Monday, December 29, 2008

Seabourn and Regent - Experiencing Shore Experiences

I was going to wait until I got all the information, but I figured "What the heck.  Let's start the discussion now."

Seabourn decided a few months ago to end most of its complimentary Seabourn Experiences  (http://goldringtravel.blogspot.com/2008/09/seabourn-is-discontinuing-complimentary.html) and, obviously, it was not met with great joy.  While I know many of my clients did not attend most of them, there are others that loyally did and feel cheated.  I was not in favor of their demise and offered my clients some compensation if they took an alternative tour.

Seabourn, as noted in its blog, is now emphasizing private tours...not paid for "get on the bus" tours, but truly luxury private tours.  Seabourn has a staff of eight devoted to this.  As noted recently on the Seabourn blog:

Helen Panagos, Seabourn’s VP of Shoreside Operations, came up with a plan to totally revamp the company’s destination services resources.  “We learned a lot from talking with our guests about what they really wanted to do during their cruises,” says Helen. “Some of them are still interested in the more general interest types of tours that we have been offering. But more and more of them wanted truly unique, customized arrangements for themselves and the small group of people they travel with-maybe family or friends. So we designed a whole new department to provide the sort of attention and expertise that can create very special experiences that aren’t off-the-shelf sightseeing tours, but rather unique, personalized arrangements that make for a perfect, memorable day in a port.”

Now that may not be what people looking for the lowest price cruise wants to hear, but possibly considering the previously unexpected drop in base cruise fares, Seabourn may have decided to provide the best "onboard" cruise experience and leave the shore experiences (with a few notable exceptions) to each guest's personal interests and budgets.

With a different approach, just before the holidays began, I received an email from Regent announcing it is going to be announcing certain specific 2009 cruises that will have complimentary tours included.  I do not have any more information, but it may work for those disappointed with Seabourn's decision.  (On the other hand, I know that I and many others have, in the past, been very disappointed with some of Regent's tours and its tour desk.).  Until I know more I really can't comment, so stay tuned.

My question to ponder is, for now, "Would you be willing to cancel your Seabourn cruise so that you can take advantage of complimentary tours on a Regent cruise."  If you answer Yes, then you can stop complaining about Seabourn eliminating its single Seabourn Experience on most cruises...for you have found your solution.  If you answer No, then you believe the Seabourn cruise experience is what matters more to you.

When I have more information as to the cruises involved and the tours being offered by Regent I will let you know.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Even When Skiing Iamboatman Thinks About The Cruise Industry - Training and Consistency Is the Cornerstone.

The other day I wrote about Mark Conroy, President of Regent Seven Seas Cruises' open letter and Regent's new efforts to provide what it has promised it would be providing all along. I am hopeful, but not enthusiastic.

Well, I am a member of the Tahoe Mountain Club - a sort of country club for skiers and golfers belonging to Northstar-at-Tahoe or Old Greenwood - here in Lake Tahoe, California.  It has, to be kind, been a monument to ripping off those of us shelling out tens and tens of thousands of dollars under the guise of providing the ultimate in luxury ski and gold experiences.  It has  actually been nothing more than a vehicle to sell faux luxury to those interested in being nothing more than fractional owners (read "timeshare") or renters.

The result has been really good looking facilities overrun with children, people who don't give a damn about the facilities or other "members", and the "real members" (those who actually paid up to $100,000 for a membership...I am a member, but not in that league!) being unable to find real luxury anywhere in the very facilities they have paid for.  (The General Manager actually sent out a letter last Spring claiming TMC was striving to reach an 8 out of 10...a B-...in all areas!)

This year I have found things to be just as bad...almost.  Just when I was about to give up, Schaffer's Camp, a private TMC restaurant on the top of Northstar-at-Tahoe, gave me some hope.  After my screaming for two years about the faux luxury, a pretentious but dishonest and inept manager, horrid overpriced food and lousy service, Tahoe Mountain Club finally listened.  I walked in the door and was greeted by, "Hello Mr. Goldring.  Nice to see you."  The new manager, Brad Kohler, happened to be there and started to speak to me with enthusiasm.  They found me a table in the dining room (I was going to eat in the bar) and was greeted by a very nice and competent waiter, trained and smiling bus-staff, a menu and wine list with reasonable food and wine at reasonable prices (and a true wine expert on staff)...and all of a sudden that Million Dollar View looked a whole lot better and the food was excellent.

How did this transformation happen?  BIG changes.  There was an admission by TMC's management that they were doing it wrong.  They brought in a fresh and enthusiastic face who actually knew the business.  He is taking it slow, limiting the reservations in the restaurant so that the staff (cooks to busboys) can learn what to do, how to do it better and making sure execution is excellent.  I repeatedly heard, "We want to take it slow so that we can deliver consistent service and product."  Music to my ears!!!

Being the skeptic I am, I went back the next day and found things...get this...exactly the same!  Consistency has possibly found another home.  While I remain skeptical,  the present situation in one small portion of the Tahoe Mountain Club has - after years - finally seems to deliver what was promised...at least at Schaffer's Camp.  (Last night at 6PM in the Alpine Club kids still were allowed to run amuck, classless and loud renters and filth - from the thin and marginally trained staff being unable to properly cleanup due to overwhelmed and chaotic situation.)

If Tahoe Mountain Club can make things work -even one facility at a time - Regent should be able to do it to.  Regent has an advantage, as well:  It has never been in as bad a shape as TMC.

That said, I kept thinking those that haven't tried Seabourn need to.  For me it sets the standard.  It is better at an excellent level of service...in all areas of its ships, with truly fine dining and, while not perfect, always striving for consistency.

Friday, December 26, 2008

An Open Letter from Mark Conroy, President of Regent Seven Seas Cruise s - A Refreshing Admission.

On December 23, 2008 at 6:37 p.m. (at the close of business, so effectively on Christmas Eve) Mark Conroy, President of Regent Seven Seas Cruises took the unusual step of posting an open letter on Cruise Critic which was clearly in response to some of the now more consistent posts about the declining quality, inconsistent service and changes on Regent cruises.

Mr. Conroy wrote (and I have highlighted a few things) as follows:

Dear RSSC Guests and Cruise Critic Readers,

I’ve been an avid reader of Cruise Critic for many years and have always found it, along with direct feedback from our guests, to be an invaluable feedback tool and a great way for us to keep our finger on the pulse of our company and our product.

After reading some of the most recent threads, I wanted to take a few moments to provide you all with some insights, address some of the concerns that you have voiced, and provide you with my personal reassurance that Regent Seven Seas Cruises is still the same luxury experience that so many of you have come to know and love.

There has been a great deal of discussion about changes and I will be frank, yes, there have been changes. And while we all know that change can be unsettling, I want to assure you that any changes we have made or are in the process of making, are based upon feedback from our guests, travel agent partners and team members aboard the ships and here in Fort Lauderdale. Feedback and insight from you is something that has been critical to our success and has been our proverbial guiding light.

In the interest of providing you with some keener insight, I want to step back to earlier this year when there was a change in ownership. This change allowed us as a company to change from one that was a very small part of a large corporation to one that was part of a smaller and very focused organization. With that change, we as a company saw tremendous opportunities to not only undertake initiatives that we would not have in the past, but to also challenge ourselves to find new ways to make the experience better and shine brighter. The $40 million dollar renovation and refurbishment of the Voyager and Mariner are probably the most obvious examples of our new mindset and our commitment to the Regent Experience.

And the investments don’t stop at the way the ships look and feel, we’re raising the bar in every conceivable area - the culinary experience, onboard amenities and entertainment, crew recruitment, crew training and most importantly, crew retention. It’s the stellar group of officers, staff and crew that have made RSSC the cruise line it is today and we will never lose sight of that. We’ve made some great enhancements to our training and benefits for the crew in the way of increased benefits, enhanced health coverage, overtime pay and dedicated Crew Resource Managers. We’ve also brought greater consistency to our crew scheduling and the vacation time they spend ashore. Ultimately, we want every crew member to leave the ship at the end of their contract with an assignment letter to return for a new contact. That’s not to say that you won’t see some new faces as we will continue to recruit and add new staff aboard ship and in the shore side operations.

We’ve been very fortunate to be able to welcome some new members to our family this past year, some of them returning RSSC veterans. Robin Lindsay and Franco Semeraro, who head up the Vessel and Hotel Operations, are both veterans of the luxury cruise and worked with me when in RSSC was just a small fledgling line with only the Radisson Diamond and Song of Flower. They were instrumental in establishing RSSC as a premier luxury brand and then went on to spend a good number of years at Silversea. Michael Coghlan, the General Manager of the Voyager, also hails from Silversea and has an admirable resume of accomplishments.

