Monday, June 30, 2008

The Oceania-fication of Regent Seven Seas Cruise Line

After months of Regent Seven Seas (luxury) claiming that is not and will not be Oceania (premium), and being blasted by loyalists on such message boards as Cruise Critic that I was just stirring the pot, reality is setting in and, to be sure, I was correct; but alas it is bittersweet.

As reported in Seatrade's Cruise Community, Mark Conroy has announced (admitted?) that not only has the hotel services been turned over to Oceania's vendor, the catering is also being transitioned, as is its reservations system (admitted no loss there!).

But probably bigger news is that the grand plans for its possible new ship has now apparently gone by the wayside. It is reported that Regent may use the Oceania platform for the ship’s technical basis (Decks 3 and below...which would be a significant cost savings) and building the accommodations and public areas as a Regent product with large suites and a spa deck, possibly with a retractable glass dome over the pool. (Compromise in design can be a dangerous thing. I say this not as a travel agent but as a yacht lawyer having a bit of experience in that area.)

For many months I have heard, read and listened to esoteric visions of grandeur of a new ship being delivered in relatively short order with incredible facilities while providing truly luxury service to 1,000+ passengers...something heretofore unachievable by anyone in the industry...while I have been observing Regent making mistake after mistake covering it by marketing.

As a court just observed today in a very important decisionn, just because you repeat it three times (or more) it doesn't make it true. It looks, smells and feels like Regent is becoming Oceania or Oceania+. Does one need to taste it to know it is it? Me thinks not!

I have, as many know, been very skeptical of Regent's plans as I have watched its service and consistency slide over the years...while its pricing has skyrocketed. What is amazing to me is that what has seemed so obvious apparent was so easily masked by Regent's unbelievably costly marketing plan. (I guess it least in the short term.)

But there is a silver lining in the cloud of what may be the slow demise of Regent as a true luxury product: The emergence of Oceania as a strong value product.

As a travel agent, can I comfortably stand behind a Regent cruise as I do a Seabourn cruise? Not a chance. Can Regent provide a very good cruise experience? Yes. The problem is not in what it may be able to do, but in its inability to provide a consistent cruise product.

Would you be comfortable booking a Regent cruise today and believe the product in late 2009 or 2010 will be of the same or better standards as today after reading this blog or would you first ask what are my alternatives considering itineraries, service and, of course, price?

If you want to cruise Regent I will take excellent care of you, having cruised on four of Regent's ships, but I would not do so without disclosing the foregoing and suggesting you consider alternatives. To me, that is what my job is about.

Seabourn - Double Keel Laying

Seabourn and T. Marrioti held a double ceremony today commencing the laying of the keels for the two sister ships (still unnamed) to the Seabourn Odyssey.

By laying the keels for ships to be delivered in 2010 and 2011 Seabourn is making a strong statement that its 32,000 Gross Registered Ton ships that are 650 feet long, with a beam of 84 feet and draft of 21 feet, will be a major force in the luxury and ultra-luxury markets for years to come.

Seabourn's two deck high/inside and outside spa, multiple fine dining venues and a design philosophy of making a larger ship as intimate and personal as its present triplets assures it will be providing an enhanced luxury cruising experience.

Travel Agents and Yacht Brokers

During the American Superyacht Forum I spoke on a panel addressing the issue of yacht brokers/agents who are so focused on booking a charter or making a sale that they actually undercut and weaken the very market they are serving. The parallels to travel agents is undeniable.

Two concepts quickly took center stage: 1. If your agent doesn't know what he/she is talking about the experience is destined to conflict and disappointment; and, 2. While there is dishonesty in the business, the majority of the time the problem stems from ignorance or lack of education.

Education: Taking the second point first, during the conference it was noted that of hundreds of delegates, only 5 or 6 were yacht brokers and, further, that many more were offered the opportunity to be part of the panel, but declined. This resulted in sort of a "preaching to the choir" situation. Clearly if the agents are not present they cannot learn anything from the conference. (And, of course, those that did attend felt like they were under attack, though in reality they were the ones to be complimented.)

