Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Silversea Silver Spirit - Come On! You Have Got To Be Kidding! This Ain't Luxury!

You have got to be kidding me!  What I am reading makes the Silversea Silver Spirit a virtual joke if you are talking "luxury" and just OK if you are talking premium.

Let me explain:  One thing I hate is "dumbing down" people so they eventually believe that marginal is acceptable.  Silversea seems focused on abandoning its luxury product on its new ship...and duping the guests into thinking it is OK.  (I am not so sure that is really working for many based upon the reports of long lines of dissatisfied guests bending the ears of management, but for some it does.)  Examples:

1.  Charging for things that should not included and eliminating things that Silversea cannot get away with charging for -

*As I previously noted, charging for specialty dining, such as  $200 per person for Le Champagne is offensively unjustifiable as is $40 or $80 per person (with or without sake) in Sheishen (the new Japanese venue).  Saying it is intended to reduce demand due to the size of the venue is absurd.  Reservations takes care of that.  Jack the price up so that most guests cannot or will not use a venue?  Please.   

*Charging for access to basic spa facilities.  I can understand charging for most spa items, but it is getting to be a bit much.  Also, there are reports of the mass market approach of pushing overpriced products.  (To be fair, on the Seabourn Odyssey that was also attempted by the contractor...for about a day...and then Seabourn shut down that sales approach.)

*Absence or limitation of complimentary drinks  when boarding and in public areas, for example, in the Show Lounge and, it seems, in the suites as well.

2.  Lack of Training and Poor Service -

*It is one thing for there to be some rough edges in service when the main restaurant opens, but it is another when some of the waitstaff don't know the difference say between risotto and a meat dish.  It is one thing if one dish is delayed a few minutes after everyone else is served, but serving one person while the rest of the table waits for a significant time?  Seriously, how limited was the training of the Silver Spirit staff not to review what the dishes are that are being served that evening or to understand that you reject the one dish and have it come out with the others?  (See my post:  Seabourn Cuisine - Seeing is Believing). 

*I can understand the suites not being stocked with the preferred beverages at the beginning of the Maiden Voyage, but not a week into it...especially when the guest repeated asks multiple people.  Obviously if the provisions were not loaded (because of logistics or financial issues), the answer is to simply advise the guest of the lack of provisions and to explain the options (if any) available.  Days of chasing people down and increased frustration is inexcusable...even on a mass market line.

3.  Serving Marginal and Repetitive Food (I can't call it "Cuisine") -

*This one really blows my mind!  It makes my complaints about the Regent Seven Seas Prime 7 restaurant serving oversized portions not being luxury sort of "over the top".  There is presently one guest onboard the Silver Spirit that posts on her own blog, Cruise Critic and Luxury Cruise Talk message boards.  I appreciate Debbie's efforts and candor, but alas it is clear to me that we work/live in two totally different worlds.  Here is a link to her photo of the dinner served in the al fresco dining venue on Deck 10 (Beef on a Stone).  Seriously, the presentation, quality of vegetables and salad are shocking...even for a mid-range steakhouse.  But if you look at the other food (not "cuisine") photos Debbie has generously posted, you may come to the same conclusion I did:  It is NOT luxury...not even close.

*I have looked at some of the Silver Spirit menu offerings and it is just, plain and simple, the same dishes served over and over again.  Changing garnishes, side dishes and spices doesn't change the base offering.  Again, it may be an issue of lack of provisioning or finances, but don't just serve it...explain why!  Treating guests like lemmings rather than intelligent and understanding folks makes absolutely no sense...and it is not luxury.

4.  What About the Ship?  One thing I find absolutely of great concern is that other than the televisions being embedded in mirrors (which is, by the way, a typical Ritz Carlton and other high end hotel treatment; especially in bathrooms) not much else has really be raved about...or even commented on.  (It is being noted - now that the novelty for some has warn off - that in the sitting area of the suites, the television is not actually embedded in the mirror, but shows as a black rectangle in the wall when turned off.) 

Seriously is that all there is to talk about?  There have been no raves about the main restaurant or the other public spaces...other than some guests enjoying STARS Lounge (which doesn't open until 9:00 p.m. because it shares a galley - which is inexcusable on a new ship) despite its service misses.  OK, some like the bar in the reception area and other don't, calling it similar to a hotel lobby.  (Now remember when I blasted Ralph Grizzle,the Avid Cruiser, for asserting it was equal to the Seabourn Square?  Check that out here:  Stupid Comparisons.)

Give Silversea Some Time - I am very confident I am not the only one with so many concerns.  And, to be fair, we all must give Silversea time to make corrections and adjustments and to admit, "Oops, that was a bad idea"...and to actually train its staff. 

Please remember that if people like me do not criticize there is less chance of things being improved.  Cheerleading may make some feel better in the short term, and they are obviously entitled to do it, but that is not what I do for my clients.  I try my best to give unbiased and accurate information...which is proven time and time again on this blog. 

Remember my blasting so many things about the Regent Seven Seas Navigator and the cheerleaders attacking me and claiming I was pushing Seabourn?  Well, Prestige Cruise Holdings, Regent's owner, had the same assessment I did...and invested a fortune to make corrections.  In other words, what I told you was true...not a push toward Seabourn.  Similarly, here I have given you some comparisons to the new Seabourn Odyssey and the Silversea Silver Spirit; not to push anyone to Seabourn, but to give you valid comparisons.

Join the discussion at The Gold Standard Forum!

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Regent Seven Seas Navigator - She Is Finally Looking Like A Luxury Cruise Ship.



For years I have shunned the Regent Seven Seas Navigator due to her excessive vibration, drab and quirky interiors, horrible maintenance and systems issues and, let me think...could there be anything else as far as hardware goes????? (OK, she has wonderful suites and excellent bathrooms, but those were marred by various systems and maintenance problems.) BUT it seems she is no longer the Ugly Duckling!

Prestige Cruise Holdings, stuck with an Albatross, decided to make a huge investment, both in time and money, to make the Regent Seven Seas Navigator a wonderful, if not perfect, luxury cruise ship. While I have not been onboard, I have some inside information and "hot off the press" photographs to share with you.

First, the biggest issue: The Navigator's vibration. Without getting too technical, structure was added to the stern of the ship which added length and width and also changed the geometry (and therefore waterflow). This underwater feature is sometimes referred to as a sponson or "duck tail". New propellers and rudders were also added. The result is, according to sea trial information, that the vibration has all but been eliminated. I am not sure than any cruise ship has no vibration and it is yet to be seen what vibration is left, but "all but eliminated" effectively tells me to put the vibration baby to bed.

Second, there have been overhauls of the electrical, HVAC and plumbing systems. While I am sure there will some issues that will come up when the ship has full guest loads (one can't just make it perfect in one shot), the system-wide problems with the electrical system (deadship conditions), freezing cold in one area and uncomfortably warm in others (like the suites), and brown water and faucets falling off should all be things of the past.

Third, the galleys and many service areas have been gutted and totally rebuilt. These areas, usually unseen by guests, are critical to providing excellent service. With these weak links virtually eliminated, I am confident that some of the sorely lacking service will improve. (But this is not about the software, so I will leave that for another post.)

Fourth, there have been structural changes in some of the public areas, including the addition of Prime 7, the hallmark Regent Steakhouse. Check it out:




While I would not call it over-the-top, I really like the understated elegance. Those chairs, look like I could sit back quite nicely and enjoy some wine and linger over a very nice dinner. (It is hard to see the entire layout in the photograph, but what I see I really like.)

Fifth, the fun stuff: The redesign and refurbishment of the public areas. For example, the former ugly and awkward Stars Lounge, now makes a statement. It may or may not be your taste, but it show style and should draw people into it - having lost its dudgeon-like decor:






The Navigator Lounge has also been vastly improved. Gone is the blue "waiting area" feel. It now feels, at least from the photo, like a very nice place to read in the day or have a drink before dinner:




The Compass Rose, main dining room, also has been upgraded. Again, you may not like the large chairs, but they add comfort and some style in a room that, to me, was nothing more than a boring peach place to get food. Now "dining" seems very viable, though I cannot tell if the lack of sufficient tables for two or the poor placement of the waiter stations has been addressed:



As you may know, the Portofino concept has been abandoned on Navigator. The main alternative dining venue, La Veranda, has been updated as well.