There are also plenty of familiar faces amongst the new. Steph Armegol and Bernhard Klotz, whom many of you may have met, still lead our Hotel and Culinary operations teams. Of course, Captains Dag and McNeill, General Managers Engelbert, Guiseppe and Philippe, just to name a few, all happily remain.

With the Voyager refit behind us, and the completion of Mariner’s refit only a few short weeks away, we’re in the home stretch. With that, the majority of changes and enhancements in the product will be complete and we can focus on fine-tuning our product and its delivery. The fine-tuning aspect is one that will be ongoing and once again, we’ll be counting on you, our guests to provide us feedback on what you like and what needs attention, just as you have always done.

That’s not to say that in the midst of these changes that we will not have hiccups. We’ve had a few and while some companies might like to think they are perfect, we know we are not. But we try hard to be as close to it as possible, we give it our all and pour our hearts into it. And if something is not right, we will do everything we can to set things right.

For those of you sailing in the coming months, I encourage you to judge any of the changes on their own merits, I’m confident that you will see that they have been made for the better. And if something is not quite right, please make sure to let any of the staff or department heads know so they can take corrective actions.

I’ll be out and about on the ships a great deal in the coming year, as I am sure Frank, Robin, Franco and Ken will be as well, and look forward to hearing your thoughts. In between, I’ll be reading Cruise Critic and be chiming in on occasion, as time permits.

I wish you all a safe and joyous Holiday Season and a great New Year.

Sincerely,

Mark Conroy
President, Regent Seven Seas Cruises

While the letter is refreshing on its face, I have to wonder why it is it took so long to admit to everyone that Regent was not delivering the luxury product it charges such a high premium for. I have consistently commented that Regent's food is not "luxury", that its amenities were downgraded to essentially "common", that its crew training and performance was poor and, most importantly, there was very little consistency of product on the same ship, no less across the ships.

So for all of those that have felt I push Seabourn to a fault, I have always called it as I see it. As they say, "The proof is in the pudding." Seabourn has gone over the top to try and make its service not only consistent on each cruise and across its present ships, but on its Seabourn Odyssey as well. You will not see a similar letter from Pamela Conover...because it simply isn't necessary. (No, Seabourn is not perfect, but "fine tuning" is its way of life...not a new concept.)

So, in this economy, you just might want to ask yourself, "Do I want to spend my money on Regent's work in progress or on Seabourn's consistent luxury product?"

Honestly, if Regent's pricing was more in line with the reality of its product I might well say, "Go for it", but not yet. (I will be posting on this subject soon.)

I wish Regent all the best in its endeavors and, to be sure, I want it to succeed; for competition and alternatives are great for business. But until the product is proven...and after years of telling me "All is well" when we now have read Mr. Conroy's honest admission it was not...Regent is not going to get my endorsement.

I am pleased with Regent's words and its announced commitment to make Regent the luxury product it once was. I can't wait to be able to, once again, recommend it!

What Value Are The Cruise Critic Message Boards For Luxury Travelers?

On December 23, 2008, the same day politicians make announcements so that media does not pick up on less than positive news, Mark Conroy, President of Regent Seven Seas Cruises took the extraordinary step of posting an open letter on Cruise Critic trying to explain what is going on at Regent.  (I will post that in a seperate entry.)

Before providing you with the letter, I want to say that it pretty much acknowledges everything I have posted here (and did post on Cruise Critic) since I realized Regent was for sale and then was sold, to wit:  The product has been suffering and there were/are big changes coming. (See, for example, http://goldringtravel.blogspot.com/2008/06/oceania-fication-of-regent-seven-seas.html.)

Juxtaposed, there are the Cruise Critic cheerleaders that have...and incredibly continue to...claim all is well at Regent and the product is wonderful.  These are the same people that made personal attacks upon me and the Board Host that allowed it to happen.  Is that because Cruise Critic has any interest in its boards actually providing good, solid, information?  Absolutely not.

Cruise Critic has allowed itself to spiral down from what once was a top-flight place to find good solid information on luxury travel to one where cliques are the norm (especially on the Seabourn board), cheerleaders provide what seems to be knowingly false information (especially on the Regent board), and critics (as in the name Cruise Critic) are actively abused by other posters and cautioned by the hosts not to comment about clearly fabricated or skewed experiences because "they weren't there".  (Always wondered how it is that people are permitted to comment on the handling of bad tours being a consistent problem, but not the supposed mishandling of an another sort of incident.)

Hopefully Mark Conroy's letter - which refreshingly does acknowlege many of the problems that have existed - will be a wake up call for Cruise Critic that it has been doing a lousy job over the past many months and that maybe...just maybe...it might want to refocus on what it's name as to who and what content it should be managing.

To be fair (as I always try to be), there is some value in viewing the Cruise Critic luxury boards.  There is some good information provided if you can weave your way around the clutter and stomach the cheerleading and personal attacks.  I know that if it - like Regent (ironically) - stuck to what it was, it would be good...really good.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Happy Holidays

Happy Holidays! 

I have been enjoying a bit of quiet time with my family, so I have not been posting these last few days.  (OK, so my son breaking his wrist snowboarding the other day wasn't so quiet, but he has his badge of honor - a cast).  Sorry for the lack of new info or insights, but I have lots to say and let you know about and will do so in the coming days, so check back. 

In the meantime, please enjoy the photos taken from my living room in Lake Tahoe, California as I enjoy today with my family with a truly White Christmas (and Chanukah).  With so much bad news, concerns and insecurity about our futures, I am blessed to still be able to look out my window and just go "WOW".  Yes, so remember, going WOW now and again is a great thing.

So as I sit here with the fire on, the kid's presents open and the snow is falling, I want to say Thank You for your interest, your friendship, your business and your sharing of my passion of cruising and travel.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Norwegian Cruise Lines F3 Project Has Wind In Its Sails!

It was announced today that NCL's F3 project will be going forward with an estimated delivery date of May 2010. 

Very few details have been announced about the deal between STX France and NCL, but what has been said is that as of now the F3 project is for one ship, with the second ship being canceled, and that the terms of the original deal have been modified (though how has not been disclosed).

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Crystal Cruises Announces 2010 Port Calls to Iran and Other Unique Middle East Ports

A few weeks ago I posted about how being uninformed can lead to misperceptions and result in comments like, "I am not going to THAT part of the world.  It just isn't safe."...lumping the entire Middle East into a truly undeserved "No Go" area.  Frankly, many Americans have difficulty in understanding the geography, no less politics, of the Middle East, so it is no wonder.

When a place like Dubai is actually very safe (and thanks to huge marketing efforts many Americans believe that) it is, by some, lumped into areas like Yemen as the "Middle East - No Go" area.  Mention Kuwait and probably nothing other than Iraq's invasion quickly comes to mind...so it is unsafe.  Again, not a true or fair statement. 
Sorry, I am not trying to insult, but rather present what is - on the world stage - a perceived undeniable fact. And, to be honest, until I was invited to speak at a superyacht conference in Dubai, U.A.E. (United Arab Emirates), I had a pitiful lacking understanding of not only the geography of the area, but even the basic differences in cultures generally between Dubai, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, etc.  The broad differences then break down into many interesting facets that both fascinate and help explain the basis for many of the political and religious issues in the area.  (Just the differences between U.A.E. emirates of Dubai and Abu Dhabi are as interesting as the existence of a "secret" island where Kuwaitis go to party.

And while there are, respectfully, many with deep convictions on political, religious and moral grounds not to support the economies of certain countries or rulers, I am one of those that thinks it just might be worth dipping my toe into those foreign (and possibly "scary") waters so that I can better understand what things are really like rather than just what is marketed to me by the media or politically motivated sources.

Crystal Cruises has decided to shake things up a bit and provide an incredible opportunity for those interested in dipping their toes into, and learning a bit more about, this area of the world.  Crystal's 2010  108 day "Exploration of Ancient Empires" World Cruise includes maiden calls in:

      - Manama, Bahrain;
      - Bandar Abbas, Iran;
      - Kuwait City, Kuwait;
      - Fujairah, UAE;
      - Khasab, Oman; and,
      -  Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.

If you are not inclined to take the entire Wold Cruise, you can book World Voyage IV: Middle East Mystique (#0305) which starts in Mumbai and ends in Dubai and/or World Voyage V: Modern & Ancient Marvels (#0306) which starts in Dubai and ends in Athens (visiting Egypt, Israel and Jordan as well as some of the above ports). 