There are essentially three ways to gain the experience one needs to be a good agent. The first is traditional education through written or online courses, seminars and general reading. I am a big proponent of these sorts of things. Personally, if there is a course I try to take it regardless of it is Regent, Crystal, Celebrity, Holland America or NCL. What many agents to not understand that it is not only the "product" they may choose to focus on that they need to know, a working knowledge of the "other" products is essential so that one can truly compare and contrast.

The second is seminars. These tend to be more in depth and allow the agent to ask questions and receive feedback. Recently I attended a three day session held by Seabourn for its top "Pinnacle Club" agents. This opportunity provided me with information not only as to a specific product, but as to the philosophy moving forward. This sort of information just isn't possible to provide in a book. Examples: Ports for 2010 and how they are chosen; Development of onboard services on the new Seabourn Odyssey; Marketing Strategies not yet releases to the public. Celebrity also provides in depth full day seminars which provide a wealth of information on both Celebrity and Azamara. While I do try to attend the short 2-3 hour seminars, they usually are of little use (especially if you take advantage of the online courses) as more time can be spent eating and giving out door prizes then actually learning about the product.

The third is experience. Experience, especially in the travel business is vital...and this is not about experience booking. In order to sell properly, you need to be on the ship. While 3-4 hour ship inspections are a great way to begin to understand the product, there is nothing like actually being on the ship for a cruise. An agent needs to experience first hand what the service is like, how a ship flows, how the cabins/suites function, what the food is like in real world conditions, what the entertainment is, how tours are operated, tendering, upkeep and maintenance, etc.

As an example, two years ago I inspected the Royal Caribbean Explorer of the Seas. My first impression was "This is a shopping mall. Get me off the ship!" But I endured my ship inspection and luncheon, learned a bit about where Royal Caribbean was going and said, at least I am not blind when I sell cruises on these ships. Well, this year I am finding a surprising increase in bookings on Royal Caribbean and it, in part, encouraged me to take seven day cruise on the Mariner of the Seas in August. (To be sure, I could not see doing it in a standard cabin, so I have booked a Grand Suite for the four of us...and to see if it works as well as Celebrity for a family of four.)

"I Don't Know...But I Will Find Out" - It is impossible for an agent to know everything. But with proper education and experience, an agent can understand quicker not only that a guess or assumption can be a bad thing leading to disappointment or, worse, a client's feeling that you lied to them to make a sale. For some reason many take what I believe is a counter-intuitive approach of "If I tell my client I don't know something they will think I am not worthy of their business." To the contrary, most clients appreciate an agent saying, "Let me get back to you on that. I need to find that out". Of course that is only valuable if the agent, in fact, gets right back to them. In short, I have a philosophy of "If I say I don't know something, it is a learning opportunity."

Putting this together, as an example, I have a Seabourn client that wanted to have a economically priced "girl's vacation". The client's immediate thought was Carnival; having been on a prior Carnival cruise. I could have said, "OK", booked and been done. Instead I suggested, instead, a cruise on a smaller Royal Caribbean ship I had experience with, but rather than with a few cabins here and there, I suggested a suite overlooking the stern (for three women) and outside cabins for those not able or willing to pay the premium; giving them essentially a private lounge and sun deck where the women could all be together with a bit of luxury...and at only a slightly higher cost than the conventional option.

The result was the following note: You really nailed it when you got us that great deck. We made great use out of it...All in all, I was really pleasantly surprised by the boat. Of course, it is not a Seabourn, but then, we didn't pay for a Seabourn [cruise]. Having only been on one Carnival cruise...I would put this many notches above that. The boat was a bit older, but then, the rooms were bigger...The caliber of the people was several notches above Carnival, and we had an excellent crew. So ---- I wouldn't hesitate to recommend it -- for what it is. Thanks for your help."

So today I start out with a wonderful note from a happy client (Seabourn and Royal Caribbean...for those doubters out there!!) and will follow that with work on a yacht charter litigation where the yacht and crew were clearly inappropriate for the charterer/client.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Homage to George Carlin - Air Travel

There is some "adult" content, but I think it is a wonderful tribute to George Carlin who died today.

Part I

Part II

American Superyacht Forum

This week I will be attending a conference on Superyachts which is run by The Yacht Report, one of the preeminent journals of the industry.

