Thursday, August 28, 2008

Mariner of the Seas - A Hurricane Runs Through It...Almost

We were greeted with the news of Gustav, which is projected to take the same cruise we had scheduled: Haiti, Jamaica, Grand Cayman and Cozumel, we made a hard left (East) and are visiting St. Thomas and St. Maarten. This gives us 2 extra sea days and 2 ports I really have no great desire to visit.

One big plus to having a suite is that you do not need to need to stand in the tour desk line...or the line for ice show tickets. I must say I feel really bad for the people that stood in line for half a day to arrange tours only for the itinerary to be changed and them all having to stand in line for another half a day changing them again. Yesterday the line literally ran down 75% of the Promenade. That was much worse than the line of 100+ waiting for ice show tickets. I, on the other hand, just walked to the Concierge Lounge and the tours (parasailing) and ice show tickets were done instantly; albeit I did have to wait for one person.

The Concierge Lounge is also a nice place for a quiet drink before dinner. Nothing fancy, but definitely acceptable.

We have dined in Chops, the extra cost alternative steak restaurant ($25 per person) and have had two good to very good meals with very good service (better than Regent). Looking forward to a nice meal and a decent wine list (yes, it's true!) has made things a bit better. The grilled Portobella mushroom and asparagus spears was so good I had it both nights. My wife's tuna Carpaccio was OK and her lobster bisque was actually quite good. My veal chop was very good and my T-Bone was OK (far better than the main restaurant). My wife's filet mignon was very good as was her lamb. The ala carte side dishes were OK, but the huge baked potatoes are worthy of note. I cannot figure out why most people do not try this venue for at least one night. (Last night I tried Portofino and will let you know below if this second alternative restaurant also succeeds.)

Yesterday, while everyone was off the boat in St. Thomas I took some time to check out the ship sans the crowds.

- The Windjammer is actually a very pleasant space. The food, however, reminds me of the college cafeteria. I sampled a bit from here and a bit from there and most was just not that good; some awful. They do prepare vegetables nicely.

- The Solarium (the adults only pool and lounge area) is actually pretty darn nice. A lot of thought went into this space with comfortable lounges (fitted cushions over the standard pool lounges), nicely tiled mosaic flooring, numerous classy artistic touches and shelter from the wind. Any luxury line's guests would be pleased with this space. What a difference from a sea day with it overflowing with people, saved lounges, no room in the spas or pool, etc.

- The Main Pool is also a really nicely designed and attractive space...if you can get past the thousand plus lounge chairs.

- The Promenade is also very attractive if you look into the pub or wine bar and see it without the throngs of people.

And that is, for me, the problem. It is not signing for this or that (never bothered me). And most of the prices actually seem quite reasonable...save the bottled water. It is the people and the noise. Oh, that noise. It is exhausting. So I am avoiding it. My suite and balcony is great. The Concierge Lounge is nice. The Connoisseur's Club for a cigar and a whiskey is also nice (but could use better air cleaners). The alternative restaurants are also good. So there are places to make this ship OK.

But I will paint a picture from two nights ago that pretty much sums it up. After a nap on my balcony, we had drinks in the Concierge Lounge and then went to Chops for a nice meal. We then wandered over to the Connoisseur's Club and decided to call it a night. AND THEN IT WAS DISCO NIGHT IN THE PROMENADE. Bam, it hit me in the face. My lovely evening was ended by the reality of where I was. (But to be fair, there were hundreds of people that absolutely had a blast and the love the crowds and noise.)

Last night was interesting on a number of levels.

First, I have come to the conclusion that the Kid's Program is designed to work with the least common denominator and, therefore, loses the interest of most of the children. At first I thought it was my 12 year old being, well, 12 years old. But he has consistently told me that the programs are not of interest and, to be honest, they don't sound very interesting to me. (They probably were good 3-5 years ago, but times they are a changin'.) My 9 year old says she is treated as a child and the activities are "for babies". and, when looking at them, they pretty much all seem like "high energy, low thought" games. So many children simply opt out of the programs...and I actually have more work making sure my 9 year old is OK and entertained than when I am cruising on, for example, Regent or Celebrity. And I thought the kids would LOVE this cruise. It is was a main motivator for our being here in the first place. I guess rock climbing, miniature golf, etc. only goes so far with today's sophisticated children.

Second, the food thing really wears you down. Last night in Portofino we had an OK meal. Every word was scripted and the food had about the same amount of imagination. "My name is X and although I am from the Philippines, I will do my best to be your Italian waiter this evening." His assistant kept calling my wife "My Lady" and me "Senor". Huh??? My smoked duck salad was good, and the cold tomato soup was fine (not great), but the main course...the recommended pasta with seafood had no flavor other than crushed red peppers (a classic cover for no taste items) and frozen seafood. Even the recommended dessert sampler was just OK. Two of the four dishes were tasteless with one literally overwhelmed by the use of too much cornstarch, but the other two were actually quite good (tiramisu and a flourless chocolate cake). BUT the thing that really got me was the infamous pitch (not yet heard on this ship) about making sure we give great marks when we rate everything. We canceled our second seating in Portofino and have added a third at Chops. Tonight is our second venture into the main dining room.

Third, after our post-dinner drink my wife wanted to check out the party on the pool deck. I went back to the Suite. She wasn't 10 minutes behind me. Over 1,000 having a very loud, and very happy, time was just not something she could deal with. I came up with the idea of going to Ellington's in the Viking Crown Lounge on Deck 14 (yes...and there is one deck higher!) where we could observe the party from up high and through glass windows, shielded from the noise and crowds. It was actually very nice to observe...like Times Square on New Year's Eve. This leads me to conclude that my perspectives are, in fact, not actually fair. Royal Caribbean does an excellent job at delivering what it is supposed to be delivering. I don't eat at TGI Fridays; I don't go to dance clubs; and, although I am in far better "shape" to do it, I haven't done a belly flop in years.

Even with the itinerary change I do not see many sad faces, the food is being eaten, the parties are packed...and the ship is spotless, my suite remains pristine (and two burned out bulbs were changed immediately), and I am fairly relaxed about it all.

Today, we are in St. Maarten along with the Freedom of the Seas (5,000+ passengers) and the Carnival Valor. With over 10,000 people descending on this little island, believe it or not, Mariner of the Seas is our Oasis. (What a good name for a Royal Caribbean ship! OMG, RCCL has sucked me in!) But I do have the harsh reality of then having two days at sea having to share this very interesting ship with all those other people.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Mariner of the Seas - My First 24 Hours

It has been a very interesting 24 hours aboard Royal Caribbean's Mariner of the Seas. With approximately 3,735 passengers onboard, with quite a mix of ages, ethnicities, languages and socioeconomic classes, there is much that I have observed and some that just disappoints. Overall though, it has been more tolerable than I expected, though not my idea of a perfect cruise.

We arrived yesterday around 11:30 am and had a very painless check-in and were heading up the gangway in about 15 minutes. Our Grand Suite wouldn't be ready until 1:00 pm and we were not permitted to drop off our carry-on luggage so we started a brief tour of the ship a bit bogged down.

First stop was the spa, so the sea day massages could be booked at the desired times. There was no hard sell. I briefly inspected the complimentary steam room and sauna and other facilities and they were quite nice and sparkling clean. We then stopped by Johnny Rockets, the pool (with a scary number of lounge chairs), the rock climbing wall and miniature golf. The kids purchased their soda cards ($25 +15% gratuity) so they can have all the soda they want without the constant single charges.

It was time to eat, so we ventured into the Windjammer Café and had an OK meal from the buffet. (I do not remember ever seeing a hamburger that looked like what they were serving, but it was OK.) The seating was nicer than expected in faux rattan chairs, but the ambiance is not something I enjoyed with literally over 1,000 people walking past.

It was now time to see our suite. I was, and remain, pleasantly surprised by it. It is larger than the suites on Seabourn or Regent Seven Seas or Cunard, with a very comfortable full size sofa bed, queen bed, two comfortable chairs (plus one by the vanity desk), a nice bar, plenty of closet and drawer space and a very nice, large, marble bathroom with double sinks under a granite top and a full bathtub/shower. The balcony is large enough for two lounges, two chairs and a table. While it comes with only one lounge, a request of our cabin steward and a second lounge appeared. TV with DVD and an excellent sound system is also included. The bed was extremely comfortable and the linens crisp and comfortable. It was spotless and smelled clean and fresh. This is becoming my refuge. 

