Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Seabourn Food & Wine Cruise - Needed Now More Than Ever

Tomorrow I depart for my Food & Wine Cruise sailing on the Seabourn Spirit from Athens to Istanbul.
Boy do I need it.
With the stock market a disaster, housing prices down and going lower because no one will lend money, people having their savings and retirement accounts decimated...and I could go on...how could now be the time to "need" a cruise????

The answer is exactly why we tend to cruise in the first place:  To escape.  To refresh.  To Invigorate.  To clear our heads. 

It is for me, at least, time to be stepping back for a moment, to get away from CNN and to smell the fresh air and remember there is a reason that we live is to enjoy life and to find ways to remember that health and happiness is what really matters.

While I am very interested to see how the world's economic problems are affecting Athens, Istanbul and the Greek islands and Turkish towns I will visit along with way, what I am really looking forward to - honestly - is having a nice local wine in Santorini while sitting on the cliffside in a small taverna with nothing more than a plate of fruit with my wife by my side.  I am also looking forward to a morning in an ancient hamam (Turkish bath) as well as catching up with our "family" while we are in Istanbul.

Just thinking about these things helps me put the first paragraph of this post a little bit further toward the back and the joys of life just a little bit more toward the front of my mind.

To be sure, knowing I will be enjoying the luxury of extraordinary service and gourmet food while on the Seabourn Spirit does not hurt my efforts to be positive.  In fact, in a way I almost feel guilty that I will be.

But I digress!  The point is that I know when I return from my short trip I will be able to have a fresh perspective and that all the pundits, doomsayers (remember those who panicked and sold their portfolios before the big Dow run-up last week!), etc. will have had time to work through their machinations and probably will have moved on to the next problem or explain why the last "solution" was the wrong thing to do.  The rumblings of that are already starting.  (Remember, we were told on Friday that we had 7 days to give up $700,000,000,000 to the control of one person...and it is almost 7 days and we are still OK.)

So if you are thinking of cancelling a future cruise that you booked when things weren't so bad because you cannot conceive of how things might get better or how you can justify such a luxury in these times, I would suggest you take a breath, wait and see what happens right up until that final payment is due and then, but only then, make that decision.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Fuel Supplements Remain: The Cost to Cruise...and How Farming Gives the Answer.

Every morning at 7:00 a.m. I enjoy my "Breakfast with the Farmers" at the local coffee shop. You never know what is going to be the topic or topics of the day. And, readers, you need to stay with me on this one. It will all come together; I am not just rambling!

Yesterday we were discussing the best way to install a French drain near a paddock...only to be interrupted by a phone call: One of the guys just shot the first 8 point buck of the season and we had to come outside to see it in the back of his truck. Then it was back inside to discussing Charley and Arnold, a gentleman farmer's two pet pigs and how they soon would transform from pets to dinner.

Today the topics were much different. One farmer asked us to guess what he was quoted per ton for a common fertilizer. Another guessed something he thought was outrageous: $600. Wrong: It was over $1,000. The farmers are thinking about accepting lower yields next year by not fertilizing this fall, as net they just might make more money...or at least not lose any.

Then another farmer said his diesel fuel supplier called offering him "off road" diesel for $3.10 a gallon. The farmer, actually be quite astute said, "Last year when oil was at $100 you were charging $2.49 a gallon. Oil is now $96, so you are way too high. Call me back when the price drops more." (We see the same thing at the gas pump, don't we?!)

Someone then noted that "off road" diesel was selling for less than home heating oil; which, of course, made no sense since it is a far more refined product. (Home heating oil has far more sulfur and particulates in it.) The reason was then given: The home heating oil companies purchased futures contracts and were saddled with the contracted for higher prices.

I then started thinking about the fuel supplements which the cruise lines are charging. Both Carnival Corp. and Royal Caribbean have stated in the just the past few days that they will not be reducing (or, heaven forbid) eliminating the fuel supplements now because the oil market is so volatile. I think it is a bit more than that, however.

Just as the guy who is selling the fertilizer today is incorporating the past months effects on his operating costs and just as the diesel fuel company is charging 25% more despite the current oil prices and just as the the home heating company is still being charged more (though they guessed months ago the price was a good one) so they have to charge you more, the cruise lines' operations and costs are not tied directly to the present day oil prices.

Also keep in mind that there was a good bit of hedging that the dollar would continue to drop, so many contracts might well have been priced keyed to the Euro. With dollar much stronger at present (which is based on the unexpected weakness in the European economy, rather than confidence in the U.S. one), the cost for the purchaser can also have increased since it now takes more Euros to equal a dollar.

So whether the cruise lines have longer term contracts or shorter term deliveries, the cost of fuel, lubricating oils, etc. are still much higher despite the current drop in oil prices. And with the current incredibly volatile market conditions, it would be reckless to simply key the fuel supplement only on the price of a barrel of unrefined oil. (There is, of course, another option: Quietly raise cruise prices to cover this fluctuating cost. I am not liking that idea at all and, to be sure, I am certain the cruise lines know that you don't either.)

As Laurel was chided by Hardy (am I dating myself), "Well, Stanley, this is another fine mess you have gotten us into!"

UPDATE:  Carnival Corp. just posted its earnings for the Third Quarter 2008 and they are quite strong.  On the issue of fuel supplements Carnival Corp stated:  Based on current spot prices for fuel of $598 per metric ton, full year 2008 fuel expense is now forecast to increase by $678 million compared to 2007, which will have the effect of reducing full year 2008 earnings by $0.83 per share. The existing fuel supplements in place, if entirely incremental, are expected to offset approximately 25 percent of the $678 million fuel price increase for 2008. With current supplements remaining in place for 2009, and assuming current spot prices stay in place for all of 2009, the company estimates that approximately 43 percent of the cumulative increase in fuel costs since 2007 would be offset.


Simply stated, the fuel supplements have only addressed 25% of the increase in fuel from 2007 and it is projected that if things stay the same they will still only offset 43% of next year's increased fuel costs (still compared to 2007).  It seems that we will be keeping the fuel surcharges for quite a long time.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

AIG Travel Guard - Concerns Being Addressed

I know many of you purchase travel insurance and that Travel Guard has been a major provider in the industry.  Over the past few days AIG has been in the news due to its liquidity problems...apparently as a result of its dabbling in investments and businesses other than its core insurance businesses. 

