Gordon Ho and his team have just been through one of the greatest crises a CMO has ever faced. He talks with us about what prepared him for leading at the epicenter of a pandemic with the whole world’s attention riveted on what happens next, of his core marketing beliefs, and of his never-ending hope for the future.
Gordon is the recent CMO and Head of Sales for Princess Cruises, helping his team manage the unprecedented COVID-19 situation including incidents in both Japan and San Francisco. In all, he spent seven years in leadership positions with the cruise company. Prior to Princess he was President and Co-Founder of My Movie Deals, Inc., a start-up in Los Angeles, and was Executive Vice President of WorldwideContent, Marketing, and Business Development at Disney for seventeen years. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife.
CMO Club – Welcome. This is quite the time to be the CMO at a cruise company. We’re so excited to hear about the past few months but first wanted to find out a little bit about where you grew up.
Gordon Ho – “I grew up in Wisconsin. Both my parents emigrated from China for a scholarship opportunity to pursue their advanced degrees. There weren’t a lot of Asians in Wisconsin at the time, but I do think that helped me to assimilate, and learn how to get along with all sorts of people and backgrounds from an early age.”
CMO Club – What kind of kid were you?
Gordon Ho – “It’s interesting. I’ve really taken that work ethic and that immigrant experience to heart, even back then. They sacrificed so much to come to this country, learning a new language, looking for a better life for their family. Work hard, study, be practical in your choice of career, get good grades – that was who I was. It wasn’t just me, though. It was all of the Asian families in our small group.”
CMO Club – Did you feel like an American growing up?
Gordon Ho – “A little bit of both cultures. There’s no question that growing up in a neighborhood like I did, where your neighbors were your friends, and no one had gates or locked their doors, where you just went over to your friend’s house and showed up to play Nerf football and Whiffle ball, went fishing, that acclimation to small town suburban America played a big role in my upbringing. Those things weren’t a big part of my parent’s life, but there’s no question that the culture of who I was, that work ethic and seriousness came from my parents and my Asian background.”
CMO Club – Anything you remember your parents telling you that still has relevance?
Gordon Ho – “I remember my dad telling the story of his family’s export business, and how the sons were expected to apprentice that business and take over at some point for the family. My dad loved school, but that was not part of the plan. At some point his older brother spoke to my grandfather about letting my dad continue with his studies, staying in high school, and then onto college. It was a butterfly-effect moment that changed his life. Because his older brother asked on his behalf, my dad was allowed to continue on. I tell that story to my own sons because you never really know what and when that pivotal moment presents itself. You need to ask, and you need to try.”
“On the flip side, I do remember my dad telling me that I could be anything I wanted to be as long as it was a doctor, engineer, or a lawyer. (laughter) He was the guy who, if I came home with a 99% on a test, would ask me why I missed one. He looked for perfection and, sometimes if you are taught to be perfect, you have to be careful because in a profession like business and marketing there usually are no perfect answers, and that can work against you. You have to remember, he was an engineer and in mathematics and science, there are perfect answers out there. That attitude doesn’t always hold water when you’re trying to assimilate. It becomes harder to be proactive and think outside the box while you’re trying to be perfect. I’ve learned to let that go. Passion can sometimes go a long way in making up for that perfection. If you don’t have that passion you’re going to wind up being miserable.”
CMO Club – And Mom?
Gordon Ho – “When I was 8, my mom and her fellow lab workers all contracted a rare disease they were studying. Because of her ethnicity (Asian,) my mom didn’t recover like the others and it quickly spread to her brain and spinal cord. I learned firsthand at a young age about the world of medical malpractice as the physician dismissed my mom’s correct self-diagnosis and the hospital lab didn’t take adequate precautions to protect their workers. I also learned the importance of compassion (helping care for my mom,) teamwork (rotating cooking duties, cleaning, laundry) with my brother, and listening to others irrespective of age, gender, title or other qualifier – as my mom’s outcome may have been very different had she been listened to.”
CMO Club – Thank you for sharing such a personal story. How did you wind up a CMO?
Gordon Ho – “I studied Industrial Engineering at Stanford (my Dad was pleased it was an engineering major,) and it turns out that degree was a blend of engineering and a quantitative business and finance major. My first job out of school was options trading but the market crashed; luckily I got a referral from a Stanford professor for a product management position at Hewlett-Packard. That was my foray into product management and marketing and the rest is history.”