I will be on a panel discussing "Doing the Deal vs. Making the Market", which is basically about the standards of conduct expected or desired of yacht brokers. Not so different from what is expected or desired from travel agents really; even though the job description is a bit different. I, of course, will be discussing in it from the yacht lawyer's perspective...or should I say this lawyer's perspective. (Do any lawyers actually agree without reservation?)

This is sort of a follow-up to an article I wrote in the April 2008 issue of The Yacht Report entitled, "Brown Paper Bagging It...Not Allowed", which addressed the issue of the impropriety of brokers giving "gifts" to yacht captains that were helpful in bringing about a sale of their owner's yachts. (Some would commonly call these gifts "kickbacks"!)

I should digress as you probably are asking, "What the heck is a Superyacht?" It is, by brief definition, a yacht which is over about 150 feet. As with the cruise industry, the definition of a yacht started out as "You can put a boat on a yacht, but not a yacht on a boat." Then there were "megayachts", which dependent on who you ask, range from over 80 feet. But, not being out done, there had to be "superyachts"...and now there are those that push for yet another term: Gigayachts, for those over say 400 feet.

There are many remarkably similarities between yachting and cruising. The larger superyachts and (dare I use the term) gigayachts have cruise directors, a variety of activities available during the day, different dining venues, extraordinary (and I mean extraordinary) service, itineraries to visit unique ports, water sports (expanded marina days), etc.

To be sure I will write more on this subject after the conference; as I will about the crossover between these two industries.

Friday, June 20, 2008

To Book Onboard or Not To Book Onboard? That Is The Question re: Seabourn.

A reader of my blog has asked an excellent question:

Assuming I have the experience most people seem to think I will have on my Seabourn cruise, is there any advantage to signing up for another cruise while I am on the ship or should I come home and let a travel agent find a better option?

The answer is BOOK ONBOARD! There are a few excellent reasons for doing this...and a few suggestions how to do it.

If you enjoyed your Seabourn cruise (and I fully expect you will), but are not sure what cruise you may want to take next, you can place a fully refundable $1,000 deposit on what is called an "Open Booking". What this does is provide you with a five (5%) discount on whatever cruise you may decide upon booking in the future. That is five percent over and above any discounts provided by Seabourn or travel agency discounts (if, that is, your travel agent provides you with any discounts) or consortium promotions (like my consortium: Ensemble Travel) such as complimentary tours, cocktail parties, etc.

The best part is that this option is totally without risk! If you later decide that a cruise isn't what you want to do, or you have personal issues, or if you just don't want to cruise Seabourn again (huh???), your Open Booking is valid for two (2) years and it is fully refundable.

Now, what if you are interested in a particular cruise? Again, the answer is: BOOK IT ONBOARD! Why? You not only get the five (5%) onboard booking discount, you have immediate access to the lowest available fares and best suite availability. With only 104 suites per ship, and with high demand for the almost here Seabourn Odyssey, waiting can only cause you to possibly lose out on a particular category, promotion, fare or suite you really wanted. And, while you are onboard, you still only have to place a $1,000 deposit. (Though upon your return you will have to bring the deposit up to the required amount.) (BTW, another topic I will be writing on is whether "limited time" and "capacity controlled" offers really are.)

But there is more: Once your booking is transferred to your travel agent, your agent can reprice the cruise to include any additional discounts and/or benefits, change your category or suite assignment while you still retain the onboard booking discount. And, if your travel agent happens to find a lower fare you will get the benefit of that as well.

Also, if you change your mind and later decide you want to take a different cruise, Seabourn allows you the "one time only" ability transfer your Onboard Booking Discount to an alternative cruise without any penalty or fee.

One final thing to consider: When you make your Onboard Booking, unless you advise the travel consultant otherwise, that booking will be automatically given to your present travel agent. So for those that love your travel agent, it makes the process pretty much seamless. If, however, you do not want the onboard booking to be given to the agent that booked your present cruise, you just need to advise the travel consultant of the travel agent you want it to be assigned to or, of course, if you do not want to use a travel agent (What??? But that is another topic I will write about!) that it be handled by Seabourn alone.

