Thursday, April 30, 2009

Ex-Silversea Execs Start Marketing Company

David Morris and Marilyn Conroy, who were recently fired from Silversea Cruises as the heads of marketing and sales have started a new venture, David Morris International which is going to market to the...yep...cruise industry.  Apparently Mr. Morris is going to be finding ways to have land and cruise vacations be more seamless; something he has asserted is lacking in the industry.

I must pause and wonder, with reports of Silversea's ships sailing consistently at less than 50% occupancy (actually less than 35% in some instances) and with a list of less than successful marketing strategies, who is it that is going to be purchasing these marketing services?  Frankly, I hear all to often that Silversea has lost its focus and the cruising public no longer understands what it is or what it is offering.

To be fair, that has continued after their departure when Silversea was going to impliment a children's program with heavily discounted fares, but the backlash before it was even announced caused it to be withdrawn.

We shall see.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Cruising With "Ugly Americans" Who Don't Know That They Are

One of my readers pointed out a thread on CruiseCritic where a rather infamous Regent poster commented that she is hesitant to cruise Silversea, but might change her mind if, in part, Silversea "perhaps ha[s] more people from North America on board"; noting she "prefer[s] luxury hotels and cruise lines that cater to Americans/Canadians".

While it is anyone's right to have this opinion and, let's face it, Ritz Carlton's around the world are designed as...well, Ritz Carltons...so you really have no idea where in the world you are while you are in the hotel (other than that you are at a Ritz Carlton), the fact is that from an international perspective it is xenophobic and insulting. 

Seriously, what gives anyone the "right" to visit someone else's home and declare, "Pretty building.  Interesting food.  Now, I am more comfortable with McDonald's and Holiday Inn, so how dare you not have these things!".  An overstatement possibly, but not necessarily.  The problem is, of course, that many Americans have blinded themselves to their insulting ways; possibly in part because our economies and militaries have so dominated that many Americans just assume our way is "better".

Back in the 1980's I took a trip down the Peruvian Amazon; much of it in a local dugout canoe.  This trip was made up of a small group, three of which were recently divorced women who decided that surviving the Amazonian jungle would provide them with proof of their worth.  Honestly, these women had absolutely no business being there.  Gently worn paths and single log "bridges" were destroyed as they fell, collapsed and rolled over this very rustic environment.  And our guide was  local native (who was just a gem) and it was very hard work trying to deal with (i.e. pick up, hold up, assist) overweight and uncoordinated women who weighed literally three or four times what he did.

After a few days thankfully the women realized camp was the place for them, but the American habits crept in...and the complains of no running water, no hot water, unfamiliar foods, etc. were becoming omnipresent.  This, to my great advantage, also resulted in my forging a good friendship with my guide and we found time to go off ourselves to enjoy the jungle...and the peace.

One late afternoon he took me to the local store; which was a a shack with a donkey walking around a stone grinding wheel in front and...importantly...it had a propane refrigerator so that I could have a COLD beer.  As I sat there the woman who owned the "store" offered us dinner (she spoke no English).  Her monkey took a liking to me and spent the rest of the afternoon and early evening perched on my shoulders sharing my beer and dinner.  I was in absolute heaven...and I did not have a clue how to thank my wonderful hostess.

So I thought about it and decided I would ask for a second portion of food.  She smiled, brought me into her kitchen to share her world a bit (it was little more than a steel grate over a small wood fire...and a garbage disposal - guinea pigs that ate the waste and were, in turn, eaten) and then she offered to let me keep her monkey as a gift.  Why?  Because I was the first white man to ever tell her he liked her cooking.

The next day I went fishing and was using plastic worms.  The local children were scared (and fascinated) because culturally they are fearful of snakes (they have some really poisonous snakes in the Amazon).  Once I figured this out I took a "snake" and put it in my mouth to show them they were safe.  Eventually I gave them all the "snakes" and they ran to show their respective parents...who all came running out of their shacks in fear!  The laughing faces of the children I will never forget.

Meanwhile there were some pretty miserable women back in camp, demanding their American ways, and unaware they were making all those that actually lived there even more miserable.  But they paid their money, so it was their right...wasn't it?

The point is that because you can pay for a fancy cruise doesn't give you the socially responsible right to leave the United States and insist the world around you accept your disdain for the people, culture, food, social ways, etc. of where you are visiting...or who are on the cruise with you.  Money does not give you that right...at least in most parts of the rest of the world.

So to so much as criticize or critique Silversea for having international guests and/or crew is just plain insulting.  Maybe not to you, but to those that love to travel because they love cultures, people and the world. 

Sometimes mirrors are more important that windows.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Seabourn Has Record Sales Day - What Does It Really Mean?

Seabourn announced it had its single busiest day of sales this past Monday with 830 calls in 11 hours.  It also noted bookings have risen by 40% over the prior month and there remains a very high level of first time guests. 

Now, keeping it real, while there is no way to turn the information into bad news, I do wonder how much of it is really good news.  We know that cruises that were selling for $5,499 per person last year are selling for as low as $2,499 this year.  We know that rather than selling 3 208 passenger ships and then adding the 450 passenger Odyssey, the 450 passenger Sojourn is now open for booking, so available berths are up over 125%.  In addition the booking window has increased, so bookings are being made into April 2011 (a full two years out).

One has to wonder how many of the bookings are going to stick.  Crystal Cruises recently admitted that they had pretty good success in getting bookings, but when final payment time came there were serious issues.  Crystal thinks it has adjusted its strategy and is now finding more consistency between deposits and final payments.  I am not aware of Seabourn having a similar problem, but I don't have any data other than my own to say that it should not find itself in a similar situation.