With some of the great pricing now available reserving your chance to experience this part of the world in the comfort and security of Crystal Cruises could just be the great opportunity you are looking for.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Discounts and Luxury - Are They Mutually Exclusive and Do They Hurt The Consumer?

Over the past week...and especially the past three weeks...we all have seen something none of us have ever experienced and, worse, we do not really know where it all will be going.

Today someone pointed out an article in the New York Times which was a very interesting read:  http://www.nytimes.com/2008/12/04/fashion/04SHOPPING.html?_r=1&emc=eta1.  Basically, it is about Saks Fifth Avenue transforming itself into a discount marketer with deals on designer goods up to 70% off and what effect it has had, and may have in the future, on the luxury fashion market.  As the author discusses it, no matter how hard a luxury fashion retailer tries to keep its market-share and its "ineffable luster", the "slash-and-burn" pricing may, in the end, both cause the loss of luxury to have its "mystique" and cause consumers to balk at paying the premiums for a luxury wallet or gown.

By this point you are probably thinking, "Yeah, and that also applies to the luxury cruise market, too."  Well, I admit that was my first thought or, better, it is what I perceive will be in the minds of many travelers.  Actually, however, that concept is wrong...very wrong.  Let me explain.

In the New York Times article there is an example of a Valentino gown retailing at $2,950 marked down 70%.  Using that example, I first consider that the gown will be worn once (and only once) by a single woman who must be a particular size/height/measurements.  It is, to be sure, the ultimate in decadent purchases and, to be sure, is not going to create a life experience for the purchaser (as the event the dress will be worn at will, in the end, make more of an impression as to the overall experience).  I then consider the fact that while the dress may be stunning, most of the women that can and would actually wear that dress can probably make a pair of jeans and a T-shirt also look stunning, so they have many, many fashion options (at far lesser costs) available to them as extremely viable alternatives.

On the cruise side of things, Seabourn has a few, limited in number, seven day cruises selling for $2,840; a very relevant comparison.  Forgetting the market is not nearly as limited as to possible purchasers, this commodity is also perishable, if not by season, by time so there is pressure to sell it (rather than keep in on the shelf in inventory as one might a blender).  However, the consumer knows that a luxury cruise is not something she/he will use for a matter of a few hours or that it must be supplemented by other events to be truly enjoyed and appreciated.  This seven day luxury cruise lasts, well, seven days (not hours) and is the event.

On a Seabourn cruise (or it could be Silversea or Regent Seven Seas, for that matter), your transportation, housing, food, drink and entertainment is included.  The cost of strolling the superyacht docks of Monte Carlo, visiting Las Rambla and the markets in Barcelona, or cycling in Porquerolles, France in minimal.  And, how many of you cruise on Seabourn to...yes that's right...have a Seabourn Experience onboard the ship?  Admit it:  Many of you have opted to stay onboard the ship, just to enjoy it, when it arrives in port.

Now that you see one is an object with limited appeal and the other is an experience with much broader appeal, let's look at the mark ups.  I don't care how much time is spent hand stitching some exotic fabric, the mark up on designer clothes is absolutely shocking.  A shirt may cost $5.00 to produce in China, but will sell (would have sold?) for over $250.00 in the U.S.  A $35.00 pair of pants in the U.S. may sell for $150 Euros in France.  While all of that mark up is not enjoyed by the retailer, you can be sure that mark ups of 100% and more by them are not unusual.

On the other hand, the markup on cruises is not nearly at those levels.  (You may recall my concern when Silversea announced a 25% commission rate and I saw it as a sign of desperation because it wasn't economically viable).  Without repeating all that is included in a cruise you must add to it, the cost of the crew, staff, fuel, maintenance, etc., etc. 

One other factor is the holy grail of most cruise lines:  Onboard Revenue.  While on the mentioned lines you drinks and gratuities are included, on the mainstream lines they are extra. Chatting at the Sky Bar costs nothing, while Bingo (talk about profit!) is a hefty extra.  You get the idea:  Paying for a luxury experience net may not be that much more than if you sail on a mainstream line, but you get a seamless and more polished (i.e. enjoyable) experience.

So if you are feeling ripped off by Saks Fifth Avenue being able to sell designer fashions at 70% off, don't transfer that over to the luxury cruise lines.  Not all luxury is created equal and, alas, some luxury actually not only had great value, it remains a great value.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Another Seabourn Promotion - Between Friends

If you are a group of three or more couples (so it does not apply to singles) traveling together on the same cruise and at least one of the couples is brand new to Seabourn and you are not paying a 50% Club Value Savings or similar 50% off promotion (a 45% Early Booking Savings is the maximum discount), you are eligible for $1,500 per couple in onboard credit to be applied only to Private Shore Excursions on most 2009 European voyages arranged through the line’s Signature Service Desk, including active, culinary and cultural offerings. Guests may choose from over 60 departures of some two dozen cruise itineraries of seven to 14 days in the Mediterranean, Western Europe, Scandinavia, Russia and the Norwegian fjords.

Each group of friends can tour together or separately, with their own guide, their own driver and their own private vehicle, choosing from hundreds of options exploring Europe’s fascinating destinations at their own pace and on their own terms -- or creating their own customized experiences to match the group’s particular tastes and interests.  Some examples of private arrangements that might appeal to a group include:

• Joining a top Italian chef for a hands-on, three-hour cooking class in Florence.
• Going on a tasting tour in Rapallo, Italy, with specialty food expert Guido Porrati who will introduce you to focaccia, pesto, olive oil, salame Sant’Olcese, Avetano cheese, strusciata cake and excellent local wines.
• Sailing via private yacht to Birla, Sweden to tour Viking Age ruins, including an in-depth tour of Gronsoo, a privately owned castle on the lake.
• Riding a mountain bike through the wonderful landscape of the Mounts of Malaga in Spain.
• Letting an expert local shopping guide show you around Stockholm’s most famous boutiques with the most internationally acclaimed brands.

This is combinable with Goldring Travel's Exclusive Seabourn Referral Program http://goldringtravel.blogspot.com/2008/10/goldring-travels-new-and-exclusive.html

So, if you are able to find a new to Seabourn couple and another couple of your choosing, you can find yourself with a nifty savings of up to $750 a person on Seabourn arranged Private Excursions.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Seabourn Specials...And I Mean REALLY Special

Seabourn is having somewhat of an unusual situation as a result of the economic situation: Some cruises are booking extremely well, some are essentially sold out and, then again, there are some that are just booking slow.


While I am not a big supporter of “giving away the ship”, tomorrow morning (Monday) Seabourn will virtually be doing that on some select sailings…and the prices will only be available for one week:

Legend June 20 Monte Carlo to Barcelona 7-days - Lead price = $2840
Legend July 11 Rome to Monte Carlo 7-days - Lead price = $2840
Spirit June 20 Venice to Rome 7-days - Lead price = $2840
Spirit July 11 Venice to Rome 7-days - Lead price = $2840
Spirit Aug 1 Venice to Rome 7-days - Lead price = $2840
Pride Apr 14 Athens to Lisbon 14-days - Lead price = $4416
Pride Aug 20 Copenhagen to Copenhagen 9-days - Lead price = $3600

These fares are subject to taxes (but alas no more fuel supplements!), are capacity controlled, subject to prior sale and may be withdrawn at anytime.

For anyone who hasn’t tried Seabourn, or who was thinking that maybe it just was too expensive right now (with the holidays upon us), or who thought that waiting until closer in to the sail date was a good strategy, I am very confident that NOW is the time to book one or more of these cruises.

Call or email me sooner than later, as I am sure that the lowest priced suites will be selling out quickly.

I can start booking these incredibly low fares as early as 9:00 AM on Monday, so I will be in the office by 8:00 am to review any emails and to take your calls.

Enjoy the rest of your weekend…and if you have any questions, feel free to email or call me today.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Cruise Lines' Fuel Supplements Suspended by Carnival Corp.

With oil prices having plummeted to $46 a barrel, Carnival Corp. has suspended (not eliminated) its fuel supplement for all of its major brands: Seabourn, Cunard, Holland America, Princess, Costa and Carnival.

This is how it will work:  A refund of the fuel supplement will be made in the form of a shipboard credit for all bookings within the final payment period for departures on or after December 17, 2008. All bookings outside of the final payment period for departures on or after December 17, 2008 will be adjusted to remove the fuel supplement and guests will be provided with a revised final payment amount.

I am confident the other cruise lines will follow suit shortly. 

Now, if only for the airlines!

Global Superyacht Forum - Some Thoughts About Regulations In this Economy: It Should Be About Quality Crew and Training.