Suites also have the use of the Concierge Club with complimentary drinks and snacks before dinner, as well as a fairly nice continental breakfast. More importantly, the concierge takes care of ice show tickets, tours, etc., avoiding literally hour long lines. It is a bit of a refuge and relief as well.

When I reappeared from my suite a terrible thing happened: Thousands of more people appeared. It turned the Promenade from a curiosity with a couple of possible places to have a glass of wine, to an echoing and loud mall/hall with tables being set up for the sale of cheap jewelry and liquor.

After a rousing game of miniature golf with the kids, I checked out my table for dinner. Incredibly we had been placed in probably the worst table in the restaurant, stuck in a back room next to a service door on the lowest of the three levels...with no view of anything. Shocking for a suite guest to be placed there. Equally amazing there was available an excellent table on the third (top) level right by the railing overlooking the entire restaurant and just above the pianist and violinist...transforming the massive space into what was admittedly a pretty elegant and quaint one.

With the kids enjoying room service (with a limited, but acceptable, menu) and planning out their evening, we had a drink in our suite and then we all ventured out to the show, which was very entertaining with a comic and a juggler (http://jeffthejuggler.com/). Then dinner.

This is where "my" cruise really falls apart. Our waiter is OK, but I cannot tell if he is genuinely friendly or if I should be looking for my wallet at the end of the meal. The service was polite, if not a bit rough around the edges. It was as if I was being rushed to complete my meal after waiting to place my order. The waiter served my wine - which I appreciated - as I saw the next table waiting a painfully long time for the sommelier. My first course was a Hot and Sour Shrimp soup which was hot and sour, but the broth had little other flavors and the shrimp had that watered down taste and mushy consistency of thawed shrimp that had been dumped from the tub with the defrosted water into the soup at the last minute. My wife's onion and cheese tart was OK, but with no style and curiously covered with red peppers. Salads were basic. Her sirloin steak was marginal at best (small, thin and tasteless) and was accompanied by a scoop of mash potatoes (you could see the scoop marks) and some diced vegetables. I went with the end cut prime rib and baked potato. The meat was dry, but it had a bit of flavor. It was, alas, food and nothing more. (Tonight we are trying Chops.)

We ended our evening in the Connoisseur's Club, the cigar and whisky lounge. It is a very nice venue, but curiously had a big screen TV which dampens the ambiance; though it remains one of the quietest places on the ship...which is hopping everywhere else! It is very sparingly used (maybe 3 couples at a time), but it does need better ventilation.

After a very restful night's sleep our breakfast arrived. The order had most of what we ordered, much we did not. It had tasteless powdered eggs and paste-like potatoes with dry, tasteless pastries. The coffee was actually quite acceptable as was the bacon. The rest was pretty much inedible, so cereal and fruits may be the only way to go.

I won't bore you with our morning activities, but the pool was pretty much filled and, as such, the whirlpool tubs were overwhelmed with kids. The Promenade was filled with announcements for raffles, etc. I like my suite.

We tried lunch in the Dining Room. The service was even more rough and let's just say that I will not be eating any more shrimp on this ship. I actually think the buffet might be a better option...if you can deal with all the people.

That's it for my first 24 hours.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Mariner of the Seas Travelogue - Prologue

I promise I will not bore you with the minutia of taxi rides and pre-cruise meals in this travelogue, but rather will try to give some perspective from a travel agent's and a parent's points of view as I venture back into the world known as mass market cruising.  On Sunday I will be boarding Royal Caribbean's Mariner of the Seas settling in a Grand Suite on a sold out Caribbean cruise as Tropical Storm Fay just departs.

As my family is rather jaded from all of the cruises they have taken - and where they have traveled -  it took until last night for them to show any real interest in the cruise.  My wife asked about the specialty restaurants, forgetting our discussing same weeks ago when I pre-reserved two nights each in Chops (steaks and fish) and Portofino (Italian).  My kids, after first stating they were not that excited because we wouldn't be getting off the ship much (2 sea days and Jamaica), realized that for the first time in a couple of years they would have a "real" kid's club...and now that they are getting older, some real independence.

As for myself, I am trying to look at my cruise on this behemoth much differently from any of my prior cruises...as I remember my ship inspection of the Explorer of the Seas thinking negatively: "Shopping Mall".  (My kids, of course, hear my complaint and shout with glee, "Cool!")

My last Royal Caribbean cruise was in 2001 in an owner's suite on the Nordic Empress (then Empress of the Seas and now gone from the fleet as too small and unique).  I do admit that once I got over all the blue-green glass and brass I found the crew very enthusiastic and I did have a good time (though the food was marginal).  I will not, however, forget my tablemates:  a very nice couple albeit he happened to be a cook at a youth jail somewhere in Pennsylvania.  Ya' never know!

I will be taking some time on this trip to work on some plans for two of my next ones:  The Seabourn Spirit on September 27, 2008 (Athens to Istanbul) and my son's Bar Mitzvah Safari in August 2009.  I am sure that somehow some comparisons...and hopefully some good ideas...will be generated while on this cruise.

So after a few days in Florida visiting my mother, and the Kennedy Space Center for lunch with an astronaut...and, of course, rain predicted for every day!...we will board and I will let you know.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Sommelier and Masseuse - Specialists for Some

There is a very interesting article in the August 31, 2008 edition of Wine Spectator concerning people's expectations and use of sommeliers, wine service and wine with food generally.

I think there is a lot to be learned by the luxury cruise lines not only as to what is expected, but what is perceived as acceptable. I also have some thoughts about wine service on premium and mass market lines. Bottom Line: The Cruise Lines Have It Wrong...but not as you might think.

My starting point is that as to "most restaurants" 52% of the Wine Spectator respondents feel wine service is only Fair and a mere 1% believe same to be Excellent. I pause and wonder if we all have been the victims of marketing...the customers by being encouraged to have false expectations and restaurants by being unable to reasonably and economically provide excellent wine service.

With that underwhelming start, I then noted that 84% do not want the sommelier to taste their wine and 57% said a sommelier or wine steward's presence isn't even needed. That left me wondering if they should simply be omitted until they really know their craft or are used only in restaurants that have a true wine following. What stumps me a bit is that 81% of the people (including many of the 57% who don't need them) believe the advice they have been given by their wine steward is Good or Excellent. Maybe it is just that we can live with or without them, but they are nice to have around.

As my final initial observation, I note that on land 71% spend $75 or less on average for a bottle of wine (26% less then $50) and a whopping 73% dine at restaurants with a serious wine list only once a month. As to the wine's value, more are concerned with having an interesting variety (63%), than good value (10%) or, necessarily, good compatibility with food (24%).

Relating this to the luxury cruise experience, it leaves me believing that most passengers are not going to be spending a fortune on wine, but want a wine waiter (not a sommelier or wine steward) to give them good advice and much prefer a variety of wines either poured by the glass (and 91% do purchase premium wines by the glass on land) or in the wine list. What most passengers do not need, and will not miss, is "The Show".

There are some, however, that do want The Show and do want premium wines...with a sommelier that knows what he is talking about. They are willing to pay extra for this service (as 43% say they tip 20% on the wine and 42% say they tip 15%)...and remembering that only 10% felt price was important.

This leaves me believing that for the luxury cruise lines a true sommelier should be treated as a speciality; like a masseuse. It is a service that a passenger can avail him/herself of if they are willing to pay for it, but as with a spa in general, there are many aspects that can be utilized as no or less additional charge.

Let's put this into play: Mr. and Mrs. Jones are on a 14 day cruise which includes their anniversary. Each evening wine waiters offer the selected wines (chosen to compliment the food being served) and are knowledgeable enough to briefly explain the wines, offer a tasting and, if necessary, offer the pre-selected alternatives again with brief explanations. (Remember this actually satisfies 57% of wine involved passengers and also appeases quite a large portion of the 43% that do want some assistance.) This will undoubtedly satisfy the Jones for most evenings. But for that special evening they want to spurge, so the sommelier - with the attendant value incorporated into the wine's price - provides a full service.