Sorry I do not have photographs just yet of the new Pool Grill and Pool Bar, but I hear they are really beautiful and much improved from what I always perceived them to be...afterthoughts.

I also have a photograph of one of my favorite areas - even with the vibration - the deck aft of Galileo's. I don't know what was done in the lounge itself, though:



I also know the suites are all receiving new carpeting and any wear issues were addressed.

Keep in mind that these photographs do not take into account all of the huge onloading of hotel items, loose furnishings, restocking, etc. that is being finished up as I write this.

I am sure there will be some shakeout over the next few cruises, but I am far more willing to consider the Regent Seven Seas Navigator today than I have been for years.

What do you think of the improvements? Join the discussion on The Gold Standard Forum!

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Silversea Silver Spirit - A New "Dream" Ship and Some Nightmares

I have not commented on Silversea's newest ship, the Silversea Silver Spirit, for a few days. The reason: I am tired of being told or perceived as being a Silversea basher. So I let the initial couple of days of nirvana go by and have been reading as much as possible from those who were or are onboard.

[Note:  There is a great discussion going on at The Gold Standard Forum.  Click on Luxury at Sea and then on Hardware]

The result is exactly what Seabourn has always claimed: It is the software; the people and service that make the difference. And with Silversea, it seems, that it was is sorely lacking. There are, of course, some of the best staff at sea...but then there are apparently a very large number of undertrained and/or overwhelmed and/or undermotivated staff. It also appears that some of the service has been limited in order to deal with the shortcomings.

Before discussing that, the ship itself is worthy of discussion. From what I have read and seen, the ship is (as previously noted) brown, brown and brown. That is not necessarily a bad thing, but if you are looking for modern design and flair, this is not the ship for you. It has been compared, to some degree, with an "old school" hotel. There are certain areas that seem to work well, such as Le Champagne (the $200 per person restaurant), the bar in reception area, etc. There are areas that don't, such as the show lounge.

The discussions have gone from how wonderful STARS (a tasting menu bar) is to the fact that it doesn't have its own galley, so the tasting menu isn't available until after 9:00 p.m. That seems like bad design as a result of cost-cutting. On a new ship dedicated galleys are an obvious inclusion (ala Seabourn Odyssey's Restaurant Two having its own galley back-to-back with the one for Colonnade). I am waiting to hear how it was designed that way so that it would not be a dining venue, but rather a late night snack concept. (I am not buying into that at all.)

I am not going to comment too much about the dining experiences because it is very difficult to get everything right in the first few days. The reports are of generally good to excellent cuisine, but a confused and inconsistent delivery (from wrong menu items, to unannounced changes in menu items, to truly worrisome room service issues.) I would note, by comparison, that Seabourn focused on making sure everything was as right as it could be when you stepped onto the Seabourn Odyssey as first impressions are so important. (I would also note, to be fair, that Seabourn has suffered some inconsistencies as the Odyssey has been out for a while and it seems keeping the small ship level of service on the larger ships is not as easy as hoped for.)

What blows my mind is some simple stuff, like bar service in the main show lounge simply does not exist. There is absolutely no excuse for this. Possibly as another cost-cutting effect of not installing a bar in the area, there simply is no service option. Even if offering just champagne, white or red wine, Silversea has to do something. It is, without a question in my mind, the installation of a philosophy of "Give 'Em Less" that is shocking.

The "fun" of the TVs behind the mirror in the suites seems to have quickly worn off, as the television is providing nothing better than second run movies, intermittent (at best) internet, etc. Stories of broken lights, no hot water, poor quality craftsmanship, etc. seem to be ubiquitous.

One other thing that is really bothering me is the extra charges. The word is Sheisin, the Japanese Restaurant, will charge $40 a person. The spa charges $20 a day per person for access to many of its facilities. Le Champagne charges $30 per person with no wine or $200 per person for a wine-pared menu. While Le Champagne's concept is a Silversea trademark, I think its pricing is absurd and to expand it to other areas offensive. This is supposed to be a luxury experience; not a pay as you go one. Seriously, what is the real cost of these experiences versus the cruise fare cost.

Two nights ago I dined at the the Ritz Carlton Lake Tahoe which opened just two weeks ago at Northstar-at-Tahoe, a 5 Star luxury ski resort, in its top restaurant, La Manzanita (operated by its James Beard Award winning chef, and San Francisco legend, Traci Des Jardins. For a total of $210 (including 20% tip) my wife and I had Maine Diver Scallops, Potato Mousseline and Black Truffle Nage and Red Wine Braised Shortribs, Horseradish Potato Puree and Herb Salad (both signature dishes) while my wife had Little Gem Lettuces, Roasted Chioggia Beets, Chevre and Winter Citrus followed by Steelhead Salmon, Celery Root, Roasted Chioggia Beets and Mustard Greens and we shared Warm Bread Pudding, Kumquat Marmalade and Bourbon Crème Anglaise and two bottles of Roederer Estate Brut Champagne (sparking wine). Can some tell me how you justify charging double that amount?

The rationale for charging $80 for a couple to dine at Sheisen escapes me as well. Yes, there is the issue of limiting demand, but that is easily done with reservations. One thing to keep in mind is that while the concept is nice, the problem is greater: People spending that kind of money don't want the feeling they are being "nickeled and dimed". The concept of fees to reduce demand is but one solution to a possible problem with overuse of a restaurant. Reservations are another...as Christian Sauleau knows from his long time involvement with Regent Seven Seas. (Seabourn went with a reservation system on the Seabourn Odyssey to limit demand and found that it actually created more problems than solutions...eventually abandoning it except for Restaurant Two - its high demand, and still no charge, tasting restaurant.) So Silversea starts out, knowing the Seabourn experience, by charging $80. I don't get it.

Obviously, I am not thrilled so far, but I also want to note that there is plenty of time to tweak, change and modify. There is an expectation of "This doesn't work, mechanically or operationally and must be changed...now how?" I still hold out hope that Silversea will be able both operationally and financially to make the Silversea Silver Spirit a true luxury experience.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Silversea Silver Spirit - Why Silence Is Not Golden - Oh, Boy What A Bad Start!

Well, I guess this is an unfortunate, "I told you so" about Silversea Cruise's financial turmoil.  I have, as previously noted, kept very quiet not only in the hope that something positive might happen, but because I didn't want to be seen as "piling on" or trying to spoil the anticipated coming out of the Silversea Silver Spirit.

After the handover to Silversea was delayed five days without comment or even acknowledgment, it was reported that Silversea said the problem was with Fincantieri and a labor dispute.  That was, it seems, just not true...and for me, being in the yachtbuilding industry, something that I could not possibly believe to be true as Fincantieri has a history of early deliveries...not belated ones.

Now, it has been announced by the editor of CruiseCritic.com that the problem was that Silversea did not have its financing in place - something I told you months ago - and that it apparently took three German banks (and presumably someone's financial first born child as security) for the ship to be handed over to Silversea. 

I am not sure what "handed over" actually means in this instance.  It could mean that as I had mentioned months ago that a holding company will own the ship and charter it to Silversea or, to be fair, that Silversea may have some interest in it.  Just speculation on my part...but I have been pretty spot on so far.

Once again, I caution that such issues do not bode well for a luxury experience on the Silver Spirit or for Silversea's future. 

I will, once again, go back to silent mode...and hope for the best.  There will be press onboard in a very short time.  Let's see what is being said, objectively and marketing-wise.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Rebates and Discounts - Are Travel Agents That Do It Unethical...or Worse? How About A Reality Check!

Today I read an article where a number of travel agents were polled about rebating, or discounting, cruises.  It was, to be sure, a rather emotional and bitter article with travel agents claiming such things as the practice being equivalent to "the world's oldest profession" and nothing other than a way to "steal" another agent's clients.  The righteous tone of these travel agents left me feeling pretty sorry for their clients...and the industry.

