Thursday, July 10, 2008

It's The Annual Awards Season - Yuk!

Last night I received an email from Crystal trumpeting that it was named the best large ship cruise line for the 13th year by Travel and Leisure Magazine. While I believe Crystal is, in fact, the best large ship cruise line, I take exception to the poll of some "readers" of that publication as being meaningful in any real respect. I say this for two basic reasons:

First, years ago various publications put together "Best of" lists that were based upon a critical analysis of the things which each felt were the critical factors when determining the best of, say, a cruise line: Service, food, cabins, amenities, itineraries, etc. Then someone had the brilliant idea of opening up the Best of lists to the publication's readership...and then some opened things up to, the kiss of death (IMHO): Internet voting. This leaves me wondering what these polls actually mean, if anything.

I have a plaque in my office "2000 Berlitz Guide - The World's Finest Luxury Ships" It names the QE2 Grill Class as No. 1, followed by 5 Seabourn ships (including the former Sea Goddess I and II), Hanseatic and two Silversea ships (Silver Cloud and Whisper). Each entry has a point total, reflective of a quantifiable scoring based upon Douglas Ward's critical analysis of the ships. To this day I utilize the Berlitz guide as a guide...not a bible. The author/analyst has his definite likes and dislikes. (Even though I love cheese, I have never discounted a line because of an inferior cheese assortment.)

The Travel and Leisure, or Porthole Magazine, or Conde Nast, or whomever's polls are not surveys of criteria, but popularity contests of only those that actually vote. First I ask, "Who actually votes?" "Are those that vote actually readers of the magazine?" "Is there a way to improvidently skew the results?" And, the answer invariably is, "There is no way to associate votes with readership of the magazine and, yes, you can - as they say in Chicago - vote early and often." Conde Nast posts right on its website: "Make Your Opinion Count! Sign up to participate in Condé Nast Traveler reader polls, and you may earn a chance to win a free trip in one of our survey sweepstakes."

As readers of this blog, ask yourself, "Did I vote? Would I ever vote? Do I know anyone who does vote?" My guess is that for the vast majority of you the answer to each of the three questions is "No." And if the votes are not by your peers, why would you bother considering or worrying about what others actually think? And, to be sure, you don't even know how many people actually voted...or if they had ever been on the cruise line or at the property they voted for!

This years T&L poll of cruise lines does not provide any shockers as to the top lines, though obviously, who is No. 1 and who is No. 3 should be meaningless...even if you give the poll any credence. But the 2007 Porthole Reader's Choice Awards (BTW, you can sign up online, so you actually don't need to be a "reader" of that magazine either) awards Carnival the best main dining room cuisine and NCL the best alternative dining cuisine. Personally I don't care if your favorite is Seabourn's, SeaDream's, QM2's Grills or Silversea's main restaurant or Regent's alternative Signatures, Celebrity's Olympic Restaurant, QM2's Todd English, etc., there can be no legitimate question that there is no qualitative basis upon which Carnival and NCL can legitimately top the cuisine presenting in those venues.

I also looked at the T&L Top 100 hotels. Five of the top 10 are African safari hotels; one actually being a luxury tented camp. Make no mistake, some of those properties are truly outstanding (and I am truly looking forward to my luxury safari next year), but seriously? What are the standards in making a hotel one of the best. Some might say an absence of insects and really good air conditioning; which are absent/partially absent in some of the those Top 10 choices. (Imagine those missing at the Raffles Dubai - where I have stayed and was blown away by how incredible the hotel is...and it is not on the list at all?) BTW, African safari hotels also took 6 of the top 15 in the Small Hotel category while only 2 from all of Europe made the list.

That brings me to my second reason: What one person finds perfect another finds unacceptable. On CruiseCritic.com, there have been some pretty animated "discussions" about why Regent is supposedly the best cruise line and so far superior to, for example, Crystal. The argument is that Regent has open-seating, is liquor inclusive and has wonderful suites, while Crystal has fixed seating, you pay for most of your alcoholic drinks and it has smaller (though not small) cabins.

Believe it or not, in legitimate surveys people actually prefer fixed times to dine. Even with open seating, you will find that most people schedule the time to arrive...and with whom they will be dining. For some, the concept of meeting new people every night is uncomfortable and they enjoy catching up with their new friends each evening. For some signing for a drink is "so yesterday", while others say, "Why should I prepay at a premium for drinks that I will never consume?" And then while no one would complain about about having a larger cabin/suite, for others big enough is well big enough. (There are so many other factors that should be considered when selecting YOUR cruise, but the point is made.)

So, in the end, in the T&L survey, Crystal was No. 1 in the large ship category and Regent was No. 2. I am very confident that for many Regent loyalists, Crystal is simply not an option at all. For them, Crystal doesn't even belong on the same list as it offers such a different cruise experience.

And that, alas, is my point. These awards lists really have nothing to do what is best for you. They may give you "brand awareness" or a signal that a particular property exists, but use them for nothing more. For me, they just confuse the marketplace and create a false impression.

Now, should I take a Royal Caribbean cruise because they have been voted to have the best Caribbean itineraries (the same major ports every large ship line goes to...at the same time!) or should I consider Seabourn (which cruises from Barbados to Martinique, Guadeloupe, St. Lucia, Grenada, St. Vincent, and The Grenadines).

Let's have a vote! Maybe not.