To be sure, the Jones may want to upscale their wine experiences after having the sommelier and wonderful wines, but just like with the spa, they have the choice of spending extra on another massage or wine experience. This is, of course, the name of the game for the cruise lines: Onboard Revenue.

My point is rather than having a bunch of faux wine stewards who really know nothing about wine putting off 84% of the people who do not want them to taste the wine or the 57% who think the whole thing is unimportant, have wine waiters with decent wines and the vast majority will be happy. Further, by taking pressure off of the true sommeliers from having to explain the supposed nuances of that "wonderful" White Zinfandel , they can provide a much higher quality service to those willing to pay for it...and generate greater onboard revenue to those willing to spend $100+ bottle rather than those spending less the $50.

As for the premium and mass market lines, I would strongly urge that the efforts in the dining room be made to improving the wine list - with quality wines and readable, understandable, explanation of the wines - to go along with the elimination of wine stewards and sommeliers (as some have already done). I am tired of the faux sommelier being overworked and having to wait 30 minutes for an ordinary bottle of wine. Serve it and let me enjoy my selection!

That said, I would have a true sommelier available in the upscale speciality restaurants...with it being an option...unless the cost of the sommelier is included in the additional cost of the dinner. Having a faux sommelier undercuts that premium experience which those willing to pay the premium probably are going to expect when they see the guy in the fancy jacket and vest. Remember: As shown, most are quite happy - even content - with a solid wine list and their own knowledge.

As a final thought: For those who insist on The Show for a $35 bottle of wine, please remember that when you go to the spa, you don't get a massage for free; and the other passengers really should have to have their massage or wine experience compromised because of your false expectation. However, if you want The Show, for a mere $50 extra you can have it. (Hint, Hint.)

That, however, is not an insult to those wanting The Show, but rather a warning to the cruise lines and restaurants: Please reeducate yourselves and your customers. You are doing a disservice to your passengers, to your actually trained sommelier and to your bottom line.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Exclusive Seabourn Spirit Offer - Istanbul to Alexandria - November 8, 2008

Whether Seabourn just finished reading my blog, I have incredible intuition, or it is happenstance, it really doesn't matter, but I was just contacted by Seabourn with an exclusive offer than fits in perfectly with my last post....and must be acted upon immediately if you are interested:

I am thrilled to offer this truly outstanding cruise to anyone who has not experienced a Seabourn cruise, who is looking for an exotic getaway this Fall, or who just wants an incredible deal on a cruise:

Seabourn Spirit – November 8, 2008
Istanbul, Turkey to Alexandria, Egypt
Only $__(The Price is So Low I Cannot Post It Here) per person*

(*You will be booked as an A Guaranty Suite, but this offer is NOT limited to Category A oceanview suites, so you may be surprised by what suite you ultimately may be assigned by the time of sailing! And you thought all * were signs of bad news!!!)
This price includes port charges/fees, but not taxes or fuel supplement. This fare is capacity controlled, so it may be withdrawn at any time.

Here is the itinerary:

Nov 8 S Istanbul, Turkey
9 SU Cruising The Dardandelles
10 M Piraeus (Athens), Greece
11 T Navplion (Mycenae), Greece
12 W Aghios Nikolaos, Crete, Greece
13 TH Rhodes, Greek Isles
14 F Cruising The Mediterranean Sea
15 S Alexandria (Cairo), Egypt

If you are interested DO NOT DELAY. Please call or email me immediately. (Some of you were disappointed when you delayed in responding to my last exclusive offer. Please don’t let that happen again!)

An Interesting Trend - More Last Minute and Higher Quality Cruises. Why?

I have seen over the past couple of weeks - the usual time for the summer doldrums -  a very interesting trend:  People are tending to book cruises for the latter part of this year and on longer itineraries and in higher categories.

While the trend of cruise lines offering lower fares closer in seems to be reemerging...apparently as a result of the softening economy (possibly both in the U.S. and Europe), I am finding my clients, rather than booking their initially selected category, are using their travel budget to improve their cabins/suites and/or length of their cruise, rather than to pocket the funds for other purposes.  This is an interesting trend that would seem, at first, counterintuitive.  I think, however, it actually makes a lot of sense and may actually be a sign of something other than doomsday approaching.

Going to basic economics, one must first look at the mortgage meltdown.  Most of the mortgages that are being foreclosed upon were for people that could not actually afford their homes or were living off of equity they really didn't have...tapping the last 20% of the home's worth.  Those souls may have gone on a cruise or two, but probably were not a major force in the cruise market.  But the impact was more than the chilling effect on those who had a responsible adjustable rate mortgage rather than a 1% interest that adjusted.  A larger impact was on the top end...the investors...that ran up the value of these mortgages in the financial markets; but those also represent a very small portion of those that cruise. 

The real impact for the cruise industry was on those how just had the stuffing scared out of them:  The vast majority of the population. 

But then there was more scary stuff:  When the mortgage securities market began failing, those same investors had to put there money somewhere...and it was oil.  Without getting into politics, the same mortgage speculators became oil speculators...and the media ran with various politicians and politically active financial "talking heads" claiming it was all demand. 

While we can thank them for the now probably permanent "fuel supplements" on our cruises and the havoc they have caused in the airline industry, their irrational cries that a leaking pipe in Nigeria a legitimate reason for a $5 a barrel rise in oil (when such a thing never had any effect in the past) because demand was so huge was just accepted.  How that .001% change in supply was a supposed two-headed monster always baffled me.  [Compare:  Russia invades Georgia under the cover of the Olympics, three oil supply lines were shutdown as a precaution, there are ominous "Cold War" trends appearing...and oil prices are dropping like a rock.  Hummm?????]

But two things have happened:  The European economies started to soften - causing the dollar to increase in value - and Congress said, "We want to stop oil speculators"...despite others steadfastly claiming it was merely demand.

Well, those mortgage securities investors...I'm sorry, I meant oil specutors...decided they didn't want the same regulatory prosecutions happening to them as a result of their oil activities and they began dumping their oil futures contracts.  (One amazing thing is that I heard today that home heating oil may actually be less expensive this winter than last!)

With oil now at less than $111 a barrel, down from a $150+ high, and it being done in just a few short weeks, I think people are starting to breath.

And with the cruise lines suffering from lower (not "low" by any means) demand both in the U.S. and Europe, there is more inventory to sell closer in.  Combine that with the prospects for lower gas and heating oil prices, a bit of stabilization in the stock market in most sectors (if not banking!) coupled with most people having actually cut back spending in anticipation of the worst...but still committed to taking a vacation, and there you have it.

So, if you are one that is now "taking a breath", seeing it isn't going to cost you $100 to fill up your car, and realizing that your mortgage isn't going to automatically explode, take a look at some of the incredible offers being given by the cruise lines.  Remember many people have to plan their vacations quite a few months in advance.  They are already committed, so the close in inventory is their for you to grab...and enjoy.

But, possibly, say to yourself:  That oceanview is $1,000 less than it said in the brochure, why not upgrade to a balcony?  Or from a balcony to a suite...though suite sales have remained strong all along, so there are not as many of those opportunities. Or rather than taking a 7 day Caribbean cruise, how about a Panama Canal cruise?  Or back-to-back a Mediterranean cruise?

So whether you want to board "My Yacht", "Get Out There", "Be Treated Famously" or whatever, now is a great time to consider an autumn cruise.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Regent Seven Seas, Please Listen: Luxury Is Really About Service

I guess with a bit of irony I commented in my post this morning that Regent's trumpeting $40,000,000 of hardware upgrades on the Voyager and Mariner was good news, but there needs to be a significant improvement in the service department.

I was just taking a look over at the Cruise Critic boards and saw a new thread today speaking of services misses that were, quite disappointingly, similar to that which I have experienced over the past few years.  And the services misses were not from one person, but quite a few. 

Problems with wine stewards that can't be bothered and pour what they have in their hand; simple dining requests that are given a "NO" rather than making it magically happen; being told to wait for tea service rather than providing a few minutes early; leaving a passenger struggling on the dock with luggage; being rushed through dinner, etc., etc., etc.  