While I do not claim the information below, which was just sent to me by AIG Travel Guard, is either accurate or not, I wanted to pass it along:

September 16, 2008

As you know, our parent company (AIG, Inc.) is facing challenges related to the extraordinary developments in the financial markets in the past few days. AIG, Inc. is actively developing alternatives to improve liquidity to weather this difficult time for financial markets.

AIG Travel Guard's policies are underwritten by American Home Assurance Company and National Union Fire Insurance Company. Both are member companies of AIG Commercial Insurance (AIGCI), whose substantial capital position is independent of its parent.

AIGCI companies, which include the Lexington Insurance Company, National Union and American Home Assurance Company, remain well-capitalized with statutory surplus of $26.7 billion and invested assets exceeding $70 billion.

Even if the parent company files for bankruptcy, AIGCI's capital position will remain intact and available to underwrite policies.


Here are a few more facts we think are important for you to know:


* AIGCI companies, which include the Lexington Insurance Company, National Union and American Home Assurance Company, remain well-capitalized with statutory surplus of $26.7 billion and invested assets exceeding $70 billion.

* AIGCI's capital is protected by regulators, ensuring that policyholders' interests are paramount.

* AIG Commercial Insurance continues to exhibit strong financial performance with 2008 second quarter operating income of nearly $1 billion, net written premiums of $5.99 billion and a profitable combined ratio of 93.7%.

* According David Neustadt, the deputy superintendent for public information for the New York state insurance department, "If you have a policy with AIG insurance company, they are financially strong and solvent. They have the capability to pay on any claims, and our job is to insure that they continue to have the ability to pay."

AIG Travel Guard will continue to communicate developments to you as they occur. We want to assure you that despite the current uncertainties, AIG Travel Guard will continue to exceed your expectation with comprehensive protection and unparalleled customer service.

I will keep you posted.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Regent Seven Seas Announces Major Upgrades to Two Ships

Regent Seven Seas Cruises announced that the refurbishments it has been contemplating will commence in December 2008 with the dry-dock of Seven Seas Voyager, followed by Seven Seas Mariner in January 2009.  (The Seven Seas Navigator will not have any of the upgrades until the first half of 2010 and details of those upgrades will be announced later.) 

In addition to the scheduled technical work (like fixing the Voyager's bottom damages and vibration issues and the Mariner's pod being replaced), the press release announces that "almost every area of the ships will be refurbished", with public rooms being substantially redesigned with new furniture, using "sumptuous materials" such as leathers, suede, and mahogany, along with warm color schemes and rich fabrics offset by marble and granite accents. In other words, the Voyager and Mariner will be transformed from rather bland and blue spaces to more appropriate upscale and elegant ones.  For me this is very good news, indeed!

The highlights of the refurbishment program for Seven Seas Voyager and Seven Seas Mariner include:

1.  The creation of a new alternative dining concept and venue - a steakhouse named Prime Seven -that will replace the current "Asian-fusion" Latitudes restaurants.

2.  The redesign of lounges and public rooms to create more spacious areas for relaxation

3.  The creation of elegant new lounge and dining areas around the Pool Grill

4.  New carpeting, wallpaper, upholstery, light fixtures, and drapes in most public areas and guest suite accommodations

5.  More casual dining options with the addition of pizza ovens and ice-cream bars

6.  The creation of an extended coffee and snack bar area on Seven Seas Voyager, similar to the very popular Coffee Connection on Seven Seas Mariner

I think each and every one of the announced changes are improvements that were necessary and are very positive. 

BUT - and isn't there always - if you look carefully at the announcement, don't expect $20 million dollars to be thrown at the interiors of each ship.  There are some VERY expensive technical repairs and upgrades that are going to be eating up a good portion of the improvement funds.

Also, if you look at what is being done in an overall feel of the ship, there is much more in the way of soft goods rather than physical changes in the ships that is going to be happening.  That is probably the most efficient use of an improvement budget and I look forward to seeing what will be happening in the next few months as far as the release of any details. 
I hope, but have no information that it will be happening, that part of the renovation of the public spaces will create changes in the main dining rooms, the Compass Rose, to improve seating (to eliminate waits for tables), improve service (with better flow and distribution of work) and menu (with higher quality food and menu items.)

With the focus by many on new ships and Regent's plans for a new ship either on hold or delayed, this signals to me an improvement in its offered product that is very welcome.

I will keep you posted.

Seabourn Odyssey Construction Photos

My friend, Captain Geir-Arne, has taken quite a few photos of the Seabourn Odyssey during construction.  You can find them here:  http://www.captain-ga.com/thumbnails.php?album=59&page=1.  The ship is now a bit further along, so there will be some new photos, hopefully soon.

I have some new info that I cannot share with you just yet, but I can say that for those who enjoy in-suite entertainment you will be very happy.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Seabourn Odyssey - A Compilation of My Posts = A Wealth of Information!

Over the three months I have had this blog a lot of information about the Seabourn Odyssey has been provided.  I figure not many of you will scroll down, leaf through the pages of various articles and such, so I thought I would make it easier. 

Here are the posts:

http://goldringtravel.blogspot.com/2008/09/seabourn-odyssey-top-officers-and-staff.html


http://goldringtravel.blogspot.com/2008/09/seabourn-upgrades-on-way.html

http://goldringtravel.blogspot.com/2008/08/seabourn-captain-buer-interview-on-john.html

http://goldringtravel.blogspot.com/2008/08/seabourn-staff-receive-unique-training.html

http://goldringtravel.blogspot.com/2008/07/seabourn-odyssey-suite-details.html

http://goldringtravel.blogspot.com/2008/07/seabourn-odyssey-details.html

http://goldringtravel.blogspot.com/2008/07/seabourn-odyssey-is-not-silversea-ship.html

http://goldringtravel.blogspot.com/2008/07/seabourn-world-cruise-update.html

http://goldringtravel.blogspot.com/2008/07/seabourn-announces-godparents-for.html

http://goldringtravel.blogspot.com/2008/06/seabourn-double-keel-laying.html

Enjoy!