Wake Up Call No. 1:  The cruise industry is the only industry I am aware of that somehow skirts consumer protection laws by advertising discounted prices off of brochure fares that never, ever, result in a sale.  If you were purchasing a dress and it was claimed to be "on sale" the discount is required to be based upon a regular price that was actually offered and (jurisdiction dependent) sold.  In the cruise industry today there is actually the reverse process going:  Prices have been "discounted" by 50-65% from whatever made up price the cruise lines concoct and then they claim the prices will go up.  (Gee, I thought the concept was the discount would be reduced?!)

I spend far too much time educating my clients that they can't be drawn into the marketing fallacy.  They need to look not at the claimed discount, but the price per day.  Why?  Because an artificially high brochure rate allows for a 50% "discount" that is actually a rate higher than last year's 30% "discount" for a similar cruise.  By looking at the price per day, inclusive of gratuities, drinks, specialty dining, etc., an educated consumer can make a fair comparison and then decide where they find the value and the cruise the meets their desires.

So certain cruise lines (and travel agents) engaged in the foregoing claim that travel agent discounting of their concocted prices is improper???? Huh?  I am absolutely stymied by this!

Wake Up Call No. 2 - In most industries the prohibiting of discounting is called "Price Fixing" and is illegal.  This is true around the world.  For example, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission defines it as follows, "Agreements between competing businesses to fix prices are illegal under the Trade Practices Act. Price fixing agreements do not have to be in writing: they can be a 'wink and a nod', made over a drink in the local pub, at an association meeting or at a social occasion.  The important point is not how the agreement was made or even how effective it is, but that competitors are working out their prices collectively and not individually. It is illegal for a business to enter into or give effect to such agreements."

Now, there are some nuances that may well result in the legal conclusion that what certain cruise lines call a "no rebating" policy is not price fixing, and I am not writing this to either protest or defend those cruise lines policies.  I am merely pointing out that anti-competitive practices are not focused on protecting the consumer, but rather protecting the weakest links in the industry.

The math is pretty simple:  The cruise line sells a cruise and provides the travel agent with a commission.  The cruise line, with discounting or rebating, still receives the same net amount from the consumer.  It is the travel agent that accepts a net lower commission because a portion of the commission is passed on to the client in the form of a discount or rebate.

So what legitimate purpose is there in fixing the price of a cruise?  It must be to protect the travel agent's profits...which to me is anti-competitive.

Wake Up Call No. 3 - Every travel agency has a different business model.  Some agencies focus on volume, others on glitz, others on discounting, etc.  And whether in a fancy office or home-based, a member of Virtuoso or Ensemble or Signature or not, affiliated with AAA or American Express or Thomas Cook o not, etc., each agency's cost of doing business is different...substantially different.  Equally different are the methods of covering those costs and generating profits.  Hence, there is no "right" way to operate a travel agency from a profit generating standpoint (other than with the requisite honesty).

Wake Up Call No. 4 - Perspective:  The other day one of my son's teachers wrote me a pretty nasty email claiming she was, by her position alone, entitled to demand my respect for her.  Huh?  I would have thought that not only should the teacher seek to earn my respect, but that as the parent of one of her students, I would have been entitled to at least a modicum of respect since it is my child that she is charged with nurturing. 

Similarly, I constantly hear travel agents demand respect because of the knowledge and service they provide their clients and the industry.  My response:  Get over yourselves!  I say this for two reasons: 

(1) When travel agents forget that they must earn respect every day with everything they do, they  become a bit to self-important.  Travel agents are in the service business.  That means we serve our clients; they do not bow down to us.  My demanding respect because I am one of the top selling travel agents for Seabourn Cruise Line would be offensive.  I say to every potential client, "Thank you for the opportunity to earn your business."  And I mean it.  (And, by the way, I generally do...because I do try to earn the business.)When I receive comments like "You have taught me more in 15 minutes than my old travel agent taught us in the last 10 years!" I have earned my client's respect.  When I receive a voicemail from a longtime and well traveled client enthusiastically thanking me for getting him a complimentary upgrade to a particular suite that logic would shunned, I have earned my client's respect.  It is a source of "Pride"; not "Ego".  Ego leads to errors and sloppiness...because the effort is in wallowing in, not earning, that respect.

(2) When a travel agent claims entitlement to a higher or extra fee, RUN.  Claiming entitlement to a higher or extra fee because a travel agent supposedly knows more may be a way to feed his/her ego, but the reality is that every travel agent SHOULD be able to provide great service.  The sorry fact is that most do not.  So, to my mind, (a) the failing travel agent hasn't earned the commission and may well lose the business, (b) the one that provides the service earns and keeps the business; and, (c) the one the exceeds the client's expectations earns loyalty (thereby reducing marketing costs and, by receiving referrals, receives pre-pr oven additional business.) 

So what does all this have to do with rebating and "the world's oldest profession" and "stealing"?  It is pretty simple:  Knowledgeable clients expect good service and experience.  But they also expect value. 

While there are some clients that use me solely because of my knowledge and integrity, the fact is that the vast majority use me because they see VALUE...they get something(s) from me that they don't get from other travel agents.  It may be more personalized service, or more information, or better pricing, or all three. 

Does that make me a prostitute? A thief?  If you think so, please use the travel agent that want to charge you an extra fee just to book with him/her. Or, if you think that there is honor in paying that demanding travel agent more money out of some sense of integrity, please do.  The last time I looked the educated consumer expects excellent service and pricing...and those are the clients I am seeking to attract, earn their business and then their loyalty.

If a travel agent chooses not to, or cannot, compete please don't get into name calling.  The fact is that by doing so you dishonor a profession that already has enough issues with problematic travel agents.  And, personally, I think you are insulting the traveling public.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Onboard Art Auctions - Payback Is A Bitch!

For years Park West has made huge profits on selling what I believe to be extremely overpriced "art" based upon pricing that is established through a "feeding frenzy" created onboard ships with novice "art collectors" running up prices on pieces they "just have to have".

Today I read that Park West has let 40% of its staff go, its revenue (which was almost $300,000,000 annually) had dropped by 50-75%.  It is, in fact, reported that Park West's shipboard sales rose from $20 million-$22 million in the early 1990s to that almost $300 million figure in 2006 to early 2007.

The financial side of Park West is, because of a pending lawsuit against a competitor that has - Park West alleges - engaged in a smear campaign, has resulted in the disclosure of just how profitable the art auction business was/is.  Park West claims it sells about 300,000 works of art a year, with the significant majority from cruise ship sales.  Of your purchase price, the cruise line takes between 10% and 40% of the gross revenue. An additional 15% premium goes to Plymouth Auctioneering Ltd., who actually employs the auctioneers.

In other words, if you were to purchase an item for $2,500, between 25% and 55% is not going to the value of the piece, but rather goes to the revenue stream of two entities that don't even own the piece being sold.  Thus with the remaining 45% to 75% of the revenue remaining, Park West was/is still able to turn a pretty tidy profit.

Now, folks, please tell me how you don't feel ripped off if you ever made a significant purchase from Park West.  Doesn't it make a $1.50 for a soda seem like a relative bargain?

And now, Regent Seven Seas Cruises:  Please tell me why you believe it is appropriate to still have any association with Park West.  It can't be because you believe it adds value or class to the "luxury" experience, can it?


Disclosure:  I, personally, have purchased some Park West "art" over the years...but at prices ranging from $50 to few hundred dollars.  My purchases were "fun" purchases that had absolutely no expectation of investment or maintaining value.  (This disclosure was made previously so if it is of interest, search Park West on this blog.)

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Regent Seven Seas Voyager and Silversea Silver Spirit - Why and How I Write This Blog

The past days have been very busy for me, personally, but also very interesting for me professionally.

It appears that some of my readers, I guess, read this blog because they perceive me as the Andy Rooney (curmudgeon) of the cruise blogosphere.  While I may have earned that reputation through speaking my mind, I want you to understand that I actually do speak my mind and do not rant or criticize just to write or keep up readership.  The Regent Voyager and Silversea Silver Spirit are two cases in point.