That said, and not being terribly swayed by statistics generally (ex. are less bookings at higher prices of more value than more bookings at lower prices?), I do see something pretty remarkable compared to the other luxury lines.

I repeatedly hear that Silversea's marketing over the past year has left most people wondering, "What is the product that I am going to receive?  Am I going to be paying for alternative dining?  A children's program?  French Polynesia?  Refurbished Silver Cloud?  Any details on the Silver Wind?"  Regent's marketing has left more people thinking, "Huh?  Let's fight over what tours are included, at an added premium, or simply unwanted.  Let's wonder when the food will improve and the service actually be consistently top notch."

The net effect for these two lines has been reduced bookings and, in the case of Silversea the problem of having increased inventory (with the Silver Spirit coming on line in December) and spreading its already thin passenger base over more ships.

But Seabourn is like a rather elegant bulldog...confidently moving forward unconcerned with its challengers.  It says, "This is Seabourn.  We do not compromise.  We are consistent.  You know what the product is you will receive."  And maybe...just maybe...in these uncertain times it is why I so enjoy selling Seabourn cruises and so many people are finding enough confidence to say that now...or in the future...they are willing to rely upon Seabourn to deliver a true luxury cruise vacation.

So it is not the record sales day that means much to me, it is the consistency of the phones ringing and the increased bookings with the increased inventory that tells me Seabourn is doing something right.

Monday, April 20, 2009

SeaDream Yacht Club - Is a Nightmare Looming? UPDATED

It has been reported in the Norwegian media that CG Holdings, owner of SeaDream Yacht Club, may be filing for bankruptcy imminently. What this means for SeaDream really is not known; especially as their are conflicting reports.

According to reports, the Chief Financial Officer of CG Holdings says all of CG Holdings assets are up for sale, but SeaDream Yacht Club Chief Executive Officer Atle Brynestad insists it is not...and asserts that SeaDream has already reached 80% of its revenue goals for 2009 (though I am not sure how that was calculated) and that its ships are sailing essentially full (though I do not know how many of those cabins are highly discounted or on travel agent rates).

If you recall, Larry Pimental left SeaDream in January 2009 (Pimental Departs SeaDream Yacht Club after it was claimed that Mr. Brynestad wanted to deplete SeaDream's coffers to support his other businesses, which have, apparently, been suffering.

So what does this all mean? To me it signals that SeaDream may be a viable company, but it has been substantially weakened by the troubles of its parent company and Mr. Brynestad's interests (if they are different) and that the reported differences in approach are a "red flag" for when there is conflict rather than coordination everything suffers. On the other hand, possibly SeaDream will be bought out by Byrnestad - though I am not sure how understanding the above financial turmoil.

In the meantime, as I mentioned months ago, SeaDream's change to seeking cash early on and allowing cruises to be deferred for extended periods with no penalty was a clear sign of rough seas. My biggest concern is that with legal maneuvering being what it is, the ships may be seized at some point as control is wrestled in bankruptcy proceedings or shareholder fighting.

Would I cancel my SeaDream cruise? No, but I would be prepared for turmoil and the possibility (if even remote...I just don't know) that your port of disembarkation may be earlier or at another location. Also, if you have put off your cruise under the 48 Hour Cancellation Program and are holding a credit toward a future cruise, you may want to take that cruise sooner than later. (I would be concerned as to whether your credit card coverage applies to that program and if there is insurance for same.)

As I learn more, and can confirm facts versus rumor, I will let you know. I caution everyone not to act on rumor or media reports, but to simply be prepared and keep your eyes and ears open.

UPDATE: Carolyn Spencer Brown, Editor in Chief of CruiseCritic, posted that the bankruptcy of SeaDream appeared to be "fiction". I think that is a great disservice, though well intended. As I reported earlier this morning, SeaDream may not be in financial difficulty by itself, but it's parent company is. Even the reports cited by CruiseCritic confirm that Mr. Byrnestad's efforts are apparently to liquidate all he can to address the many unpaid creditors of CG Holdings.

Now, this is where it can get ugly. According to Cruise Business Review, Byrnestad's plan is to keep three good companies (SeaDream and glass and porcelain companies) and fold them into a new holding company. That may sound great, but it is not very easy to suck out the viable assets so that the creditors go unpaid in whole or in part. The creditors just might have something to say about that...and if it is found that that the profitable companies were not handled appropriately something similar to a receiver can be appointed. (How do I know this? I was involved in a litigation against a Norwegian shipyard that had financial difficulties.)

Now, to me, saying that SeaDream is not in trouble is, well, "fiction". I wish SeaDream well and I oh so want it to survive and thrive, but I have to call it as it is; not as I or Mr. Brynestad wants it to be. So be optimistic, but realistic.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Iamboatman's Blog Provided Timely Information That Causes Silversea to Throw Out The Children (Program) To Keep the Luxury Bath Water

Last week I posted that Silversea was going to institute a Children's Program ala Regent Seven Seas Cruises: Silversea is Robbing The (Regent Seven Seas') Cradle. The information was not posted or confirmed anywhere else that I am aware of. At the time I said "Silversea is making a big mistake". And I was, apparently, correct.

The information I posted here found its way onto Cruise Critic and between Silversea consistently reading my blog, The Gold Standard Forum and Cruise Critic today one of my readers let me know of Silversea posting that is abandoning the Children's Program before it even started. Steven Tucker, Silversea's Vice President of National Accounts, posted on Cruise Critic just minutes ago:

From Steve Tucker:

OK, you have spoken, and we have heard you!

We appreciate your comments and the passion you have about preserving the sophisticated, club-like atmosphere and ambiance aboard Silversea.

With that being said, we have decided to stop promoting the $199 Children's Programme.