Travel Consortiums: Ensemble Travel, Virtuoso, etc.

Ensemble Travel Group calls itself, "An International Collection of Expert Travel Agencies with Exclusive Offers That Make Your Travel Dreams Come True".  Virtuoso takes that a step further and has established an impressive international network of high end/luxury providers and, admittedly, is the tops when it comes to marketing itself and providing the ultimate in luxury offerings.  There are other travel consortiums as well, such as Signature (also focused on the upper end of the market) and Vacations.com (focused more on the mass market).

These travel consortiums of travel agents use their joint marketing and purchasing power to work with travel suppliers around the world in an effort to bring added value, better pricing and more information to their clients.  You should also be aware that in order to be a member of one of the upper level consortiums (Ensemble, Virtuoso, Signature), membership requires (aside from the payment of fees) that the agency not only be legitimate, but that it have a history of producing a very significant amount of revenue.  That requires, obviously, each travel agency to have established itself for a number of years and that it has a substantial client base. 

I digress for a moment to let you know/disclose I am a member of Ensemble. Years ago I was a member of Vacations.com, but as I will explain, it wasn't a good fit for me or my clients.

What do these consortiums do for a travel agent and, ultimately, for you?  They provide travel agents with a network of travel providers (whether they be cruise lines, hotels, tour operators, etc.) that cooperatively allow the agent to offer its clients - on occasion - special pricing, or added value (onboard credits, complimentary tours, a room upgrade, included breakfasts or dinner, or similar).  They also provide marketing programs, so that the travel agent can cost-effectively send out not only postcards and flyers, but glossy catalogs and magazines to its clients...and those dreaded emails (which I try to avoid sending unless it is something really good!).  And they provide the travel agent with information.

One thing that I find interesting is how the cache belonging to a consortium is directly proportional to the cost of the vacation. As a former Vacations.com agency, I do not recall any clients caring (and most not knowing) that I was a member.  For my luxury clients there really was little benefit, while those sailing on Carnival or Princess did benefit from some onboard credits (and, to be sure, they do add percentage-wise a much greater value on a lower priced cruise).  So it was a really poor fit for me and a very short term relationship.

On the other hand, there are those that believe using a Virtuoso travel agency is akin to wearing a Rolex; it is a status symbol.  Virtuoso provides its agents and their clients with some really good stuff, but at least for me as I write this, I do not find the value to be there.  That is, in large part, because of my involvement in the superyacht industry.  Many of the contacts and access Virtuoso affords its member agencies I already have.  Much of the information it provides is already in my knowledge bank because I have actively traveled all over the world for decades.  I have never been one to be impressed with hype (heck, being in the superyacht business, if I was swayed by "flash" I would have self-destructed years ago!), so I have looked at what works best and is the best value for me and my clients. 

I readily acknowledge that Ensemble Travel does not have the cache of Virtuoso.  But there are so many similarities between the two that other than Virtuoso having higher quality marketing materials and the aforementioend access, I find little useful difference.  As an Ensemble Travel agency, I am able to provide similar (or even identical) hosted tours and cocktail parties, some great European hotel upgrades and/or benefits (complimentary breakfasts, wine, etc.) and more.  One benefit that I believe Ensemble has over Virtuoso is that because its focus is not so much on the luxury end, I can provide some better pricing and amenities on the premium lines (such as Celebrity and Holland America); which is a significant portion of my business.

You may have noticed that I have not really discussed what the information is that the consortiums provide its member agencies.  There is a reason:  For the client it is many times simply irrelevant.  I do not care what information is available if it is not accessed, understood, efficiently utilized and then conveyed properly by the particular travel agent to the client.  I have had too many experiences of clients coming to me from another agency (one that is a member of a consortium) and their complaining about the misinformation, the lack of service or serious mistakes that were made...by a specific travel agent. 

Alas, it is not about reading something off a computer screen or "hearing" the Great Barrier Reef, Dubai or Amsterdam are wonderful.  You want to know that you can have a float plane fly you too the reef for your day of diving rather than enduring a two hour boat ride each way...and explain what it is like.  You want to know why Dubai's newest hotel, Raffles Dubai, is incredible and you just might enjoy knowing more about the incredible museums of Amsterdam (and how to miss the lines entirely) rather than the Red Light District.

Also, remember that marketing material (no matter how impressive) is intended to get you to go on vacation; not be your vacation.  So when you are looking to book your next cruise you should think about whether the travel agent's membership in a consortium and offering a complimentary tour or onboard credit is really what is important to you...or is it the knowledge that your cruise will be booked at a good price, with you being provided solid information, and receiving exceptional service that really matters. 

If you are fortunate, and I try to make all my clients fortunate,  you will get it all!

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Donald Trump National Golf Club - Colts Neck

OK, I admit it.  This has absolutely nothing to do with cruising, yachts or boats.  It has to do with another luxury:  Golf. 

I am very excited that yesterday Donald Trump purchased the golf club and course virtually on the other side of the brook from my home in Colts Neck, New Jersey.  While I do not golf (and, frankly, I enjoy cruising and working with yachts a whole lot more), it clearly is going to be a nice addition to the neighborhood...buffered by some nice wooded wetlands.

Having seen what The Donald has done with some of his other golf clubs, it is going to be interesting as I "supervise" the improvements, additions and other changes.

While membership is totally out of the question, possibly I will be invited (as a good neighbor should be, of course) to the Grand Opening of "Trump National Golf Club - Colts Neck".  OK, that  probably won't happen either.  But like taking that special cruise, I can always dream.

This post has been updated here:  http://goldringtravel.blogspot.com/2008/10/trump-national-golf-course-colts-neck.html

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

How Private Is Your Cabin? A New U.S. Court of Appeals Decision

So you board the ship for your cruise, unpack your personal belongings, place your valuable items in the safe and then begin loading up on souvenirs and other purchases as you travel along.  You know security screens your bags (presumably for guns, knives and, at least on some cruise lines, liquor) and that your steward(ess) comes into clean.  But aside from those accepted intrusions are you entitled to keep your cabin "private".

