Friday, September 17, 2010

Seabourn - Dining and Other Changes? Service and Cuisine Remains Uncompromised!

Seabourn has, without much grace or coordination (so you think I am not impartial?!), begun tweaking the use of the The Restaurant (main dining room) and its larger ships.  It has also begun making some other small changes.  I will detail these in a moment. But before I do I want to provide you with some perspective. 

First, reports are consistent:  The Service and Cuisine on Seabourn is excellent and quite a few very experienced Seabourn guests have said that it has never been better.  Keep that in mind:  Service and Cuisine is not the focus of significant concern, but rather more and more compliments as the new ships and increased staff have melded into the Seabourn way of doing things.

Second, prices on all cruises are at historic lows.  In February 2009 (Wow, I have been writing this blog for a long time!) I wrote a piece titled So You Think Seabourn's 2010 Cruise Prices Are Too High...Check This Out (Again)

This is especially true on the luxury lines with Crystal offering $2,000 per person onboard credits, Silvesea offering "free" air and big discounts and onboard credits, and Seabourn offering steeply discounted prices.  (Just yesterday I booked a couple in a Seabourn Veranda Suite Guarantee  on a 9 night Mediterranean for $4,901.06 including fees and taxes...for two people!)

Something has to give...but what? 

Do you change from highly trained, affable, mostly European and South African staff, to less trained/polished, lower cost, Filipino staff (not to mention the cultural differences...also discussed on this blog) and downgrade the service while the cruise line saves money and waits/hopes the new staffing responds to "on the job training"?  Do you couple this with cutback in what is included and slip in charges (some very significant) in what was a pretty much all inclusive product?  Silversea did and folks are not happy.

Do you cut back on food costs and menu choices such as Regent Seven Seas has aggressively done?  (That, coupled its choice to go with lower paid and the poorly trained staff - especially in the dining venues - makes me cringe in keeping this line in the luxury class rather than the premium one)

Or do you look at how your maintain your highly trained and most competent staff at sea and keep the quality of the cuisine with an eye toward reducing waste and costs associated with what are the lesser utilized aspects of the cruise experience.  This has, to date, been Seabourn's approach.  It has not been done with the polish or finesse that Seabourn has had in the past, but the overall results - taken in perspective - are the best option, in my opinion.

Now the specifics: 

- Does anyone recall that caviar used to be displayed all around the ship, but no longer is...or that portions are still complimentary, but are now subject to reasonable sizes (though you can request
more without limit)?  Shocking how much caviar was uneaten left on plates!

- Does anyone recall that the Care Packages with an air pillow, etc. and the recipe for bread sticks isn't provided any longer?

- Does anyone really miss the soap display which was recently curtailed?  Folks, from what I understand less than 5% of the guests actually used the soap on their cruise.  Most took them home...and I bet most of those soaps are still sitting on display in baskets in guest bathrooms.

There are more more things like this that Seabourn has done over the years.  And, to be sure, the reasons are the costs to Seabourn simply outweighed benefit to its guests.  When you add in the extremely low fares the present economy has caused, the costs do not need to be that great to cause one to take a look at its benefit.

That brings me to the hours in The Restaurant.  On the shorter and/or port intensive cruises (especially the Mediterranean) the number of guests dining in The Restaurant on the Odyssey and Sojourn have been shockingly low.  On a 450 guest ship, possibly 10 people have been dining there for breakfast and/or lunch.  (I saw this on my Maiden Voyage cruise on the Seabourn Sojourn.  Just look at the background of this photo of Chef Bjoern's haggis tasting...and this was on a rainy day in the sleepy port of Invergordon, Scotland.)
In order to open The Restaurant there must be a significant amount of preparation.  Anyone who has worked in a restaurant, or has watched Anthony Bourdain or Hell's Kitchen for that matter, knows that in order for "cuisine" to be presented (or "food" such as yuk, powdered eggs) everything needs to be prepared in some fashion before an order comes in the galley.  At lunch this is an even more expensive proposition. So what happens to this food that is not used.  Folks Seabourn is not NCL...it is not presented later in the day or week in another dish.  It is a very expensive waste when you throw a party every day and hardly anyone comes.

And then there is the staffing issue.  The Colonnade has proven to be far more popular than expected (hence the extremely light use of The Restaurant).  That created another issues:  The need for additional staff...and not just servers.  The galley has been under greater load; especially because Seabourn has expanded its menu (that's right it has expanded, not reduced, the Colonnade's menu).  Faced with a fixed amount of staff (you aren't going to call in waiters or cooks while at sea are you?!), they have to come from somewhere and, alas, The Restaurant is from where they come. 

Of course if this doesn't work out, or the demand for The Restaurant increases (such as on less port intensive cruises and on the triplets), I am confident Seabourn will make the appropriate adjustments. 

But if you don't try you will never know.  And if it winds up that there is a 90+% satisfaction with the change (ie. like the service in the Colonnade better or just don't care), as with any business, Seabourn will have to consider that as well. It isn't just about complaining loudly or a few threatening that they will take their business elsewhere.  (Did I mention some of the issues with the "elsewhere"?  Yes, I did.) 

I did read a curious comment on Cruise Critic.  One poster complained that he/she couldn't always get a table on the Colonnade's Veranda as a reason for complaining about The Restaurant being closed for breakfast and lunch.  Huh?  The Restaurant is an inside venue! 

But, to be sure while The Restaurant is elegant, The Colonnade isn't too shabby.  In fact, as I noted in my first visit to the venue on the Inaugural of the Seabourn Odyssey in June 2009, the inside dining is as elegant as many top New York restaurants (just add linens, if you still wish to find fault).

As with the elimination of Formal Nights - done by popular demand and sort of-kind of optionally reinstated (whatever that means) because of a vocal minority - the limited hours of The Restaurant is a work in progress.  It may be tweaked.  It may be reinstated.  It may be only on the larger ships.
(BTW, I have spend far more time appeasing those concerned about the reinstatement of any fashion of Formal Night then those happy to see its sort of return.)

But one thing is certain:  While guests are busy seeking out the absolute lowest possible cruise fare they need to ask themselves, "If I am paying so much less, what are the things I can live without while still having that luxury experience I so crave/need/demand (take your pick)?" 

For example, if you want marginal service with a limited menu, but in an open dining room for breakfast or lunch, give Regent Seven Seas a try.  (Or, possibly, read review after review about the disastrous service and poorly prepared food first.)  Oh, that's right, there is more to enjoying your breakfast or lunch than the venue.

Service and Cuisine.  Seabourn has chosen to keep those to the fore even in these challenging times.

Chew on that!