So the short answer is: Book something. Book anything. Just be sure to do it onboard.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Seabourn Food & Wine Cruise - September 27, 2008

On September 27, 2008 I will be hosting a special Food & Wine Cruise on the all suite, all luxury, Seabourn Spirit cruising from Athens to Istanbul. I have a number of events and tours planned which should make this cruise even better than the one I hosted last year on the Seabourn Legend which cruised from Barcelona to Monte Carlo.

This is the itinerary:

Saturday - September 27 Piraeus (Athens), Greece
Sunday - September 28 Mykonos, Greek Isles
Monday - September 29 Mylos, Greek Isles
Tuesday - September 30 Patmos, Greek Isles
Wednesday -October 1 Fethiye, Turkey
Thursday - October 2 Kusadasi (Ephesus), Turkey
Friday - October 3 Cruising The Dardanelles
Saturday - October 4 Istanbul, Turkey

My thoughts and plans:

I suggest arriving early into Athens and overnighting at the St. George Lycabettus Hotel with views of the Acropolis from your room. After a rest, dinner at leisure in a local restaurant as a way to begin immersion into the Greek and Turkish foods and customs to follow.

On the morning of the cruise I will be providing a complimentary tour of Athens with one of the best driver-guides in Greece, whom I have personally used on a number of occasions. We will stop at all of the important sites, have a wander around the Plaka and then enjoy a local Greek lunch before heading over to Piraeus to board the Seabourn Spirit for a 5:00 p.m. departure.

The next morning we arrive in Mykonos...just as many of the Saturday night partiers are going to bed. This morning is a great time to slowly wander over to the beach or wander about the narrow alleys of the town, followed by a local lunch. Because the Spirit doesn't sail until 11:00 p.m. there is plenty of time to head back to the ship and then enjoy some early nightlife and dinner back in town.
I have not yet been to Mylos, but I understand the natural beauty is are the whitewashed houses and windmills. I am looking forward to what I expect to be a great opportunity to enjoy truly local foods and wines in a location unspoiled by hoards of tourists.
In Patmos I am hosting a complimentary tour to all passengers who have booked through an Ensemble Consortium travel agent. This island, long a pilgrimage destination, offers some wonderful cultural opportunities. My tour, starting at 1:00 p.m. (so you have plenty of time to explore on your own or just "beach it"!) will include a visit to the town of Chora and the Monastery of St. John (built in 1088). From there we travel to the Grotto of St. John were it is said he wrote the Book of Revelations (95-97 AD). Leaving the important religious history of the island, we will then visit a traditional Patmain house which is said to be breathtaking and filled with 18th Century furnishings, mosaics and crafts. Finally, we drive to the settlement of Aloni for some ouzo and Greek snacks before returning the our ship in Scala.
We cruise overnight to Fethiye, Turkey for a fantastic day which can be one immersed in the ancient Lycian history of the area including a boat ride through the numerous waterways, or tours of other nearby historical cultures of Lycian, Hellenistic, Latin and Byzantine periods or you can opt to take a tour to a wonderful hotel on the Oludeniz (Dead Sea) or just wander the local area and enjoy a Turkish Bath in a 400 year old Hamam or shop, eat and drink!
Probably the highlight of our next day, in Kusadasi, will be our Exclusive Seabourn Experience. After a day exploring the incredible Roman city of Ephesus and the House of the Virgin Mary, and shopping at the Bazaar, Seabourn will transport us back to Ephesus for an enchanted private evening of chamber music, wine, cocktails and canapes. As we depart Kusadasi at 11:30 p.m. some evening exploration and shopping is something to consider.
Finally a relaxing day at sea. This day, however, is not just any day at sea. We will be passing by Gallipoli, a battle site which is extraordinarily important to both sides of that war which had enormous casualties. The Turkish people consider the battle as the start of modern Turkey - with Ataturk leading the movement eight years later and the United Kingdom and Australians (ANZAC) consider it sacred not only to all those who lost their lives, but as a defining moment in understanding their nationalism.
I plan on having a complimentary private wine tasting during the day where we can taste and discuss not only some of the interesting local wines and foods, but share some of the wonderful times we will have had during our cruise. If Seabourn comes through like it did during last year's cruise, this will be a truly memorable event.
It is worth rising early our last morning to share our arrival in Istanbul on the port side of the ship. While we are disembarking this morning, Istanbul is a fascinating city and is, to be sure, one of my favorite places in the world. Some people are partaking of Seabourn's "Sail and Stay" program which includes transfers, two nights at the Swisshotel and a half day tour of Istanbul.
Others are making their own arrangements. I would highly recommend the Ciragan Palace and the Four Seasons as possbile alternatives.
I will be staying in Istanbul for two days after the cruise, so I will be available to assist you while you are there. I hope to, however, be tied up in a full day visit to an ancient Hamam; something I have been looking forward to repeating from a visit some years ago!
Highlights of Istanbul include my favorite little town of Ortakoy (which means middle village), Dolmabaci Palace, the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia, Topkapi Palace, Yerebatan Saray (the underground cisterns - a favorite of mine!), the Egyptian (Spice) Bazaar and, of course, the Grand Bazaar. There are so many other things to do and see in Istanbul such as the Galata Tower, a ferry ride up the Bosporus, many other mosques/synagogues/churches, shops and restaurants galore, etc., etc.
This is going to be a fantastic experience not only from all that Seabourn has to offer, but what Greece and Turkey do, from culture, history, sun and sand, food and, of course, wine.
If you are interested in this cruise, please let me know as soon as possible. There is limited availability.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