We were quite surprised at the amount of attention and numerous posts that this subject has created. Since Silversea ships have no quad occupancy suites and a very limited number of triple occupancy suites, this program was never intended to generate a huge increase in the number of children that would normally sail on Silversea at any given time.

In any case, it is now our desire to revert back to the way we have previously handled the few children that do travel on Silversea. We will continue to ensure the best possible cruise experience for all our valued guests.

Thank you again to the readers of this board for your valuable input.

Steve Tucker
Vice President National Accounts & Eastern Region Sales, The Americas
Silversea Cruises

It seems that, as I have said before, the overall clientèle of Silversea and Seabourn is, in fact, tuned into a difference sense of what a luxury experience than Regent. There is a difference between graciously accommodating the children that to cruise on luxury lines and marketing to draw them to the ships.

At least here the experience was short-lived and did not effect more than the emotions of the few that actually knew of it's existence.

Is Virtuoso Hitting a Sour Note?

There have been grumblings within the travel agent world that Virtuoso has become a less attractive option for many of its member travel agents with, it is reported, significant numbers jumping ship to Signature and other consortiums.  (Full disclosure:  I am a member of a "competitor", Ensemble Travel consortium.)

Yesterday Virtuoso announced plans to reorganize its corporate structure, but cutting positions, centralizing operations, etc.  In its statement Virtuoso said, "“Virtuoso has redeployed its resources to focus on the group’s core strengths: increasing sales at a higher yield and providing award-winning, customized marketing to its member agencies.”  

Said another way, increase high profit sales through great marketing.  What does that mean?  Well, Virtuoso has, in the past, created a truly remarkable branding where many of the traveling public believed that, like the American Express Platinum Card Travel Services used to be, the only way to receive the highest quality luxury travel services you had to use their affiliated agencies...and then brag about it.  And, to be sure, Virtuoso does provide quite an array of possible luxury travel extras (at cost...sometimes a great cost) that, when packaged well...as Virtuoso has done...may transform the ordinary to extraordinary.  But just as the Platinum Card has lost much of its luster and its benefits compared to competing products are of less real benefit, it seems that Virtuoso is losing some of its.

As an example, Virtuoso touts it has the best tour operators in Italy, able to provide you with truly fantastic luxury experiences.  As an Ensemble Travel member I was initially a bit jealous of this lofty ability.  But then, after using my operator for a few years, I found out that he...the one that I researched, personally tested out, and initially fed small bits of my business...was exactly the same person.  So I tell my clients that I can provide them with exactly the same quality drivers and guides in Italy for significantly less than a Virtuoso agent.  Why, you might ask?  Because there is no middle man...Virtuoso doesn't get a cut or force the stabilization of higher prices, pay to brand the identical tour, etc.  Said another way, the client receives more value by not using a Virtuoso agent.  (Seriously, do you want to pay for your travel agent to look good or for your travel agent to make your luxury vacation the best it can be?)

And on the other side, the travel agents say, "I am paying Virtuoso how much for what benefits?  I can get the benefits I need either by joining another consortium or going it alone for much less money."  I did seriously consider becoming a Virtuoso agency and a Signature Agency, but I am quite content with Ensemble Travel because it truly provides my agency and my clients everything we need at a much more reasonable price and pricing.

And therein lies the biggest issues with Virtuoso.  In this economy travel agents and clients alike are looking for more value, even when dealing with luxury products.  There are, of course, the issues associated with newer products, better competition, and the like.  And, to be sure, Virtuoso remains an excellent product. 

Remember you need to look behind the marketing...Your travel agent is doing it, shouldn't you?

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Windstar's Sails May Be Luffing Very Soon.

It was reported today that Ambassadors International, the parent company of Windstar's owner, Ambassadors International Cruise Group, LLC, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Ambassadors Cruise Group, LLC, missed a $1,800,000 interest payment on the notes (loan) it used to purchase Windstar. 

Ambassador warned that if it cannot sell its non-Windstar assets it may fail as a going concern.While it states that the tight credit market has made finding viable purchasers of these assets difficult, one must note that fire-saleing assets to keep one asset afloat (so to speak) is not a good sign regardless. It has disclosed that bankruptcy may be in its future if the sale of assets, restructuring of debt, etc. is not put in place.  Ambassadors stock, it is reported, was trading at $0.39, far below the $1.00 level required to maintain the stock being listed on NASDAQ.

If you are booked on a Windstar cruise I would be sure that you have paid with a credit card.  If you have not and are not in a penalty period, I would strongly suggest that you cancel your cruise and, if still wanting to take a chance, rebook with a credit card.  Also, if you do not have insurance nd you paid with cash, strongly consider it, but be sure that you will have coverage in the event Windstar ceases operation.  Right now I do not see any exclusion, but that sort of information can change quickly. 

Windstar has been a favorite for those seeking a unique upscale cruise experience.  The cruise line was sort of the step-child when it was owned by Carnival Corp. and was kept under the Holland America wing.  In 2007 Carnival Corp. sold the company to its present owners.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Seabourn Reports Record Bookings for The First Quarter of 2009...Because of Consistency of Product

Seabourn Cruise Lines reported yesterday that it recorded record bookings for the first quarter of 2009. 
Remember though, the term is "bookings", not "sales" or "revenue".  There is a significant difference, but...and it is a big "but"...in the longer term, it just might be better news than record sales.
In a world of luxury cruising where Silversea and Regent Seven Seas have had serious problems filling their ships, Seabourn has found a way not only to better fill its ships, but apparently to use the present soft market to attract what are the lifebloods of the more mature luxury cruise industry:  first time guests and first time travel agents booking those guests.  In a world of whispers, a cruise line must be loyal to its most loyal and longtime guests, but it must also look beyond them for age, infirmity and death takes their tolls.  In addition, as more and larger ships come online, there is an obvious need to find new loyal guests just as a result of capacity.