On September 4, 2008, the United States Court of Appeals (the court immediately below the United States Supreme Court) for the Third Circuit ruled you are entitled to that privacy...sort of.  A preface:  in U.S. v. Whitted (http://www.ca3.uscourts.gov/opinarch/063271p.pdf ) the Court found that suprisingly there really aren't many cases involving a person's rights to privacy on cruise ships and, more specifically, private cabins.  But we now have "The Case".

Now, before you all start shouting, "I have my Fourth Amendment rights to privacy and unlawful searches!  You must have a search warrant to enter my cabin!", let me just say:  "Wrong!". The laws of the United States are such that a person has far greater rights to privacy "inside" the country than at its borders.  [How do I get from you are on a ship and I am at the U.S. border:  Say, as here, the ship cruises from St. Maarten to St. Thomas.  St. Thomas is a U.S. territory and, as such, the ship is at the U.S. border.]

At its borders "routine" searches can be done by U.S. government agents without even a suspicion of wrongdoing (ex. Customs...or Department of Homeland Security...inspecting your bags at the cruise terminal or airport) or "non-routine" searches upon "reasonable suspicion".  This is a far lower standard than the infamous "probable cause" standards you have heard of that is necessary for a judge to issue a search warrant.  I will explain...just follow me.

The courts have, however, found that you are entitled to a significantly higher expectation of privacy in your cabin - where you sleep...akin to your home away from home- than you are in the public areas of the ship or even an automobile, essentially because they are living quarters where you asleep rather than areas primarily for socialization or transportation.  Thus, you have a legitimately high expectation of privacy from those other than to whom you give consent to enter (like your stewardess).  This makes any search of your cabin by a U.S. government agent  "non-routine".

After all of that, what is necessary to reach the "reasonable suspicion" standard?  Not much.  All that is necessary is there be a "particularized and objective basis" for that suspicion.  In Whitted the man was a legitimate cruise passenger and did absolutely nothing wrong while onboard the ship.  In fact, when the drug-sniffing dog walked down the ship's hallway he didn't even react when passing Whitted's cabin door! There were not even any reports of him hanging around known drug-dealers (like many of you have seen near the docks in Jamaica).

But he fit a profile of a drug dealer:  (1) He purchased a cruise ticket only shortly before the cruise...in cash; (2) He was previously convicted of drug possession on more than one occasion; (3) He was traveling on a ship that cruised to known drug source countries (and for all of you that didn't know it St. Maaten is a hotbed for such things...as any yachtie...so don't think Jamaica is the only place!); and, (4) Agents in San Juan noted Whitted's behavior seemed suspicious and entered the info into the TECS (Treasury Enforcement Communications System), a computer database.

So with this "reasonable suspicion" the agents and ship's security entered Whitted's cabin, took all of his luggage out from under his bed, pressed all the air out of the closed bags...and then let the dog sniff around.  That is when the dog reacted...to a fake can of shaving cream.  Then the cruise line made it's x-ray machine available and, low and behold, small pebbles were seen inside the shaving cream can.  It then was field tested positive for heroin.

So they caught the "bad guy", but it should be fair warning to everyone that just acting a bit strange may just be enough to create "reasonable suspicion" to have the U.S. government search your cabin while on a cruise when entering U.S. waters. 

Also, remember this relates to what the U.S. government can do; not what the cruise lines can do.  The cruise lines operate under different rules based upon the terms of your cruise contract, the laws of its flag state and The Law of the Seas. In other words, you probably have even less expectations and rights to privacy than those discussed above.  (Remember that broken lamp that was miraculously fixed when you were ashore?  Who gave permission for the crew to enter your cabin and take down the headliner?)

For most of us, it really will never make a difference and we probably don't really care.  But imagine if you come back from your wonderful tour and find all your luggage out and the all the drawers open.  You most definitely would feel your privacy was improperly violated...But was it?

Monday, September 8, 2008

2009 Thanksgiving Weekend Caribbean Cruise on Seabourn - Great Pricing!

I know we are all just starting to get out of "summer" mode, but football has started and Thanksgiving will soon be upon us. 

As you think about the joys of family...and whether the weekend be filled with rain or snow... consider spending the 2009 weekend on a Seabourn cruise.  Enjoy Thanksgiving, hop a a short flight and then be pampered.

I am putting together a group to enjoy a five (5) day cruise on the Seabourn Spirit (fresh out of a two week dry dock - so there will be some brand new improvements and changes to see!) on November 27, 2009 conveniently sailing out of Ft. Lauderdale and ending in St. Thomas, with port calls in Grand Turk and Jost Van Dyke, B.V.I. for a Marina Day and two relaxing days at sea in between.

The best part is that I can offer this to you for under $2,000 per person including all taxes, fees and fuel supplements!  (Of course, with it being a Goldring Travel group, you can expect a few little extras as well.) 

Some of you may remember the fun we had on the short three night cruises around New York.  Those are gone forever, but this is the next best thing...and it will be warm, the views outstanding and a Marina Day in the British Virgin Islands sounds so much better than taking a swim in the Hudson River!

So if you have every thought you could not afford to try Seabourn, or didn't want to make an investment in a Seabourn cruise in Europe or Asia without knowing what Seabourn is all about...or if you just want to spoil yourself for a few days...this is an outstanding opportunity!

And let's not forget it is a wonderful opportunity for the entire family to enjoy the luxury of Seabourn.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Why Do Changes Always Bring Out Those People That Complain? (The Seabourn Experience)

It always fascinates me how anytime a cruise line makes a change it is perceived as an attack on the value of their cruise(s) to be. Whether it is an improvement, the elimination of an underutilized item or an actual cost-cutting measure (as if finding ways to keep prices down is a bad thing!), there are those that absolutely find it not only a horrible, but a sign of more things to come...raising the threat of the loss of loyal passengers.

