Thursday, January 29, 2009

Seabourn: The Devil (and Quality) is in the Details

There has been a bit of a discussion in some of my recent posts about Regent and my appreciation of the start of what appears to be significant changes. Some have felt my comments are nit-picking (my words) or "negative".

Today I read the most recent post on the Seabourn Odyssey blog and have copied a good bit of it here, to show that nit-picking is, in fact, a good thing when your desire is to have the best of the best; not the average marketed to be the best (which I am hopefully going to be able to say is the "Old Regent" way vs. the "New Regent/Old Radisson" way.)

Adam Snitzer, Vice President of Marketing for Yachts of Seabourn, reports from the Miami headquarters as the Seabourn Odyssey build takes on yet another form. “I’m often stunned by the number of details that need to be covered when bringing out a new Seabourn yacht. And, I’m always amazed by the intense focus the hotel operations team put on all of those innumerable details.

Take menus, for example (not the actual decisions about which dishes to serve. That will be the subject of another blog post.) I was recently in a meeting where the hotel operations team was presenting their vision of how the menus should look – the sort of paper they would be printed on, the number of pages, the size, and the covers. The options are dizzying.

There are literally hundreds of different colors and textures of leather for menu covers. And, with the variety of the dining venues on Odyssey, there’s also a desire to “mix things up a bit” from restaurant to restaurant. So some of the final choices are truly one- of-a-kind presentations, meant to intrigue and delight guests from the moment they enter each dining venue.

In the end, The Restaurant will get a stylish black on black leather treatment, which will elegantly match the décor and lighting of the room. The Colonnade will receive a special card and holder that is meant to evoke the ocean itself. The Patio Grill menus will match the teak decking. And Restaurant 2 is meant to be a surprise, so I won’t tell you. You’ll just have to come onboard to find out.”

With that sort of attention to detail, I think having a good cup of coffee served in your suite or by a waiter anywhere on the ship, rather than you walking to from a coffee machine midship on Deck 9, will be pretty easy to come by.

How the menus are presented may mean nothing to some, but to me it is an indicator of what is to be expected. And what I expect on Seabourn...better what Seabourn expects...is luxury.

Fincantieri Shipyards in Trouble, Repositioning for Success or Both?

Fincantieri is the Italian government controlled company which owns and operates a number of Italian shipyard involved in the construction of both cruise ships and superyachts.

Last week Fincantieri was "forced" (not my word) according to Lloyd's List, the preeminent shipping publication, to deny that it had lost as cancelled the contract to build the second Oceania new build. This malstrom was apparently started by some local metalworkers unions over concerns the loss would adversely affect them. Fincantieri, however, remains fairly tight-lipped, as there is little question that there are ongoing discussions with Prestige Cruise Holdings over timing and price renegotiations.

Fincantieri is also subject to pressure because the superyacht order book, in addition to the cruise line order book, is getting scarily thin. Orders are beign cancelled, others delayed and new orders just are not happening. Because Fincantieri has put so much effort and money into getting its previously old and unused shipyards up and running...and then expanding its facilities further...just to keep up with the demand...is faced with the bottom falling out and no sign that there will be a quick recovery.

To that end, earlier this month Fincantieri chose not to exercise its option to increase its interest in the large ship repair facility Lloyd Werft (in Breman, Germany) and has apparently shut down talks to take over Grand Bahama Shipyard in the Caribbean; quashing its previous plans to become a worldwide ship buiilding and repair conglomerate. It did, however, complete its purchase of Manitowoc, a Wisconsin, USA based company that builds and repairs mid-sized ships for various branches of the US military.

With all of this swirling around, the Italian government announced two days ago that may soon approve the sale of a portion of its interest in Fincantieri to private interests. Obviously, what that does is provide Fincantieri with a quick boost of cash while aleviating pressure from the Italian government, which doesn't have the cash available to meet all of Fincantieri's present needs.

I am not sure if this is "the tip of the iceberg" or the beginning of a successful retrenching that may allow Fincantieri to eventually exploit the weaknesses the shipbuilding and repair industries are is suffering from. What I am sure is that this is but the beginning of the story.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Fresh Reports Regarding Regent Seven Seas Post-Refurbishment Abound (Note: Some Interesting Discussion in the Comments)

It seems like every day I am receiving Google alerts about yet another review, blog or travelogue by someone currently on a Regent cruise. My guess is that Regent is trying to quell some of the bad news of late by exposing chosen writers to write about their experiences...or at least encourage those that do posts things on the internet to write about its ships. I am sure that part of the plan is to highlight and market the recent refurbishments on the Voyager and Mariner.

Some of the reviewers are quite observant, while I do get a sense that some tiptoe around any controversy. One writer, for Cruise Critic, seems very nice (and I do enjoy reading the comments), but it is clear that this person has never been on a luxury cruise, so I wonder what the standards and expectations are. (Compared to Line A this is outstanding...but Line A is mass market).

That said, first, the bad news: When reading these reviews and, to be sure, posts on message boards, one thing which is very clear is that Navigator is the bad stepsister. She has reports of electrical failures, significant vibration, maintenance issues, serious service lapses and inconsistent food. She also is not scheduled for refit work until April 2010. One previously die hard supporter of Regent started off his posts singing Regent's praises, but left his cruise just filling unfulfilled and missing something. Therefore, as I have been saying for quite some time, absent something special or unique...

Now, the good news: The reports on the new public spaces are very good. There now are splashes of color and class rather than more of monotone blue. All I have read are praises and the photos I have seen appear to support the positive comments.

The only criticism I have consistently read of relates to the substitute chairs in the main dining rooms (Compass Rose) which are bulky and narrow; one person observing that some people squeeze themselves into the chairs, while others comment they are difficult to move. This should be the worst thing about any cruise, so unless you really need the space, I would look past the issues and enjoy the living room feel.

Prime 7, if you are into American Steakhouse cuisine (I find it hard to use a French term to describe that menu, but I just did), has been getting good reviews for the quality of its meats and portion sizes. Some of the more elegant menu items, however, may need some tweaking...or just aren't consistent with the American steakhouse palate.

Deck furniture is also receiving high marks, though some comments about there needing to be more lounges have to be weighed against the complaints that Regent is not stringent enough about removing towels and "placeholder" books/bags. Chair hogs on a luxury line hopefully is not a comment on a lowering of passenger standards.

