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.