Regent Voyager - The Regent Voyager is on a Caribbean cruise and one of its engines has failed.  This has not left the ship without power or services, but required one port to be skipped so that she could arrive early this morning in San Juan so that repairs could be made.  It appears the guests have been kept fully informed, missing Antigua hasn't been a huge disappointment (and, regardless, Regent would have been within its rights to skip the port for a host of other reasons) and it appears that once the part(s) that are needed are installed the Regent Voyager will be on her way...on or close to schedule.

So when the problem occurred I started to receive emails asking me to write about how bad the ship is, what a terrible thing it is that Regent let down its guests again, claiming damage to the ship was clearly as a result of poor management, etc.  Folks:  SHIP HAPPENS!  I won't write any of those things, because I don't believe it is fair, accurate or appropriate.

These emails told me a couple of things: 

- First, Regent still has a lot of work to do.  It has well and truly alienated a very vocal and significant portion of its client base.  (Honestly, I think I probably fit into that category.)  It must find a way - probably though hard work and simply consistently getting it right - to regain the shine of the  previous management's self-declared "Six Star Luxury" moniker.

- Second, people have tagged me as being "Anti-Regent Seven Seas Cruise Line" when that simply is not the case.  I do not get my jollies (sorry, Santa) bashing Regent.  I have, quite vocally, expressed my frustration with so many of the prior management's decisions which - by design, IMHO - were to cheat the guests and make them feel special while picking their pockets.  Its prior incarnation just kept that movie line in my head, "Son, fat, dumb and happy is no way to go through life."

But the new management of Regent Seven Seas Cruises has done much to improve the line, to change its focus to on value rather than the absurd Six Star Luxury fraud (albeit I really hate the find demeaning the "free", "free", "free" marketing approach).  Yes, there is work to be done.  Training still needs to be improved to the point that the curious "I need to dine where X is the waiter because his service is great" is gone (as service should be great everywhere!).  Cuisine needs to be improved to the point where meals are consistently excellent everywhere, not "hit or miss" as reports in Prime 7 and Compass Rose have consistently shown.  There are others, but you get the point.

So with literally every cruise line having an engine problem at some point, I cannot report the present Regent issue to be a disservice to its guests or its handling improper. If that changes I will let you know. 

Silversea Silver Spirit - Why have I been so quiet about the new Silversea ship?  Because I really don't know a darn thing worth reporting on.  I have read the hype, the true marketing and the wishes, but I haven't seen any real information.  As I remain very concerned about Silversea's financial situation and my inside information as to fit, finish and training of staff leave me nervous, I do not want to push a product I am not presently secure in supporting.  But it is my hope and desire that Silversea weathers its financial storm, get is right with the Silver Spirit and that it succeeds, for in this business competition is a great thing.

Consider the changes in luxury ships over the past few years.  Dining options have significantly expanded, spas have become destinations, fitness centers expanded beyond treadmills, entertainment options have improved, unique ports of call are the norm (oxymoron??), passenger space is even greater and suites are truly "sweet".  Without the competition Seabourn would not have committed to building the Seabourn Odyssey, Seabourn Sojourn or Seabourn ???? (enter the contest!).  Silversea would not have the Silver Spirit (or named it so similar to the Seabourn Spirit!).  And Oceania and Azamara Club would not target those that might want a taste of the luxury, but don't want to pay the price...or need a suite....providing a higher level of service, cuisine, amenities and ports than the premium and mass market lines. 

So you can depend on me to say what I think, whether you agree or disagree, and not to say anything when I really don't have anything to say.  But, most importantly, if you are interested in booking a cruise remember that I, as your travel agent, will give you my honest, experienced and impartial opinion...not to push you to particular cruise line, but to assist you in your determination of what is the best cruise line, the best accommodation and the best itinerary for you -whether it be the top suite or inside cabin, a luxury or mass market ship, an itinerary in Asia or the Caribbean.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Seabourn Improving Upper Suite Amenities - Internet

There have been some quiet discussions over the past months about tweaking Seabourn's "all guests are treated equally regardless of accomodation" policy.  It is, to be true, a very important part of the Seabourn Experience. 

While a number of improvements are being considered, Seabourn has announced that the top suites will now receive complimentary internet service.  On the Pride, Spirit and Legend, those occupying Owners and Classic Suites will have this amenity.  On the Odyssey, those in Owners, Grand, Signature and Wintergarden Suites will enjoy same.

These are effective now.

It is not a big in the overall scheme of things, but it does address what has been a sore point for some upper suite guests.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Azamara Club Cruises- Changes Are Coming...And I Like It Alot!

I have always struggled with Azamara Cruises because it had a pretty solid product, but no direction and nothing that made it distinguishable.  Honestly, I have said to its parent, Celebrity Cruises, that with Oceania Cruises having such a solid product with consistently excellent delivery of cuisine, service and itineraries, there was little motivation to select the lesser marketed and unknown Azamara.

That has all changed...and I preface it by stating that Larry Pimental and his staff have picked over Oceania, Regent, Seabourn, Silversea, Crystal and SeaDream and pulled elements from each, tweaking their selected concepts in ways that they believe will provide a far improved cruise experience which touches upon, but does not pretend to be, luxury.

First Azamara is now Azamara Club Cruises.  This is obviously a play off of the "country club" marketing of Oceania and the recent emphasis on "country club casual" by many lines.

Second, they have taken the approach of making the product more inclusive....something I have said was essential to distinguish it from Oceania - who operates identical ships.  So now

1.  Gratuities are included. 
2.  Wines with meals complimentary.
3.  Bottled water, specialty coffees and teas are included.
4.  Shuttle buses will be provided (where available) between the port and town at no charge. 5.  Self-service laundries are complimentary.
6.  Specialty restaurant dining will be complimentary for suite passengers.

These are pretty much the things that Oceania makes money on and (as you know I have told you) can make an Oceania cruise more expensive than a Seabourn cruise if you are traveling in an sort of suite accommodation.

Third, while Azamara has always had solid cuisine, it is, ala SeaDream, incorporating more of the cuisine of where the ship is visiting in its dining menus.  Complimenting that is its emphasis on local wines - some of which are not readily available elsewhere because the vinters either do not have sufficient qualities or simply do not market for foreign distribution.  (The other night I enjoyed a bottle of Slovenian wine I purchased on my last cruise.  It was bittersweet because I know I cannot purchase it here in the U.S. and I want more of it...and it has great memories associated with it.)

Fourth, there will be many more overnight stays.  This, to me, is a tricky one.  For me, other than say Barcelona, Venice or Istanbul, there are not many ports that I - as a seasoned traveler - want to overnight in when embarking or disembarking.  I may be in the overall minority, but there is great value for many knowing that if their flight is late they can still make the ship...and the need to purchase a pre- or post-cruise hotel or a very early private car to the airport on disembarkation becomes a real cost savings.  Also, there will be a beefing up of shore excursions as the additional time will permit more unique and in depth experiences.  (These will be at extra cost, however.)

What is refreshing is the Fifth point:  Prices are going to be higher.  All of this luxury comes at a cost.  While higher prices may make Azamara Club unaffordable to many, the average target passengers are  aged 45 to 60 with a household income of approximately $300,000 per year.  One thing to keep in mind is that the vast majority of the accommodations are cabins with very small bathrooms (and tiny showers).  As with SeaDream (Pimental's former baby), I am sure the focus is on making the rest of the onboard experience at a sufficiently high level as to reduce the impact of this shortcoming.  Note:  I firmly believe that being honest with the market and saying you are raising the prices to make this a more inclusive product is the way to go.  The concept of "free, free, free" added to high prices, ala Regent Seven Seas Cruises, is to many offensive; especially the astute.

There is, alas, a Sixth point:  Children.  As with Oceania, Azamara Club specifically does not encourage children and touts that it has no facilities for children.  However, children are welcome to book and, in a very significant difference, if there are a sufficient number of children on board, Azamara Club will provide youth counselors.  This, to me is huge.  Not only does this open up Azamara Club to many of the demographically targeted folks who have children, it provides a bit of protection for those who do not want to have children onboard with nothing to do disturbing their cruise.