One change that baffles me is the praise of the Coffee Corner. To me that is a mass market concept. On a luxury line, a fancy coffee machine should not be the focus; a waiter should be. On Celebrity Cruise Lines they have Cova® Café di Milano "Relax while enjoying a cappuccino and a European pastry with a friend at the Cova Café. Featuring Cova liqueurs, chocolates, and fresh pastries, this jewel offers a scrumptious taste of decadence." Of course, on Celebrity it is an extra charge, but the point is that on Regent the offering is inferior.

The one area I am holding out further comment on is service. I know Regent is open about its working to make this better. While some of the changes should be easily instituted, sometimes bad habits or poor training takes a bit longer. Since the refurbishments were not designed to address service, but just happened to be noted as an issue I will leave it for another day.

More Bad News for Cruise Value Center Customers: They Have Another Problem - Prime Travel Protection Protects No More!

On November 13, 2008 I wrote about Cruise Value Center closing its doors (http://goldringtravel.blogspot.com/2008/11/cruise-value-center-shuts-its-doors.html).  Today the company that insured many of the Cruise Value Center clients has gone into liquidation and is probably going to file for Chapter 7 bankruptcy (i.e. no chance of recovery).

According the ASTA, American Society of Travel Agents, in a notice today:

Prime Travel Protection, a travel insurance company based in Arvada, Colo., announced that it has initiated a liquidation of services, effective Jan. 26, 2009. A statement on the company's Web site indicates that customers will be receiving written communication relating to the processing and resolution of claims and that all inquiries will be handled by legal counsel or court appointed trustee. According to Travel Weekly, Prime Travel Protection President Jerry Watson stated that the company is looking at a Chapter 7 bankruptcy or self-liquidation with a trust receivership, claims will be handled through the bankruptcy court or the trust, and funds to settle claims would come from liquidating assets.



Customers who used a credit card to purchase a policy from Prime Travel Protection and determine that their policy is no longer valid may contact their credit card company to dispute the charge. Under the Fair-Credit Billing Act, cardholders have 60 days from the time they receive the billing statement on which a charge first appears to refuse payment for services not rendered. Instructions for doing so appear on the back of all credit card statements. Even if a customer has already paid the charge, or if the 60-day window noted above has passed, it is still advisable to request a credit for the charge....Customers who purchased travel insurance from Prime Travel Protection and have not yet traveled should consider obtaining alternate insurance coverage, if applicable. 

Prime Protection Travel's website merely states:

Prime Travel Protection, Inc. has initiated an orderly liquidation of services, effective Monday, January 26, 2009.


All inquiries will be handled by legal counsel and/or court appointed trustee.

We regret to inform you of this decision, however it was undertaken after consultation with our professional advisors.

You will be receiving written communication relating to the process and resolution of your claim.
 
In short, if you paid for Prime Travel Insurance and have not yet traveled, you probably don't have insurance, but may be able to recover the premium you paid for the insurance if you paid with, and dispute the charge through, your credit card.  You will need, however, to obtain alternative insurance.  (Those with pre-existing conditions or within the penalty period, this may create additional issues for you so be careful before - and what - you purchase.)

If you already have a claim pending with Prime, I would assume your chances of a recovery is slim.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Seabourn is Limiting Discounts on Close-In Sailings

As I warned a few days ago, don't expect many of the deep discounts on Seabourn...and most certainly don't look for them on close-in sailings.  Through April there is only one cruise (other than the transatlantics) that has a discount over 30% from the brochure fares and many are actually discounted less than is set out in Seabourn's primary brochure that was printed in April 2008.


Yes, there are some sailings where Seabourn offered some incredible savings, but it may be the time to start looking at the Seabourn cruises you want to take rather than waiting around to see if you can find a great deal on a cruise. 
Heck, its cold out there.  Doesn't the thought of Asia, South America,  the Caribbean...or even a Transatlantic sound good?

First Hand Account of The "Cheeky" Pirate Incident Involving Oceania Nautica

Back on December 2, 2008 I wrote about my displeasure with the hype surrounding the pirate incident involving the Oceania Nautica. It is not that piracy in the Gulf of Aden is not a serious issue - it is, but rather that the media prostituted the incident to sell papers and clicks and commercials instead of accurate information.

I previously posted that I had a client on this ship, but did not want to mention names...even though I saw her name emblazoned on the front page of USA Today with a caption about "Cheeky Pirates". Well, yesterday my client, Wendy Armitage, posted her report of the incident as a comment to my December 2, 2008 posting, "Piracy and Cruise Ships - Reality vs. Hype" (http://goldringtravel.blogspot.com/2008/12/piracy-and-cruise-ships-reality-vs-hype.html) and I wanted to make sure it was readily available for all of you to read. Here it is:

Having been on board the Nautica when it was “attacked” by pirates, and been interviewed and reported worldwide, I believe I am in a position to comment.

When we boarded Nautica, we were advised of the pirates and told of the actions that would be taken should anything occur.

When the captain announced that suspicious boats were approaching we all knew what was expected of us. We were asked to move inside, and stay low (in case the sonic guns were activated). The ship then speed up, and quickly left the pirate boats behind.

The Captain and crew acted calmly and professionally throughout the incident, and at NO TIME did we feel in any sort of danger.

The pirates were young men in small boats powered by outboard motors. There were about four of these little boats near the ship, and even though shots were fired, it was doubtful they were firing at the ship.

In reality there was no way any of these men could have boarded our ship. It had high pressure water running down the sides and sonic guns at the ready should they get too close.

When we arrived at Muscat we were interviewed by the Associated Press and my comment “We did not think that the pirates would be cheeky enough to attack a cruise ship” made headline news. The press kept asking if we were scared or frightened, to which we all replied NO.

The whole situation was over very quickly and it certainly hasn’t made me think twice about cruising in that part of the world again.

Thank you Wendy for sharing your experience and your perspective.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Mark Conroy Speaks About Regent Seven Seas Cruise's Highest Prices in the Industry

Sometimes it is just better to say nothing.  It is a hard lesson to learn.  Before writing this post I thought about not saying anything.  But then I thought, "I am not going to say anything I haven't said before.   All I am doing is confirming its accuracy by an irrefutable source."