Seabourn just spent many millions of dollars revamping the Sky Bars and Verandas on all three of the triplets (with structural and furniture changes) , improved the bedding, changed out the carpets, installed LCD TVs, announced the change out of all of the deck furniture and replacement of the tableware...with more improvements to be announced. Oh, yes, Seabourn is shortly going to be christening the first of three new ships which are being outfitted with two story, indoor/outdoor spas, cabanas, state of the art fitness equipment, more dining venues, etc.

Despite all of that, today I read on Cruise Critic how some perceive the elimination of the underutilized Seabourn Experiences (with many seeming to ignore that the most popular ones are being retained!) as cause for concern that the quality of the wines and liquors freely poured may soon be downgraded. Where the heck did that come from?

Celebrity eliminated its "gourmet bites" (waiters passing through the various public spaces in the evenings with after dinner snacks) because it found the vast majority of the food was being returned to the kitchen uneaten. Does that mean that Celebrity is going to reduce items on the buffet? Hardly.

Regent is eliminating its Circles of Interest program (a highly overpriced and underutilized program of supposedly more in depth learning and experiences over the course of a cruise). Does that mean it is eliminating some of its more unique ports? No way.

Norwegian Cruise Lines donation of its old mattresses...I can only imagine what could spin out of that!

Seabourn has announced, in advance of the maiden voyage of the Seabourn Odyssey, that it is making changes which will create overall improvement in the quality of the Seabourn product through establishing consistency through all it ships, installing upgrades to the existing fleet to assure same, and changing/eliminating various items whose time has come and gone.

Will some of the changes disappoint a few of their loyal guests? Of course. But just as I much preferred the blue ticket wallets of old, while others loved the Tumi ticket jackets in a presentation box, others like the newest ticket wallet, which I truly do not like! I can't wait to hear the same people claiming that the next version of ticket wallet will be an ominous omen. Yes, there will be concern over ticket wallets!

I guess some people just have to say what a terrible thing it all might be and how it just might shake their loyalty over the elimination of items which are, in relation to the cost of their cruises, hard to find affecting their bottom line among the tours, spa treatments and reserve wine selections they make. I do not count any person's money, but I do try to keep the value of the items complained of in perspective. For example, might I just say, if the complainers can find a cruise line that offers a complimentary tour like Seabourn has been providing (or even as it will still provide), cruise that line (and save the $200). Oh! That right. It doesn't exist. Or, if that complainer can find a cruise line with a more generous frequent guest program than Seabourn, providing a free 7 day cruise after 140 days, put your money there. Oh! That right, again. It doesn't exist. Or if that complainer can find a cruise line that has a more generous definition of which liquor is included, start drinking there (if the $200 extra on your cruise bill actually makes a difference).

And, as I mentioned in my post about the Mutiny on the Carnival Miracle, one must think about all the reasons you choose to cruise a particular line and a particular ship. You can complain about little tweaks made by a cruise line that are not going to change and you can even threaten to take your business elsewhere (thereby increasing the effect of that issue upon only yourself), but alas you will be ruining that which you came to enjoy: Your Cruise.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Seabourn Odyssey Top Officers and Staff Announced!

Here is another bit of news which you probably cannot find elsewhere...yet. Seabourn has selected its top officers and staff.

All of them have a tremendous amount of experience and will please many of you to see they have been recognized.

Captain - Karl Buer
Hotel Manager - Guenter Steinbrunner
Chief Purser - Andrew Thompson
Restaurant Manager - Karl Eckl
Executive Chef - Graeme Cockburn
Public Room Manager - Oliver Ellinger
Provision Master - Willem Knijn
Executive Housekeeper - Michelle Roberts
Cruise Director - Barry Hopkins
Tour Manager - Carol Frey
Cruise Sales Specialist - Jennifer Kok
Personnel Training Manager - Johan Poelmans

I would like to extend my congratulations to each of them and look forward to greeting them onboard prior to the Maiden Voyage on June 24, 2009.

(Personally I will try to get in good with Graeme Cockburn and Willem Knijn rather than Johan Poelmans! I do have my priorities.)

Seabourn Upgrades On The Way

Yesterday was some somewhat disappointing news (at least for some) regarding the discontinuation of most of the complimentary Seabourn Experiences. I told you it was really not a cost-cutting measure, but rather an evolution of Seabourn's upscaling its overall experience for its guests. Sooooooooooo......
I can now let you know of a couple of very nice upgrades across the entire fleet:

Deck Furniture - Yes, its true!  Gone shortly will be the plastic lounge chairs. In their place will be extremely nice, comfortable and very upscale lounges...and they will be very cool. I can't disclose more now, but I know it will be hard to find a complaint about them. I, personally, think they will well and truly change the look of the deck on the triplets and richen the experience.  Trust me on this:  When you see the you will know that there were many less costly options available...and Seabourn went for the best.

Tableware - New tableware is coming and there will be three different styles; one focused for each unique dining venue on the Odyssey.  It is amazing how a change in tableware - which is surprisingly expensive - can alter the look of not only the restaurant, but the presentation of the food.  In my superyacht business I can tell you that just the size, shape, color, trim (if any), if there is a discernible rim, weight, balance, durability, etc., etc. of each piece takes hours of discussion.  Each piece receives different opinions from the chefs (presentation), the servers (workability) and head of the restaurant (overall look). It is not an easy task.

Now, let's compare:  How many are happier with the new deck furniture and spiffying up of the tableware vs. how many are disappointed with the elimination of the mostly underutilized Seabourn Experiences?  Thought so. 

(And for those are are still disappointed...and didn't book your cruise with me to ease same...there are are more good things to come!)

How to Handle...And Not Handle...A Hurricane

With hurricane season well and truly upon us (Thanks to Fay, Gustav, Hanna, Ike and...) there are a few things which need to be mentioned; highlighted by the USA Today report about the Mutiny on the Carnival Miracle.

First, any passenger traveling to the Caribbean between August and October must (that is "must") understand that ship happens during hurricane season. If you have saved up for your one and only trip to St. Thomas or you have finally decided to "now or never" swim with the stingrays in Grand Cayman this is not the season to book your cruise to do it. Fly to the destination and do a land-based holiday. You may get wet, but you only have to deal with problems if the hurricane is going to be over the top of you...rather than blocking the ship's path back to port.

