Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Let's Get Back to Basics - Why Do We Do This Stuff????

The past few weeks have been a sort of a travel roller coaster.

I spent a fantastic two days on the Seabourn Odyssey marveling at what a fantastic ship she is; absolutely dumbfounded by how incredible the Seabourn staff, crew and executives pulled off a miracle after her horrifically late deliver and the shocking condition T. Marrioti left the ship in.

That was sandwiched in between two wonderful days in Venice with incredible views, outstanding stays at the Ca' Segredo Hotel, and my favorite meal of liver and onions in a little local restaurant as we watched a local man eat his meal, sleep for about an hour and then carry on as if all is normal (as he apparently does nightly). And it was coupled with my planning for a great family cruise on the brand new Celebrity Equinox visiting Israel, Egypt, Turkey, Greece and Italy at an absurdly low price. (What could be bad?)

And then I returned to complaints of chaos in the dining room of a Regent Seven Seas ship, demands for more "compensation" for non-compensable issues on a recent cruise, the absurdity of "Fire Sale" marketing by Silversea and, frankly, ridiculous marketing by Seabourn which I believe cheapens its product and name.

So I ask, "With many of the ships essentially full, WHAT THE HELL IS GOING ON?"

Before I answer that I want you to watch a short video from the owners of a new travel magazine AFAR, which I will be at the launch party for next month:



Cruises are supposed to be about travel; seeing new places and seeking out life-enriching experiences.

Cruises are supposed to be about cruise lines providing the traveler with excellent service (expectations adjusted accordingly dependent on price) and facilities to relax and recharge in while transporting us to the next life-enriching experiences.

Cruises are supposed to be about not seeking perfection or finding things to complain about, but rather the enjoyment of an overall experience.

Unfortunately it seems, as I was afraid would be the case (and which I have written about), the cruise lines cut rate pricing has created a monster...and it is a monster that many cruisers are feeding. I will get to the cruise lines in a minute, but first those feeding the monster.

When things are great the small misses (an unreplenished refrigerator or trying to get a second cup of coffee) are noted, but are weighted as rather petty in light of the entire cruise experience. Now, for some - not all - it "goes on The List". That list becomes the focus - or the game of "How I get a free cruise or big discount" - rather than why I went on the cruise to begin with.

You remember that sleeping man in the restaurant I spoke of earlier. I could have said, "That is outrageous! How dare they allow him to sleep away while I am trying to enjoy my dinner. My dinner is ruined." Instead I said, "What an interesting piece of life! Strange, but interesting. I must truly be in a local spot and what a treat it is to be able to enjoy (or tolerate...take your pick) this moment as if I lived in Venice. It makes my liver and onions taste, well, so uniquely Venetian."

Now there are those that will remember most the missing towel or overcooked fish, but they will actually be the ones that probably will forget they were on the cruise, first and foremost, to be travelers. They turned into the dreaded (by some) "dealmakers". It is all about the "deal".

I firmly believe this has come about, in large part, because over the past months the cruise lines have trained the cruising public that it is about the deal and not about the travel or life-enriching experiences.  After years of trying to make it clear that waiting until the last minute is not a good travel strategy, the cruise lines panicked and decided that more important than long-term price and quality integrity, there must be short term "fill the ships" cut-rate pricing and deals.  So all the effort of the past years to have product integrity has been effectively tossed out.  Add to that some cruise lines loss of cash positions causing changes that reduce the quality of their product. 

Regent has suffered this for a long time and, despite its good faith and concentrated efforts to correct the errors of its prior owners, it is a long process that involves far more than training dining room staff (if the shipboard management doesn't get it, how the heck are they going to train the staff properly?).  Add to that what is a now commonly reported complaint of people that don't normally cruise on open liquor ships are running a bit amuck, interfering with "travel"...and then The List begins and the "I need to be compensated" becomes the focus.

Then there is the Silversea approach (now being somewhat mimicked, but purely for marketing reasons, by Seabourn) of doing anything to get people on their ships.  Increase base prices slightly so that 60% discounts with free air can be offered...with onboard credits too!  They must be desperate, right?!  And then the thoughts of , "Gee, Silversea has cut back here or there.  It just isn't the same. I better start my list!"...placing all the neat stuff to the rear ("That is what I paid for, so why does that count?) and forgetting about the life-enriching travel.

This is followed by Seabourn's most recent marketing "One Week Sale" approach.  I swear it is like opening the newspaper or watching television and hearing a commercial for Macy's  (Lowest prices of the season!  Hurry, limited supplies!, etc.) or, worse, a commercial from a local automobile dealership (A Cadillac for only $200.  That's right, only $200. Of course the Cadillac is a 1984 Sedan deVille.)  Now Seabourn is pitching a $1,349 cruise with cruises selling for $5,499.  The ad doesn't tell you that the first cruise, at $270 a day, is for a historically very low demand 5 day cruise that may or may not become a charter or that the second one is  14 day cruise at a 45% higher per diem.  If the lines, especially Seabourn, treats its prospective guests in such a fashion, what is it that can be expected?...The List.

Now regardless of what the cruise lines are doing, in their various forms, it is incumbent upon the traveler to do that which they originally intended to do:  Travel.  Don't get sucked in.  The cruise lines will see their ways are wrong, but that does little for the guest that used to be thrilled despite the little errors and now has "The List".

Travel.