As you know I have long complained that Regent Seven Seas Cruises charges the highest prices in the industry and does not provide the true luxury experience that justifies them.  I also looked cautiously at the new "inclusive tour" policy, noting that having 4 buses of passengers going to what used to be visited by 1 or 2 buses, changes the tour experience from a luxury one to a mass-market one...assuming the passengers aren't put off by paying for group tours when they prefer the luxury of private tours and the tours are not otherwise compromised in quality.

Mark Conroy, President of Regent Seven Seas Cruises just gave an interview to Travel Weekly which was posted today on the internet.  In it he states that Frank Del Rio, head of Prestige Cruise Holdings stated, quoting Mr. Conroy, "Our prices look higher than everybody else's because everything is included.  If it is not explained, people will get sticker shock."

Let's review:  Regent provides nothing more than Silversea, SeaDream or Seabourn (other than the tours) and it has 700+ people versus one fifth or one half the number of people.  It has admitted and is now working on its service and cuisine issues which are not at the levels they should be.

So, I ask the question:  If Regent's prices "look higher than everybody else's" and it is not providing anything of significant value more, what is the motivation for me - as a responsible travel agent trying to assure my clients that they will, in fact, be provided with the highest quality cruise experience their dollars will allow - to sell Regent over Seabourn?  Could it be anything other than a selfish motive of earning a higher commissions?  I am befuddled!

But, alas, there is more that Mr. Conroy had to say.  He claims that discounting "does not go well with the luxury product."  Until the past few months I would have strongly supported that comment if the word used was "Sale".  In fact, I do believe that when the economy rebounds the luxury market will be the first to reduce the use of the word, "Sale".  BUT (don't I always have one?!) I must ask you, "Have you have ever paid Brochure Rate for a cruise?"  Let me answer:  NEVER.  The reason:  No one does...ever.  Why?  Because everyone...even luxury market clients...likes a discount.

Mr. Conroy goes further, stating:  "Discounting is basically a marketing plan that went wrong."  Huh???? The last time I looked every single Regent cruise shows a discount.  Every one!

So, rather than turn Regent Seven Seas into a premium line that prices itself as a very expensive "package", I would suggest maybe, just maybe, you start asking the questions:  How much extra would you pay per day for drinks and gratuities?  A suite vs. a cabin?  A few tours? 

This is where I have learned it is better to say nothing.  You already know the answer!

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Oceania Cruises - Comfortable In Its Own Skin

I haven't written much about Oceania Cruises. I guess, in part, is because its new sister (Regent) has so preoccupied my thoughts.

Oceania is a solid performing cruise line that consistently does what it does well and without pretense of being something it is not. Oceania is not, and does not pretend to be, a luxury cruise line. While it may well qualify as luxury when compared to some mass market lines, it fairly and accurately identifies what makes a line a luxury line and says, "We do lots of things very well, but we don't do X or Y."

Before discussing what Oceania doesn't do, I want to mention what it does well. Its mid-sized ships (684 passengers) have many excellent itineraries, excellent and happy multicultural crew, solid cuisine available at four no-charge open-seating venues (and a pool grill) and an upscale ambiance with a strictly country club casual (i.e. no formal) dress code.

There are a number of wonderful amenities such as cabanas which can be hired for the day or for the entire cruise (which can be pre-booked if for the entire cruise), comfortable outdoor living room spaces and such.

Oceania is, most definitely, not a cruise line for children and it cautions that it is not designed for children. Have children cruised it? Of course..and there is no litany of reports of it being a problem. However, its 55+ demographic (though getting younger) is seen as a positive. Just take note of it.

While the top cabins are spacious and have very nice amenities, the standard cabins (Penthouse to Veranda to Oceanview) are fine and well appointed, but really do not have anything special to note. The bathrooms are rather small. They are not suites (about 35-40% smaller, in fact) and, hence, one of the luxury requirements is just not there for most onboard.

Also, you pay as you go for drinks of most sorts (coffees, espresso, etc. are complimentary). For some this is a negative, but for others they are happy to only pay for what they drink rather than shell out a premium just so they don't have to sign. (Personally, signing checks don't bother me in restaurants or at the club, so it doesn't bother me on a cruise.) This has become another luxury requirement Oceania cannot, and doesn't want to, check off. (Crystal takes the same approach and it a luxury line; so there goes that one!)

Oceania charges $12.50 per day per person for gratuities.  The preferred method is charging your shipboard account as with open seating your waiters may be dfferent at every meal.  Again, other than Crystal, this is another non-luxury line difference as most have gratuities included.

The crew to passenger ratio is not what it is on, say, Seabourn and the polish may not therefore be at quite the same level, but I rarely hear of this being a deal-breaking issue. Related to that, you will have 683 fellow passengers, which is 50-250% more than you will find on most luxury ships (Regent and Crystal being exceptions), but there are quite a number of attractive public spaces to spread out those bodies.

So if you would love to cruise a luxury line, but can't afford it or justify the expense and are willing to compromise on the size of your cabin, Oceania with its interesting itineraries, consistent crew and solid cuisine just might be worth giving some serious consideration.

Oceania is, plain and simple, comfortable in its own skin.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Regent Seven Seas Announces Plan For Big Improvements

I know I seem to be beating on Regent Seven Seas Cruises and that, at times, it just seems unfair.  So with this post I am conflicted.  Do I cheer for Regent's below mentioned commitments to improve its product or do I rehash what I have been saying for years:  Regent does not deliver what it promises...and at industry high prices?

On the operational side of things:

Cancellation Fee - Regent charges a $200 "Administration Fee" for every canceled booking.  The concept baffles me and I think insults the client.  I never charge a fee and think it is repugnant to what the travel industry does.  Obviously Regent is feeling the heat on this, so they have converted this charge to a future cruise credit.  So, you don't get the $200 back unless you book another Regent cruise. It is improvement, but just seem cheap; especially for a luxury product.