Second, be flexible. Even if your itinerary isn't what it was supposed to be remember that First and Foremost, you wanted to be on a cruise. You spent how much time selecting the ship, which cabin, avoiding which airports, etc.? You think (or post) endlessly about your favorite waiters, the "secrets" of enjoying the ship more, how the entertainers are going to be, whether there will be new towel animals and have pre-booked the spas and specialty dining areas. Even if you don't get to go to a port, you have the ship...and that is THE major destination for most Caribbean cruises.

Third, hope and pray the cruise line handles it well. Here I can give you too great recent examples...one Excellent and one, apparently, terrible.

A. Excellent - During my recent cruise on Royal Caribbean's Mariner of the Seas we dodged Fay, but had to deal with Gustav. As a result our 4 port cruise (Labadee, Ocho Rios, Grand Cayman and Cozumel) became only 2 ports (St. Thomas and St. Maarten). Captain Johnny gave a very detailed explanation over the ship's PA system (which was great for those that could not understand his very enthusiastic and upbeat Norwegian accent!). BUT RCCL DID MORE: The Cruise Director and Captain broadcast a detailed explanation over the television system using charts, weather tracking information, travel distances, etc. leaving absolutely no question in any reasonable mind that every option was taken into account (even, "Well we could have sneaked into Labadee and then changed course, but you would have been met with a cold, rainy and windy beach along with rough seas, so we opted for a sea day with sunny skies and smooth seas")...and then they explained it again; confirming the difference in port charges would be added to everyone's onboard account. Yes, there was disappointment for many with less ports and more sea days...and being in St. Thomas again (though there were happy shoppers) and being in St. Maarten with 10,000+ cruise passengers, but most everyone understood. (There were a few out of control passengers, but they were far and very few between). All in all it was handled extremely well by the cruise line and the passengers.

B. Terrible - In today's USA Today online there is a blog about there being a virtual Mutiny on the Carnival Miracle not only because of the change in itinerary caused by Hanna (including a non-Caribbean port call in Newport, Rhode Island...which I personally love), but because of the way the captain has purportedly handled it. USA Today reports that one CruiseCritic poster claims "The attitude of the captain has caused passengers to (go) ballistic" and that the passengers are shouting "Refund! Refund!" while threatening to penalize the innocent crew by reducing their gratuities to "zero". Now, I have been around long enough to know that not every CruiseCritic poster portrays things as accurately as they might and that some have agendas which are not totally honorable, but where there is smoke there is a good chance of fire. Quite possibly an understanding and warm explanation that there as no way to cross Hanna's path safely (which should be obvious) either on the way and/or the way back coupled with an explanation that because of the size of the Miracle, Bermuda was not an option (I am assuming here), Carnival might have avoided the Mutiny.

Alas, there is a reason my motto/business plan is very simple: Be Treated By Your Travel Agent As You Will Be Onboard! I expect to be treated exceptionally well. If I do not believe I will be, I will not board the ship and will not suggest such a ship to my clients. (Ironically, I have 8 clients sailing on the Carnival Miracle tomorrow! I will be able to let you know how Carnival response to Ike with more direct info!)

Personally, no matter how arrogant the captain may be, no matter how bad the ports may be, no matter how disappointed you may be, you are still on a cruise...on the ship of your choosing...and the ship has lots of good things to do. Why ruin the entirety of your cruise while you are on it? Make the best of it and, if ultimately appropriate, complain when you return. BUT REMEMBER, you chose to cruise during hurricane season. (Did you like the discounted price offered on your cruise? You could have taken the same cruise Christmas for lots more money. First ask yourself, "Why was the cruise discounted so much?" and then write your letter.)

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Seabourn is Discontinuing Complimentary Seabourn Experiences

I have some news from Seabourn that may affect your present bookings with me or your planning of a future booking with Seabourn, so I wanted to get this out to you quickly.

Effective December 2008 Seabourn will no longer offer its exclusive complimentary Seabourn Experiences except for:

- “Caviar in the Surf” beach party events that Seabourn does on warm-water itineraries;
- Brazilian Boi Bumba festival at Parintins;
- Jungle dinner party in the Amazon’s Anavilhanas Archipelago
- Evening in Ephesus at Kusadasi in Turkey.

This does not affect the 2010 World Cruise events.

While this may seem like a reduction in what makes Seabourn…well Seabourn…it is not.

While there will be a cost savings to Seabourn, the actual motivation is the lack of guest attendance at the events. Seabourn regularly would guarantee say 100 people would attend an event, but when it came to the day of the event only 40 would show. That not only caused a huge waste of money…which ultimately is passed on to all of Seabourn’s guests…it got Seabourn thinking about two things: (1) Why?; and, (2) Why increase our costs providing something our guests don’t really want?

As to “Why?”, as Bob Dylan sang, “The times they are a changin’.” The fact is that more and more of Seabourn’s guests are foregoing group tours, or anything seeming like a group tour; preferring instead to use Seabourn’s Signature Desk or to otherwise book private excursions. So what ten years ago was a very fashionable and upscale “experience” is now generally seen as a more run-of-the-mill event. So as Seabourn raises the bar with its new ships, it doesn’t want to provide what are seen by many guests as lower quality offerings.

As to “Why increase Seabourn’s costs for something the guests don’t really want?”, the answer is now obvious. If you are not convinced, think about this, I want to you consider that Seabourn could have eliminated caviar, change the toiletries, etc., but not only would that be honestly perceived as “cost cutting” measures…they would be. (I also bet more than 40 people per cruise would be upset about those items being reduced or eliminated!)

The net result is that Seabourn is not wasting money on underutilized events, is raising the bar in many areas (some I cannot let you in on just yet!), and unlike some other lines, is keeping its cruise fares down. Just compare Seabourn’s fares to some other lines and you will see what I mean!