This morning I was listening to a business report on the radio.  The reporter mentioned a tactic he had just heard about.  The salesman cannot make a deal to this recalcitrant buyer. The buyer insists he just doesn't want to buy the product.  The salesman replies, "If I gave it to you for free, would you take it then?"  The buyer obviously replies, "Of course."  The salesman then says, "So the price is the only problem.  Let's make a deal."

In essence this is what Seabourn has been doing.  It has, as is my mantra, insisted on consistency of product.  Seabourn may tweak this or that, but its product remains what it is.  On the Seabourn Odyssey the product is elevated and expanded, but remains consistent.  This sort of stability not only keeps Seabourn's loyal and longtime guests quite happy, it allows the potential new guest (and the novice to Seabourn travel agent) to be comfortable that what they are anticipating is what they are going to be getting.

Silversea has not taken this approach.  First it cut some corners on service (including training) and cuisine.  Then it hyped "butlers for everyone" as if the seasoned cruiser would book because of this.  Now it is going to be announcing a children's program.  The loyal guests see the differences and changes and worry.  The potential new guests see changes that may or may not change the qualities of their cruise.  The travel agents - many of whom just are not seasoned in selling luxury - shy away.  So even with 25% commissions and heavily discounted cruise fares, there is significant resistance.

Regent Seven Seas has taken a slightly different approach.  It tried to maintain - and worse, justify - the highest fares in the cruise industry by adding mass market-type tours as being inclusive...while admitting it has serious issues with crew quality (and longevity) and failing cuisine.  Changes are clearly being made as there is a pretty obvious wholesale clean out of the old guard at Regent, but again changes like this simply do not entice hesitant past passengers nor does it entice new ones.

Seabourn reports a 67% increase in first time guests.  That, obviously, does not mean 67% of its guests are first timers; to be sure, significantly less are.  (Compare that to Silversea's announcement last year, before the economic downturn, that something like 55% of its guests were first timers.)  What it means is that those who could not have afforded, or just wouldn't pay the premium to cruise on Seabourn, are now willing to do so.  (And, to be sure, it will be hard for them to go back!)  More importantly, with Silversea and Regent Seven Seas showing more softness, my question is how many of these first time Seabourn guests are prior Silversea and Regent passengers who are now perceiving the value in Seabourn to be worth more than any particular loyalty to the other lines?

The other interesting statistic is that the number of travel agents booking Seabourn for the first time rose by 36%.  While it is true that a large percentage of sales for any luxury cruise line are driven by a relatively small percentage of travel agents, whenever the base broadens, so do the prospects of engaging more to suggest and offer luxury travel.  It is, in reality, very intimidating for many travel agents because - honestly - they just do not truly understand what luxury is.  So with their first sale of Seabourn they learn...and that is good.

So there is Seabourn, heavily discounting its cruises just as the other two have been doing, but it is doing a far better job filling it ships.  Now, will Seabourn be profitable this year?  My guess is that if it is, it will be by a slim margin. But more importantly, for those many people who are first time Seabourners, I am very confident that they will be hooked and will think a second, third or even a fourth time, before they consider cruising on a line other than Seabourn.

Caveat:  Is this sort of a turning a sow's ear into a silk purse kind of argument?  To a degree it probably is.  But for those that think outside the box...the unconventional...not really.  It is seeing an opportunity and taking it on.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Silversea Cruises is Robbing the (Regent Seven Seas') Cradle...Seriously (And You Are NOT Going to Like It)

Ever see those signs, "Child Onboard"...Silversea Cruises now has them available.

That's right:  Your elegant, luxury, cruise without children will not be happening on many Silversea Cruises.  Those that booked their 2009 Silversea cruise as an adult luxury product are not going to have exactly what they expected.  In fact, they are going to have pretty much was Ken Watson brought over from Regent Seven Seas.  (And you know I have always placed Silversea in the luxury category and Regent in the faux luxury one.)

Silversea is going to be announcing that it is going to have a full-fledged children's program on its ships, complete with youth counselors and discounts for children for 2009...And for all of you that have snapped up those highly discounted fares for Alaska and the Mediterranean for this summer, the program will be in place and actively seeking children to utilize it. 

To me, the real issue is that I cannot think of a single client or even message board poster that had expressed a legitimate desire for such a program on Silversea.  I know it is about "getting bodies in beds", but to so fundamentally change a product smacks of disrespect for those that have booked adults only cruises and makes one wonder which market Silversea is seeking to tap into that is going to overcome all the cancelled bookings that are most assuredly going to occur...followed by all those that will now not book Silversea because of the children's program.

Multi-generational cruises are not exactly the big thing this year and if Regent, with its larger ships and a long-standing program, can't make it work well, how is Silversea going to do it? Possibly by tapping further into the European market?  But there is a tremendous difference, culturally dependent, of what kind of behavior is expected of children and, importantly, who will actually use the program...rather than the hot tubs, etc.

Now, in respect of full disclosure, I have two children ages 13 and 10 (almost) and they have been on over 20 cruises.  They truly enjoyed each of their Regent cruises as far as the youth counselors and individual attention.  And, I selfishly just might now give Silversea a shot with them...for the right price.  But...and it is a big but...I have seen the eyes of those angered by my well-behaved kids just being present.  I have heard the compliments about "I am surprised how wonderful your children have been.  You should be proud." but wondered if it was really just an expression of relief.  Check out pretty much any message board (other than mine!) and just look for any thread mentioning children...It is ugly.