Here is something to think about:  December 14th is the day prices are going to increase.  If you act quickly, you can lock in some really spectacular cruises in 2010 and 2011 that will have all these added amenities...and you can do so at the present lower prices.  It is like receiving a very significant discount for doing today that which you might well do later.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Seabourn Odyssey - Great Video of the Ship...and Thank You From Goldring Travel!

The Seabourn Odyssey recently made its United States debut. For those travel agents who were not invited to the Inaugural Cruise in Venice Seabourn invited them onboard and made a very interesting video.  It tells a very good visual story about the ship.

As a side note:  When you listen to the words of the travel agents in the video, recall that I had the honor of Seabourn flying me to Venice, enjoying the Inaugural Cruise and dining with the Captain at the first ever formal night on the Seabourn Odyssey. 

It was an privilege that I earned by treating my clients (you) in the same manner Seabourn treats them (you) as guests...and, in turn, they (you) bestow the same loyalty to me that is shown to Seabourn. And with that I must say, once again:  Thank You!

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Is Your Travel Agent Hyping A Cruise Line? How Do You Know?

I had some very interesting conversations with some clients that recently returned from cruises yesterday.


I also received my certification as being a member of the International Forum of Travel and Tourism Advocates, the IFTTA. The IFTTA is essentially an organization of attorneys and advocates from around the world that deal specifically with travel disputes. As such literally every day I receive decisions from various courts addressing issues such as whether a tour operator is required to disclose that a tour is scheduled for hurricane season or if a mis- or omitted statement as to visa requirements creates liability for the travel agency. (The inconsistency of rulings and the reversal rates are, frankly, incredible...only adding to the confusion as to what one's obligations are.)

Obviously, as a lawyer and travel agent I have great interest in both the business and legal end of making sure that my travel clients receive everything they are supposed to...and that they are well informed about their holiday before they make their final decision. To me this is more of an ethical obligation than a legal one and is why I have never been merely an "order taker" where clients call me up or email me and say "Book this cruise" and I simply reply, "OK." Time and time again, after a brief conversation a better option is settled on.

So what does this have to do with my conversations with happy clients that just returned from their cruises? Good question!

One client of mine (and regular reader of this blog) just returned from a cruise on the Seabourn Odyssey, which she truly enjoyed as her first Seabourn experience. Our conversation sort of ended on the topic of some people probably do not use me as their travel agent because I am so supportive of Seabourn to the point that it sounds like I am hyping the cruise line. I found that very interesting...and readily acknowledged that it probably was true.

The curious aspect of the conversation was that while she now believes Seabourn may not be the best fit for her (feeling it may be a bit too formal for her...at least in Europe) the food and service was not only a "10", but exceeded that which I have been representing to her directly, on this blog and on The Gold Standard Forum. She told me that you actually do receive true small ship service on the larger Seabourn yacht and gave me two examples.

- Seabourn offers smoothies at breakfast. She inquired if mango smoothies were ever made and was advised "occasionally". The next morning Seabourn had mango smoothies. That might seem the end of the story, but not on Seabourn. She didn't make it to breakfast that morning, so what did Seabourn do? Seabourn surprised her by delivering mango smoothies to her suite!

-She was interested in dining a Restaurant 2 when there was an Asian theme. She inquired as to whether a particular dish would be offered. The chef replied that it takes two days to prepare this dish, so it was not a regular offering. However, when they arrived for dinner two days later the special dish was presented..simply as a result of an inquiry.

As you know, if you know me, this blog or Seabourn, these are not actually special exceptions, but the way Seabourn does things. And it is why I am such a firm believer in Seabourn.

Now, relating back to her observation that some people do not book their cruises with me because I seem to be hyping Seabourn, I pause and ask, "How can I be hyping what is actually true?" As I explained to my client, unfortunately, there are people that are taken in by the marketing of Line X or, frankly, are comfortable with the product Line Y offers and don't want to deal with the emotions or concerns of change. While I may never book those individuals on a Seabourn cruise (not my goal!), it is hoped that they take away that what I tell them about any cruise line is truly what I believe and that it is accurate.

I also spoke with another client that just returned from an extended cruise on Oceania. This Seabourn regular was very pleased with his cruise and, in fact, booked another extended Oceania cruise, due in large part to the fantastic itinerary. (Keeping it in context, he has Seabourn cruises booked in between.) He raved that the staff was very good, the food was "a solid 'B'", the alternative dining venues were excellent and the Penthouse accommodations were fine. (They were not of Seabourn caliber, but that was never expected.)

But, as I cautioned him, Oceania is a fine product, but it is not inexpensive. He was actually quite put off by the liquor and wine prices...though he did appreciate that Oceania does allow you to bring your own liquor onboard, but requests you consume it in your cabin/suite. ($10.00 + tip for a Bloody Mary and a bartender's request if he would like a "double" when he ordered a scotch were things that put him off.) He also felt, at times, that the ship was just too crowded; especially at lunch time when not in port. Finally he felt that the gratuities being charged were excessive.

In the end, as I had previously said to him and have said on this blog, the Oceania cruise in a Penthouse suite ultimately cost him more than a Seabourn cruise. He agreed, but said it was worth it for the itinerary.

Was I hyping Seabourn???? Absolutely not. I was speaking the truth. And armed with the truth, he was neither shocked nor disappointed on his Oceania cruise. Honestly, he loved it. And, as I said, he booked another Oceania cruise. Now, if I did not tell him that Oceania was more expensive than Seabourn don't you think he would have been shocked and unhappy? Instead he was pretty darn happy.

By my being absolutely honest and using accurate information about Seabourn as a known benchmark both clients were happy. One was "WOW'd" by Seabourn and the other was thoroughly pleased by Oceania. One purchased an opening booking on Seabourn and one purchased an Oceania cruise.

In the end it is about honesty and integrity. The IFTTA would not exist if travel agents and suppliers provided what they represented. And Goldring Travel prides itself on providing its clients with accurate representations, not hype, as well as excellent pricing and service.

When you call or email me, please remember I belong to both...and the Better Business Bureau too!

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Seabourn Odyssey Video

CruiseReport.com has just posted a very nice video made during the Seabourn Odyssey's maiden transatlantic voyage earlier this month.

Take a look:

Seabourn Pride - Super Spring Sale...Seriously!

If you every wanted to visit Asia, but felt you couldn't handle the long flight and were unable or unwilling to spring for business class air, do I have some deals for you!

All Seabourn Pride sailings from 6/12/2010 through 8/22/2010 inclusive can be priced with business class air and transfers from 27 different gateway cities.

The June 2, 1010 and June 11, 2010 sailings include a 2 night Bejing land program.

The price starts at only $7,980.00 per person. Taxes and customs fees are additional and the prices are not combinable with air deviations or combo cruises (ie. back-to-back or grand voyages). Obviously, they are also subject to prior sale and may be withdrawn at any time.

These fares will not be available for booking until November 30, 2009.

Seabourn Spirit - First Photographs of Its Refurbishment

I just received photographs of some of the interiors of the Seabourn Spirit after her recent refurbishment. I think they are fantastic and have eliminated some of the older elements/design quirks while tying her decor in better with her big sisters, Seabourn Odyssey and Seabourn Sojourn.

Lobbies




Main Lounge

Main Restaurant

Horizon Lounge

A Thanksgiving Story That Is "Bull"

It has been a very hectic time for me of late.

I spent most of last week at the Global Superyacht Forum in Amsterdam, am in the middle of a trial on one of the weirdest and most troubling admiralty cases I have ever been involved in, am doing my "travel agent thing" with many clients either just returning or about to depart on Seabourn and Oceania cruises, enduring the frustration of my New York Jets (and swallowing the huge cost of tickets next year in the new stadium), completing some sort of ultrasonic cardiac stress test (which I passed with flying colors), engaging in various family goings on and preparing for the holidays.

My respite has been my breakfast with the local farmers. The farming life, with its dependency on weather, weeds, wildlife, etc. causes farmers to have a rather unique approach to problems and stresses. It is not that things don't bother them or stress them out, it is that they are required to live by the "What are you gonna do, cry? You just have to get on with it" approach.