Last month I was on the following panel at the Global Superyacht Forum in Amsterdam:

This extended debating session following on from GSF 2007, will allow delegates to discuss and debate the various ways in which interpretations and consistency of rules would help improve the process of building and designing large yachts. In addition the session will highlight some of the key changes and developments amongst the Flag states and Class societies.


Peter Southgate - Cayman Islands Shipping Registry
David Ralph – Maritime and Coastguard Agency
Eric Goldring – Goldring & Goldring
Robert Curry - American Bureau of Shipping - Europe
Paolo Moretti - RINA
Engel de Boer - Lloyd's Register

The discussion started out with ABS (a Classification society - which is charged with "classing" or determining and assuring the structural/mechanical/operational quality of the yacht) discussing some new regulations regarding windows, port lights and some other items, followed by MCA discussing the need to regulate further and then a discussion about actual work toward some consistency between the government regulators (MCA), the shipping registries (the governmental agencies involved with "home ports" such as you see noted on the stern of ships) and the classification societies.
 
Discussion then led to a comment that many of the "theories" used in creating these regulations do not work in practice; that walking on a Superyacht during construction is worthwhile, but seeing how the regulations actually work in practice...when the Superyacht is in operation...is quite another thing.  And, to be sure, that is not regularly done or those experiences regularly considered with the new regulations.
 
I then raised the subject of why "Cost Benefit Analysis" is not being done in relation to the ever increasingly stringent regulations on design and equipment, noting that the Superyacht industry has not had a fatality or life-threatening injury due to a yacht's failure in well over a year (possibly over 2 years or more); evidencing the industry is one of the safest in the world.  I further stated that while I am sure there will, unfortunately, be a catastrophic accident in the future there most probably will invariably be a significant human element in that loss.  (No one disagreed with my premise.)
 
With that preface I asked why the regulators, registries and classification societies do not run the cost benefit analysis that are run in literally every other business whether it be automotive, aviation or even the space shuttle; noting that in the present economy the concept of there is plenty of money so spending it on supposed increased safety doesn't work...if it ultimately causes yards to fail and yachts not to be built or purchased.
 
After not really hearing much of a substantive response, another reprsentative from the MCA noted from the audience that they had an "ethical responsibility" to generate the ever more stringent regulations.  My response was "Don't get me started with the problems of regulating ethics.  I could give an entire seminar on the topic." 
 
To me that "canned" response was, as it has been in the past, shameful.  Regulations are to be based upon "engineering"; not "ethics".  The MCA's demand that "saving human lives!!!!!" is what is all about and anyone that doesn't prescribe to that philosophy is unethical is, frankly, horrific.  To me it is a smoke screen for politicians trying to justify their existence.  How can I so boldly state this?  It is easy.
 
In an industry where there is a history of years of no catastrophic losses due to items which are the subject of these regulations we are, fortunately, already at the supposed "Theoretical Zero."  You cannot improve on that kind of consistent history simply by throwing regulations and creating higher standards in the hope that it "may" at some point cause one or two theoretically possible losses from happening at some unknown point in the future.
 
What you can do is use the, now more than ever, finite amount of available dollars available for designing safety on what is the weakest link in the Superyacht...and cruise...industry:  Crew. 
 
Imagine how much safety could actually be improved with the millions of dollars expended on crew recruitment, education, training and safety?  Dollar for dollar, euro for euro and pound for pound I do not believe there is a single soul in the Superyacht or cruise industry that could...or frankly, would...argue that my position is incorrect.
 
The MCA will argue that it has training requirements.  The fact is that within the Superyacht industry captains, crew and managers are screaming that taking MCA required tests do not make good captains:  years of actual experience (and not just sea time) does.  A head in a book versus a head in an engine room, a seat in a classroom or at the helm, where do you think the knowledge actually is obtained?
 
When you walk on a superyacht or a cruise ship even the most novice of passengers (forget the professionals) can instantly identify the crew members that "get it", that having the training and who exude the confidence and knowledge that puts every one of us at ease. 
 
In an emergency, do you want:
 
     1.  A supposedly "idiot-proof" designed piece of equipment with an idiot standing by the ready to use it;  or,
 
     2.  A still well designed piece of equipment with a well-trained and knowledgeable crew member able to operate the equipment, even if it doesn't work perfectly, to its optimum level?
 
Personally, I would guess that 100% would vote for keeping the word "idiot" out of the equation!
 
So my question is simple:  Why to the regulators like MCA insist on more regulations on equipment with a history of excellent safety, drawing millions in funds away from actual crew recruitment and improvement, when the real improvements in avoiding accidents lies with crew?
 
I have no answers.  Do you?

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Piracy and Cruise Ships - Reality vs. Hype

This afternoon I walked out of a meeting in New York City with a fellow superyacht industry person discussing the now normal issues of what is the happening in world markets and BAM, it hit me in the face:  A giant electronic ticker tape announcing the pirate attack on the Oceania Nautica...which happened three days ago; rendering it hardly worthy of being a headline.  Then I returned to my office and found a note about an article announcing the cruise lines are reacting to the pirate attack...but then read on to see that the cruise lines are doing little different as of yet.

Blazing headlines of something that was pretty much a non-event (see below before you get upset with my characterization) and an article hinting at big changes when it actually says the cruise lines haven't changed a thing and only a few imminent port calls in Mumbai (a totally different subject I thought) have been canceled.

For years I have seen the 2005 incident regarding the Seabourn Spirit mentioned...and mentioned...and mentioned.  It was, until earlier this week, a single incident with a "news" life of three years.  Why?

Seabourn just transited the Gulf of Aden, which lies between Somalia and Yemen, with absolutely no incident.  Seabourn did arrange for an escort by the French Navy, which most certainly acted as a deterrent, but it, alas, was a non-event...and not reported.  Why?

The Oceania Nautica just had an incident where pirates came within 300 yards of the ship.  That is three (3) American football fields, to put things in perspective.  It is, most certainly, worrisome, and must not be belittled, but the fact is that the Nautica is very substantially larger than the Seabourn Spirit and it did what it was supposed to do.  Net result:  Nothing happened.  Perspective:  I have received direct word from a witness on the ship that it was "all very low key on the ship". 

Now, while the media is hyping this story and repeats it with "updates" minutes apart, the reality it is not worthy of being an ongoing banner headline news story.  It is a concern and it must be addressed, but not only for cruise ships, but for the entire maritime industry that plies those waters. It must also be kept in perspective that in both instances - three years apart - no passengers were injured and tactics have been put in place since the 2005 incident to not only place cruise lines on guard, but to be very proactive.

So why are there some posters on message boards like Cruise Critic pretty much ranting how they are not going to risk their lives cruising in "that" part of the world?  Silly hysteria does nothing to responsibly warn of a real danger nor does it do anything to actually improve one's safety or quality of life.  But, to be fair, when the media takes a newsworthy story and then fabricates into being a"reality" that does not even arguably exist it is shameful.  (It is the same media that recently told us we would have to live with US$100.00+ oil for the rest of our lives...as just one other example.)

Keeping it in perspective, performing intimate acts on a ship's railing is more dangerous (yes, it happened on Princess).  Being drunk on a cruise ship is more dangerous. Heck, I am confident walking up the gangway is more of a hazard.  How about a rouge wave?  Helmsman error?  These things do not cause cruisers to shun cruises or cruise lines. 

To the extent the hype brings awareness of potential danger to those with "idiot" stamped on their foreheads, fine.  (Yes, I know, you think that is a bit strong, but how many of you actually thought of "doing it" on a ship's railing 10 decks above the sea on a moving ship...and then actually did it?)  To the extent that it brings to the cruise lines attention the need for more vigilance, fine as well. 

But here, Seabourn took action after its event three years ago and Oceania did as well.  Both worked.  So what is the issue here?

There are bad people out there and we need to be aware of them and, when appropriate, minimize the risks they pose.  But we should not buy into the hype. 

The hype is not to benefit us, it is to benefit the media by having more people read or watch it, so we can be bombarded with more advertisements to sell us things with labels like, "Do not iron garment while wearing."

Monday, December 1, 2008

Silversea - A Call from the Captain!

Late today I received a call from Marilyn Conroy, Silversea's senior vice president of sales and marketing concerning my most recent post.

We had a wonderful chat about Silversea, her perspective on a number of my comments, concerns and theories. And, of course, I listened carefully to both the information she had to share as well as her perspectives.