So, to my mind, Silversea is making a big mistake...but it just may have to take the risk.

Oceania Cruises - More Like Regent Seven Seas Every Day...Or Is It The Other Way Around?

Oceania Cruises makes a concentrated effort to let people know it is not a luxury product, but rather an excellent premium product where you are going to pay for pretty much everything ala carte.  Well, that is starting to change.

Oceania has announced that guests sailing on its 2010 European Collection voyages will receive free unlimited soft drinks and bottled water

That may not sound like such a big deal, but let me tell you having to pay $1.50 for a bottle of water you can purchase (retail) at Costco for 13 cents is considered a very large insult by a good few people.  (Ironically, I had said to Azamara when it sought my input as to how to tweak its product it should do exactly this!)

So now, comparing Regent Seven Seas to Oceania the differences have shrunken just a bit more.  Open seating, quality cuisine (more-so on Oceania, I believe), inclusive soft drinks and water, essentially interchangeable staff and crew, etc.  So Oceania has overall better public spaces and itineraries and Regent has better suites (and far, far, better bathrooms) and is liquor inclusive.

My question is:  "When is the merger between the two products going to be complete?"  When there are far more elements in common then there are distinctions, it only makes sense.  Too far fetched?  Take a look at Seabourn.  It has found a way to market and operate two different classes of ships with different offerings by maintaining a very strong consistency when and where ever possible.

With the recent release of so many of Regent's sales and marketing people, the combination of purchasing, provisioning and staffing, the Oceanification of Regent is, to my mind, almost complete.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Regent Seven Seas is Cleaning House...and Mark Conroy is Where?

It has always baffled me how Regent, a small cruise line with only three ships (and, for the time being a fourth on a charter) could require so many people and be so inaccessible and have so many "policies" and, therefore, inefficiencies.

Prestige Cruise Holdings has been working to take the General Motors approach out of Regent Seven Seas and I think it is coming down to, but has not yet taken, its final moves. It announced today that the sales force has been, in large part, asked to resign.

More specifically, Maggie Mantia (charter and incentive sales vice president) David Levene (Eastern regional director of field sales), Joyce Simon (Western regional director), Janet Ganch (Director of sales for Michigan, Indiana, Ohio, Kentucky and West Virginia) and Rose Clarke (Director of on-board sales and loyalty, including the Seven Seas Society) have all departed. To me that says that a lot of inefficiencies are simply being cut out.

But to me that is not the news. What is it you ask?

The announcement was not made by Mark Conroy, its president. Rather it was made by Prestige Cruise Holdings, the parent of Regent Seven Seas. (I believe these moves were made while he is still in Europe "dealing" with the Voyager problems.) Therefore, I must ask the burning question, "When is a company president not a president?" I think we know the answer.

On March 4, 2009 I posted a rather scathing post that it was time for Mark Conroy to be fired: http://goldringtravel.blogspot.com/2009/02/is-it-time-for-mark-conroy-to-depart.html. It seems to me that I am not the only one who thinks it is time.

In fact, I think the negotiations are probably underway.

Some Unique Seabourn Odyssey Touches



Seabourn has sent out the following news release:

"The Yachts of Seabourn is promoting six new things that will be offered on its new Seabourn Odyssey, scheduled to launch from Venice, Italy, on June 24. The 32,000-ton, 450-guest yacht will be the cruise industry’s first luxury yacht to launch in six years.
Guests on Seabourn Odyssey will be able to borrow iPods onboard, along with Seabourn-branded netbook computers for loan (and for purchase) so guests who haven’t brought their laptop onboard can use the vessel’s Wi-Fi connectivity in all suites and nearly all public spaces.

Guests can use interactive televisions in each suite to book shore excursions and access a library of movies and music on demand.

Among the duty-free shops on Seabourn Odyssey will be The Collection, a curated boutique featuring fine jewelry and watches as well as a private diamond showroom.

Seabourn Odyssey will be the only cruise vessel to offer SkinCeuticals products in the onboard spa. Available for the first time at sea on Seabourn Odyssey, Therapies is a new line of plant-based products from Molton Brown.

A first for Seabourn, The Retreat is a new multi-diversion plaza aft of the Sun Terrace, featuring a nine-hole mini golf course, chess on a giant board and shuffleboard. The Retreat will also be the place for organized stargazing. Seabourn Odyssey will also offer personal training on the Kinesis Wall and Thai massage in the onboard spa."

All this sounds pretty darn good.  It is a very strong indication that compromise of the luxury experience is not in Seabourn's vocabulary. 

Monday, April 6, 2009

Opinion: "Revenge at Sea" - Christopher Elliott Engages in Yellow Journalism on MSNBC; A Misleading Attack on the Cruise Industry

Last week I received a notification of an article by Christopher Elliott entitled "Revenge at Sea" - Five Ways Passengers Are Getting Even With Cruise Lines. Frankly, it shocked me to read this headline at a time that cruise lines are sharply discounting prices in an effort to lure hesitant guests onboard and, thereby provide incredible values. Something about biting the hand or killing the goose that just jumped into my mind.

At the outset I must disclose that Mr. Elliott's website (http://www.elliott.org/) describes itself as "This site is one of the last remaining efforts to bring quality, commercial-free, consumer-focused travel journalism to the Web." But then two lines later he asks for donations, "You can support this site now using a major credit card" ("commercial-free"???) followed by a very short list of "underwriters". Self-promotion and questionable tactics aside, keep the maxim, "Let the buyer beware" in your thoughts.

