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 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 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 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 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!