Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Is It Time For Mark Conroy to Depart Regent Seven Seas Cruises? UPDATED (Read the Comments!)

I have debated whether to pose the question and then whether to post it. Cruise lines are not obligated to permit every travel agent to book clients on their cruises and, after this posting, it may be that Regent will say it is enough of Iamboatman. Or, just possibly, Regent will say, "Damn he makes a good point and his integrity in making it and explaining why is a good thing."

But, the fact is that I firmly believe that the diluting of the luxury cruise product hurts everyone: The cruise lines, the travel agents and, most importantly, the guests. When there is a fear that a luxury product is not of sufficient value...in part because it is no longer (or never was) luxury...it tends to tar the entire niche with the same brush.

In the March 2, 2009 issue of Travel Weekly there was a great piece on what it means to be a Five Star luxury hotel and the fact that some believe that a new category should be established because that older Ritz Carlton just isn't nearly as good as the new hotels coming online. However, both Mobil and AAA are very content downgrading former Five Star properties that just don't make the grade of the continually evolving Five Star or Five Diamond awards they give out. (Please note that this type of article is becoming more commonplace, because it is now a very real issue.)

Mr. Conroy has been out there pushing a new standard of "Six Star Luxury"...not Five Star; Six Star and it seems nary a worry on Mr. Conroy's part that such a product even exist at all!

Is there some measure that was put in place? There is nothing promoted by Regent that shows how it is better than the Seabourn, SeaDream, Silversea or Crystal products (among others). It is different. Each of the products are different. But what entitles Regent to call itself Six Star? Why does Regent call itself Six Star?

With that preface, I must ask, "Isn't great to be King?"

Mark Conroy is the President of Regent Seven Seas Cruises. He is "The Man". When Regent was for sale, he was the face. When Regent went "all inclusive", Mr. Conroy out there. When Regent announced its new ship, he was center stage. (When it was delayed, he was nowhere to be found.) Mr. Conroy was great at getting press to rave about the $40,000,000 Apollo Management just spent on the updating the Mariner and Voyager and their new Prime 7 steakhouses.

My question is, "Why did it take Apollo to cause the improvements?" I skeptically bet the cost of all the glossy brochures and books mailed to me before the takeover (and now eliminated) could have paid for the improvements. In short, the ships need(ed) the work badly...and that work just scratched the surface...on this "Six Star Luxury" line. So I ask again, "Why was it not done before Apollo when the Six Star standard was being pushed?"

UPDATED: In a bit of timing irony, Seatrade just announced that Ken Watson, Regent's head of marketing and sales, is departing as of March 31st. His position will no longer exist with those reporting to him now reporting directly to Mark Conroy. His job prior to Regent: President of Little Switzerland jewelry and Executive Vice President of Marketing for Kmart. 'Nuf said.

As I often say, it is the software (people) not the hardware that makes the difference. Seabourn is a classic example of that. So let's talk about Regent's software.

Mark Conroy stated on December 23, 2008 that he was aware of the declining quality of the crew and that he was taking action to improve the situation. Mr. Conroy wrote, in relevant part, in an open letter on Cruise Critic:

"We’ve made some great enhancements to our training and benefits for the crew in the way of increased benefits, enhanced health coverage, overtime pay and dedicated Crew Resource Managers. We’ve also brought greater consistency to our crew scheduling and the vacation time they spend ashore. Ultimately, we want every crew member to leave the ship at the end of their contract with an assignment letter to return for a new contact."

The fact is, reading his comments, his/Regent's crew was suffering from insufficient benefits, health coverage and pay along with lousy scheduling and little consideration of their "vacations" (alas they are not vacations, but breaks in service). While I must pause and ask, "Why didn't Mr. Conroy know of the problems? Or, better, "How could he not assure his staff and crew were treated well at all times?" But I must also ask, "How long and severe was the problem that he felt compelled to admit it publicly?" Actually I must ask, "Did Mr. Conroy ever actually care, for if he did how could this have ever happened?"

In that same letter, Mr. Conroy stated, "We’re [Regent's] raising the bar in every conceivable area - the culinary experience, onboard amenities and entertainment, crew recruitment, crew training and most importantly, crew retention." Let's see how things are two months after writing his letter.