Now... as I read the article I realized that the perspective is, to start, from a passenger on the Carnival Glory that moaned about the cruise being marketed as "all inclusive" and then he was hit for $30 in specialty dining fees, drink charges, aggressive photographers and a mandatory gratuity. Huh? Who told this man that Carnival was "all inclusive"? There is nothing on Carnival's website or marketing that even hints at that. It is, simply stated, a knowingly false premise...which Mr. Elliott clearly knew and did not correct.

Then he criticize Royal Caribbean for providing its guests with the option...I repeat, option...of purchasing for $14.95 the same upgraded steak they might select in Chops (it's extra cost restaurant at $25 per person). Personally I think that is a great idea...and allows someone to enjoy a better meal for potentially one third the cost (ex. the husband wants the steak, but the wife doesn't and they don't want to dress up). If you think I am making that up, read my review of the Mariner of the Seas (It is actually four parts) where in I complimented Royal Caribbean on the main dining room decor and noted I would have eaten there more often if the food was the quality of what I ate in Chops. Now options are worth someone revenge? But I digress...

Then the author twists his sordid story into how this somehow relates to the Park West Auctions lawsuit for ripping off customers with alleged fakes and overpriced "art"...which the cruise lines obviously get a cut. What does that have to do with anything? Was that ever pitched as part of an "all inclusive" experience. And I have commented about Park West in this blog: Piracy or Ignorance on the High Seas - Art Auctions.
This effects a very small portion of the cruising public...and if they are complaining about $30 for dinner in a specialty restaurant they are not dropping the kind of money that brought Park West under attack.

Mr. Elliott then lays out the actual premise, "But in a series of interviews with passengers and industry experts, a slightly more complex picture starts to surface — that of profit-starved cruise lines pulling out all the stops to attract new customers and of penny-pinching passengers who know they have them over a barrel at last." Didn't I mention at the outset that the cruise lines are courting passengers, not trying to rip them off? UPon what good faith basis Mr. Elliott bury this mid-way in his article and then leave it as though never mentioned?

So these "penny-pinching passengers"...as they have finally been identified...are then given a list of five ways to "get back" at the cruise lines...forgetting that not a single rational reason for this aggressive, negative, emotion has yet been provided. You are going to love them...they really get the cruise lines "over a barrel":

1. Wait until the last minute to book - As I have said, that can really work against you! The least expensive cabins probably will be gone (a horrid thought for THAT kind of penny-pincher) and the better cabins in in any category may be gone. Of course, your ability to pre-plan, get the best airfare, etc. all go out the window as well. Mr. Elliot, you claim on your side, "His focus is’t on the destination, or even the journey, but on the tools you need for a successful trip. No other journalist has his depth of knowledge when it comes to offering practical travel advice, useful strategies and helpful tips." This strategy benefits who exactly and in what way?


2. "Smuggle alcohol onboard" - Wait a minute! You first say the cruise is supposedly "all inclusive" and then you say how to plan around it not being that. And you claim to be the "Travel Troubleshooter" for a major travel magazine. You tell people to break their contract with the cruise line by pouring vodka into a water bottle? While I do not agree with the alcohol prohibition (save the former Carnival passengers who would bring coolers of beer and the like), there is a difference between putting a bottle of whisky in your suitcase and boorish behaviors being encouraged.

3. Don't take the ship's tours. Now I am usually not a fan of ship's tours, but they are very popular for a reason. If you don't want to see Tulum or a specific museum which is cost-prohibitive, so be it. Take a taxi to the beach for $20 rather than a tour for $49 each, absolutely. But to seek revenge by screwing up your vacation by not going on a tour or increasing your stress by making private arrangements? What is it exactly that you are getting your revenge for? What way does that put a cruise line "over a barrel" when it, in reality is only hurting the passenger's vacation?

4. Avoid the upsell. I don't get this at all. If you don't want to eat at the specialty restaurant (the vast majority never have...and they couldn't function as they would be overwhelmed otherwise...ask NCL!) then don't eat there. The author points to a coupon for a free lunch at Johnny Rockets on RCCL, but that has been a marketing item since the venue was established...just like the buy one-get one sales held all over the place. Mr. Elliott, you aren't intentionally misrepresenting the facts because you have a problem with the travel industry are you?

5. Stay at home. Well, there is a non-starter. Don't take a cruise because you want to take out your revenge. Ever heard the saying, "Cut off your nose to spite your face?". You can complain about this charge or that upsell, but the fact is that the VALUE has never been greater. Pay $599 rather than $999 and get hit with $75 in additional costs? That sounds like a bargain for me. (But, I still am wondering what those "additional" costs are. Not one has been mentioned!)

So what we have here is a bogus and irresponsible article trying to create controversy where none, in reality...though may emotionally...exists. Cruises have never been a better value...ever. You can break it down and want this different or that, but the trash that Christopher Elliott pushes in his article are clearly, to me, based upon his desire to get published rather than to assist anyone with a credible article.

More importantly, Mr. Elliot's effort to exploit the naive penny-pincher (as he calls them) into creating non-existent issues can only harm those innocents. The most recent problem posted (which was two months ago) was a person wanting Princess to refund a $200 onboard booking made 4 years ago some other way than by crediting back his credit card account which had been closed. Princess had properly advised the passenger of the process which was complicated by the passenger's action of closing the account rather than the cruise line doing anything wrong. Mr. Elliott intentionally titled his article "Is My Cruise Refund Really Sunk?" when he knew it never was.

In short, Christopher Elliott most certainly appears to be engaging in yellow journalism. At least that is my opinion. I wouldn't trust that man to assist me with a vacation...ever.

MSNBC, you should know better.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Ship Happens, You See It Happening, You Step On The Ship Anyway And...

I am fascinated, and baffled, by what is now happening with the Regent Voyager and its passengers.  While Regent Seven Seas is encountering what can only be considered the "perfect storm" of logistical and public relations nightmares, there are some passengers who are demanding perfection...when they were given an "out" which would have avoided the entire situation.