CMO Club – So let’s get into this whole COVID-19 thing. You were at the epicenter of attention in those early days of the pandemic. The Diamond Princess was the cruise industry’s “patient zero.” All the world was focused on what was happening aboard and around the ship and the response, a microcosm of the world’s battle with this unknown novel coronavirus played out in real time. Can you take us back to the beginning?
Gordon Ho – “This all started in early February. We were one of the first US companies directly impacted by the virus. We learned that a passenger who disembarked our Diamond Princess ship in Hong Kong had tested positive for COVID-19. At the time, the ship was en route to Japan, and given the COVID news, the team expedited the ship’s return to Yokohama (a Japanese port). Upon arrival in Yokohoma, we cooperated with the Japanese authorities and Ministry of Health as we were now under their jurisdiction. So decisions on things like quarantine and testing protocols being implemented were now being managed by the Japanese Ministry of Health with our cooperation. Many of those passengers wound up in quarantine aboard the ship in Yokohama for a period of time before being repatriated by their governments or allowed to come off for further quarantine on land.”
“Our main focus from the start was to work together with the Japanese government and health authorities to ensure the safety and well-being of our guests and our crew. Their safety and comfort was always the first priority in all decisions. Communicating everything we knew in a timely and accurate way was a critical component for our passenger’s wellbeing.”
CMO Club – There have been questions raised about those early days and the decisions that were made as Diamond Princess became the focus of much of the world media. How do you respond to that?
Gordon Ho – “Questions were being raised all the time by guests, crew, health authorities, management, the media, and other interested parties. You have to remember this was early February and everyone was trying to get the latest information on the virus, how it could spread, and the best way to contain it. We collaborating with the health authorities on action plans daily, and with a laser focus on what needed to happen next.”
CMO Club – That must have been a tough position to be in. Decisions were being made across the globe by government authorities, decisions that affected the health and wellbeing of people aboard your ship. Passengers and crew members are communicating with the outside world through Twitter and other social media about conditions and the fear of the unknown everyone faced in those early days. As the CMO of the company, what’s going through your head right then during such a trying time when controlling the message seemed impossible?
Gordon Ho – “In this situation you are absolutely right. In terms of the medical and health jurisdiction, we were cooperating and following the instructions of the Japanese Government, and the Japanese Ministry of Health. We were doing everything we could to follow those protocols, as well as staying in constant contact with the CDC, and the WHO. This was a fluid situation, but it wasn’t all reactive.”
“As far as controlling the message, every individual today controls their own message, period. They decide what they will post, what they will share with their friends, and what they support or disagree with. However, what we need to do as marketers and communication specialists is to keep them informed on what we are doing, share what we know in a transparent way, and keep them supported throughout. Marketing is the stories and narrative your guests share with others – That’s your brand. Importantly, will our guests’ narratives about the care and services they received on our ships during this crisis be a positive or negative one? Thankfully, many of our guests who were impacted by this crisis have said they look forward to returning and sailing again.”
“And while in hindsight we might have done some things a little differently, our communications response center, made up of communications, social and content teams did our absolute best to provide timely and accurate information and content to our passengers and all stakeholders. This was done through media statements, , web and social posts, onboard announcements, newsletters slipped under cabin doorways, direct emails, and working with the local team to provide content to everyone involved.”
“Part of our job was to monitor social media posts as a valuable input source for our action plans to support our passengers and all concerned. In many cases that information would be something that we could act upon, so if there was a passenger need requiring our attention, such as needed supplies, those very tweets and messages helped assure everyone got what they needed as timely as possible. How we keep them comfortable and informed is ultimately what people remember. Marketers have to help own that experience and work with all teams to ensure this is delivered.”
CMO Club – What were some of those things that you did early on that were proactive to that end?
Gordon Ho – “One of the big things was to ensure there was communication to and from the ship: hi-speed internet access, phone, email, and other communications – big thanks to our IT, Technology, and Corporate Innovation teams. That made a big difference in terms of enabling critical communications and even providing much-needed entertainment.”
“Second, with these communication links, we were able to send a positive message of support and encouragement to all the crew and guests. Crew members saw these messages of support in many ways from the passengers directly, signs on the cabin doors, emails of encouragement, simple words of thanks. It meant so much. We launched the social tag, #HangInThereDiamondPrincess, to allow people around the world to share their support to all the passengers aboard Diamond Princess – the global content included pictures, musical performances, and cheers of encouragement that were truly moving and heartfelt.”