My farmer friends afford me the honor of allowing me to partake in just a little bit of their lives and, therefore, just a bit of their lifestyle trickles down to the lawyer/travel agent come wannabe farmer. In that role, I dutifully am a participant in their annual NASCAR pool and, as such, I am invited to the parties held at my friend, Tom's farm, for the first race (Daytona 500) and the last race (Homestead) each year. This past Sunday was the end of season party.

I arrived and found myself in charge of setting up the mini-pool for the driver who leads half way and at the end of the race ($5.00 per car randomly chosen) and playing bartender. With the pre-race show on two televisions and football on the third, the cousin who owns an orange grove in Florida stops in, the woman who owns the local horse supply business arrives (her husband still out in the fields planting soybeans won't arrive until later), the guy from the General Store tells his stories, Tommy Jr. who is taking over more and more of Tom's farming starts drinking a Coke so that when the guy with the suped up Mustang arrives he can take it for a spin (but eventually gives up and tops his drink with cheap bourbon) settles in...and the rest of the regulars arrive as the race is about to start. It is, for me, a little slice of heaven and I feel truly privileged to be allowed to share this.

And then...(you are not going to believe this!):

Remembering that I live in New Jersey...you know the place with the reputation for being smelly and overbuilt...Tom, for reasons that I cannot comprehend (hence I am not a true "redneck"), is taking delivery of three full grown Longhorn steers weighting about a ton each (yep, 2000 pounds or more.) (Tom already has four.)

Why this is being done in the middle of a NASCAR party I also cannot figure out. (Again, I am not a true "redneck").

However, as the steer are offloaded from the transport, they essentially stampede, trampling Tom, breaking through a fence and are now loose in Colts Neck! With a call-to-arms we pile into various pickup trucks and a Chevy Tahoe to roundup the strays...wandering through the upscale residential areas picking up the tracks and then being questioned as if we were casing the mansions looking to break in.

We then get a call that Tom found two of the steers...or should I say the largest bull found Tom, horning him in the head, knocking him to the ground and then charging his pickup. So, with blood flowing, does Tom go right to the hospital? No, he continues the attempted roundup for another 30 minutes and then is escorted to the hospital. (Not to worry, he is sort of a super-redneck, so his head is stapled, his back is sore, his truck is gored...and he was at breakfast this morning.)

As darkness falls, with Tommy Jr. and Joey now out with their rifles, the police combing the neighborhoods and a police helicopter circling there is nothing we can do...so we go back to Tom's house, finish setting up the NASCAR pool, drink some beers and watch the race. (And no, I didn't win the pool or the mini-pool.)

At about 9:00 p.m. I receive a call at home that two of the steers were located and were shot. They were just too dangerous. The third, however was still on the loose and now probably more dangerous than ever. But it could not be found.

So last night, as I was driving home from my 8 hours of trial work, tired and stressed, I call Tom to see how is doing. He tells me he has to call me back because they just located the third steer...the one that attacked him. Later I am told he was put down as well.




So what does this have to do with Thanksgiving? I mean three steer were put down, if only a few weeks before they were to be turned into roasts anyway. My friend was injured and could have been killed. The cost to the farmer is not insignificant as well.

Seriously, what does this have to do with giving thanks?

I am thankful that I have been enriched by so many things. While talking to billionaires may seem cool and being treated like royalty on Seabourn sounds devine, the next time I am in Greece taking in the Acropolis, pondering my heritage as I gaze at the Great Pyramids and Western Wall, or am in Italy enjoying some incredible wine and food, I have the joy of knowing that for me it is not about accomplishing those tasks, but savoring those moments as rarefied honors and thinking about the men and women that toiled to build the great monuments and to farm those ingredients were probably not so different from my farmer friends.

They were anything, but perfect, but they lived lives of "What are you gonna do, cry? You just have to get on with it". And they had the ability to look at the chaos and problems only to find a way to live with and appreciate them.

So rather than coddling Tom today and expressing such concern that his body is broken, his wallet is lighter and his pride is hurt, in true farmer fashion I asked the obvious, "So what the hell are you gonna do to top this?!"

I am very thankful.

Happy Thanksgiving!

P.S. So you know this story ain't no bull, you can read about it here: http://www.app.com/article/20091124/NEWS/91124131/Roaming+longhorn+caught++destroyed+in+Marlboro

Friday, November 20, 2009

Global Superyacht Forum 2009 - It Is Not All Smooth Sailing...Referrals May Put Wind In Some Sails (err, Sales).

I just returned from four days in Amsterdam attending the Global Superyacht Forum sponsored by The Yacht Report Group and held in conjunction with METS, the world's largest marine hardware show.  It was a very interesting, if not terribly upbeat, few days.




Without boring you too much, the focus on the non-technical areas of the superyacht industry was basically the industry has changed significantly and will not be returning to the glory days of the bubble.  Owners are having concerns about shipyards being able to complete work properly, if at all, and shipyards are faced with owners who are defaulting on contracts, canceling contracts or delaying work (both new-build and refit). 

Also, the three to five year backlog of work bragged about just two years ago has all but disappeared.  New build shipyards are looking at completing most of their work by the end of 2010 or early 2011 and there really is not much in the way of new contracts forthcoming...and with some of the cancelled contracts having recently occurred, 2011 is looking sort of like tomorrow.

This problematic situtation is due, in large part, to the lack of bank financing (a concept we all understand....too well) which has not only affected the new-build, but the resale market that is now all but non-existent.  News of a significant superyacht being resold is, well, news.  During the forum discussions I raised the issue of why banks - during the bubble - looked at a silly ROI (return on investment) analysis and ignoring the common sense concept that yachts - like cars - are really depreciating assets, both of which assisted not only in hyper-inflating the prices, but which allowed people who could not afford a yacht to buy one...and now drive the prices down as they need to unload them.  (Sounds like the housing bubble doesn't it?  Now just add some zeros!)

One point raised by three superyacht owners (I understand two remain billionaires) is their upset with lack of service.  The concept of a new yacht having a 12 month warranty, while the television on the yacht having a 5 year warranty, seemed both illogical and greedy.  The failure to even offer a 10% discount on a servicing...and they are very expensive...was mentioned as a significant sore point.

And then it struck me:  The greediness of the past years caused the yachting industry to stop doing what, for example, The Yachts of Seabourn, has as its cornerstone:  Never saying "No".  It is, in real terms, the concept of making things as easy as reasonably possible for your client (yacht owner or yacht guest) and finding a way to make things happen.  As I then urged during a Q&A session, the luxury yacht business needs to follow the luxury cruise business which thrives on referrals.  Glossy ads may get some clients, but the real long-term clients are ones that were referred or refer others.

The moderator then turned to the three superyacht owners and posed a question, "How may of you have made a referral to the yard that built your yacht and, if you have, how many?"  The answer was what I expected, but was shocking to most:  A total of one referral had been made and that referred person lost interest within a year.  No referrals in hard times has meant no business.

So I now pose this to you:  How many of you actually refer clients to a particular cruise line?  Why or why not? 

And I also ask, "How many of you refer people to your travel agent?"  If you do not, is it because to you it is all about price (see above if you think that is a good answer!)?

Join the discussion at The Gold Standard Luxury Travel Forum!

Friday, November 13, 2009

Royal Caribbean's Oasis of the Seas- It's Here!

Love it or leave it, it really doesn't matter. While you may never want to step foot on her or you can't wait to play in Central Park and watch the Aqua Show high dive, the ship is really something to marvel.




OK, I compared the Seabourn Odyssey to the Silversea Silver Spirit, so I might as well do it to the Oasis of the Seas:



Thursday, November 12, 2009

Bonnie Hunt Show: Fan-Tastic Voyage Contest

I was contacted by Warner Brothers marketing arm about a contest on The Bonnie Hunt Show, the Fan-Tastic Voyage Contest, where you can win a cruise for you and nine of your friends on Royal Caribbean's Oasis of the Seas...which makes its debut tomorrow.