With Ms. Conroy's permission I want to share the following comments:

First, I am assured Silversea is financially sound. According to Ms. Conroy Silversea has invested $500,000,000 in the purchase and refit of the Prince Albert II, the refurbishment of the Silver Wind and Silver Cloud and, of course, the new Silver Spirit. While I do not equate spending money with having money (Wall Street are you listening?) Ms. Conroy's assurances as to the owner's financial strength cannot be ignored; taken with a grain of salt, possibly, but they most certainly are worthy of note.

Second, news on the Spirit has admittedly been slow in coming and brochures have been delayed because, in part, the desire to have the itineraries perfectly set. However, I am advised that the Spirit is still scheduled to be delivered in December 2009 and, in fact, there may even be a Christmas Cruise offered somewhere in Europe. I am told information will be forthcoming around the first of the year, so we will all have to stay tuned.

Third, I am told the concept behind the desired passenger mix is as a result of Silversea's vision of creating the ambiance of a grand European hotel. Along those lines, the passenger mix is approximately 55% North American and, of those guests, approximately 51% are first time guests from North America. This is actually pretty similar to the information I previously provided here. I can't say if it is a pure marketing scheme or one created out of the reality of where bookings are of recent history coming from (i.e. with the then weaker dollar), but it is what it is.

Fourth, passenger loads/occupancy is not what Silversea (or frankly any cruise line) wants it to be but Ms. Conroy claims Silversea is running at about 80% or so of capacity...which is actually an increase from a few years ago.

Now for the other, not as positive, information - but provided with all due candor...and that is, to be sure, priceless:

Fifth, the Prince Albert II in French Polynesia was not a good idea. It is an exploration ship and, thus is without a pool...not a good thing for many in French Polynesia. (Though, frankly, I don't think I ever went into Regent's Paul Gauguin's pool after spending my days in the sea.) It just didn't sell. So the ship is literally being laid up and will be doing Antarctic and Artic voyages. That is why there is a hole in the schedule. My question was answered, but laying up a cruise ship (no matter the size) is not one's favorite choice as it just costs money with absolutely no return.

Sixth, according to Ms. Conroy the change from European to Filipino staff was done, in part, because some of the European staff were not as friendly as they might have been. However, the training of the Filipino staff was not instantaneous and there was a significant learning curve. Personally, I am not buying this one. While there are definite cultural differences between Filipinos and Europeans (and many cultural differences between Europeans!) this all comes down to training, training and training (as well has happy staff). I have had wonderful Filipino staff on Celebrity and outstanding European staff on Seabourn. It can be done regardless of culture...even though the styles may be different as a result of those cultures. I also remain convinced that the change was, in the other part, a cost savings measure.

Finally, the 25% commission offering combined with 50% off savings. As I tried to explain in my original post, 50% off savings are not really 50% off of a real price. Ms. Conroy also correctly points out that Silversea does have 50% off savings for its past passengers from time to time and extending it to first time guests is not the most desirable thing, but in this economic climate all cruise lines are sweetening the pot (my words) so different schemes are tried.

Further, while the 25% commission rate is very high (and, again, I hesitate to provide the "normal" rates) the design was asserted to be a motivator. Again, I am not sure I am buying that one. I sell the cruises my clients desire. To claim I would sell them a less desirable cruise because I would be making more money is not exactly a compliment. To be sure not every travel agent is as passionate about the business in the long run as I am, but whether it be the exploiting of greed or providing a way for agents to provide additional savings to their clients, the 25% commission thing still bothers me and indicates something isn't right. (We can agree to disagree on this point.)

So what does this all mean? It means that communication is a wonderful thing. Expressing different perspectives on the same facts is a fantastic way to allow each reader to decide for themselves where things are...and if they are relevant to them or of just passing interest.

I am pleased that the Cruise Lines read my blog. I am more pleased that they speak with me and provide me with information. That is, in the end, a great benefit to you. You get the real information, discussion and perspectives.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Silversea - Lost at Sea????

Every time I go to post something about Silversea Cruise Line, something else comes about that makes me shake my head. 

Not so long ago I posted about the Prince Albert II making a big play in Tahiti and French Polynesia.  Well, scratch that out.  That itinerary has been pulled.  It is not surprising in that it drew so little interest.  I, personally, found that a March sailing was literally wide open....and I mean WIDE open.  Obviously, either from a marketing, pricing or some external factor, people found the Paul Gauguin to be a better choice...if they even knew about the Silversea option.

Instead the Prince Albert II is. according to a Silversea announcement, heading to the Artic, but there is catch.  If you go to the Silversea website there are no itineraries.  That three month block of time is nowhere to be found.  On March 8, 2009 the ship is in Valparaiso, Chile and on June 1, 2009 it is in Hamburg, Germany.  Huh?

There may be good reason for this, but as a travel agent who specializes in luxury clientèle, I am very confident in saying that the appearance of chaos is not a good thing.  And, without question, this appears like chaos.

But then there is the whole discounted cruise issue and how that was handled.  Silversea announced that it was discounting its cruises through March by as much as 50% or more.  But then it was announced, to the public in places like Seatrade, that it was providing its travel agents with an unheard of 25% commission.  Doing the simple math:  A $10,000 brochure fare would really have a 20% early booking savings on it already, so it is a real $8,000 fare.  When that fare is reduced to 50%, it becomes a $5,000 fare.  When you then give a 25% commission, it becomes a $3,750 net fare rather than a much more significant one.  (I can't give you the exact amounts as commission information is supposed to be confidential, but know it is significantly more.)

This resulted in literally every one of my clients that showed any interest in a Silversea cruise afraid to book a cruise with it because it sounds like the line is starving for cash.  And being cash-starved in a credit-tight world is not a good thing.  Considering the last thing someone wants to worry about is whether their reduced expendable income is going to be lost (or, at a minimum, a credit card dispute tying up funds for weeks or months) or their getaway becoming a "get involved" or worrisome, the logic of Silversea's actions just escapes me.

I started to write, "I am assuming there is a plan in there somewhere", but then I thought again.  I must restate it as, "Is there a plan in there?" 

I am, to be sure, very concerned about the survival of Silversea.  Do I have firm evidence of financial
distress?  Absolutely NOT.  But I still have my opinion based upon the following series of events: 

     - Change from European to lesser trained and not all English-fluent Filipino staff;
     - Rotating chefs and reduction in food quality;
     - Announcement that Silversea wants over 50% of its passengers to be non-U.S. based;
     - Claims of passengers loads increasing by over 30% (a clear indication of empty ships, for you can't increase passenger loads if you have full ships and no new ones in operation);
     - Touting that there are many new passengers, so there should be no intimidation of feeling left out (Isn't that an admission of passenger not being satisfied, so the repeater numbers have declined?)
     - Sharp reductions in pricing through March 2009;
     - Publicly announcing 25% commissions to travel agents; and, without limitation,
     - Prince Albert II chaos.
     - (Note:  I have no solid information on this last one, but I have heard rumors of it:  Construction on the new ship has been slowed.)

I may criticize some aspects of other lines, as I just did with the Regent Seven Seas Prime 7 Steakhouse, but there is a big difference.  I have commended Apollo Management and Prestige Cruise Holdings for taking a much more fiscally responsible approach any effectively canning the new ship, not wasting money on the Navigator (which I believe will be leaving the fleet at the earliest possible time...which probably will be at least a couple of years away) and making upgrades (mechanical and in public spaces) on the Voyager and Mariner.  I also surmise that ending its relationship with the Paul Gauguin is based upon the net smaller returns since it had the added costs of chartering the vessel to deal with.  I also may not agree with Regent's pricing, but alas it is not "giving away the ship", but has focused on marketing (even making cold calls to past passengers).

So, there are ways to be aggressive in this slower market and there are ways to cut costs and expenses.  I see Apollo/Prestige Cruise Holdings/Regent's logic and await the results.  I hope someone can tell me what is going on at Silversea. 

I think it is important that Silvesea survives and flourishes.  Competition and Alternatives are both good and necessary...and they inspire Confidence in the marketplace.

Celebrity Solstice - An Absolutely Amazing and Impressive Ship - Part II

Having reviewed some of Celebrity Solstice's overall design, the pool/outside public spaces and the restaurants,I did want to add some additional photos.

Below is one of the bars aft of The Lawn Club.  As you can see there is interesting lighting, the expected bar stools and tables with chairs...and in the rear (closeup shown further below), comfortable all-weather wicker seating.  This sort of furniture, in various permutations, is found throughout the outdoor areas of the ship.



The Library is also of note.  It is a truly inviting space with the addition of wonderful natural light.  The proof of its good design was in the number of people I saw enjoying this space on a short cruise.



My thoughts now turn to the lounges.