For those unaware, the Regent Voyager was on its World Cruise and as it left Singapore it snagged a fishing net in one of its azipod propulsion units.  While it was hoped dislodging the net would fix the problem, it didn't.  Then it was hoped that replacing a seal would work and it didn't.  This left the Voyager with one of its pods disabled and its passengers in Dubai...which is a nice place to visit, but not a place you can undertake sophisticated ship repairs with any efficiency..nor a place with much capacity for flights back to the United States.

Regent then worked out a number of options for its World Cruise and segment guests; albeit none of them perfect.  (Perfect would have been the ship is fixed and the cruise continued unchanged.)  One of the options was to stay with the ship as it traveled to Rome on a substantially reduced port itinerary with a significant discount and other compensation. 

For the life of me I cannot understand why anyone who does not have a "go with the flow" approach to life would ever, ever, ever choose this option.  Well, let me correct that if someone, say Mark Conroy, President of Regent Seven Seas, was to tell me (as he tends to do about things) that all will be fine and you will have a great time as we have many things planned for you, then someone of a more structured constitution might be tempted to take this "great deal".  Even still, logic would have it that it was a fluid situation and that many things would change as more was arranged...knowing what was put together was done in literally a day and would need tweaking.

So now there are reports that some (not all) of the passengers are playing, "What can we complain about now?"  And there is an infamous Regent Cheerleader that has turned to posting nasty and unfounded rumors about repairs which have not even been undertaken possibly failing and that Prestige Cruise Holdings (Regent's parent company) might not have sufficient funds to make the repairs, provide compensation or operate properly.  I am well and truly baffled by the motivation of these people.  Remembering that I am a big critic of the Regent product from a luxury standpoint and a bigger critic of Mark Conroy, I find the aforementioned conduct inexcusable. 

I have it on good authority that Prestige Cruise Holdings is doing just fine (fine be relative considering the state of the economy).  There is no indication of financial troubles and, in fact, Regent took the opportunity to address some issues on the Regent Navigator in a brief wet-dock just the other day (after a charter).  This is not something a company would do if there was financial doom on the horizon.  (Compare Silversea deferring/canceling the upgrades to the Silver Cloud.)

Unless you know the actual defects in the pod and what the repairs are to be, you could not have even the slightest ability to determine what might or might not be accomplished in X number of days.  Nor would you know if there is a cushion built into the timing so as to avoid another cruise being missed; so a 10 day repair might be scheduled for 14 just to sync up with the next cruise.  There are also the different repair scenarios such as "We will try A and hopefully that will work.  If A doesn't do it, then we are ready to also do B, etc."  There is a methodology that needs to be followed with realism rather than optimism.  That IS the ship repair industry.  I know...I do this stuff.

Now, back on the ship, a few passengers tout the cries of some crew being dissatisfied with management and not being given the best options.  No kidding.  This is found on literally every ship, and when there is stress and a willing ear, the troublesome crew (actually engaging in misconduct worthy of their termination:  complaining to guests) have a field day gossiping.  So these few passengers exacerbate their less then good time by focusing on these negatives and then publishing them...I guess to "get back at Regent" because they opted to take a heavily discounted cruise which they knew would be less than perfect and their gamble that it would nonetheless be near-perfect did not pan out.

So the reasonably expected imperfect cruise is continuing and the options Regent has developed are not going to be perfect (and those that should be reasonably acceptable will be rejected out of emotion and vengeance rather than reasonably negotiated to something more aligned with their individual needs...remembering that if you are perceived as never going to be satisfied, there is no reason to do more).  But Regent will get over it and the passengers that do go with the flow will be relatively content if not happy.  And the disgruntled ones will remain disgruntled (lost causes).  Reports of "this is good and that is bad" is not going to be helpful to anyone...including the ones doing the reporting.

I say:  "Let Regent get the ship to Italy for the repairs and make them.  Then let's see where we are."  I would be content with essentially a transatlantic without the "Atlantic" with so many sea days.  If you don't believe me, read my experience on the Royal Caribbean Mariner of the Seas last year when the entire cruise was disrupted by a hurricane:  A Hurricane Runs Through It...Almost.

A Day At Sea is Better Than a Day at Work!

Friday, April 3, 2009

Silversea - Improperly Discounting Its 15% Pre-Pay Discount?

One of my readers asked my opinion on Silversea's now discounting a cruise he purchased long ago so much so that the 15% discount he received for pre-paying many months early is now no discount at all...but rather a significant cost (due to loss of his income on his money).  Is there enough "discounting" in that sentence?

Back in November 2008 I wrote a blog entry Silversea - Lost at Sea? wherein I discussed a number of issues concerning my about Silversea. One of my biggest concerns was every...and I mean every...indication that cash flow was being coming a very real concern. This was further discussed in my blog entry Silversea - A Call From The Captain.

The fact is that when a cruise line is giving you a very significant discount for early payment you really have to know that it is not manna from heaven. It is, without question, a way to get your money earlier then the cruise line (or whomever) is actually entitled. I find this in my legal world as a "red flag" when done by a contractor (yacht, commercial or residential). There is no question that YOUR money is going to be used to pay the line's (or contractor's) OTHER obligations.

Now, I don't believe it is the same, but it is not dissimilar to a Ponzi scheme where the next investors pay the prior investor's "income" because the prior investor's money wasn't actually invested...or not as it should have been. Cruise Value Center failed a few months ago when new bookings stopped coming in at the same rate they had been. As a result the NEW money was insufficient to pay for the OLD obligations.