If you would like to enter the contest you may do so here: http://www.bonniehunt.com/fantasticvoyage/ .

Please note Goldring Travel has nothing to do with the contest and normally I wouldn't post a contest...unless you want me to (or to have a section in The Gold Standard Forum posting them). I just happen to like Bonnie Hunt as an actress who appeared in "The Green Mile" and "Jerry Maguire" among other movies.

Another Cruise Ship Survey and Another "Why?": This Time Zagat

It has been announced to day that Zagat (of restaurant survey fame) is releasing a survey of cruise ships. the results, once again, make me ask "Why?" and "Who is actually surveyed?".

Preliminary information is that a mere 2,379 "frequent" cruisers (those who have taken 9.5 cruises on average). In a bit of irony that I just help but point out, considering the ships voted on, that hardly can be considered "a boat load" of votes. I am also fairly certain that there is no statistical validity to how those surveyed were chosen...if they, in fact, were actually chosen as opposed to voted (and said they had been on at least X number of cruises.)

Zagat used a 30-point scale measuring cabins, service, dining, facilities and shipboard activities. While it did break down the ships into various categories, the large ship/small ship ratings were merely a compilation of all of the scores. That said I would like to see the raw data because there are a heck of a lot of sub-category winners arising from those five categories.

For the large ship category (over 1,500 passengers) it was Cunard, Disney and Celebrity.

For the mid-sized ship category (200-1,500 passengers) it was Regent, Crystal and Seabourn.

While I must pause and ask, "Since when is a 200 passenger cruise ship 'mid-size'?" I must also ask with the results of most categories heavily focused on Cunard and Disney, "How many of these mere 2,379 have actually been on a Seabourn, Crystal or Regent cruise?"

The overall ratings were as follows:


.....................Large (1,500+)/Mid-Size (200 to 1,500)/Small (<200)

Top Rooms: Cunard/ Regent/ SeaDream
Top Service: Cunard/ Seabourn/ SeaDream
Top Dining: Cunard/ Seabourn/ SeaDream
Top Facilities: Cunard/ Crystal/ SeaDream
Top Activities: Disney/ Crystal/ Lindblad
Top Overall: Cunard/ Regent/ SeaDream

I am not sure how one is the Overall "best" cruiseline when it is not voted to have the best service, food, facilities or activities, but Regent "wins" that honor.

Similarly, I am not sure how Cunard "wins" for rooms, service and dining when the experience is markedly different dependent on which class of accomodation you choose.

That is, in part, why it is curious that Seabourn has been lumped into the mid-size category by 4 suites (8 passengers) which has never been the case in anyone's comparisons previously. But I guess you can make these things reflect whatever it is you want...which is my point.

FYI, the winners in the various large ship categories are as follows:

Top Fitness Centers: 1. Celebrity Cruises 2. Cunard Line 3. Royal Caribbean
Top Nightlife: 1. Disney Cruise Line 2. Royal Caribbean 3. Cunard Line
Top Onboard Shopping: 1. Cunard Line 2. Disney Cruise Line 3. Royal Caribbean
Top Live Entertainment: 1. Disney Cruise Line 2. Cunard Line 3. Royal Caribbean
Top Spa Services: 1. Cunard Line 2. Disney Cruise Line 3. Celebrity Cruises
Top Casinos/Gambling: 1. Cunard Line 2. Royal Caribbean 3. Celebrity Cruises
Top Excursions: 1. Princess Cruises 2. Celebrity Cruises 3. Cunard Line
Top Itinerary Choices: 1. Cunard Line 2. Holland America Line 3. Celebrity Cruises
Best for Kids: 1. Disney Cruise Line 2. Royal Caribbean 3. Carnival Cruise Lines
Best for Families: 1. Disney Cruise Line 2. Royal Caribbean 3. Carnival Cruise Lines
Best for Seniors: 1. Holland America Line 2. Cunard Line 3. Celebrity Cruises
Best for Singles: 1. Carnival Cruise Lines 2. Royal Caribbean 3 Norwegian Cruise Line
Best for Romantic/Honeymoon Cruises: 1. Cunard Line 2. Celebrity Cruises 3. Princess Cruises
Best For Weekend Getaways: 1. Disney Cruise Line 2. Royal Caribbean 3. Carnival Cruise Lines
Best for Budget Cruises: 1. Carnival Cruise Lines 2. Costa Cruises 3. Norwegian Cruise Line
Best for Expedition Cruises: 1. Celebrity Cruises 2. Princess Cruises 3. Holland America Line

I could go through each of these subcategories and "colorfully" express the obvious flaws in many of them, but that just might give this, yet another, survey some sort of credence.

You can read the survey at: Zagat Cruise Survey.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Seabourn Odyssey and Sojourn - After and Before

Today the Seabourn Odyssey arrived in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. It is great to finally see this new ship arrive in the United States.


And, for some contrast, here is a recent photo of her sister, the Seabourn Sojourn. OK, she needs some work, but see above to see how great she will look.





Silversea's Silver Spirit - Some New Photos...And A Warning About Ralph Grizzle (The Avid Cruiser).

One nice things about having a ship built at Fincantieri is that you have great confidence it will be delivered on time.  Regardless of any other issues, Silversea is blessed with having the Silversea Silver Spirit being delivered as it should be...and, it would seem, in a properly cleaned condition.  This stands in stark contrast to the horrid mess T. Marrioti delivered the Seabourn Odyssey in...and should give Silversea every opportunity to start off on the right foot - with delivery of an excellent right from the start (giving, of course, some leeway for the expected - and unexpected - glitches immediately after any delivery).

There has been some discussion on The Gold Standard Forum about the Silver Spirit appearing to be someone front and top heavy.  (You can read and join in the discussion under "Luxury at Sea - The Hardware").  To my eye she doesn't have the most sleek lines, but the efforts to stack as much as possible on this ship have not ruined the lines to the extent of the Norwegian Epic. 

Compare, however, the lines to the Seabourn Odyssey and you will see what I mean.




To my eye it is as if an additional 2 decks were added midships and forward.  Would this determine if I liked the ship or not, or if I would recommend her or not.  Absolutely not!  It is just comment.

What might make a difference is how she handles in wind and heavy seas.  With today's truly remarkable technologies both through engineering design and equipment it is possible to counter many forces (top-heaviness, wind loads, etc..)  Knowing that Fincantieri makes good ships is one thing, seeing that the client's design as implemented by the shipyard works is another.  We shall soon see how she handles.

Silversea has also released some photos of some of the public spaces (albeit sans furnishings - to be expected this far from delivery).

The Reception Area appears attractive, but to me looks very hotel or banquet hall - esque.  I do have a bit of an eye for new construction work (having managed a superyacht yard for a while).  What I see appears to be very well executed, but not intimate.  It is a concern for me, and guests, that as luxury ships get larger they may just get too impersonal...losing the very character that makes them attractive in the first instance.




It may be that with the addition of the furnishings, this area will be broken up into more intimate areas.  It is why, to me, releasing this particular photo is curious.  (Sorry if I sound negative.  I just have to call it as I see it.  And I don't see why these particular photos were the ones chosen to be release.)

La Terrazza is the causal dining area.



I don't have much to say about this area because it doesn't show much.  BTW, the shiny areas on the carpet is carpet protectors that are put down during construction and taken up as the space is completed.

I do, however, have a bone to pick with the Observation Lounge.




Why would you place a bar so close to the windows...and then orient it so that you are looking away from the windows (and into the bar)?  This is just bad design...from what I can tell from one photo. (I am not sure what is in the distance, but it does seem like it is better.)  Again, comparing it to the bars on ships from the Royal Caribbean Viking Crown Lounges, to the Celebrity Solstice-Class ships to the Seabourn Odyssey, the concept is to have a centralized bar with no real obstructions above bar height, so people can sit and, well, "observe" (something other than the bartender). It doesn't have to be the same old thing; my point is that this is a design topic long ago visited by many designers with some very good results.