What makes me believe that things are not improving is that the people complaining did so with the qualification that it did not ruin their cruise, but that the level of service was simply inferior to most cruise lines and did not warrant the premium pricing. 

I do not want to beat a dead horse, but it just baffles me how Prestige Cruise Holdings is throwing money at hardware, but history shows that it is service, service and service that really makes the difference...not just in getting new passengers, but in keeping them and building loyalty.

Upgrades to Regent Seven Seas Voyager and Mariner

There was a very brief article of a mere seven (7) lines yesterday in Travel Weekly about upgrades to the Regent Seven Seas Voyager and Mariner, but interesting silence as to the Navigator.  Also, while the $40,000,000 figure was used, it is hard to tell where the money will really be spent since Mariner is going to have its damaged pod replaced during its drydock. 

According to a quote of Frank Del Rio both of the specialty restaurants (Signatures and Latitudes) will be "redesigned" and the public spaces will be "completely refurbished".  He states that under Prestige Cruise Holdings there will be "significant improvements" and Regent will be "raising the bar".

What struck me, however, was not the positive comments by Mr. Del Rio, but rather the impression expressed by Travel Weekly, "The implicit message is that Regent needs to be better."

Personally, I ever really had a problem with the public areas on the two ships.  They worked just fine.  I don't mind them being refurbished, obviously, and I am sure there will be some pretty interesting things done. 

I am, however, pleased that Signatures and Latitudes are being "redesigned".They need it...from top to bottom.  The spaces were OK, but nothing special.  Walk into the specialty restaurants on Celebrity and you get a much bigger "WOW factor".  I also found the Latitudes menu to be lacking and the Signatures Le Cordon Bleu claims overblown.  I believe there have been discussions of a high quality steakhouse which many (if not myself) would find a popular alternative for those seeking out basic American comfort food.  We shall see, but I hope the cuisine is put to the fore...not hype or glitz.

But with this good news I cannot help but wonder about the training and service aspects of the ships.  That is where I find Regent actually suffers.  To me better "software" is far more important than better "hardware". 

Finally, I am not sure if the upgrades are going to be a springboard for yet higher prices, but I hope not.  I am just finding Regent's present pricing to be cost prohibitive not only for myself, but my clients.

It is a step...a good one...but I look forward to more.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Seabourn Captain Buer Interview on John Heald's Blog

The very popular blog of Carnival's cruise director extraordinare, John Heald, posted a wonderful interview with Seabourn's Captain Karl Buer on August 9th. Hopefully without offending I have copied the meat of it below.

"Seabourn has a name that as with Bentley, Rolex and Cartier you know you are getting the best. I have disembarked many times in places like Cannes, Monte Carlo and Portofino have seen one of the Seabourn Yachts in the harbor and even though I have never been onboard you just know that the people onboard are experiencing something very very special. So, what’s it like to be Master of such a vessel………well, lets find out by talking to Captain Karlo Buer, Master of the Seabourn Legend.

1. Captain, please can you tell us about your career so far from your earliest child hood memory of wanting to work at sea to your current position.

Answer: I joined my first ship in 1970, never meant to make this a life long career. Like so many young men/boys at that time just thought I should use a couple of years to work on ships, see the world and make up my mind what to do with my life. But, I liked it and kept on for 5 years in different positions, before going back to join the Merchant Marine Academy in Norway. Then I graduated as a Master in 1980. I worked on different ships for different shipping companies until I permanently moved to cruise vessels in 1986 as chief officer (what is today called Staff Captain) on the Explorer Starship. I was part of the start-up team with that company. I moved to Seabourn in 1989 to supervise the building of the Seabourn Spirit. After Sprit launched I spent more than a year in the Seabourn head office in Oslo before rejoining the ships in 1991. Since then I have served as Captain on all the three Seabourn sisters until today. And now I will be the inaugural captain on Odyssey next June.

2. Standing on the bridge as Master of one of the most prestigious ships in the world must be quite a feeling. Can you tell us a little about the Seabourn Legend, how many passengers and crew etc and some of the features that as Captain make this command so unique.

I would say that Seabourn Legend is unique, but that isn’t quite true. She is one of three sisters that are virtually identical, but then there are no others like them. Seabourn Legend has 104 guest suites, so her maximum capacity is 208 guests. And we are nearly the same number of staff to take care of them. So we can quickly get to know them. Everyone on board can address them by name by the second day. And our stewardesses know how they like their suites arranged, the bartenders know how they like their drinks, and so forth. One guest asked for mixed nuts to have with drinks in his suite, and when the stewardess cleaned up, she noticed that all of the almonds were left in the bowl. The next night, there were no almonds in the mixed nuts. That makes everyone on board feel really special. And at the same time, they get to know each other really well, too. All the drinks are included on Seabourn, so it’s an easy sociable atmosphere like a country club. They tell me that they especially like that.

3. I would imagine that you have traveled to many fantastic ports. Which are your top three favorites to navigate the ship to and why.

There are so many fantastic ports in this world like Sydney, London, Venice, Hong Kong, Oslo, Halong Bay, etc. But if to choose one I would vote for Stockholm, Sweden. Cruising through the Stockholm Archipelago on a sunny summer day is the most spectacular approach to any city in the world. And mind you that is quite a statement for a Norwegian.

Another favorite day is our Caviar in the Surf beach party that we do in several ports around the world. Legend does it at Hunting Caye in Belize during her Panama , Belize and Costa Rica cruises. We anchor and the staff set up an incredible buffet on a private beach, with all kinds of barbecue and cold foods and silver and china from the ships, lots of loungers and entertainment and so forth. Then, at a certain point, we come rushing in from the ship in the Zodiacs with iced champagne and caviar and the waiters go right into the water chest deep and serve the guests who wade out to meet them. They use a surfboard for a bar and table and life-rings for the caviar-it’s is always great fun and a highlight of the cruise.

4. How would you describe the people who sail Seabourn? Is there such a thing as a typical passenger?

They are young and old, tall and short, they come from all over, but what they do have in common is they like to travel, and they like to do it in fine style. They really care about fine dining and wine, they like to live life to the fullest and they want the best. And they like people, too. Seabourn’s yachts are the friendliest places. Everyone loves to gather over drinks before dinner and talk about where they have been and where they are going next. A lot of them have met on board and now they travel together year after year. On any given cruise, more than half the people have been with us before, and of those, about two-thirds are coming back within a year and a half. About a third of them book their next cruise while they are still on board - so we must be doing something right!

5. You must have met some very interesting characters during your service onboard. Who are some of the most memorable?

Let me just say; all our guests are unique in their own way. I wouldn’t single out anyone by name. They are very interesting people and on our yachts they really have time to talk with each other and with us. It’s part of the Seabourn way. But we do have some guests who have sailed with us more than 2000 days, and many more have more than a thousand, so they’re almost like family—but they welcome new guests just as warmly as they do their old friends.

6. lets now talk about your exciting new command The Seabourn Odyssey. How and when did you hear the news and how did you feel when you were told you would be the master of what will be one of the most luxurious vessels in the world.

I was simply asked by our VP Operation a couple of months ago and was of course very pleased to be asked. When it comes to luxury the Odyssey will be a natural and logical continuation of the present Seabourn yachts and it is a very satisfying feeling to be on any of our vessels. All the best features will be on board, plus there will be space for a lot of extra things like a huge spa and a great pool beach area, which we don’t have so much space on the sisters.

7. I was privileged to have a look at the mock ups of the cabins as well as have a walk through the vessel last month and both experiences were truly amazing. What will be your role in the building of the vessel?

These ships are built by the Carnival Corp. building department and our role will basically be to set up the operation and make sure that everything is as prepared as possible on the day our guests are walking up the gangway. My biggest job will be to train with my senior staff to be sure we know all about the technical details of the new ship. There are very sophisticated safety and waste management systems that are all new to us.

8. What are some of the features of your new command that you are particularly excited about?

It is difficult to mention any thing in particular as the whole ship is extremely well designed from guest areas to technical spaces and bridge equipment.

For instance there is a system that offers what they call computerized decision support in case of an emergency. So no matter what happens on board this system will suggest all sorts of actions that might be necessary, and the captain can either accept or reject the suggestions. We put all those suggestions in while we are under no pressure—just to be sure everything is covered. Then if there is an emergency nothing gets overlooked.