“Third, we set up a massive care team network on the ground to support the families of passengers and crew, as well as other passengers that had already disembarked the ship, some in hospitals across the region. We found ways to get packages and letters onto the ship as quickly as possible. Importantly, the care teams supported our guests even when they got off our ship We supported the teams from CDC and HHS on military bases with much needed passenger supplies, care packages, travel accommodations, and even handwritten notes from Princess employees expressing our support to quarantined guests. Ultimately, keeping connected with our passengers was critically important.”
CMO Club – Like all CMOs and executives you have a major responsibility to the company and its shareholders to keep its reputation protected, vibrant, and profitable. Is there ever a time, maybe like in this case, when what the company’s needs for survival are do not fully align with the needs and safety of say, the passengers, and the well-being of the crew?
Gordon Ho – “I think they are 100 percent aligned. When you think about our number one objective, that is to ensure the health and safety of our passengers and crew, it’s exactly what our company’s goal is. When someone goes on a cruise, they go for all the wonderful experiences and value that they get. But, they have to feel safe. That’s a critical part of who we are as a brand and company.”
CMO Club – And of course it happens again soon after with the Grand Princess off the coast of San Francisco, and once again the world’s attention is riveted on what’s happening aboard the ship. Was there ever a moment when you doubted yourself, a dark moment for you personally in all of this?
Gordon Ho – “I think there were moments of frustration when I asked myself what more we could be doing. Just when we thought we were done with one incident, another incident came our way. No one knew how this was going to unfold and now that we have all seen the global impact of this pandemic, I think our teams did an extraordinary job with the knowledge on hand. Looking back, I think the toughest moment for us was when we first learned about positive cases from the Japanese Ministry of Health.”
CMO Club – Princess Cruises refunded the cost of the ill-fated cruise and offered a free cruise to all of those passengers at a later date. As of today, what percentage of people have taken you up on that offer?
Gordon Ho – “My estimate is close to 99%, certainly the vast majority.”
CMO Club – Wow. So many willing to keep coming back, even after what happened. Why do you think that is?
Gordon Ho – “There were hundreds of passenger interactions, those still on-board the ship, those in military quarantine, and those who left for home. Almost all of them have said they look forward to returning to a Princess cruise. Our ultimate goal was not only the health and safety of those passengers but the care and well-being of them as well. I do think they recognized that our Princess care and service didn’t go away during this crisis. It’s always been about the guest experience and satisfaction. That doesn’t change. It doesn’t matter how you market. If a product doesn’t deliver, if they feel like you didn’t take care of them, in times of good or bad, they are no longer going to be your customer.”
CMO Club – Do you see the industry coming back anytime soon?
Gordon Ho – “There’s no question that cruising will come back because cruising gives great value and experience. Passengers love the experience. The timing for all of that will depend on the health authorities and the ability for us to set up those protocols to allow for the safety and confidence of our guests.”
CMO Club – Have you become a better CMO after this experience?
Gordon Ho – “It has taught me the importance of empathy for all of us who work tirelessly through this unprecedented time. It has stirred my empathy for our crew and all of our passengers, and everyone who has tried to carry the ball further down the field by helping others. It has also taught me the importance of communication in a world where we are used to getting everything when and how we want. Having the ability to facilitate communication during a crisis is so critical to all of us. Collaboration is also critical. During this novel coronavirus, it is critical to establish this collaboration between authorities, health ministries, companies, family members, and crews. We are all stakeholders.”
CMO Club – Can you tell us some of the hard-fought lessons you learned?
Gordon Ho – “One valuable lesson I learned is that in times of crisis, with a united focus, you see how people can respond and go above and beyond to get critical things done. I remember speaking to a representative at HHS (Health & Human Services) at Lackland-San Antonio Airforce base, and he asked me how our Princess on-site care team was able to work so well together and my reply was ‘Well, we’re all unified with the singular goal of taking care of our guests… they just happen to be at a military base right now instead of onboard one of our ships.”
CMO Club – Anything on a personal level?
Gordon Ho – “I witnessed the innate goodness of people and the human spirit come to life. I witnessed the gratitude expressed by so many around the world, people wanting to just help. People will always need to connect and despite all the hardships of this crisis, it was moving to see how people supported us through these difficult times.” Personally, I very much look forward to sharing these firsthand experiences and our collective learnings with others in any way possible.”