Shore Excursions have a history of disappointment on Regent.  Back when it was Radisson, the tours would a great value, both in price and experience.  Then things changed.  I do not need to catalog the consistently disappointing experiences I and others have had or the shoddy manner in which Regent's tour desk and executive offices have handled the disappointed and disgruntled passengers, other than to say, "ripoff" and "abuse" are two words that come to many people's minds.  With the new Regent "tour inclusive" program (for select 2009 cruises and all 2010 cruises), Regent is promising the same quality tours and no packed buses.  As noted, I am not sure this is a good thing.  Not only does it make you pay for tours you do not want to take (and I am sure there are many that will not take them), it sets things up for three or four buses to head toward a destination that previously only one or two would (degrading the tour experience to one similar to that found on a mass market line) and, of concern, sets up a situation where the heretofore problematic tour desk responds with "Hey, it was free, so what do you want me to do about your problem?" [To be sure, this may seem unfair, but there is an old say, "Fool me once, shame on you.  Fool me twice, shame on me."  I would much prefer that Regent fix the tour problems and then expand it, rather than expand it and hope the problems resolve.  We shall see.]

Regent is taking back its crew hiring, so it will be doing it directly.  It is not taking this step because all is well.  In fact, it has been repeatedly reported that crew have been expressing to passengers their concerns over the changes and what it mean.  Along this line, I am baffled how reports of how fantastic the crew is comes right along with how many service problems there are.  I am not sure if it is a situation where some cruisers just know how good service can be, so they assume Regent is providing top service, if it is cheerleading or if it just propaganda/marketing.  The fact, is that Regent has acknowledged a serious problem (and kudos for that!) and it will be addressing the problem aggressively (kudos for that too!), but alas, I must observe that there is no question that the service product UNDENIABLY has not been been consistently provided.  (I know my favorite reader of this blog will rate this post a "1" for speaking the truth, but alas all I can say is "Don't shoot the messenger" and, as may be the case, try a true luxury line (Seabourn or SeaDream, for example, and see the difference.)

Regent is also going to significantly increase its food budget.  Again, this speaks for itself...and it has been a long time in coming.  There are those that have raved about Regent's food, but I have been baffled by what comes out of the galleys.  Clearly Regent is owning up to this weakness as well...and changes are coming.  To be sure, throwing money at the problem is not the answer, but I think Regent get it and I greatly look forward to the improvements once planned and implemented by the right staff.  Please keep in mind that food is very subjective.  I, personally, do not go "Ohhhh and Ahhhh" over an enormous slab of beef staring at me from an oversized plate as some have raved about at the new Prime 7.  While some love that stuff, to me it is not a gourmet experience.  Give me an elegantly prepared piece of beef with a beautiful presentation.  As for the main dining room, the experience is serious lacking and the changes are past due and greatly appreciated.

Regent's computer system is a mess and it is not known when it will get better.  Passengers are consistently complaining onboard, the travel agent booking site is down, and Reservations is struggling with various issues.  This will be correct, no doubt, but it is taking a long time and I am not aware of the end being in sight.  I do not know if the problems are related to upgrades or reorganization, but regardless it is something that should never take this long to address.

I also understand that Regent is going to be improving its lecturers and entertainment.  I really don't have any solid information on this.  One site says that Regent is going to be changing from the generally used concept of giving a guest lecturer a free cruise in exchange for a few lectures to a fee-paid approach.  That may work, but I have no idea what the budget is, what the topics will be, etc.  Also, I am not a big fan of the shows...mostly because they really aren't that good, even though I regularly hear (from most lines) that now they are making real improvements.  This is not a biggy for me and I really don't expect huge improvements.  What I would like to see is improvement in the consistency of the Themed Cruises.  One cruise is great, another is OK and yet another is a "no show".  I was on a wine cruise that was truly well done.  I was on a caviar cruise that was lacking in the extreme (and was really just a sales pitch for gimmicky flavored roe).  I know the recent chocolate cruise had virtually no chocolate.  Consistency of product is key here.

Hardware Improvements - The Voyager and Mariner have both undergone their public space improvements, installation of Prime 7 steakhouse, new deck furnishings, coffee, pizza and ice cream facilities, etc.  From what I am hearing the public space improvements are quite nice and make a big difference.  The only concerns are the reduction in number of lounges by the pool (due to the needed increase in dining tables - tough to balance this one!), and the chairs in the main dining room (Compass Rose) which are very heavy and uncomfortable for some (caused by the chairs which were ordered being delayed and, therefore substituted - It is hard to make a good decision when your options are limited due to the fault of others).  Also, with Mariner having its long-damaged pod replaced, I am interested to see if there will be changes in itineraries which reflect her increased speed.

As I final note on hardware, the Navigator (the little sister) is going to have to wait another 1 1/2 years for her facelift:  April 2010.  I do find it curious that it is pushed off so long.  Why have a ship which is not a consistent product? Cashflow is one thing, but it makes me wonder - yet again - if she is really going to stay a part of the Regent family. 

So, after writing much, I am very pleased with Regent's plans; its ownership of past problems; and, its optimism.  Now, I look forward to the execution of these plans and making me a believer...a believer that I once was!

Friday, January 16, 2009

Seabourn: New and Very Cool Itineraries Are Coming - Very Soon!

While I continue to read from some their skepticism as to what will happen with the Seabourn triplets after the new ships, starting with the Seabourn Odyssey, arrive, I am forced to hold back information that I know will put those "concerns" to rest.

What I can tell you is that, in addition to the information I posted here in October about Seabourn's major expansion into Asia as a year round destination (http://goldringtravel.blogspot.com/2008/10/seabourn-will-cruise-asia-year-round-in.html), the new itineraries (to the extent I know about them) are VERY COOL...and the expansion is not limited to Southeast Asia and the Orient.  (Hint:  You may just find cruising the Med again to be passé!)  

There are so many new ports and itineraries it is really going to take some studying to figure out not only where the ships will be, but what each port has to offer.  And, by the way, if you want to visit many of these ports, the only practical way will be on a Seabourn cruise.

As I write this it just hit me.  And I may be wrong, but it makes sense to me.  With all the new and exotic ports which are coming to Seabourn...or is that Seabourn is going to?...having a complimentary Seabourn Experience in each (which necessarily must be focused on larger groups) may not only be impractical; they may be impossible.  And, if Seabourn cannot do it right, it is not going to do it. 

Further, as to people wanting large group tours in small, exotic, ports I think Seabourn's thoughts (and guest conduct confirmation) is that higher quality, smaller group/individual, tours are going to be where the sophisticated traveler's desires are.  That may well be why Seabourn has so aggressively expanded its private tour operations.