However, for my clients who have already booked a cruise with Seabourn that has had the complimentary Seabourn Experience eliminated I, personally, am offering you a US$50.00 per person credit for any one shore excursion you take on a Seabourn cruise. (It doesn’t matter if it is a Seabourn excursion or if it is in the same port where the Seabourn Experience was going to be held, either!) All you have to do is send me a copy of your invoice for the replacement tour after your cruise and I will send you a check.

Why am I doing this? Obviously because I want you to be comfortable with the value I have represented you would receive. More importantly, I want you to know that I always work hard for you to make sure you are satisfied with your cruise experience…even if “shamefully” I don’t afford you the opportunity to complaint first!

Please call or email me with any questions or concerns.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Iamboatman Book Review: "Cruise Confidential: A Hit Below the Waterline"

UPDATE:  I guess the author liked my review (below).  You can also read it on his website:  http://lovebruns.com/Templates/Review_GoldringTravel.html.

I just finished reading a very light, but interesting, book entitled: Cruise Confidential: A Hit Below The Waterline. One Crazy Year Working on Cruise Ships. It is probably worth a few hours to read it as it does put into perspective some of the ups, downs, trials and tribulations of training for, and working in, cruise ship restaurants.


While the author of this non-fiction book, David Brian Bruns, seems to place himself as the virtuous, never straying, deeply devoted boyfriend chasing his Holy Grail girlfriend, Bianca...and, of course, while being the best waiter ever to have served on the seven seas, for pure voyeuristic enjoyment and as a vehicle to tie all the craziness together, without it having a total feel of a trashy novel, it works.


Without ruining the book, Mr. Bruns discusses (exposes?) the relatively - OK, absolutely - wild, sleep deprived, cramped, smoky and sexually active lives below deck. Not unlike the yachting industry (only more-so due to the horrific number of hours/weeks/months worked without a real break), much of the focus is on sex being used as a tension release rather than for intimacy. I say this upfront because you need to read through the regular references to it in order to find the real nuggets of information and perspective.


One of the starkest realities is that most of the ship's waitstaff (and, to be sure, others) simply do not understand the general American philosophy or approach to many different things. This goes far beyond the concept of as an American we tend to think of owning a car and having a private home (rented or owned) as birthrights while some crew will work years on a ship just to be able to buy a used car.


Some things really make you think. A negative example: Why do we require the buffet to look as if no one has been there before us even minutes before it closes? (The amount of needless waste created as a result is shocking.) A positive example: Why do many of us actually care about those serving us; asking about our waiter's family and life at home? (Many cultures are such that waitstaff should not even be acknowledged.)


So enjoy reading about how the staff is trained and what they are actually trained for (it is not just about serving food), realize the hours it takes to put together all the things and time needed for a breakfast or dinner service (and the differences between them!), appreciate the working of 15+ hours a day without a break for months, ponder how and why the supervisors are so tough in a "survival of the fittest" world, and enjoy the descriptions of the Eastern European beauties and Turkish and Caribbean musclemen...or just the need for a tattoo.


But remember this is book about one American's experience on Carnival in the days when they were The Fun Ships, where cheap cruises and huge amounts of alcohol were the rule...apparently both above and below the decks. I am sure much of it remains valid today, for as I have said, I have seen similar (but not quite as wild) behavior on superyachts, but I would suggest that when you board a Seabourn ship you will see far fewer bloodshot eyes and encounter far fewer with slurred speech from the crew party the night before.

And, ironically, understand just how profitable it is to be an art auctioneer aboard a cruise ship. (See my last post!)

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Park West Art "Auctions" New Guarantee? Regent Come On Now!

The Wall Street Journal's Market Watch reported today that Park West Art Galleries announced it is markedly changing the way it does business...sort of.  It has put in place its "40-40-40 Guarantee".

Supposedly purchasers can obtain a refund within 40 days after receipt of the art work. The refund will cover the full purchase price, less the buyer's premium up to a maximum of $1,000 per piece, and less any shipping costs if applicable.

For up to 40 months after being invoiced, purchasers are also supposed to be able to exchange any work purchased for any other work in the Park West Gallery collection of the same or greater price. Purchasers that exchange items are to be credited with the amount paid for the work purchased, including buyer's premium and excluding shipping and handling, with the only charges being shipping and handling and any price difference when the exchange is for a work of greater price. (Exchanges must be made directly with Park West Gallery by phoning 1-877-440-0630 and are not allowed at auction.)

It has been reported that the information will be prominently posted at its art auctions (yet more stuff hanging around Regent ships we don't want to look at!) and its website.  Now, I was just looking at the Park West website and not only is the 40-40-40 Guarantee not prominent; the information is not anywhere to be found on the site...FAQs, press releases, etc.   UPDATE:  The information is now posted on Park West's blog at http://www.parkwestportal.com/2008/09/park-west-gallery-introduces-enhanced.html .
 
I don't care if Park West has been around for 40 years, or it gives me 40 days to change my mind, or it gives me 40 months to trade up to another overpriced piece of art. 
 
WAIT A MINUTE!  What I a great marketing ploy.  I can hear it now:  "Your protection is absolute.  Take your piece home.  Enjoy it.  If after 40 days you are not sure, you have another 38 months to put your purchase toward the piece you wanted to buy originally...but, of course, it will be much higher (as this art does have a history of greatly appreciating, though - of course - nothing is certain).  So why compromise now?  You have our 40-40-40 Guarantee.  Purchase the piece you really want.  Enjoy it for 40 days without risk and never worry about having buyer's remorse."  And Park West now just pushed another sucker..I mean satisfied customer...to buy something even more overvalued.
 
What the heck is it still doing on Regent?

Monday, September 1, 2008

Mariner of the Seas Travelogue - The Last Days and A Conclusion: An Interesting Experience

I am now back from my cruise. I am well rested and, while the product really is not for me, fairly impressed with most aspects of my cruise.

I left off with St. Maarten. It was, well and truly, overwhelming to see the Freedom of the Seas, Mariner of the Seas and Carnival Valor on the same dock. Over 10,000 cruise passengers descending upon this tiny island was actually kind of depressing because I knew none of the quainter places could possibly be quaint at all. We decided to stay on board the ship and had a very nice time.