The Warning

I would like to make one point clear:  I have absolutely no economic motivation to say anything negative about Silversea.  I have clients that book Silversea.  I have other clients that have booked Silversea with other agencies.  The fact is Silversea has some of the best itineraries out there.  I want it to be a great product (and it ain't bad!), because the more cruises I sell, the more money I make (and it is not like everyone I meet is going to both love and purchase a Seabourn cruise).  But I have to be honest. 

In that regard, I have taken issue with some of the comments Ralph Grizzle - The Avid Cruiser - has posted as "journalism" or "news" tauting how wonderful Silversea's new ship is and how it is better than the Seabourn Odyssey.  (Remember my post about his claiming the Reception Area was as good as the Seabourn Square?) I have listened to him criticize the size and sound of the Seabourn televisions and the crowd he observed on the Marina the very first day it was in operation and wondered, "What's up with Ralph Grizzle?"  Read my post "I Hate Stupid Comparisons:  Seabourn Odyssey vs. Silversea Spirit!"

Now I know why.  The Avid Cruiser (Ralph Grizzle) is, without question, being paid by Silversea to spread positive comments about the new build.  Check out Silversea's blog and check out who produced its video interview of the chef, the video of the Silversea staterooms, etc. It is Ralph Grizzle.  He has become nothing other than a walking infomercial! 

The problem is that he has never disclosed this in his "journalistic" pieces which are distributed around the internet.  (How many times have you heard CNN note its relationship with an entity it is reporting on?  Regularly, right.)  Why has he not disclosed this?  The answer is unavoidable:  It is to mislead you into thinking you are receiving impartial information regarding whatever it is he is reporting on.

Is there anything wrong with being paid to promote a product?  Absolutely not.  Is there a law against doing what Mr. Grizzle is doing?  Probably not.  But the ethics of it to me just stink.  Folks you want all the information you can get and you want it to be reliable.  But, more importantly, you want to be able to honestly and fairly weigh the information.

I make no bones about my being one of the world's top sellers of Seabourn cruises.  While I may be that because many factors, it clearly has been seen by some as causing a bias in my comments being favorable to Seabourn (or anti-Silversea).  I clearly disagree with that (and don't even understand how a travel agent makes more money being critical of a particular cruise line), but at least you have the information available to you to make your own decision.

Now, if you will, go back and read Mr. Grizzle's "news" reports and, in fact, re-read this post.  Let me know what you now think.  Join the discussion on The Gold Standard Forum!






Sunday, November 8, 2009

Celebrity Cruises - Some Incredible Close-In Deals

I was looking for some inexpensive cruises and found that you can sail on Celebrity in late November on a 7 day Mediterranean cruise or a transatlantic cruise for as little as $399 + taxes,with verandas just breaking the $1,000 mark.

If you are looking for a great deal on a cruise vacation on the line I consider to be "the best bang for the buck in the business" now is most definitely the time to act.

Call Goldring Travel at (877) 2GO-LUXURY or email eric@goldringtravel.com

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

The NEW Gold Standard Luxury Travel Forum

After too many months of frustration, courtesy of the "geniuses" at Ektron (the developer of the forum software Goldring Travel was using), totally new forum software has been installed and the new forum is up and running.

There will be a bit of lag as I transition over all of the prior posts, so please be patient if you are looking for the older content.  I must say, however, that in starting the transition over I have come to realize how much great information and insightful comments are actually available on the forum.

So for those of you who found your posts going into never-never land and pounding your fists onto your keyboards, please come and post without worry. 

Visit The Gold Standard Forum... and Thank You for all of your patience and support!

Regent Seven Seas - Shake Up and (Hopefully) Shake Out of the Navigator

When Prestige Cruise Holdings purchased Regent Seven Seas Cruises from Carlson it really had no idea how bad things were on one of the ships, the Navigator.  And since that day it has struggled with pretty much unthinkable conditions ranging from "little things" like brown water to defective air conditioning, to total losses of power (known as a "dead ship" condition), pipes falling apart, etc.  And then there is the shaking...aft on the ship presently shakes so badly that you can literally watch the bar counters flex, your drink walk across a table and feel your teeth shake.

That, however, is planned to be a thing of the past.  The Navigator is shortly going into an extended drydock for an extensive "stem to stern" mechanical makeover.  Folks, laying up a cruise ship for a month or more is very expensive, but in the case of Navigator it is long, long overdue.  And, as a result, I do have a concern that - as happens all too often in the boat biz - when you open things up expecting X you find X, Y and (how can that be?) Z.  But with such a long drydock I think PCH and Regent have anticipated there are going to be some unanticipated surprises.

Clearly PCH and Regent have taken the problem head on and shows there is now a long term commitment to make something good out of this ship and, therefore, it signals (at least to me) that Regent may be looking at expanding rather than contracting its fleet.  But that is another topic for another day!  (Maybe not a too distant day.)

Now, what is it that is going to be happening? 

First, there has been a new stern designed for the ship, changing it to extend out and create more of a ducktail (think longer, tapered and rounded) with sponsons (underwater structures, port and starboard,  projecting out and back to change waterflow).  In addition, Navigator will be getting two new screws (propellers).  By the way, there is tremendous engineering that goes into the design of propellers so that a certain amount of water is pulled through, at certain velocities, without creating the wrong kind of turbulence and without various harmonics wreaking havoc.  The design is, hopefully, going to eliminate the seriously debilitating vibration issue.  Even if it does not totally eliminate the vibration (and remember it is a ship, so no matter what there will be some vibration) there is going to be a vast improvement.

Second, every system from air conditioning to plumbing to electrical are going to be throughly inspected and corrected.  As many of you may know, Regent has already identified quite a number of issues and has put some stop-gap measures in place (to prevent things like going "dead ship") and has been using the time up to the drydock to put a plan of action into place.  To me this is a far greater challenge than the vibration.  With the vibration issue you can engineer a solution and simply fabricate and weld on the solution.  With these sort of old systems, you essentially are going to war with a beast!  (Can you tell this sort of stuff gets me excited?!)

Third, and there has been a bit of misinformation on this posted around the internet on this subject, the interiors are going to be getting makeover, but really nothing of huge note other than the installation of Prime 7, Regent's signature steakhouse.   And the rather drab interior is going to be getting a bit of a colorful uplift.  More specifically:

Prime 7 will have a similar palate as do the Voyager and Mariner with green and golden hues, leather, polished granite and burnished woods.

Compass Rose (the main dining room) is going to get new armchairs, deep color carpets and draperies, and new china, silverware and glassware.  (There is no mention of increasing the number of tables for two, which is a bit of a disappointment.)

La Veranda will remain La Veranda at all times (no more Portofino) and will serve a varied menu in the evening.  It will remain the casual dining/buffet experience for breakfast and lunch.  I am unsure if it will have waiter service in the evenings, but presume it will.  It will receive new furniture (I am not sure if it is just chairs or if the variety of table sizes will be increased), carpets, drapes and dinnerware. 

The Pool Grill will be expanded to become a legitimate grill with, you guessed it, a legitimate grill.  (Note there has been published comment that this will be a new installation on Deck 11, which is incorrect.  It will (ironically?) remain by the pool on Deck 10.)  I am not sure if there will be expanded seating (which has always been in short supply).

The various bars and public spaces will also be getting facials (if not facelifts).  The terribly underutilized Stars Lounge will no longer be a designated "disco", but will be given an upscale "estate" feel with new  furnishings, carpets and curtains.  (I am thinking akin to Celebrity's Michael's Club - a compliment).  Galileo's (my favorite lounge if the vibration is eliminated...will be similarly updated and the deck aft of it (which is the best spot on the ship will be made more into a outdoor living room with sofas and chaises.  The Navigator Lounge will also be similarly buffed up, as will the remaining public areas.


The Spa is being taken over by Canyon Ranch.  Other than a new operator (and I was not impressed with its operation on the QM2 - not that any at sea spa operator does much for me) I am not sure that much will change, though I anticipate some new equipment even if only because it is proprietary to Canyon Ranch.

If all this goes according to plan, Regent may well have a ship that I can - as far as hardware - begin recommending rather than advising to avoid.  I sure hope so...and I see no reason that should not be the case.