So with the new itineraries probably being printed as I am writing this, it is time to look forward to some excitement; some good news; and, some extraordinary experiences in 2010.  (But don't forget about 2009 - there are plenty of rewarding cruises available for this year too!)

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Waiting for Last Minute Cruise Deals or Lower Prices For Your Preferred Cabin or Suite? You May Miss the Boat!

While all you have been hearing is news of new sales by the cruise lines, the fact is that while prices may be lower, passenger loads are actually increasing nicely and are, on some lines, even ahead of 2008.

Princess just sent out an email that the other day was the busiest booking day in the line's history.  SeaDream Yacht Club just stated in a conference call that it anticipates increasing its fares.  CLIA (Cruise Line International Association - the industry association) stated earlier this week that overall cruise line sales are up about 2.8% over last year.

To what extent this trend holds true for the luxury lines I am not sure.  Personally I am finding many Seabourn cruises this Spring to be very short on suites; one A2, a couple of A3s and such.  My cruise on the Spirit in September is essentially sold out.  Obviously that is not true for all cruises, but the sales are getting more bodies on the ships.  On the other hand, Regent is getting pretty aggressive as to added value while pretty much maintaining their "highest in the industry" pricing; Silversea is not seeing (from what I can tell) full ships, Crystal is apparently having light loads and Seabourn is running fairly aggressive discount promotions.

I have seen a definite trend toward less cruises, but for longer cruises with higher bottom lines.  Essentially my luxury clients are seeing "value" and, especially in rough economic times, "value" can be more important than price.  So rather than taking a one week cruise that last year would have cost $9,000, this year's similar cruise costs $6,000...so spending $12,000 for two weeks is such a great "value" makes the decision easy.

To be sure, I (and many travel agents) are spending almost as much time repricing previously booked cruises as booking new ones.  As a result I have figured out quite a few pricing strategies that can provide even greater "value" to my clients.  (I could let you know what they are, but then you wouldn't need me...at least as much!)

What I am wondering, and I have no data on this, is if the cruise lines (especially the inclusive luxury ones) are trading dollars for passengers, but are losing revenue because of the lower fares.  (Less passengers paying higher fares vs. More passengers paying lower fares)  On the mass market lines, the holy grail of onboard revenue plays a large part in revenues, so I can understand the discounting a bit more.  Only time will tell if luxury net revenues are up or down. 

But, if you are looking at cruising in 2009 I am getting the feeling that NOW is the best time to book your cruise. 

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Some Perspective on Commissions: My Article in The Yacht Report

Reflecting on my post of yesterday concerning the conflict between Regent Seven Seas Cruises doing what I unquestionably think is the right thing by effectively eliminating Non-Commissionable Fees (NCF's) and its clearly expressed motivation for doing so (paying off travel agents so they shift business to Regent not based upon the quality of the product, but the additional money that will line the travel agents' pockets), I felt it important to expand on the subject.

It is important, to my mind, because (a) it baffles me why someone would so blatantly admit the improper motive; and, (b) it is a pervasive tactic that invades all commissionable businesses and as such, consumers need to not only be aware of the practice, but protect themselves from any possible adverse effect of same. 

In April 2008 I wrote an article in The Yacht Report (the leading magazine of the luxury yacht industry) about the ethics associated with commissions in the superyacht industry.  I thought it might give those that think I am picking on Regent's philosophy something to think about:

Along those lines, I make it substantively known to all of my clients - and to all my readers - what my opinions and factual findings are as to each and every cruise line.  And if I can do better, or get more, from Line A I am going to let you know that and provide you with better pricing, suites, etc. as a result...But I always leave it up to my clients to make the final decision.  In other words, a travel agent must be accurate and allow the client to make an informed decision; not skew them for a few extra bucks.

For example, one client chose Regent over my recommendation of a similar Seabourn cruise.  Upon her return she said that the cruise exceeded her expectations...but only because I gave her an accurate description of the differences from Seabourn, so she was not faced with disappointment or frustration; only "Yes, that is what Eric said.".  Her next cruise:  Seabourn.

All the cruise lines should drop or limited the NCF's, but they should do it for the right reason.  If that is not the motivation, don't encourage it to be for the wrong one. 

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Regent Seven Seas To Give Travel Agents Commissions on "Non-Commissionable Fees"

In a move specifically designed to encourage travel agents to move their clients over to Regent Seven Seas Cruises, the cruise line announced today that it has dropped all Non-Commissionable Fees other than for some limited items such as airfares. 

What does this mean for you, the cruising public?  It may mean something or it may mean nothing.  Let me explain. 

Cruise fares are generally broken down into 3 parts:  base cruise fare, NCFs and taxes.  The term Non-Commissionable Fees started to be used a few years ago when the use of the term "Port Charges" came under fire...and caused some legal issues...because passengers that missed a port started demanding the "port charges" be refunded; and then it was discovered that "Port Charges" were not only charges made by the port.

Over time cruise lines started to use the NCFs as a way to reduce travel agent commissions.  While there always has been a mystery as to how NCFs are determined, two things are certain:  It is more than "port charges" and there is no commission paid.  So what happens is that the cruise line, especially in a time of ever reducing prices, increases the percentage of the total cruise fare which are categorized as NCFs and therefore drive down the amount of commission paid to the travel agent.  [One mass market line (which I do not believe I have ever written about) got so aggressive with NCFs that travel agents were literally looking at commissions of less than $100 on veranda cabins on 7 day cruises...before any agency discounts were given.]

So with Regent eliminating the NCFs the travel agent booking a Regent cruise will, theoretically, receive more commissions.  But, in reality, it does not really amount to huge dollars per cruise.  For example, if a travel agent is making a 10% commission (industry standard base rate) and there are $500 in NCFs suite, it amounts to $50.00 in additional commissions. 

To be fair, Regent is not the first luxury cruise line that has tried to "sweeten the pot" for its travel agents in this struggling economy.  A few months ago Silversea did a similar thing, in a different way, by giving travel agents a 25% commission on certain sailings.

My concern is this:  Why would an honorable travel agent push a client onto a Regent cruise when the one the client desires is on Silversea or Seabourn or Azamara?  Why would a travel agent do it for $50...or $100...or for any amount?  Yes we are in business to earn a living, but to me the key is that we are to "earn" that living; not dupe clients into taking cruises that really do not meet their desires!