9. Can you tell us where the ultra luxury Seabourn Odyssey will sail to?

We will start her maiden voyage in Venice. We have just announced that all of the guests on board will be the godparents of Odyssey and will take part in the naming ceremony. Each of their names will be engraved on a plaque that will always be displayed on board. Then we will sail in the Greek Isles, Turkey and the Black Sea for the rest of the summer. We’re going to some new ports like Sochi in Russia and Batumi in Georgia. Then in the fall we will cross the Atlantic and end the year in the Caribbean. In January, though, Seabourn Odyssey will start our first-ever World Cruise, which will sail 108 days from Fort Lauderdale to Athens. She will visit 42 ports on 26 countries on five continents. It’s not very often you can become “well-traveled” on a single cruise!

10. Finally, and as is tradition here on the blog, I would like you to fill in the blanks please Captain.

The scenario is you are hosting your first Captain’s table on the Seabourn Odyssey and you have been given permission to choose your guests and the menu……………………so using the fantastic menu items from the Yachts of Seabourn please choose your favorites for the following.

APPETIZER Well, I’m Norwegian, so it would have to be seafood. I love Charlie Palmer’s Citrus Marinated Smoked Halibut, that he fixes with ruby grapefruit and ginger crackling.
SALAD Tossed tomatoes with grilled bread, cucumber and toasted pine nuts.
FISH COURSE Lobster, Lobster & Lobster with Lobster Sauce (it’s a specialty of Charlie’s)
MEAT COURSE Herb Crusted Lamb Chops, fondant potatoes in mustard jus, with peas and wilted lettuce.
DESSERT Without doubt the Crème Brulée En Parade in three flavors: Jasmine, Capuccino and Classic Vanilla.

And now please choose who you eat dinner with.
A FAMOUS ACTOR Mr. Paul Newman would be a pleasure.
A FAMOUS ACTRESS and his wife Joanne Woodward, of course.
SOMEONE TO MAKE YOU LAUGH Robin Williams never fails.
SOMEONE FROM THE WORLD OF CRUISING I am always delighted to see our president, Mrs. Pamela Conover.
SOMEONE FROM THE WORLD OF SPORT I think maybe Stein Eriksen, the Norwegian skier who invented freestyle skiing.
SOMEONE FROM HISTORY YOU WISH YOU HAD MET. I would like to hear some stories from Roald Amundsen, who was the first man to reach both the North and the South Poles and traverse the Northwest Passage.

Thank you so very much Captain for that enthralling interview. We all wish you much success with your new command the incomparable Seabourn Odyssey and I hope one day to be fortunate enough to visit you and your super yacht. Can you imagine what it must be like to experience this kind of cruise vacation?………….I hope one day to be able to tell you all about it."

If you would like to read all of John Heald's blog post, or any of his many other posts, you can read them here: http://johnhealdsblog.com/

Seabourn Staff Receive Unique Training and Compensation

Last week I discussed a bit about Seabourn taking back control of its officers and ship's management by abandoning a short-lived V.Ships relationship.  Today I thought I would mention a unique aspect of Seabourn as it relates to its hotel staff; that is stewardesses, waiters, etc.

One thing that is unique about Seabourn is that it has maintained a European/South African staff while virtually (if not literally) most other lines, including other luxury lines, have focused on reducing costs by utilizing less expensive Filipino and other Southeast Asian staff.  In an industry where finding and keeping well trained staff is becoming an bigger and bigger problem, the challenges are many.

As a bit of background, most cruise lines hire staff, put them through a short shore-based program and then put them to sea; starting them out as assistant stewards and assistant waiters generally in the lesser cabins and easier areas of the dining rooms/buffets and allowing "on the job" training to run its course.  As the demand for crew has increased...as have the number and sheer size of new ships increase...some lines have taken to using private "schools".  The problem is, of course, that while it is better than just starting to work without any training at all, there is a big difference between the school room and the ship.

Seabourn is unique in that it does not hire untrained, or merely school trained, staff for its hotel service positions.  Generally, Seabourn has the following criteria:  1.  The potential staff must be a minimum of 20 years old years (eliminating many "youth issues"); 2.  They must have a certificate from a recognized professional training institution; 3.  (And I think this is key) they must have at least 2 years of full-time restaurant or hotel service experience in a five star establishment catering to an international clientèle; and, 4.  They must have a good written and oral use of English.

(Having suffered through Regent's overnight change from European to Filipino staffing, the frustrations of the lack of training and the lack of a good command of English was, to me shocking.  As time goes by this problem has dissipated quite a bit, but it still remains with too many new staff.  I have heard of similar problem on Silversea.)

But Seabourn does not end its training there.  With the Seabourn Odyssey coming onboard, Seabourn is in need of more staff...and the staff has to be experiences not only in a classroom and a hotel or restaurant. So Seabourn is taking the unusual step of taking a certain number of suites out of service so that the new staff can come onboard and shadow the existing staff.  Remember the term is "shadow"; not replace.  The full compliment of trained staff will remain on the ship to service the guests.  The new staff are in addition to the full compliment. So when some of the more experienced staff migrate over to the Odyssey, trained staff to replace them will already be onboard.  (Will this be perfect?  Probably not.  Will it be significantly better than pilfering the existing crew and leaving new and not so well trained staff on the triplets?  Every indication is that it should work quite well.)

[Side Note:  When it comes to hiring galley staff, Seabourn actually travels to the schools and puts the applicants for jobs as chefs, bakers, butchers, etc. through tests before they are hired; again taking that extra step which reduces the pitfalls of mere "on the job" training.  Many cruise lines take the graduate sight unseen, evaluate them once onboard and then figure out where they might fit.]

The other major issue is compensation.  Until last week's 5% drop in the value of the Euro, the U.S. Dollar has been the standard rate of pay for most crew...and one of the biggest bones of contention as crew has seen their net pay in their home countries actually reduce.  It is very difficult to maintain staff when compensation reduces.  It is, in part, why the concept of automatic gratuities being added to your onboard account started...and then the newest things:  mandatory service charges being added; the concept obviously being the higher percentage of passengers that pay the full gratuity (and the fewer that pay none...and those folks do exist), the easier it is for the cruise lines to boost or at least stabilize crew wages...but at the passenger's expense.

Seabourn, once again, takes a unique position in the industry.  It pays its staff in the currency of their residence.  So a South African has a contract paid in Rand, British in Pounds, Dutch in Euros, etc.  This is a huge benefit for the staff because their pay is, regardless of currency international fluctuations, their pay...just like it would be at home.  This sort of...consistancy...is a very good tool to obtain and retain high quality staff.

One thing to consider is that while as a guest Seabourn is a fantastic place to be, the employees don't get to have the same experience.  They are in charge of assuring you the experience.  This, in large part, can affect the international mix of the staff.  Some have wondered why there are so few American staff.  The reasons range from the rate of pay, to living conditions, to the requirement to work seven days a week at times.  With all of the employment opportunities in the U.S., obtaining and retaining U.S. staff can be very difficult.  Just ask Norwegian Cruise Lines when they were pulling their hair out in Hawaii.

Also, keep in mind that societal and cultural differences also come into play as to the type of service being provided.  While European/South African staff are more outgoing and engaging, Filipino staff can be very charming, but generally take a more distanced or subservient approach.  To be sure, each individual is different, but you can most definitely tell the difference when you walk aboard a Holland America ship versus a Seabourn ship.  It is, alas, part of what the product is that is being provided to the guests.

Hopefully this has helped answer some of the questions concerning training, pay and interactions with the staff aboard the ships.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Another Reason Conde Nast Traveler Bugs Me!

I received an email notification of another blog claiming Conde Nast Traveler's editor said the NCL Gem was simply the best. When I went to find the article I found that was not exactly what was said, but I also found the Conde Nast Traveler's Cruise Finder, so I gave it a shot.

I gave it two criteria: Foodie and Romantic. A mere six ships were identified: 3 Regent, 1 Seabourn, 1 Royal Clipper and 1 Oceania. Aside from the numerous ships that also should have been included (like Silversea, the other Seabourn ships, the other Oceania ships, etc., etc.) I noticed the the Paul Gauguin was identified.