As I looked closer at the Solarium I kept thinking, "If they just reduced the number of lounge chairs by 50% this would be an absolutely incredible space to be enjoyed as a real luxury." And with so many ashore, it was a wonderful place to be. Any luxury ship or hotel would be proud of the space, design, finishes, etc.; and even the lounges were very good. I did find the lack of any real bar service to be a let down. (I had a ritual of getting my wife 2 orange juices from the Windjammer Café because there was no option. Not a huge problem, but with a full bar in the area, but not opened until 2PM, it was a bit disappointing. But with an obvious plan for onboard review, but it not panning out, RCCL obviously has limited the bar's hours.)

We also enjoyed Johnny Rockets with the kids. It is pretty much identical in food and experience as it is on land...but I was able to get out of there paying only for shakes, floats and a beer (not available in land operations!).

I would be remiss not to mention the Ice Show. It was truly a wonderful show with ice skating, aerial acrobatics and good music. It is truly a not to be missed show. (And I am not a fan of cruise ship shows!)

With the last two days at sea, I found myself getting up, taking my book to the Concierge Lounge and reading while I sipped coffee, setting off for a bit in the Solarium then getting out of the sun and relaxing on my balcony...interspersed with some playtime with the kids (who spent a small fortune in the Arcade - conveniently located by the kid's facilities - when they were not involved in the kids programs), a visit to the casino or a walk around the ship. There were no lectures unrelated to selling things available on board.

We decided not to revisit Portofino, but did have a third night at Chops (the last evening), which was again a very nice experience. I must comment however, that while I truly did not like our main dining room waiter (I decided he just has a very sly way about him and his habit of shaking the wine bottle to get the last drop off really bothered me...I guess it was his "thing"), our assistant waiter, Courtney, was a diamond in the rough...and working very hard to do things the right way: poised, quiet, served properly, was friendly but not too much so and always greeted you with a genuine smile. That said, we thought it worth trying the last formal night to see how the lobster was. Surprisingly, for shipboard lobster it was very good! The presentation of the rice and vegetables was not great and we were not offered any seconds...which I saw being brought out to others (I didn't want one, but I felt like our waiter just wanted done with us.)

Final Thoughts:

I will give some ratings based upon the ship and a more mass-market experience. It would not be appropriate to rate things versus, say, Seabourn.

I am absolutely positive that even with the change of itinerary, the vast majority of passengers had a great time. Royal Caribbean delivered the product they promised to deliver...and the many guests who had been on 10+, 50+ and even 100+ (?) cruises with them spoke with true satisfaction. So for the right market, the ship delivers...and being docked next to the 5,000+ passenger Freedom of the Seas elicited great excitement from them not only about it, but the even larger Oasis of the Seas. For them I think the cruise (itinerary change and attendent horrrific lines at the tour desk excluded) would be an A.

For many food is something to be consumed; for some (many?) in great quantity and for others as either as subsistence or a time for socializing. For those wanting high quality food, the options are very limited...though surprisingly (at least for me) Chops had room on every night for additional diners and it is not a large venue. When Johnny Rockets is your best tasting lunch option... Anyway, for me the food was a C- (noting that marginal food served well probably would have tasted better), but for Chops I would give it a B+.

The kids had a great time, after settling in. My 9 year old was able to, for the first time, have some independence as Royal Caribbean very carefully makes sure the ship's public areas are safe. They have some crew in brightly colored safety vests/shirts and others quietly strolling around, but it afforded me the opportunity for my daughter (with a two-way radio always in hand) to venture out on her own or with a new found friend. My 12 year old found the Living Room and a few activities to be fun. While he proudly showed off his medal for coming in second in a Guitar Hero competition ("See Dad, all those hours of playing video games actually paid off!"), he did enjoy being able to come and go with his friends as he pleased. And I really didn't see any truly bad kids (thought, to be accurate, I was trying to avoid the masses!). So for kids I give the ship an A, but for the program (if your kids have been on a few cruises and have a "been there, done that" option) a C. New to cruising kids would probably rate it a B+. (I found the Celebrity programs to be a bit more sophisticated.) Overall cruise experience for the children: B+.

Our Grand Suite was very nice and out attendant was very good; leaving it spotless and never misplacing or accidentally throwing out anything. I do like the option to have quiet instrumental music in the bathroom. (Upgraded toiletries were just as good as Regent's!) The individual rheostat controlled lights by the bed and dimmers on all other lights in the suite were nice too. Our balcony was wide, but a bit too narrow. (This, I observed, was corrected on the Freedom-class ships.) I also found the complete array of glassware excellent, but wondered how it was to be used with the no bringing of alcohol on board policy in place. (BTW, I brought a bottle of Glenfiddich aboard in my luggage with no problem at all.) Frankly, without the Concierge Lounge as a quiet morning retreat with continental breakfast, its Concierge allowing me to avoid the Tour Desk's horrific lines and it complimentary drinks and canapés before dinner, I would have had a much less satisfactory cruise experience. I would rate the suite experience an A-.

One side comment: The staff needs to smile more and recognize the passengers. I know that with 3,735 passengers saying "Hello" and smiling all day and night is a daunting task, but the failure to do so leaves one with the impression that you are more of a bother than a guest. In fact, some times I was just ignored. To be fair, some were very good at acknowledging passengers, but that was most certainly a minority.

It also reminds me that the "software": the staff and crew that make an experience a luxury one. Sitting in the dining room with that wonderful view and the duo playing, I said a number of times, "If just the service and food were better." When entering the Concierge Lounge if I was greeted by, "Good Morning, Mr. Goldring" or "How was your son's parasailing?" I would have felt better. But with 3,700+ passengers every 7 days, to expect so much - and at the price we paid - would, well and truly, be unfair.

We went on a family cruise and the family is happy. It will not be remembered as special and will, to be sure, fade from our memories, but will do so as a non-descript good experience.

Overall, my feeling is that I can still readily recommend Royal Caribbean for the product it is. I cannot, as I can with Celebrity, recommend that a luxury experience can be had with a little knowledge about the ship and its offerings. Royal Caribbean does not market itself that way and, as I said, it delivers what it promises.