I do appreciate that Regent is trying to find a legitimate way to give a nod and a boost to its travel agents...and that is appreciated.  What is of concern to me is that the motivation.  As Mark Conroy, President of Regent, is quoted in Travel Weekly as stating, "We think it gives the agent one more reason to sell us versus the other guy."

I am sorry, for me it does not.  I know it may seem I am oh so skewed toward Seabourn, but try this on for size:  While Regent is trying to increase sales by lining the travel agents' pockets with a little bit more cash, Seabourn is running 60% off sales on its slower selling cruises...keeping more cash in its guests' pockets and generating more commissions for its travel agents through those sales.  (To be fair to Regent, it also has gone "tour inclusive" on some of its 2009, and it was just announced all of its 2010, cruises so there is added value for its guests as well.)

Finally, I do agree with Regent that there should not be any NCFs and most every travel agent will agree with me on this.  I hope all of the cruise lines drop the NCFs...or at least limited them to actual port charges.  But make no mistake, the motivation should be it is a good business practice; not a motivator to push clients one way or another.

Seabourn One Week Sale - Ends January 19, 2009

I really do not want to turn my blog into a website filled with little more than cruise line sales, but I am receiving requests for the information and, therefore, I am posting it for all to see.

If you click in the image below you will see the latest Seabourn One Week Sale which ends on January 19, 2008.  To be sure, Seabourn is having some very good success with the sales, so you may want to take a look...as the lower categories sell out quickly.
Also, for those of you who think, "I will just wait until closer to when I want to sail as there probably will be space and a better rate" a word or two of caution.  As I mentioned, the Seabourn sales are doing quite well and, as Seabourn has only 108 suites per ship on the triplets, it doesn't take much to tip the balance to a full ship.  Also, at this sort of discount, you have to ask yourself what could possibly be a lower price and, if you think it might go lower, just how much benefit is there is hoping for a A suite at a further reduced price versus having to purchase an A3 t a significant cost increase because your strategy did not work out.

Any questions?  Call (877)2GO-LUXURY or email me at eric@goldringtravel.com


Monday, January 12, 2009

Paul Gauguin Cruises - Open for 2010 Sailings in French Polynesia and Beyond

I received word today that Paul Gauguin Cruises has officially opened its books for 2010.  It has a number of offers ranging from "free airfare" to "2 for 1 + free airfare" and a more diverse choice of itineraries than has been available while the ship has operated under the Regent Seven Seas Cruises moniker.

Some of the highlights are:

- Sixteen 7-night departures featuring Tahiti and Society Islands;
- Six 10-night and two 9-night voyages of Tuamotus and Society Islands;
- Five 11-night Cook Islands adventures;
- Four 14-night sailings featuring the Marquesas Islands;
- 13- and 15-night discoveries of Fiji, Tonga and the Cook and Society Islands;
- Two 14-night cruises featuring New Zealand, Tonga and the Cook and Society Islands

2010 Special Departures include:

- January 10, 2010 - President's Cruise - where guests can sail with Paul Gauguin Cruises President David A. Giersdorf (which I guess is sort of an inaugural cruise);

- May 22, 2010 - Jean-Michel Cousteau Cruise, featuring environmental advocate and son of the legendary Jacques Cousteau. 

- June, July, August and December 18 and 27, 2010 - Jean-Michel Cousteau's Ocean Futures Society Ambassadors of the Environment Youth Program.  (I have experienced this personally and it is, by far and away, the best family program at sea...for the kids and the parents.  It is a great way to learn some marine biology and local cultures with true experts while have a great time...and in a small group.)

- December 18 and 27 - Holiday Cruises where guests will savor a different kind of "White Christmas" on the white sand beaches of the Society Islands and Tuamotu Atolls.

For more information, email me at eric@goldringtravel.com , call (877) 2GO- LUXURY or visit the new website at http://www.pgcruises.com/.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Regent Seas Seas Cruises Will Reduce, And Keep, Its Fleet At Three

Regent has confirmed that its new ship is now further from reality than it had been.  Granted with the present economy it is not surprising (and, to be sure, may well make some good economic sense), but there was so much "talk" about it by Regent that its now discussing the mothballing of the ship  is of worthy note.

The new ship was originally one of grandeur.  Then, after Regent was sold to Apollo Management and folded into Prestige Cruise Holdings, the new ship was no longer to a one-off, but rather a modification of the second of its new sister company's (Oceania Cruise Line) soon to be delivered ship...but with different public spaces and larger suites. 

That, of course, pushed to anticipated delivery date from 2009 (something I said would never happen anyway) to April 2010 at best.  In order for that date to be met, Regent (er, Prestige Cruise Holdings) would have to have exercised the option by September 2008; something that did not happen.

It is reported that Regent is focused on completing the refurbishment of the Mariner (having just finished the work on the Voyager) and then figuring out what type of work it may do on the Navigator in 2010.  According to Andrew Poulton, director of communications for Regent, until the cost of construction, currency exchange rates and the economy improve, plans are not going to move forward.  That, obviously, could mean a long wait for now.

Having its relationship with the Paul Gauguin ending at the end of this year, my guess is that Regent would have preferred a new ship and dumping Navigator, but that is not an option anymore.  So by the end of 2009, barring something unanticipated, Regent will be a three ship company...with nothing "exciting" on the hardware front expected until 2011. 

That may be a bit of a challenge for a luxury product.  Seabourn has been extremely successful with older hardware due to its superlative service and cuisine.  I am concerned, however, that Regent - which has been admitted struggling with inconsistent service and cuisine - may not be able to pull off such an accomplishment, even if it markedly improves because it must service 700+; not 200.  We shall see.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Lepisto Named President of SeaDream Yacht Club

Consistent with prior announcements (Oh, how I love that word, "consistent"), it was announced today that Bob Lepisto is the new president of SeaDream Yacht Club.  Mr. Lepisto has been with SeaDream from its 2001 outset.

“I was part of the original team that put the whole program together and built the product alongside Atle, Larry and other team members,” Lepisto told Travel Pulse. “We have a strong team here in Miami and in Oslo, which will remain intact. Business will move on and remains very good. We completed 2008 with record-breaking numbers. Not surprisingly, 2009 is down a little, but still looks to be a very good year for us.”