Now, I had one of my best cruises ever on that ship and would recommend it highly for certain things...including Romance, but for Foodies??? Obtaining quality ingredients at a reasonable cost in Tahiti is very difficult and the chef readily admits his menu is limited and adjusted to compensate. Yes, you can have a very nice meal, but suggesting a Foodie pick this ship? I don't think so.

So I looked further and saw it was recommended not only for Foodies, but for Spa Goers and Landbubbers. If any spa lover saw the spa on the Paul Gauguin they would be terribly disappointed by the limited facilities. It doesn't mean you can't get a good massage, but picking the ship for its spa?

Similarly, if I was to pick a cruise for Landlubber I would not pick a small, shallow-bottomed, ship located in the middle of the South Pacific which has about 80% of its itinerary based on hopping from one small island to another and other itineraries with days at sea. A ship cruising around Italy or Greece would seem to fit that bill a bit better, wouldn't it?

I have to ask, if the editors have such a skewed and curious approach to identifying your perfect cruise, isn't it really a horrible disservice to Conde Nast Traveler's readers?

Maybe they should rely on professionals that actually have been on the ships, know the itineraries and understand what the product is on each ship. Geez.

Seabourn Brings Technical and Marine Operations In House...What's With V.Ships?

In 2006 Seabourn contracted with V.Ships to operate its technical and marine operations on its three ships. This created a good bit of upset with the non-hotel crew and officers and, quite frankly, puzzled me. Well, obviously Seabourn was not happy with the V.Ship operations and/or costs. (Neither was Prestige Cruise Holdings re: Oceania and Regent who will take back its operations when its contract with V.Ships expires in November.)

Seabourn has finished the process of receiving the regulatory approvals to move the operations in house. While, as with Prestige Cruise Holdings, the politic thing to state is that with a larger stable of ships (three on the way) the efficiencies make in house the way to go, Larry Rapp, Vice President of Fleet Operations, made a couple of comments that - at least to me - make it clear that V.Ship was not going a good enough job either in communications or performance.

He stated that this significant change will result in closer oversight of the maintenance and safety. ‘That is not to imply that there were any shortcomings in the past... However, we are expected to comply in detail not only to all relevant statutory requirements, but also to Carnival standards as well. Having our operation in house makes achieving that standard far more efficient.’ Mr. Rapp also commented that was a desire for direct control of marine and technical matters.

Those comments indicates to me that there were probably some "discussions" by Seabourn about certain things not being good enough and V.Ship asserting it complied with the required statutory standards so it was "good enough". I have no information that was, in fact, the case; it just seems to me to be the obvious conclusion...especially when the relationship ended so quickly.

Reading further between the lines, it seems to me that V.Ship took on huge responsibilities and, as short term profit was its motivation, it utilized its contracted for control over the technical and operational matters in order to create an immediate profit center for itself (hence the application of the minimum standards required) rather than a long term relationship based upon exceeding those minimum performance standards (coupled with excellent communication) that ultimately would have grown its operations...and therefore its long term profits.

I also think it is interesting that V.Ship personnel have migrated to both Seabourn and PCH. This makes me believe V.Ship had the talent pool and that the conflicts arose on the financial side of things.

One other interesting point: As Seabourn and PCH literally are "jumping V.Ships" (sorry!), Silversea is on the gangway about to sign up with V.Ship not only for its technical and marine operations, but for V.Ships to oversea its new build operations; migrating some of its staff over to V.Ship. Interesting.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Cruise Vacation Sales Are Strong...For Some

I am being asked more and more if my sales are up or down compared to last year.  This is asked by cruise lines, other travel agents, clients and potential clients.  Frankly, everyone who asks shocked by the answer:  My sales have more than doubled and on the luxury and premium lines my 2009 sales have already surpassed my 2008 sales...more than a quarter of the year left.

While I would like to think that this dramatic increase is based solely upon my providing excellent service and pricing AND extremely loyal clients - for which I am more than grateful, appreciative and, likewise, loyal - I really don't think that is the only reason. 

When I look at what types of cruises are selling, with which lines and with what sort of advanced planning, I see two very distinct trends. 

Those that are purchasing the true luxury cruises (and I define those not only by they type of accommodation, but also the exoticness of the ports and cruise length) are not only continuing to cruise, they are increasing the length and/or frequency of their cruises.  But within that group, I am seeing a bit less of the cruise line loyalty (which previously seemed to be omnipresent) and more of a focus on "value".  What I mean by value is not a cost-per-day figure, but rather "What is the experiential value of the cruise?"; be it visiting new ports, experiencing a new ship or insisting on a certain level of service.

Seabourn is very strong in 2009 as it relates to its new Seabourn Odyssey and its industry topping consistency of service.  There are only two things which seem to limit the Seabourn cruises that I can sell:  Available space and Itineraries.  Both of these factors are being addressed as the three new ships are rolled out and the smaller triplets are able to be sent to more exotic ports.  (Note:  For all of those folks who keep speculating that Seabourn will dump the smaller ships you should remember that:  1.  One thing which has made Seabourn special is that those small ships can and do visit ports that larger ships cannot visit; 2.  There may be demand for an exotic itinerary sufficient to support a 208 passenger ship, but insufficient to support a 450 passenger ship; 3.  There is the attraction for many to the intimacy of a 208 passenger ship and a similar aversion to a 450 passenger ship; and, without limitation, 5.  For most of the year demand outweighs supply and the trend is to an increasing, not decreasing, demand...so eliminating 624 berths doesn't make sense if the trends continue.)

Silversea has also seen a much stronger 2008 over what can only be considered a dismal 2007.  While I continue to marvel at claims of passenger increases of 30+%, I also note that the only way Silversea could have such growth is by sailing half-empty ships in 2007 and that the majority of the passengers are, according to Silversea, first time passengers (54% to be specific).  In a world where the mantra is "It takes $1.00 to keep a customer, but $10.00 to get one, so keep the customer happy in order to sustain growth" I have to wonder why the repeater rate on Silversea is so low.  (Over analyzing this point, possibly the 2005-2207 period caused disgruntled passengers to go elsewhere, so it will take time for the repeater levels to exceed 50% as the product hopefully improves.)  That said, I love their Africa, new French Polynesia and Exploration itineraries and expect very strong sales for those products.

Regent is a line that frustrates me.  I won't repeat my rants, but assuming improvements in hotel, cuisine and overall services continue and are accelerated, I remain baffled by the pricing.  As I recently showed, the new Silversea "ultra-luxury" venture in French Polynesia starts at 28% less expensive than the premium Regent product.  The same holds true for even less exotic cruises to Northern Europe, the Caribbean, etc.  This summer Regent was offering travel agent rates to Northern Europe in the peak month of August.  That is a sign of weak demand...and a real need look hard at the cruise fares.  If those prices come back in line with the product provided, I am confident the demand for Regent will increase.  Without bodies on board, the holy grail of "onboard revenue" can be very illusive.  There really isn't that hard a balance between paying a premium not be "nickeled and dimes" and being perceived as ripping people off so as to avoid same. 

I also want to mention Crystal Cruises here.  While I have not cruised with Crystal, I have never met anyone who has uttered anything but satisfaction to unequivocal praise for the cruise experience it provides.  My guess is that what is now considered a large ship with smaller (but not small) cabins, in a more formal setting, truly focused on older guests, needs to change a bit.  I know Crystal is feeling the pressure, but I have not a clue as to how it plans on meeting the challenge of an overall younger luxury cruising market and a growing demand (even by the older passengers) for a less formal experience.  Ironically, Regent's talk (but no action of yet) of larger ships and the premium/mass market lines growing behemoths, may actually assist Crystal in softening its "large ship" positioning.

Now, as to the premium lines, sales are most definitely weaker, but I am finding that the issue is not the lack of sales, but rather the sales are closer into the actual sail date.  What I do not see is any downgrading.  People who regularly purchase suites are still purchasing suites.  Balconies, balconies, etc.  What I am seeing at least the start of happening, are some aggressive last minute deals (actually 90 days out); which have been pretty much absent the past few years.

More on this soon!

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

New Regent Seven Seas Ship Delayed Until 2012...At Least.