I do want to pause and note that Crystal Cruises has, for quite a while, offered a slight discount for early payment (around 3.5% versus Silversea's 15%). Crystal's figure is essentially consistent with giving a guest a slightly better return than they would get from a safe investment. To me this is a good marketing tactic because it emotionally and financially vests their guest in the upcoming cruise (less thought of canceling an already paid for cruise) while being logically related to normal finances.

So, do I believe Silversea is going to go to bat and provide some additional benefits for those expecting a true 15% additional discount since its inability to attract sufficient passengers required a further discounting of its fares? Probably not. And that is not because Silversea wants to treat you like you were just scammed, because it was not its intention! It probably will not respond because it can't; either directly because of its own cash demands or it then runs down yet another slippery slope of further discounts. Hopefully it will consider at least a couple of complimentary dinners in its extra charge restaurants...but that will eat into its onboard revenue (assuming the restaurants are running at full capacity).

It is not a pretty picture.  I wish I could find something good to say.  Silversea has been a very good product until recently.  Most of my clients, possibly in part because of my philosophy (a caveat), just are not willing to book Silversea.  There are other options out there.  For luxury, there is no question from anyone that Seabourn is either as good or better.  For itineraries, Seabourn and Oceania (and Azamara - should we not forget this line!) are suitable or better alternatives.  So many are left with little motivation to find logic in risking their cruise, if not their money, on Silversea.

Hopefully...and I am hopeful...this will change.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Regent Seven Seas Voyager Damage Update - Not Good UPDATED

The news is the damage to the Regent Seven Seas Voyager's starboard azipod was far more extensive than thought. There was an catastrophic electrical failure in the pod (not the ship) and will require the ship to be taken out of service when it reaches Rome (on a reduced port schedule departing Dubai today) until, possibly, May 21, 2009.

The problem was thought to be damage associated with a seal that failed after a fishing net wrapped itself around and in the pod (an electric motor which turns propeller-type blades, but can rotate 180 degrees and provides excellent maneuverability) shortly after the ship left Singapore. Regent was able to remove the fishing net, but with the damaged seal water entered the pod and left it inoperable. After limping into Dubai a watertight cocoon was constructed around the pod and repairs were attempted to replace the seal and, hopefully, prove all that was necessary. (I do not yet know the specifics of the attempted repair efforts, but that at this point is more or less simply prurient interest.)

What has been determined is that the damage to the pod as a result of the failed seal (and obviously some other factors, discussed below) was more than transient or limited. The pod's electrical systems must effectively be rebuilt. As a result the ship must be moved to a drydock to have the pod (or its major components) removed and rebuilt, and then reinstalled. Because this is all custom work (you can't buy all the parts off the shelf) some of the parts cannot be re-manufactured until they are removed from the damaged pod. In fact, a complete inventory of which parts can be re-used, which need to be re-manufactured and which need to be replaced probably cannot be fullly determined until the unit is taken apart.

The next obvious question is: "Isn't there another pod lying around...possibly to be used on another ship that really doesn't need it right now in its construction...that can simply be bought and installed?" The short answer is, "No". The reason, from the information available to me, is that it takes approximately 18 months to build a pod from scratch. That means even if another ship was able to delay the installation of its pod (assuming, of course, the donor pod was compatible!), an 18 month period is just too long. And no owner is going to swap out the newest, latest, greatest pod for a 6 year old rebuilt one.

This is a very disheartening situation for Regent Seven Seas, which just expended $40,000,000 refurbishing the Voyager and Mariner. The ripple effect is going to be very significant. And, of course, while treating its directly effected passengers fairly is one thing, finding ways to (a) maintain and create good will; (b) not lose passengers to other cruise lines like Seabourn and Crystal Cruises; and, (c) not further incur huge financial burdens that require modification of the product it promises to deliver is going to be an enormous challenge.

Now, all that said, I have some serious questions about how the damage to the pod became so severe. Let's face it, we have all heard about pod failures before, but those failures were related to failed bearings and/or seals. They were not about catastrophic electrical failures.

I speak with some knowledge, but not enough to be an expert. Usually these sort of systems have protections built in to prevent catastrophic failures. They do not always work, but the tend to exist. I think there is going to be some very hard analysis as to what occurred to first alert the captain and crew of the problem with the pod, what they did and if they tried to "fix" the problem by employing the wrong techniques. I am guessing here (and please remember it is my guess with very little information!!) that rather than the pod being immediately shut down it was continued to be run in an effort to break the encumbrance (now known to be fishing net). Doing that with the the seal having failed and the electrical system flooded could have resulted in the current situation. I do not know, so please do not report this as fact.

For now, a final point: Things may wind up being better than presently assumed. Possibly things will take less time. Maybe some additional work can be done on Voyager (though I don't think anything had been planned) even if it is just changing out some carpeting and fixing a few things that we, as passengers, never knew needed to be fixed.

Silversea Tsunami - Ken Watson Takes the Helm (Or Are We Observing Rearranging the Deck Chairs Again!)

It is reported in Seatrade that Ken Watson, who just days ago resigned (by request?) from Regent Seven Seas as executive VP of sales and marketing is joining Silversea heading sales and marketing, revenue management, reservations and air/sea.

I must pause for a moment and ask two questions:

First, with all of the problems with Regent's marketing of faux luxury and failure to deliver the product as promised (discussed here at length), why would Silversea hire him?

Second, it does not take a rocket scientist (or cruise industry executive) to figure out that it is literally impossible for one person to be in charge of sales, marketing, revenue, reservations and air/sea. So why put it out there that Mr. Watson is going to do it?

Is this yet another sign of rearranging the deck chairs? Is it simply that whomever Silversea's first choice(s) was (were) declined?

For me this raises even more concerns than the departures!