No major changes are planned, he said. “We will retain the focus on the yachts we have and continue our extraordinary service and a focus on our very important past guests” . “We will continue the ‘it’s yachting, not cruising’ focus, because that constantly has to be reinforced so people can tell the difference. There are not a lot of major changes other than this announcement. I've hired most of the people here who have been part of the team since the start.”

While Larry Pimental stated his departure was caused by “fundamental disagreements with the principals of the organization”, Mr. Lepisto would not comment further noting that both Pimental and Atle Brynestad are friends of his.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Update on SeaDream Yacht Club - Smooth Seas and Stability Promised

According to industry publications, such as Seatrade, Atle Brynestad, CEO...again...has stated that SeaDream's bookings are strong and that while he expects some changes in titles and duties since Larry Pimental's departure, there will be no corporate shake up and that he considers SeaDream to be a "family".

Mr. Brynestad, former CEO of Seabourn, former chairman of Cunard and former board member of Carnival Corp., has stated that operations will stay in Miami, but that he will work primarily from Oslo, Norway (his home).  Personally, I am all in favor of the internet, telecommuting, emails and the like, but concepts like  "hands on", "putting face to it", "having your ear to the ground (water)", etc. are very important concepts in business.  We shall see how this plays out.

He also claims that SeaDream's 2009 bookings are slightly behind 2008's bookings (claimed to be a record year), but are still considered "normal".  He asserts this is, in large part, due to loyal past passengers rebooking.  Considering SeaDream's fine reputation, I have every reason to believe this to be true.

That said, I have no knowledge of SeaDream's measure of "bookings", but bookings based on passenger counts is far different from dollar volume or net revenues; especially in this time of significant discounts and cancel for any reason offers.  (As an example, while I was out in Lake Tahoe, claims of lift ticket sales being down "only" 10% was clearly an optimistic view, as I know the price per ticket was also down from $83 to $50 if you took one of the multi-day deals...a 40% discount.  So with actual tickets down 10%, but ticket revenues down 20-40%, the real picture is far more bleak.)  Personally, I think the departure of LP has to be related to such issues in some fashion, but I really don't know.

One thing that remains a mystery is why Larry Pimental left, if he still is an investor and where he goes from here.  Apparently both people are being very tight-lipped.  This suggests to me (putting my lawyer hat on) that they are negotiating something at the moment and have been instructed to say nothing.  A wise move.  I am sure it will all come out shortly.

Monday, January 5, 2009

And Now for Some Good News - Seabourn's First Wave of New Crew-in-Training Has Arrived

In its ongoing effort to put consistency of product above gimmicks, pricing and freebies, Seabourn has announced the its first wave of "cadets" from its Seabourn Academy have just boarded the Seabourn Spirit for intensive, hands on (or as Seabourn calls it "on-the-yacht"), training as the cruise line gears up for the launch of the Seabourn Odyssey.

As Seabourn explains it:

"So how does Seabourn continuously get honest, sincere and downright “gushing” reviews from their past guests? Well, they take training very seriously, and ensure their staff is completely versed on Seabourn’s incredibly high customer service standards. But with Seabourn’s expansion and the rise of luxury cruises in general, it’s challenging to always find the “best of the best.”

As a result, Seabourn created its own Seabourn Academy. Because Seabourn’s training is centered on close-up management and on-the-job experience, the training includes shoreside orientation and a rigorous three-week training period on one of the existing sisters. After they graduate, the cadets are assigned to Odyssey, Spirit, Pride or Legend. They will go aboard all three Seabourn yachts in small groups over a three month period. By the end of 2009, another 200 new recruits will have completed a Seabourn specific training program that will prepare them for a prosperous future and career with Seabourn."

It is refreshing to hear how Seabourn is working so hard to proactively assure a consistency of excellent service while the President of Regent Seven Seas felt obliged to write an open letter apologizing for its service failures and its present efforts to corrects its systemic problems and while Silvesea felt compelled not to challenge the accuracy of this blog about its service decline, but to purportedly explain it away.

Will Seabourn's service be perfect and without error during this training period? No way. Will the cadets make errors? Of course, but probably only once. While no guest wants to be part of a training program, the fact is every time a new crew member arrives on board, there is a training process which the guests are subjected to...as is true in all service business from restaurants to law firms. The key is for excellent proactive training rather than reactive corrections.

Pamela Conover, President of Seabourn, in marked contrast to the statements of the executives of Regent and Silversea, wrote to all past Seabourn guests on December 11, 2008 and stated:

"I continue to have abiding faith in the redemptive power that travel brings to people's lives. I honestly believe that it is one of the most important elements of an enlightened life. It enhances perspective, bestows knowledge and produces heightened awareness of our place in the great family of humanity...

I urge you, especially at this time, to give yourselves the gift of travel, understanding that life is to be lived and that each day is an opportunity that comes but once. It would be our privilege to assist you in enriching your life, by making your travel dreams come true."

I don't know about you, but I most certainly feel more inspired (rather than compelled) to travel after reading that; and knowing the effort Seabourn makes to assure your "travel dreams" bring you the "redemptive power".

Or we can discuss cut rate fares on the lesser desired cruises with inconsistent faux luxury service and food.

Oceania Cruises "Historic Price Reductions" - Some Incredible Deals!

On the heels of its sister company, Regent Seven Seas Cruises, shaking things up with reduced fares and inclusive shore excursions, Oceania Cruises has selected dozens of cruises where it has slashed its prices, reduced the 3rd and 4th passenger fares and added free air.

Rather than list them, I have attached flyers setting forth the cruises and starting fares below:

I see some interesting sailings, but ironically...or not, the best sailing (of course the ones my clients have booked) are not on the lists!

Pimental Departs Sea Dream Yacht Club (And What is Old is New Again).

It has been reported today on the Travel Agent Magazine website that the omnipresent Larry Pimental is stepping down as the CEO of SeaDream Yacht Club; a position he had held since 2001.  No reason has been given for his departure. When I have more information, I will post it. 

Atle Brynestad, the owner and chairman of SeaDream is assuming Larry Pimental's duties.  For those who may find it interesting, Mr. Brynestad founded Seabourn in 1987 and was the chairman of Seabourn for 10 years, acting as its CEO during its formative time. 