An International Experience - Travel Agents That Is!

One of the most curious, and antiquated, aspects of the travel business is the protectionist approaches of various cruise lines.

In this world of international travel and essentially boundary-free internet access, many cruise lines slice up the market so that American travel agents are prohibited from selling cruises to residents of the United Kingdom, Australia, etc. Americans really do not experience this sort of anti-competitive behavior because there is not a single cruise line that prevents a New Jersey travel agency from selling a cruise to a California resident...and, as I will discuss, there are very few non-United States travel agencies that can economically compete with a strong American-based one.

I figure the reasons are varied and relate to trying to protect the smaller-in-number European and Australasian agencies; to allow for more profitable (i.e. higher) pricing overseas (since the US dollar is so weak at the moment); to work within industry practices virtually unheard of in the United States due to, in large part, competition (such as hefty cancellation fees charged by the agency...not the cruise line, padding of pricing through made-up fees, etc.), etc.

Some cruise lines may have initially balked at international competition, but some, like Seabourn, have said essentially, "We have international clientele and we are a worldwide company, so why should we do anything but support international travel agents?"

Regent Seven Seas also takes a similar approach. Surprisingly, however, its sister company, Oceania Cruises has a protectionist policy that I have, fortunately, been able to work around.

Cunard has a similar protectionist policy, but doesn't really seem to enforce it. Absent a bit of "slight of hand", an American agency might have problems booking one of its UK clients on Royal Caribbean or Celebrity Cruise Lines.

From my perspective, competition can only be a good thing.

One cruise line executive asked me, "Well, do you want UK travel agents competing with you here in the U.S.?"

My response, "I already compete with the biggest agencies in the world, so why would I want to prevent that competition? The end result is the agency with the better service, better experience, and solid pricing will probably get the lion's share of the business...and that means the client (the cruise line's passengers) will ultimately have a better experience even before they get on the ship. Everyone that should win does. Who loses? The agency that isn't providing the cruise line's passengers with the same positive experience you (the cruise line) strives to provide them once they walk up the gangway."

And that is from where my motto (or mission statement) was born: "Be Treated By Your Travel Agent As You Will Be Onboard!"

Getting Started

For years I have posted information and commentary on various cruise message boards; especially about my favorite cruise line: The Yachts of Seabourn.

Recently I have found that the boards have become less of a source of information and place to truly discuss travel issues, but more of a place to complain (regardless of merit), fabricate stories and/or cheerlead (Cruise Line X is the best and flawless no matter what).

As objectivity and discussion (including disagreements and correction of incorrect information) is lost, the efforts to continue involvement in the message boards not only becomes no longer is fun.

More importantly, as a solid source good information is lost and having a forum for honestly expressing opinion as to "the good, the bad and the ugly" (Thank you, Clint Eastwood) wastes away...and not in a Jimmy Buffett kind of way...I thought there has to be something better, more pure, more of value.

So Iamboatman is trying something new. This may not be my "finding the key to the universe" (ala Bruce), but hopefully a new home for thoughts and discussions about luxury cruising, luxury travel, and yachting.