One of my favorite spaces on Celebrity's Millennium-class ships is Michael's Club; a wonderful warm wooded, formal yet comfortable space originally designed as a cigar lounge, but transformed into a piano bar.  On the Celebrity Solstice the space has been refined and made more cozy.  Rather than being oriented for larger groups to have a performance, it has been broken down into three smaller areas:  piano/bar, lounge by the fireplace and the living room.

What this does is allow those who want to interact with the pianist to do so, those that want to be with the music, but not interact to do so, and those that like the ambiance to do so music in the background.  Quite ingenious. [Note as to service:  I am a regular drinker of Glenfiddich whisky.  During my pre-inaugural cruise there was an open bar policy, but with only certain brands available.  Somehow, without any real magic, I always had a Glenfiddich available.  I certainly received, yet again, "Star Treatment".  Outstanding!]

Another wonderful space is the Ensemble Lounge.  It is the perfect name for this space, as it works as a sort of upscale jazz club and hub for the specialty restaurants (Murano, Tuscan Grille, Silk Harvest and Blu).  It is a larger space with comfortable sofas, chairs and a bar with nicely designed pathways to the various restaurants and Michael's Club, so it seem intimate enough, rather than merely a passageway.

The Martini Bar on Deck Four (sorry, no photo) is definitely a hub for more high energy activity.  It is not my favorite space, but that is a personal preference.  By the crowds and noise (yes it is one of the only loud spaces on the ship) it is definitely a place to have fun.  One fellow passenger noted she enjoyed playing with the ice permanently located in the middle of one of the tables.

Across from the Martini Bar is the Passport Lounge, which is supposed to be a yacht-like locale.  Having been on many yachts, I am not sure where that description came from..  It is not a great space; giving me a feeling that it probably is meant to handle overflow from the Martini Bar or for those who want to watch the action from afar.

I did not have a change to really enjoy the Sky Lounge Observation area, high overlooking the bow.  It is a large space with great views and a very clean, white, appearance.  It is pretty, but definitely reminds you that you are on a very large ship.


There is also a nice bar by the Casino which has an interesting row of LCD TVs showing "art-like" images either across the screens or simultaneously on all of them at the same time. 


Finally, as to the lounges I am mentioning (and, yes, there are more), is Quasar, the disco.  It has a definite Jetson's feel to it.  I had wondered if the hanging chairs (see below) would be a hindrance or cool and, seeing the club packed, they are very cool.  The space definitely has the feel of a good dance club, rather than a ship's disco.  Also, being located just outside the Solstice Theater (as is the Stage Door Comedy Club), it draws people in to it rather than being a hidden place you need to seek out.  Well done!


My last post will be discussing the Accommodations, focusing mostly on the AquaClass Cabins.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Regent's New Prime 7 - A New Luxury Restaurant or Just an Extra Ordinary Eatery?

So the news announced today by Regent Seven Seas is that it is about to install its new Prime 7 Steakhouse on its Voyager and Mariner ships. My question, to be honest, is "What, in real terms,is new and luxury?"

This replacement for the lackluster and curious Asian-esque Lattitudes sounds physically appealing:  a "rich pallete of greens and golden hues", "supple leather furniture" and "polished granite and burnished woods".  I am most interested to see the design, especially after seeing just last week what Celebrity accomplished with its Celebrity Solstice's steakhouse.

That said, the menu sounds like a very common steakhouse menu and nothing more. It starts out with an interesting "trio of steak tartares and foie gras sliders with rhubarb chutney", but then hypes them as being avant-garde.  They aren't.  Did Regent find the recipe on The Food Network website?  See http://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/emeril-lagasse/rhubarb-and-foie-gras-recipe/index.html .)  After those highlights it was old fashioned oysters Rockefeller and jumbo lump crabmeat cakes.  To be fair, they can be extraordinary or just the same old, same old.  Time will tell.

So I look further into the menu and am really disappointed.  Once I get past the 32 ounce Porterhouse and the 18 ounce Cote de Boeuf (ribeye steak), the remainder is nothing extraordinary, but rather exactly what you would expect...nothing more: surf and turf, lambchops, frozen crab legs, frozen lobster tails and roasted chicken.

OK, you probably think I am being harsh...even anti-Regent.  No, I am wondering where the gourmet "6 star" luxury experience is.  (Regent is the one that started the 6 star hype.)  I would expect that coming out with a new restaurant on these ships would bring something special.  (It is not hard.  For example, Celebrity Solstice has Kobe beef as an offering in addition to homemade gnocchi and ravioli.)

If I am going on what is clearly one of the most, if not the most, expensive major cruise line in the world I expect better than expected, more than ordinary and, most certainly, something better than hype.  While it is only one element of a cruise, I find it worrisome that Celebrity seems to have executed the steakhouse concept better on on a cruise that will cost you literally a fraction of what a Regent cruise will.

I hope I am wrong, but having just come off a ship which wow'd me and which provided me with more than solid service and which proudly calls itself "premium" not "luxury" I just expect more.  We shall see.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Seabourn Announces: Seabourn Sojourn's 2010 Inaugural in London

Seabourn Cruise Line has announced that the Seabourn Sojourn, sister to the Seabourn Odyssey, will set sail from London in June 2010 on its inaugural cruise. 

The itinerary from Greenwich includes the Faroe Islands, Iceland and the Norwegian Fjords.  With the Seabourn Sojourn's Maiden Season being in Northern Europe, and its inaugural cruise commencing from London, Seabourn is making a very big statement of its commitment to the United Kingdom, how important the British are to the line and, also, what growth potential lies within its shores.

Fares and complete itineraries will be available in February 2009.  I believe the remainder of the fleet's itineraries will also be announced at that time.

Celebrity Solstice - An Absolutely Amazing and Impressive Ship - Part I

Being as skeptical and critical as I am, I did not board the brand new Celebrity Solstice for my Pre-Inaugural Cruise with any expectation other than it would be a solid, but similar, Celebrity product but in a megasize. I was very wrong!

The Solstice impresses from the moment you board and Wow's you at literally every turn. Simply put: The Celebrity Solstice is, overall, the most elegant and beautifully designed cruise ship I have ever been on.


First, some perspective, as we take a short tour of the ship. The ship is very large. While you can have some absolutely wonderful, and true luxury experiences, all over the ship...you do have to walk, well, all over the ship. While it is a bit smaller than the QM2, it probably is the best ship to compare it to in the premium market (about 122,000 gross tons vs. 150,000 gross tons...which is actually a complicated measure of volume). However, the Solstice simply blows away the QM2 when it comes to design, style, fit, finish, amenities, elegance...well you get the picture. Even if you are traveling in Grill Class on the QM2, you need to stay in your "protected space" to have an upscale to luxury experience. On the Solstice, you can have it all over the ship.

Specifically about the ship, I want to first mention The Lawn Club. I thought this was just hype and silly...that was before I boarded. It is actually a really beautiful space where you get a wonderful feeling of peace and color (as it is is a painting). Little touches like beautifully shaped teak benches, huge flower pots that light up from within, arching canopies and the like make it a sensory feast. There is golf putting, bocce and other lawn activities. Yes, it sounds hokey, but it isn't.


The Pool Area is also, while too large for me (personally) is absolutely beautiful and provides many nooks, types of shade, open spaces and things to see and do. If you look closely at the two photos you will see large beige beds tucked in between white sailcloth, the dancing waters fountain, lots of architecturally interesting details and style. What you can't see are the many different seating options, ranging from all-weather wicker chairs and lounges to hanging tented hammocks for two.

What you also cannot see are the areas forward and aft off the Pool area. There are so many different places to sit, lounge or gather in groups. It really impressed me with not only the amount of open deck areas not involving the Pool area, but how many different types of seating, awnings, shapes, etc. Celebrity used.

The Solarium is a beautiful space and also has many nice and creative touches, from dancing streams of lit water, to unique tented beds and a solar grid on its glass roof. It is also home to the AquaSpa Cafe for lighter lunches in smaller portions such as blackened tuna or chicken breast and an awesomely chosen salad bar.

The Speciality Restaurants are each a work of art and Celebrity has emphasized that not only are the menus unique to Solstice, but the food quality is much improved, more creative and it at a standard much higher than on its other ships. (The improvements in quality and creativity will be migrating to the other ships by the summer.)

The main restaurant, The Grand Epernay, really didn't do much for me during the day. In the evening "the look" was there. Elegance in a huge space with incredibly comfortable chairs, wonderful lighting and no sense of crowding at all. The chandeliers are unique and the wine cellar is awesome. In the photo below it is the long tower at the far end of the restaurant and runs floor to ceiling. As for the food, whether it was a goat cheese and beet salad, roasted quail or a chocolate tower filled with a light chocolate cream creation, it complimented the room.



