Fred Olsen is just one of the many cruise lines to have been struck down by an outbreak of gastric illness recently. High profile health and safety disasters, such as food poisoning and the infamous sinking of the Costa Concordia, have caused established     brands such as Carnival Cruises to experience plummeting share prices.

TUI has even had to close its cruise telesales operation due to a fall in demand. Clearly it is time for cruise operators to take serious steps towards ensuring the safety of their guests and reduce the risk of further brand damage.

An outbreak of Norovirus is a very severe result of poor hygiene and probably the worst case scenario for a cruise ship because of its tendency to spread quickly. The good news is that it can be easy to detect and deal with through good incident management procedures. Poor hygiene should never be ignored, particularly in relation to food preparation and service, and can lead to other food related illnesses that are difficult to identify and have a longer term impact on those affected. The media always focuses on ships “plagued” with Norovirus but an outbreak of E-coli or salmonella can be just as damaging, if not more.

Cruise ships become a contained eco-system and a well managed ship needs to protect itself from “excursion pollution” when those on board leave the ship to sample the local culture and then inadvertently the local bacteria. Those leaving the ship should be given advice on what to eat, where to eat and asked to take the sort of precautions that people all too often forget whilst letting their hair down on holiday.

It is not only guests that bring local bacteria on board. Restocking points for supplies, may be found in locations that have poor standards of hygiene. Therefore, close attention should be paid to the integrity of a supply chain. The cheap priced goods from a dubious supplier may well save the company money in the short term, but the impact on the brand and share price will quickly dwarf the money saved if the food is contaminated and a costly lawsuit emerges.

The way to tackle poor hygiene and the spread of bacteria on cruise ships is to put extensive and repetitive cleaning regimes into place. Every contact surface within rooms and in common areas must be subject to effective cleaning. By effective I mean that it should be microbiologically clean and not just shiny and free from visible dirt. All too often cleaning staff are not properly trained or equipped to conduct effective cleaning. This is a fatal error as it is these members of staff that should be acting as the guardians of hygiene and are vitally important to the reputation of a brand.

Good hygiene practices should always be visible to the guest as they demonstrate an attention to detail that more observant travellers will appreciate. High standards of hygiene go hand in hand with good management practice. Regular training, systems and management guidance will all help to improve staff retention and general motivation.

Unfortunately no cruise line is immune to the risk of Norovirus and other food related illnesses. However, failure to implement the necessary processes to restrict the spread of any infection could result in negative publicity and costly legal battles. Money spent on putting the correct health and safety procedures into place is a worthwhile investment and could seriously reduce the risk of a damaged reputation.

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