky people that came.

On the heels of the Tweetup success and the cruise experience in late 2009, we finally return to the email received from Norwegian about EPIC’s inaugural cruise date in Miami, Florida. Since the EPIC is some fun parts of Las Vegas at sea, Norwegian decided to have us aboard. We planned what new communications strategies we would employ while on the EPIC. Fortunately, this ship had a fully deployed WiFi system, which made showing and engaging easier.

After the exciting arrival of the EPIC into the Port of Miami, several travel agents and people involved with the inaugural the next day, went to a Tweetup. We all talked about which parts of the ship we were most excited to see, during our two preview days aboard. The Norwegian EPIC is 1,081 feet in length, carries 4,100 (double occupancy) passengers, has a gross tonnage of 155,873 and has 1,708 crew. We mostly talked about the style of some of the staterooms and large private suites. Then it was time to get back to our hotel room, which was at the Ritz-Carlton Miami Beach. The trip to Southern Florida was already Epic is so many ways. But we had to pack everything up and get ready for the next day.

Boarding the ship was easy, after arriving at the Port of Miami. This was familiar territory for us, as we had done many sailings, on a few different Norwegian ships, starting at this location. The check in process was easy after filling out the necessary embarkation paperwork. We received our room keys, which was also our credit card to buy any specialty items during the cruise.

We boarded, took pictures to send out to our followers and headed to our staterooms. We got lucky with a balcony suite on an upper deck. I flipped on the WiFi on the iPad and signal was acquired, success! After sending out the picture from earlier, many replies starting arriving. Answering questions about the ship was fun, but I had a schedule of events to keep.

I packed things up, checked the list for day and noticed it was lunchtime at Cagney’s Steakhouse. I decided to take a detour through the center of EPIC to take a few photos to send out during my walk. These were some of the first live tweeted photos from the Miami inaugural being sent out, according to some of the travel agents I was engaging with during the first few hours aboard. I met up with a few people from the Tweetup, post EPIC arrival, the day before. We talked about our staterooms, our schedules and of course, who was going to Tweet about we were eating for lunch. Lunch was over in about an hour and I made my way to the first Tweetup aboard the EPIC, which was at the pool deck. The pool deck has what USA Today calls, “deck-top amusements.” Several large slides, one of them ending up in a giant round part, eventually sends you out at the bottom into a pool.

Meeting new people like @kidtravel and @rotcav on Twitter, who works with Blue Man Group shows nationwide and joining up with a few friends @earthXplorer @CruiseGuy @OrlandoChris @RichTucker and of course my brother @VegasBill. After that, it was time to do some more exploring. I took as many photos and videos with my Kodak Zi8 camera as the memory could hold, making sure to download the content every few hours. The camera held up well through the many changes of hot, cold and humidity levels. My previous video camera that used a tape cartridge stopped working halfway through a cruise once, I was happy that the Kodak held up.

I ended up visiting the Courtyard Grill, The Epic Club, Le Bistro French Restaurant, Moderno Churrascaria, O’Sheehan’s Neighborhood Bar and Grill (which had several bowling lanes, a pool table and air hockey tables), Teppanyaki (enjoyed dinner with @NCLAndy the EVP Global Sales & Passenger Services Norwegian Cruise Line, his family and two traditional travel writers from the Miami area) and Taste, which serves traditional cuisine in a cool atmosphere of impressive design that one would find at Wynn or Encore in Las Vegas. I also tried out the room service once, checking on the delivery time and how hot or cold certain dishes would be when they arrived. I was happy to discover that the pizza delivered was hot along with the soup. The Caesar salad was delivered cold with crispy romaine lettuce.

The SVEDKA Ice Bar, which is similar to Minus5 at Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas and the Bliss Ultra Lounge, which is like Tabu Ultra Lounge in the MGM Grand Las Vegas, were also fun spots to enjoy. I spent about 20 minutes inside of the SVEDKA Ice Bar, which is one of only 14 in the world, talking with the 20 or so other people. Bill and I stayed in the longest of our group, so we could shoot video of the ice sculptures and of the drinks being made at the bar.

The final evening at sea was bittersweet. I knew I was going to see the Blue Man Group, which has a resident show in Las Vegas, but it was also the last big hurrah aboard the EPIC. The Blue Man Group perform the same crazy messy antics at sea as they do in Las Vegas, SPOILER ALERT, even down to the rolls of paper over the audience at the end.

Working with Norwegian on a few cruise experiences, plus a fun Luxury Travel Expo Tweetup in Las Vegas, shows what people can do while traveling plus working and engaging with followers. I encourage any reader who has made it this far; to try a few Facebook posts or Tweets on Twitter next time they are traveling. You might be surprised at who you will connect with and how much fun you can have.

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