Now, each speciality restaurant has its own personality and I am confident in saying is as beautiful as some of the finest restaurants on land. There is a reason for this: The restaurants were created by the top restaurant designers in the industry. I will talk about them more in another post, but in order of appearance below there are Murano (most formal); Tuscan Grille (steakhouse); Silk Harvest (Asian); and, Blu (AquaClass - more on this below).






Although I do not have photos to share at the moment, the Oceanview Cafe and Grill (aka buffet) is also a winner. It is bright, clean, plays off of the colors of white and blue and uses - with great success - a number of islands in addition to more traditional buffet setups. This pretty much eliminates long lines (other than for fresh pasta) and with the lighting and presentation make the food very attractive. The food varies from Asian to BBQ to Mexican to Continental and are all clearly marked overhead (so you don't have to crowd areas to see what is there). And get this: There are actual bowls for salads! Missing: Trays! You actually bring a plate of food to your table and dine. Very nice touches.

There are also other venues, such as Bistro on Five for crepes, the Mast Grill and Bar (pool food and drinks) and Cafe al Bacio for coffees and gelato.

I also do not have, at the moment, photos of the Shopping Areas, but they are worthy of note. There are true shops, not ones filled with cruise line "stuff" and they are designed to look and feel like true boutiques and you may not only stroll through them, you can have private cocktail parties or intimate gatherings with an appointments. You have the sense of height, openness and style rather than low ceilings and tables filled with not so special "specials". I hope this concept works out.

In my next post I will discuss the lounges and cabins.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Banks Mansion Hotel Amsterdam - A Great Place to Stay

I arrived in Amsterdam at 5:15 am this morning in advance of the Global Superyachts Forum, dreading having to wait for anything to open.  I was certain that I would not be able to check-in to my hotel, nothing would be open, and I would be miserable.  Boy was I wrong!

Upon arriving at the Banks Mansion (in a great location only two blocks from Rembrantplein) I was greated with a smile, with a complimentary minibar, free wifi, very nice (if smaller ) room with a view of the canal!  It was still dark, so a little bit of CNN and a drink and I was asleep.  (BTW, there are lots of other little touches, like a nighlight on the bathroom floor and a tv speaker there too, a bowl of apples in your room to snack on, free movies, Frank Lloyd Wright inspired furniture, plenty of task lighting and free DVDs among others.)

A few hours later I was awoken by a racket outside.  I opened my curtains and it was a parade; a parade for Sinter Klaus...the "real" Santa Claus!  Children were lining the street, beautiful horsedrawn carrages and floats were slowing going by with jugglers and elf-like assistance giving candy and treats to the children.  What a great way to be woken up!

A bit of complimentary cooked breakfast and it was time to walk around a bit; seeing the familiar and discovering some new things.  What I like about this hotel, among other things, is that its location is fantastic for shopping, dining and people watching...with the museums also being within walking distance...and I can hop on the No. 4 tram right to the RAI Center for the GSF and METS marine industry show.

I try to do one "tourist" thing everywhere I go.  Today was the Heineken Brewery Tour.  The tour has been closed for about a year, so it was brand new.  They did a great job with the renovations.  You would not recognize the place...and most all for the better.  While for an older person it was OK, there is a lot of fun stuff for the younger tourist.  So, age dependent, I would put it on the "Must Due" or "Give it a miss" list.

Another bit of a walk and then back to the Banks Mansion for complimentary cocktails and snacks in a small, but very attractive, lobby...and writing this post. I really like this place.  (And Amsterdam ain't so bad either!)

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Cruise Value Center Shuts Its Doors! What Next?

On Tuesday I reported a major discount cruise travel agency had gone out of business.  (http://goldringtravel.blogspot.com/2008/11/use-caution-and-common-sense-when.html ). Yesterday the word was out:  Cruise Value Center shut its doors.

Cruise Value Center, it is reported from a number of sources, failed to transfer $3,000,000+ in cruise passenger payments to the cruise lines and another $1,500,000 in travel insurance payments to Prime Travel Protection.  Obviously, this leaves quite a number of passengers without their cruises and/or without insurance.

What Should You Do First?

The first thing you should do is contact the cruise lines directly to be sure your booking is in place and paid for.  (If you paid  only a deposit, make sure that is in place.) 

Then contact the insurance company, if you used Prime Travel or some other third party insurer, and confirm your insurance is in place.

If you paid with a credit card and find either your cruise or insurance is not in place, but the charge has been made, have the credit card company work with you to either get the cruise/insurance or, more likely, obtain a credit for those amounts to your credit card.  (If you paid with cash, you may well have problem.  Contacting CVC isn't going to happen, so you may need to wait to be contacted...but more on that below.)

If the insurance is in place, but not the cruise, you may well have a claim against the insurance policy for the amounts you paid, but were not paid over to the cruise line.  (Word of caution:  If you were issued the insurance policy...not just billed for it...but CVC did not forward the money to Prime Travel, you may still have coverage!  Check with Prime Travel, your state consumer affairs department or your attorney.)

Where Do You Go From There? 

From what I understand, the bookings with CVC are being handled by Best Price Cruises; a Florida cruise discounter and one of the largest presences on the internet.  You will probably have to speak with Best Price Cruises to get any information on your cruises.  In this transition period, this may be harder than you think because of the logistics involved and the number of passengers affected.  But BPC is a big outfit and with new booking volumes down, they may have the staff on hand available sooner than later.

That said, while I have no knowledge as to BPC's financial situation, I am aware that a number of companies that have a large internet business are under huge financial pressures, so you may want to be sure, if you have a CVC booking that you are not "going from the frying pan into the fire".  (Maybe CVC's failure is BPC's saving grace?  Maybe BPC is solid as a rock?  I have not a clue!)

Also, you may now feel there is a benefit to knowing your travel agent a someone who actually cares about you and your booking.  The concept of "All I care about is the lowest price" may no longer give you sufficient comfort.  Limited communication by way of an occasional form email or disinterested phone call of 30 seconds may not be enough.  You have questions.  You have concerns.  You need answers.  You might even need a little bit of hand-holding.

While CVC technically controls your booking, you may ask to have your booking transferred to another agency.  You may have the ability to simply cancel your cruise and then rebook with a new travel agent.

I know there are a number of "big box" agencies that are in trouble.  Their model, as I briefly explained before, is to have a huge volume of lower priced cruises.  When that huge volume drops significantly there is a huge hole that simply cannot be filled.  While it is hoped that people will start booking more cruises soon, as the travel agents and cruise lines feel the pinch, not all travel agencies working with this "high volume/low profit" business model will survive.

Does that mean you should book directly with the cruise lines?  In most instances:  No.  There are strong travel agencies out there and they still provided many added values (such as complimentary Ensemble Experiences and cocktail parties, travel books with new bookings, etc.), information and discounts.  I believe now is the time to search out those agencies for they will work hard to earn your business. 

Goldring Travel does that every single day.  That is why our motto is, "Be Treated By Your Travel Agent As You Will Be Onboard!"  That said, I work with individuals and never hope to be a mega-travel agency.  I love doing what I do.  Alas, This Is My Yacht!

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Celebrity Solstice - A Preview of My Upcoming Pre-Inaugural Cruise

Next week, after my attendance at the Global Superyacht Form  http://www.superyachtevents.com/gsf/gsf2008.asp) in Amsterdam, I am flying to Ft. Lauderdale to board the brand new Celebrity Solstice for a two day pre-inaugural cruise.

What I am most interested in, other than the technical innovations such as the use of solar panels, is its AquaClass (spa) cabins with its private Blu restaurant, as well as its hopefully true ability to make this large ship classy, comfortable and anything but a mega-ship experience.

I will be checking out the Persian Gardens (an oasis of steam baths, saunas and such); access for which is included in the AquaClass cabins, but is extra cost for other passengers.  Also the Solarium and various private lounges (such as Cellar Masters) and restaurants are tickling my interests. 

I will leave to others to right about the "common" and will focus on what makes, or is supposed to make, this ship special.  I do, however, feel obligated to check out the Lawn Club (putting green and all), the Hot Glass Show (in the glassblowing studio) and the dancing waters by the main pool.

One thought that greatly interests me is, does this focus on the ship actually play well for Celebrity as Americans look for closer cruises (shunning Europe due, in large part, to the the higher cost of airfare)?  Does the Solstice provide passengers with an upscale experience where the ship is truly "the destination" as it cruises around the Caribbean?