On Monday, Prestige Cruise Holdings announced its plans for the new Oceania Marina...and some interesting insight into the future for any Regent newbuild(s).

According to Seatrade, PCH has entered into a deal for potentially five (5) ships to be built by Fincantieri...all with the same hull; three for Oceania and two for Regent. While there has been a firm commitment for two Oceania ships, not so for Regent.

Robin Lindsay, Executive Vice President for Vessel Operations characterizes the Regent order as "semi-firm" and is dependent on financing. Lindsay was quotes as saying ‘We hope by the end of the year we will arrange financing to sign a firm contract.’ If that schedule holds, the Regent ship will be delivered in April 2012.

For those of you who also read the Cruise Critic message boards, I "did the math" many months ago and asserted that Regent would not have a new ship until 2012 and the usual suspect(s) flamed me for being so "anti-Regent". Alas, there is a big difference between being realistic and negative. The fact is that it will be AT LEAST FOUR YEARS before Regent will have a new ship...and that is dependent on financing; something that is much harder to obtain these days.

But we need to look further into this information...and into our crystal balls...to try and understand what this means.

The concept is that Oceania and Regent will share the same ships to a great extent. Not only hull forms, but engines, systems, etc. The main difference is that the Regent ships - if built - are in theory going to have 450 or less cabins versus the 629 on the Oceania ones.

But when Frank Del Rio discussed the Oceania Marina on Monday he made the ships sound incredibly similar to the current Regent Seven Seas product: luxury, space, cuisine and options. He told Seatrade the Marina will abandon the English country decor for a more modern "transitional and eclectic" one, have large cabins, marble or granite baths, seven dining venues and an internet connected laptop. (As an aside, my guess as to the last item is that in 4 years this will be an antiquated concept...something I said about the move to put ethernet wiring in new homes back in the '90s.)

One thing I find telling, however, is that PCH is not using pod propulsion. This technology has been shown to be more fuel efficient and provides better maneuverability. The reason given for going with propellers: the technology is not proven. Huh? Pods are being installed on vessel after vessel and even the earlier pods are now being retrofitted so that the former problems are just that. Reality check: Pods are a lot more expensive and omitting them can save significant dollars in construction costs...though increased operating costs will exceed that short term financial "solution"...especially on larger ships.

So with Oceania significantly improving its product to be very similar to what Regent and the luxury lines are offering today - save drinks and gratuities included and, possibly, a higher level of cuisine, are we looking at really nothing more than paying for more real estate on Regent...keeping in mind that Regent will be increasing its passenger counts on the new ships; not reducing them to afford a more personalized level of service.

To be fair, I do not know if the crew counts and design have been worked so that this is adjusted to some extent, but I cannot see how 900 passengers can be treated to the same intimate, luxury experience, as 450 or less can be on, for example, the new Seabourn Odyssey and her two sisters that will be sailing by the time the single new Regent ship MAY be delivered...or the new Silversea ship, etc.

I guess we shall see what the plan is when, in fact, there is a defined plan.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Yacht Brokerage and Legal Panel - American Superyacht Forum

As I previously wrote, I was on a panel in June at The Yacht Report's American Superyacht Forum in Newport, Rhode Island. The panel discussion was on issues and concerns with yacht brokers.  The transcript of the panel discussion can be found here:


For those of you that know me as a travel agent, this will probably give you some insight as to my dealings as a superyacht lawyer.  While some of it may be rather dry or boring, there are some really good comments and observations from the panelists.

And, importantly, there are some parallels between issues with some yacht brokers and some travel agents regarding lack of knowledge, misrepresentations and a personal need to "make the deal" (earn a commission) versus being in the industry for the long term and building a solid reputation through doing things the right way.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Silversea To Give Regent SERIOUS Competition in French Polynesia

It is now official. Silversea has announced that is exploration ship, Prince Albert II, is going to be cruising Tahiti and French Polynesia from mid-March 2009 through October 2009.

The ship is significantly different than Regent's Paul Gauguin both in size and approach. The Silversea experience is defined as "luxury" and "exploration" rather than a more typical cruise experience...albeit a very nice one on the Paul Gauguin.

What really shocks me is the price difference between the two lines. Just grabbing two 14 day cruises, a 14 day cruise on Regent starts at $6,305 per person (including an air credit), while on Silversea it starts at $4,917 per person...or 28% less than Regent. And this is for a cruise that is billed as "ultra-luxury" while the Paul Gauguin is very nice, but not really at the luxury level. While I have no experience (nor does anyone :-) ) with the product, even if the promised levels of service were not met, the price difference makes that very much forgiving. More importantly, it does not mean that Silversea is giving away the store, but rather it underscores my assertions that Regent has pricing that just cannot be justified. I would consider the Silversea prices as well placed.

The other big difference is that Silvesea is going to have a far more diverse series of itineraries and a far less structured one at that.

From today's press release:

"Following only a tentative schedule that allows for moment-by-moment flexibility, expeditions stay longer at sites of particular interest, or make slight detours whenever weather, nature or mere curiosity dictate. Highlights of the 2009 French Polynesia program include:

AUSTRAL ISLAND ADVENTURES Nestled in the Tropic of Capricorn, the remote Austral Islands lie hundreds of miles south of Tahiti and enjoy a slightly cooler climate. Tubuai, largest of these volcanic islands, is probably best known for the failed landing attempts of the H.M.S. Bounty. (The island's villagers assaulted the unwelcome ship with a barrage of stones, and ultimately the mutineers sailed off to Pitcairn.) Prince Albert II and her fleet of 8 Zodiac boats will explore the unique culture, flora and fauna of Rapa, Raivavae, Tubuai, Rurutu and Rimatara on five 11-day, roundtrip journeys from Papeete. Silver Sailing fares start at $3,897 per person, based on double occupancy.

JOURNEYS TO THE MARQUESAS The mountainous islands of the Marquesas are located nearly 900 miles northeast of Tahiti and just south of the equator. With a lush, vibrant terrain bursting with myriad exotic flowers and fruit trees, it's easy to understand how this tropical paradise captivated the artist Paul Gauguin, who made the Marquesas his adopted home. On four roundtrip journeys of 14 days from Papeete, Prince Albert II's expedition team will lead in-depth explorations of Fatu Hiva, Pua Mau, Hiva Oa, Atuona, Ua Pou, Nuku Hiva and Tahuata, as well as Manihi and Fakarava Island in the Tuamotu Archipelago and the Society Islands of Bora Bora and Tahaa. Silver Sailing fares start at $4,917 per person, based on double occupancy.

TUAMOTU EXPEDITIONS The isolated Tuamotu Islands, northeast of Tahiti, comprise the world's largest chain of atolls. Its 78 sparsely populated coral islands span over 900 miles of aquamarine waters. Dotted with quaint villages, coral churches and an abundance of wildlife -- from bottlenose dolphins and coconut crabs to the rarest of birds, this remote archipelago offers endless possibilities for real Robinson Crusoe-style adventures. Departing from Papeete, Prince Albert II will embark on five 10-day expeditions to the Tuamotu islands of Tikihau, Rangiroa, Apataki, Arutua and Fakarava, as well as Raiatea, Maupihaa and Huahine in the Society Islands. Silver Sailing fares start at $3,597 per person, based on double occupancy.

The Prince Albert II offers full-scale exploring from an ultra-luxury base at sea, in true Silversea style. With the largest average size accommodations of any expedition ship, guests will enjoy spacious, ocean-view accommodations (many with French balconies or large private verandas), sumptuous gourmet cuisine, warm hospitality and personalized service (with a crew-to-guest ratio of nearly 1 to 1), and Silversea's generous selection of all-inclusive shipboard amenities, including complimentary beverages, bottled water, wines and spirits served throughout the ship, 24-hour room service, stocked in-suite beverage cabinet and all gratuities. Plus, complimentary Butler Service is provided in the Grand and Owner's Suites. "

I have to say that I am pretty excited about this and, if I wasn't going to Africa next summer I would probably have booked one of these cruises...before I even posted it here.

Message Boards - Do They Reflect The Cruise Experience Being Discussed

One concern I frequently encounter, and a commenter on this blog mentioned again yesterday, is that some message boards reflect a certain personality and people wonder if the board's posters are a reflection of passengers on board.  My answer is emphatically:  NO. 