On last week's cruise on the Regent Navigator the painfully negative reports from an infamous Regent cheerleader no less, included the following:

1. The Food & Wine theme for the cruise was eliminated without notice.

2. A Chocolate theme was added without notice and inconsistent with the website.

3. The wait staff in both the Compass Rose (main) and Portofino (specialty) restaurants have provided horrific service, referencing

a. "Minimal service" the first night
b. Waits of 30 and 20 minutes the second and third night just for bread and wine...forget about ordering
c. Waiters having private conversations...and in a non-English language...in front of English speaking guests.

4. The food quality being so poor "The new food vendor for Regent should (IMHO) be sent back from whence they came!"

5. The Regent tour program is being run to the detriment of passengers that chose private excursions.

6. The staff is generally very good, "Then, there is the rest of the staff..."

7. There was another power outage (this time only 15 minutes, but they are ubiquitous)

8. Brown water visited the suites yet again.

These issues are in addition to the serious vibration issues of the ship, its curious layout, etc.

And let's be clear there are many of the officers and higher level crew on Regent ships that have left or been asked to leave in the past months. You can say X or Y was wonderful; however, while to you his smile counted, his allowing the dining room to be run in a slipshod fashion and uneven fashion is not "wonderful".

So the staff and crew the passengers are exposed to clearly are not showing Five, or even Four, Star qualities and the Navigator languishes...while the Voyager and Mariner just had $40,000,000 of fix-ups that were sorely needed, but Mr. Conroy did not make happen.

And it would seem that the ship's below decks crew is either insufficiently trained, knowledgeable or motivated to actually fix the mechanical problems and/or the ship has been allowed to degrade beyond acceptable standards.

So, should these be reasons to ask someone to leave? If it was isolated, maybe, but it probably would be a bit harsh. However, that is not the situation. I had some of the identical issues years ago. And, if you read people's comments, the issues are cruise, after cruise, after cruise.

It is now two months after Mr. Conroy's letter and - forgetting Regent established the new undefined standard of Six (again count 'em) Six Star Luxury - the attitude on the ships is not good...as the service reflects. (I do hate to paint with a broad brush because I am sure there are some excellent crew...probably frustrated, but still wanting to do the best they can, even if they haven't been trained properly.)

The point is that few on the ships give a damn. They were not properly trained. They are bitter from poor working conditions and inconsiderate treatment. The management is lazy and unwilling to do their jobs...or possibly have such poor habits so ingrained that they don't know the correct way to do things. In short, confirmed by Mr. Conroy's own words, the problem is systemic.

I hate to ask the obvious, but "Why would you want to retain management that doesn't correct or properly motivate crew that can't serve a meal and is rude to the guests onboard?"

As many of you know, I have built, managed and represented superyachts in addition to my cruise industry work. With a good crew you can turn things around almost instantly. It will not be perfect, but it will be incredibly better. At the Genoa Yacht Charter Show a few years ago I had a yacht present that just the year before was considered by everyone to be one of the worst yachts in the superyacht industry. I fired the captain and some chosen upper crew and re-started...with young, enthusiastic crew. And, I insulated them from their perceived nemesis: The Owner. They became so motivated that yacht brokers actually said that their enthusiasm forced them to revisit the yacht and they were thrilled that they did. It was transformed!

Take it from me first hand, when the crew is antagonistic to an owner/management, there is nothing you can do to make the situation right. That crew carries with them a lead weight that effects everything from they way they walk to the way they think about their job to their being open to trying to do something a different way. Honestly it is not about words. It is about actions And those actions are not about telling someone to do something, it is about doing it yourself...and remembering that you are no better than anyone, whether it be the captain or the crew member cleaning toilets at 3AM.

Mr. Conroy I must ask when was the last time you had a beer out of a bottle sitting in the crew bar at 2AM? When was the last time you went with a stewardess and asked her to personally show you (not tell you, but show you) the things about her job that bother her? I fear I know the answer. It lies in your open letter and in the fact that the product has not changed...not a bit.

Let me be clear, Regent Seven Seas Cruises can be turned around and can be turned around quickly. It is done with Motivation, Training and Caring. Heavy on the "Caring"

ManGenius is no longer the New York Jets coach. Colin Vetch is no longer with NCL. Isn't time to think about the Regent Seven Seas product and how to really make it change for the better?

The entire luxury cruise industry needs it.