What I do plan on doing, fair or not, is make a head-to-head comparison between the Seabourn triplets, the new Seabourn Odyssey and the Celebrity Solstice.  It might not be competition, but if the Solstice can provide a sufficiently upscale experience, it might just give luxury passengers who look to the ship rather than the itinerary...and are looking harder at their cruise budget...a pretty interesting option.

The jury is not yet out.  Court will be in session next week and the evidence will be examined and deliberations begun on November 19th!  The verdict will be reported hopefully by next weekend.

If you have anything in particular you would like me to check out, please leave a comment or email me.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Queen Elizabeth 2 Has Minor Grounding Incident

Oh, for the QE2 to exit gracefully! 

Today it was reported that on her approach to Southampton she had a minor grounding incident.  She was refloated, escorted to Southampton and, after an MCA inspection, given the all clear to continue on her final voyages.

Use Caution and Common Sense When Booking Your Cruise

Folks, let's face it.  There are a number of travel agency business models that just aren't working in our new economy. 

I found out that last evening that one of the largest online agencies has effectively closed up shop with millions of dollars of debt and a number of cash paying clients (even luxury clients) apparently hung out to dry with no cruise and no money.  What is truly disturbing is that its website is still functioning while its phones ring off the hook unanswered.

Before I go on:  I don't care what any other travel agency tells you, USE A CREDIT CARD NO MATTER WHAT.  If you have an expensive cruise and need to pay in installments, do it.  If you are concerned about "showing" cash, find another solution.  In this environment there are big and small travel agencies really under the gun.  If you use a credit card (not a debit card) you have real protection regardless if there is a problem with the travel agency or the cruise line.  I would also caution that the credit card charge should be directly with the cruise line rather than the travel agency.  Ask.  Don't Assume!

Clearly, travel agencies that depend on high volume/low profit cruises to fund their day-to-day cash flow needs  are really suffering...and struggling.  When an agency is making $50 net on an NCL or Carnival cruise there has to be lot of bookings to keep the lights on.  What has happened, unfortunately, is that many of these lower cost reservations just stopped being made due to loss of job security, home equity and overall fear of what is yet to come.

Part of the reason for the problem is that the retention rate for their clients is less than 20%...because price, not service, is pretty much the singular draw to these agencies.  I call this the "Love 'em and Leave 'em" approach.  So with a low repeat rate and no real way to draw in new clients, these "Love 'em and Leave 'em" agencies are now trying to figure out how to stay in business, but they are for the most part "One Trick Ponies".

Yes there are those individuals that purchase their luxury cruises on Seabourn, Silversea, Regent Seven Seas and Crystal...even Oceania and Azamara...from these discounters.  They are, with only a couple of exceptions, really not getting a lower price and suffer with lesser service and now, to be sure, insecurities.

I know of no legitimate way to quickly take a "sell low cost, heavily discounted, cruises" model and turn it into a working model of a travel agency that creates loyalty and stability through good pricing (while not giving the cruises away) with great customer service. 
So when looking to book your next cruise, or even maintain your present bookings, please be sure to be cautious.  You might just even consider canceling your bookings deposited with cash or having them transferred to an agency you have faith will be there down the road.  Now is the time to be sure you are getting the most for your dollar, not just what seems like the best price. 

Remember, if it seems to good to be true, it probably is.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Seabourn Upgrading to Exclusive Molton Brown "Therapies" Toiletries

Seabourn announced today that it has listened to me.  OK, maybe they didn't, but it was something I have been speaking to Seabourn about for quite a few months.  Quoting from the Seabourn Odyssey blog:

For many luxury travel enthusiasts, the most fun part of sailing on Seabourn is the designer-label, high-end experience from the guest suites, to dining, to the spa experience. Famed bath and beauty product company Molton Brown, London is a regular fixture on Seabourn, however, we will be introducing a new range of products from Molton Brown, London called Therapies. The Yachts of Seabourn will offer these exclusively to cruise guests. (i.e. no other cruise line will have them.)



The Therapies Range is a high performance , luxury treatment line created solely from active plant ingredients to assist guests while they travel. The new range will help purify the body of pollutants picked up during the journey, ease travel tension, fight the effects of jetlag and aid sleep.

Products you will see onboard include:


Purifying plum-kadu hairwash and plum-kadu conditioner
Purifying ambrusca bath and shower gel and ambrusca body tonic
Purifying ambrusca cleanse bar
Purifying ambrusca thermal salts muscle soak
Sleep cedrus temple soother and soothing body oil

In addition, we will continue to offer the Molton Brown bathing preparations listed in our Pure Pampering menu and a selection of designer soaps including Hermes and L’Occitane.

In this time of people looking for where the cruise lines are cutting back, it is refreshing...and dare I say comforting...to see that Seabourn is still working hard to refine and improve the "details".

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Strategies for Booking Cruises in This Economy: Follow Them and You Will Not Rip Your Pants Sitting on the Fence.

Regardless of the economic pressures, or possible because of them, we all want to take a cruise.  But with job insecurities, retirement accounts depleted and general tendencies not to spend money on anything but necessities, the concept of taking a cruise seems so "pie in the sky". The reality is...and I have written about this twice already, but from different perspectives...a getaway can be a real benefit. 

The question - assuming you are reading on - is: "How do I get the best bang for my shrinking buck?  I gotta getaway, but don't think I can afford it."

First, the easy one:  If you have the ability to get away during the period of December through February there are some incredible deals; where thousands of dollars have been shaved off of cruise prices on mass market, contemporary and premium cruise lines.  If you have ever thought about doing a South American cruise this is well and truly the time to do it.  Offers such as free air, half price for the second passenger, complimentary upgrades are now the norm. 

Second, from a contemporary/mainstream cruise line point of view, I would look very hard at two things:  (1) What is really included; and, (2) What is the service level onboard? 

Why, you may ask, would I not look first a "price"?  The reason is that there is a very real tendency by some lines to cut back on service and push the holy grail of onboard revenue.  So in the end your great deal costs you a lot more than you ever anticipated...and you are stuck on that ship for a week or more.  It is those little things like charges for specialty restaurants that really aren't that special (though some are!).  Or charges for ice cream, pizza or a towel taken by someone from the pool area that you had to schlep from your cabin. 

Complimentary activities can be more enjoyable or enlightening (such as lectures and demonstrations) than bingo or a spin through the shops or the casino.  What about a good library of books or audio?  If your cabin is comfortable and, if you like, there is a good selection of movies you may not feel the urge to be out in the public spaces in order to feel more at ease or entertained. 

Clearly on a $599 cabin you can be spending 100% of your cruise fare on additional onboard revenue items in a heartbeat.  So by careful planning you can actually cut your total cruise cost by as much as 50% or more.

Personally, I look at service even before I look at what is included.  If I have good service then the overall feel of the cruise is better and, honestly, I tend not to spend as much trying to find my peace.  I two minute chat with a friendly pool attendant may forestall that urge to "just do something"...like buy that $3.00 ice cream or that $1.50 soda.  Solid service in the main restaurant makes the food taste better (or not be as important), so you don't feel the need to spend for a specialty restaurant just to feel...well...special.  Someone casually stopping by my lounge chair and asking me if I would like a glass of water makes things feel more caring.  It is, to be sure, the feeling that many need right about now.
So having figured out (1) Service; (2) What is included; and, (3) Price you may still have the hesitancy about booking a January or February cruise in November.  If you think waiting will serve you better, I would caution you that while the deal you wanted may still be available, you may well be applying it to a two or three category higher cabin thereby losing hundreds of dollars dashing your plan of getting a better deal. 

The fact is that prices will only go so low and then that is it.  So if you think you will save more than the cost of that three category higher purchase you can risk it.  Personally, I do not think at these prices it is worth it.  (Remember, when the price is dropped to a certain point the cruise lines know that lowering it further isn't going to attract enough new passengers to offset the anger of all those that paid more money.   I think we are, or are about to be there.)

The other day I was at a meeting where various travel agents discussed their philosophies.  Some were pushing the way to increase revenue is by assessing fees; a fee for consultation, a fee for booking, a fee to cancel, a fee for airline info, a fee for passport info.  Geez!  Personally, I find that counterintuitive.  You may make a few dollars on this person or that, but when the cruise passengers are concerned with making a commitment to a cruise and it is going to cost them significant fees if they find they just can't afford to go the only thing that happens is they are not going to book now, but will wait.

Goldring Travel never charges a consultation, booking, cancellation or other sort of fee.  So you have the ability to book now, assuring yourself the cabin and category you want with absolutely no downside other than paying the fully refundable deposit.  So the best way to "keep your options open" is to give yourself the option:  Book now following the above steps and then decide when the final payment is coming due if you are comfortable going.