There is a very interesting dynamic.  Taking any cruise line, message board posters (those that have at least one post) represent a very small (less than 5%) portion of the cruising public.  Of that small group, probably only 10% are "regular" posters.  Most posters are intimidated in some fashion, however, so they don't post regularly and are very carefully worded as to what and how they post.  Be it they are uneasy about asking questions in a public forum, or they don't want to appear ignorant, or they don't want to be "flamed", or they just feel like they are not "part of the crowd", these "lurkers" actually make up the vast majority of those that frequent message boards.

If you then look at the topics being posted...and then what they can devolve into...you actually find that it can be an adult version of My Space or Facebook.  Most posts somehow are related to socializing either onboard or pre-cruise.  A person asking about some aspect of a ship finds "her" thread has turned into a discussion of whether laundry soap is free and how someone met a wonderful woman while ironing her clothes. There is, of course, nothing wrong with that and it actually can be quite enjoyable for those who are involved in the socialization; though extremely frustrating for the person looking for information. 

While I generally skip over the 20 page thread "November 24 Cruise on Ship Z" (while they discuss shoes, whose dog was put to sleep, the cardinal they saw last year or the best fried stuffed peppers in Arizona - all true discussions BTW) because they simply are of no interest to me, it does leave many wondering, "Is this what it is going to be like on my cruise?  Do I want to be hanging around with some lady that Bedazzles everything she owns with rhinestones?"

This concern becomes exacerbated when looking at luxury cruise lines such as Seabourn, Silversea and Regent.  This is because there are very few viable message boards for these lines.  What then happens is that a group sort of takes over the one or two viable boards and from the outside it becomes disconcerting...especially because the ships are so small.

Now is the time to take a breath and have a reality check.  Let's do some math.  As an example, on the Cruise Critic Seabourn board.

1.  There are maybe fifty people that post with any regularity.  One cruise holds 208 guests x 3 ships = 624 guests per week x 52 weeks = 32,448 guests weeks per year.  If the 50 posters cruise an average of 3 weeks a year, that is 150 guest weeks out of 32,448, or .46%.  That is less an 1/2 of 1 percent!

2.  Of those 50 posters probably 20 of them have either had their posts pulled for criticizing the cliquishness or impropriety of some of the other posters...or worse. 

3.  Remember that many more lurk than post because they are intimidated for one reason or another.

4.  Ergo, there are hugely more message board visitors that do not engage in the cliquish behavior than posters that do...So there are more who use the message boards that are not cliquish and do not like that sort of behavior.

Now let's consider another point:  Most ships are fairly large and those that aren't have multiple venues.  This allows differing personalities to find their own space; whether it be in a particular lounge or a portion of the dining room or on deck. Avoiding boorish people is actually as easy to do as "Let's just sit over there."

But the reality of it is, we all cruise in part because we love to meet people and have made some lifelong friends as a result.  That is the reality; which is so much more obvious than the mini-cyberworld of message boards.

A final two points: 

1.  I had my own taste of cyberbullying back in 2003.  There was a clique that had overrun the Cruise Critic Regent (then Radisson) message board.  It got so bad that Cruise Critic actually prohibited them from using abbreviations for their cruises (such as MUSH for an Alaska cruise) because it was so exclusionary and they all used the same travel agent.  The travel agent started up her own message board which still exists and is in huge part nothing more than a social networking/travel agent marketing site (which is absolutely fine).  However, in that site's infancy, this clique used the message board to literally scheme how they were going to ruin my cruise (since they were on the same one).  REALITY CHECK:  This seemingly intimidating group was actually a very small group of rather ordinary people (at best) that you almost had to seek out to know they were on the same 350 passenger ship. For me it was sort of pathetic letdown as this small group of wannabes was so different than their message board personas.

2.  I "knew" someone from a message board, but didn't know what he looked like or what his real name was.  He is the type that posts silly answers to silly questions poking fun - and probably offending some - whenever possible.  Some years ago we wound up on the same cruise by happenstance.  Although we didn't know each other by name or face, we knew instantly when we ran into each other.  We remain friends to this day and they visit us at our home a couple of times a year.  As I said, the socialization aspect of message boards is not always a bad thing.

So don't worry about the person who demands the right to smoke or the big sail-away party (that usually fizzles) or being dragged into a tour that you don't want to go on (and usually fizzles as well).  The reality is, large ship or small, there are people you will like and people you won't.  The fact that a few post on message boards really isn't going to affect your cruise.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Perspectives on Travel Agents - "Only The Best Are Likely To Survive"

Last night I received a most unusual, and welcome, email from CruiseMates.com; a website that I visit once in a great while. It is more of an information hub than a message board community (which also has information but mostly from its members) such as CruiseCritic.com. The CruiseMates email was entitled, "Thank Your Travel Agent". It is posted on its website and is worth a read.

It tries to succinctly explain that travel agents are under tremendous pressure in this economy because many in the cruising population are also feeling the pinch, so they cruise less often, on slightly less expensive cruises or worse: after much effort by the travel agent, are cancelling the cruises when final payments become due.

One of the points mentioned is that travel agents are paid a commission on the sale of a cruise, but not on the total cruise cost. Now, with added fuel supplements ($12 per person per day), increased taxes (ex. Alaska's $50 per person tax) and higher port charges and "NCFs" (Non-Commissionable Fares), the travel agent is earning a commission on a smaller percentage of what you are paying...which results in you potentially receiving a smaller discount than you might be expecting.

But, from the travel agent's perspective things actually get worse. The way commissions generally work is that the more the travel agent sells the higher the commission the cruise line will pay him/her. But some of the cruise lines are moving the bar, so that now travel agents have to sell more cruises, with commission earned on a lower percentage of the total cruise fare, before they earn higher commissions.

I will now add to the mix a statistic that a cruise line representative shared with me at a private lunch the other day: On average a travel agent only retains 20% of its clients for booking future cruises.

With such a lack of loyalty and the loss of the ability to discount the total cruise prices, things seem pretty bad. Is it all "gloom and doom"? Is the Perfect Storm about to strike????

To the contrary, things are looking pretty good for the best agents. Why?

I look at the posts on sites such as Cruise Critic, the growing list of other message boards, and the emails I receive asking me to post on those boards. It always makes me wonder why all of the "customers" that read the message boards just don't ask their travel agents for the information. The reason is that, in large part, they opt for purchasing the lowest cruise fare, but no or poor support. When a "customer" takes that approach there could never be any loyalty because it is the price...and only the price...that brings the client to the travel agent. (Of course it also brings the potential for problems, misunderstandings, disappointments, lost upgrade opportunities, wonderful shoreside opportunities to be lost, lesser quality tours, etc., etc., etc.)

Then there are other ways to improve the quality of a cruise experience for a client.

1. I am a member of a consortium, Ensemble Travel, which provides my clients with numerous added values including such things as negotiated discounts, complimentary shore excursions, onboard credits, complimentary spa treatments, in cabin gifts, etc.

2. If you have not been to an particular area I provide you with the latest guide book on the area as well as another gift after your final payment.

3. I provide real support and information for my clients. If you are going to Greece, I have a fantastic driver-guide. If you want to know how to see Barcelona I can tell you, in detail. I have a wealth of information Russia...including the differences between cruising on Cruise Line X vs. Y. In fact, as my map below shows, I have been to a significant majority of the ports you probably would visit on your cruise. And for those I haven't visited, I probably have input from clients that have visited them.

4. I have an excellent relationship with the cruise lines. I push for upgrades, fight for exceptions and, if necessary, rebook clients so they get the best value.

5. I am there before, during and after the cruise to address whatever the issues are...even if they are issues that I really have no responsibility for.

6. I discount and/or give added value (cruise line restrictions dependent) on literally every cruise.

As the CruiseMates article ended, so shall I, "So, let's hear it for the travel agents. If you have a good one then stick with her and make sure she always gets her commission (even if you book directly). This is one business where they really earn their money, with their knowledge, attention to detail and dedication to doing the job right. If you have a good travel agent you know it. If you don't, then it is time to shop around for a new one. Only the best are likely to survive the current economic conditions."