My readers may recall my post on October 29, 2008 http://goldringtravel.blogspot.com/2008/10/troubled-waters-on-luxury-cruise.html .  In it I stated, "Now SeaDream has announced a "Cancel Anytime Within 48 Hours of Departure and Get a 100% Credit" toward a future cruise within 18 months thereafter. This is, again, very scary...and SeaDream is quite a fine product. SeaDream had always prided itself on its charter schedule being its base. But charters are drying up as corporations are not making the same profits and perceptions of such expenditures are presently more negative then positive. Being a unique product it is not the easiest cruise experience to get people to consider and, honestly, not many travel agents even think about SeaDream as an option. With its new program, a more aggressive play on the new Crystal approach, SeaDream will keep your cash so that it operates today with a (hopefully) positive cash flow and worry about what cruise you take later. Clearly this short-term strategy is worrisome."


I don't know that these are factors in Mr. Pimental's demise - or decision (to be fair) - but I did see some  writing on the wall.

Regent Seven Seas Cruises - Complimentary Tours Included on 35 Sailings...A Truly "All Inclusive" Cruise Experience!

Just before the holidays I had mentioned Regent Seven Seas Cruises would be announcing it was going to be offering a number of cruises with shore excursions included.

What this affords you is the ability to have a truly "all inclusive" cruise experience. With Regent Seven Seas having a complimentary liquor policy (restrictions as to brands/vintages does apply), gratuities being included and, on these sailings, complimentary tours...and some with free airfare, you can literally pay for your cruise and not spend another penny!

Of course if you find the savings encourage you to visit the spa more often or make that purchase you otherwise would not have considered, all the better for you.

Here are the details: FREE Unlimited Shore Excursions on select 2009 voyages for NEW bookings made between 12/30/08 and 3/31/09. *


The 35 applicable voyages are:

ALASKA – Seven Seas Mariner - June 3, 10, 24; July 1, 8, 15; August 26; September 2

MEDITERRANEAN – Seven Seas Navigator - July 10, 17, 24, 31; August 7, 14; September 4, 11, 28;
October 16, 30; November 8

EUROPE AND THE BALTIC – Seven Seas Voyager - June 26; July 24, 31; August 7, 14, 21, 28; September 25

ASIA PACIFIC – Seven Seas Mariner - September 16; October 1, 17; November 1, 18; December 2

TROPICS – Seven Seas Navigator - December 18

*Terms and conditions: This program is available for new bookings only booked between 12/30/08 and 3/31/09. Existing bookings will be adjusted upon request only by reservations. All full fare guests are entitled to take one or more free shore excursions in a day, subject to availability. Each excursion has a maximum capacity assigned, and when that maximum capacity is met, the excursion will no longer be available. Each excursion is available on a first-come, first-served basis. Shore excursions can be pre-reserved at www.rssc.com 120 days prior to sailing, or booked onboard. Offer is NOT applicable to REGENT CHOICE, PRIVATE ARRANGEMENTS and ADVENTURES ASHORE excursions. Credits will not be issued to guests taking Private Arrangements or Adventures Ashore. Guests taking Regent Choice excursions will be charged a supplement. Credits will NOT be provided for non-use of the program or if an excursion is not available to book.

Here is some detail on each of the cruises (click on the photo to see it in a larger format):

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Postings on Cruise Message Boards and Blogs: The Difference Between Constructive Opinion and Personal Attacks

I have received a number of requests to comment on the post of someone ("Admiral Horatio Nelson" who says he is a former Regent Seven Seas Cruises employee) on Cruise Critic and Luxury Cruise Talk that were pulled.  I had said that I would post something, so here it is...

As many of you know I have very strong opinions on various topics and will not pull a punch when it comes to calling someone out for not telling the truth or if I think their perception is wrong or if they are cheerleading. 

What I won't do is engage in, or endorse, personal attacks against someone who has not posted their position or is not in the public eye...or deals with a situation not posted by someone.  To do so puts out possibly false or inaccurate information or violates someone's personal privacy.  That is, to my mind, far different from the Cruise Critic "You weren't there, so you are not allowed to comment" policy...especially when information from other sources is know.

I tried to find a way to edit the Admiral's comments as they do have some interesting perspectives, but they are really far too engaged in personal attacks against people that simply have no way to respond and also could be inaccurate (one's perception is one thing, but the comments made go beyond that).  Reading them, they could simply be designed to inflict injury on Regent Seven Seas Cruises or the named employees, rather than to discuss facts or ways to improve various situations they may exist.

That said, what I will say is, as I read the Admiral's comments, he asserts that the handling of employees changed markedly from the days of Radisson Seven Seas Cruises and became one focused on stifling crew input and solidifying one's position rather than bettering the product.  These opinions are actually very common in a very corporate structured entity; as it feeds on preserving oneself rather than improving the company ala General Motors, Wall St., etc.

The interesting thing is that the Admiral seems to be complaining that Regent's operations are being transformed into a part, or mirror, of Oceania's.  As you all know I wrote about the Oceanification of Regent months ago.  Unfortunately, the Admiral seems to conclude this is a bad thing, but when the personal attacks are stripped away, there is no substance to back up the outrage. 

While I actually do agree that Mark Conroy seems to be devolving into nothing more than a figurehead and that all the hype he previously provided about improvements, the new ship, etc. all seemed to be swept aside by Prestige Cruise Holdings and most of "his" people have left or be asked to leave, I do not necessarily come to the same conclusion that Oceanification is a bad thing.  I must honestly state that my initial impression was that it was not a good thing, but when things kept getting worse at Regent - in my opinion - change to better efficiencies, performance, crew training, etc. even if similar/the same as Oceania's is a good option.

Regent, by many standards, has been backsliding.  Even the sanitized Cruise Critic forum has become rather regularly filled with the complaints I mentioned - and was battered for - a year ago.  It was the basis, in part, for Mark Conroy to write his open letter on Cruise Critic and Luxury Cruise Talk.  So is change a bad thing?  I think not.

As I have stated, and as the Admiral does, and as Mark Conroy notes, the crew needs to be better trained and better cared for.  If that means changing Human Resource personnel (and I would strongly assert those that created the problem which is admittedly so vast rarely can be a major part of the solution...part of the retraining, possibly; but not the solution) and other areas of management, shipboard controls, etc., so be it.

But when having this discussion we can be upset, and even bitter (from job issues or passenger letdowns), we need to be civil and respectful.