Thursday, September 30, 2010

United Kingdom and Australia: Looking for a U.S. Seabourn Travel Agent? Goldring Travel Has Your Number.

If you are looking for a U.S. travel agent who specializes in selling The Yachts of Seabourn cruises, or for that matter any luxury cruise, your plight just become easier!

As technology advances and our world becomes smaller communication becomes easier. However, one thing that I simply do not accept is that an email is a substitute for a personal conversation. 

To that end, Goldring Travel strives to assure that my clients can contact me virtually anytime and anywhere. If I am not in the office and you choose not to call me on my mobile (I give everyone my mobile number) I receive instant notification of your voicemail.  You send me an email and I receive it just as if I was in the office.  Shoot me a fax and I've got it just the same.

Goldring Travel then instituted the use of Skype so that clients from California to Israel can video chat with me.  It is, I believe, nice to see who you are talking with.  (And if you want to Skype while not looking your best, you can do it without video.

But if someone in the United Kingdom or Australia wasn't that computer saavy or finds that amount of technology just too much and simply wanted to pick up the telephone and call me, it meant making an international call.  Technology has changed that! Now if you are in the UK or OZ, you can call me on a local number (and it is, for you, charged merely as a local call!):

Goldring Travel's London, England telephone number is:    +44 20 8133 3450

Goldring Travel's Brisbane, Australia telephone number is: +61 7 3102 4685

This is just just one more way that Goldring Travel finds ways to improve upon its motto: "Be Treated By Your Travel Agent As You Will Be Onboard!"

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Seabourn Legend - I Never Knew What An Odyssey She Was

Tonight I stumbled across a 1996 news release about Seabourn's acquisition of the Seabourn Legend from the then failing (now long gone) Royal Cruise Line.  It seems Seabourn has two ships named Odyssey:

SAN FRANCISCO--(BUSINESS WIRE)--Jan. 18, 1996--Seabourn Cruise Line announced today that an agreement has been concluded for its acquisition of the vessel, Queen Odyssey, sister ship of the line's two elegant all-suite cruise ships, Seabourn Pride and Seabourn Spirit.

San Francisco-based Seabourn said the vessel had been purchased for $55 million from Kloster Cruises Ltd. of Oslo, Norway. Financial details of the acquisition were not released.

(It was announced publicly Tuesday, Jan. 16 in San Francisco that Royal Cruise Line would cease operations.)

Seabourn Cruise Line is jointly owned by Norwegian Industrialist Atle Brynestad who founded the line in 1987, and Carnival Corporation (NYSE:CCL).

The purchase agreement was signed today in Oslo by Atle Brynestad who serves as chairman and CEO of the line, and a representative for Kloster Cruises Ltd.


The elegant and highly regarded Seabourn will take possession of the Queen Odyssey on Jan. 26, 1996 in San Juan, Puerto Rico.


Seabourn pointed out that it had not acquired Royal Cruise Line but one of its assets and said it intends to continue to operate it as the Queen Odyssey and honor the Royal Cruise Line published schedule, pricing and marketing initiatives for a short period.


Seabourn stated that any guests booked at tariff on any modified Queen Odyssey itinerary can be assured that they will have the option of selecting itineraries from the Seabourn Pride or the Seabourn Spirit at Royal Cruise Line published prices. Details will be announced as soon as plans currently underway are finalized.

Learn something new every day.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Cunard and Princess Have a New Heavy Handed Cancellation Policy - Yikes!

I generally do not post the day to day changes in the dealings with the various cruise lines including such things as Carnival slightly shortening each penalty period.  But I had to write about this one:

Effective Wednesday, December 1, 2010, ALL Princess Cruises and Cunard Line bookings will automatically cancel as soon as the final payment is past due. Additionally, there will be no grace periods or extensions allowed for receipt of final payment. All Electronic Fund Transfers must be submitted and payments by check must be posted by the final payment date.

That's right.  If you are even a day late you are out of luck, your cruise will be cancelled...and Cunard (you know the line that pretends it is a luxury line) and Princess will take your deposit and your cabin.

I do not know this, but I think they probably are having problems with people that book late, then delay the final payment only to never make that payment.  This obviously leaves Cunard and Princess with unsold cabins and not much time to sell them. 

On the other hand, it is extremely heavy handed and, at least for me, is a huge reduction in Customer Service. 

Next time you are preoccupied at the deli counter and your miss you number being called, just expect to have to go to the back of the line and hope they don't run out of potato salad.  Selling a personal and emotional experience like a cruise, potato salad, it is all the same thing, right?

That reminds me:  For all of you who have a travel agent you just can't seem to get in touch with.  You better plan on reaching out to him/her at least a full week in advance of that final payment date. 

Oceania Marina Has Very Successful Sea Trials

On Friday through Sunday the Oceania Marina was taken out for a spin; 'er uh, her sea trials. 

Reports are she performed admirably maintaining a 22 knot speed and engaging in all the maneuvers required without issue (such as completing time trials, emergency maneuvers, tight 360 degree turns, etc.) 

Oceania has highlighted that she seems to have no vibration even at top speed.  For me the vibration thing is a bit over-rated, but generally the vibration issue is not at top speed, but when maneuvering.  Importantly, I understand there is no issue there either.

A trade publication quoted Capt. Dimitrios Flokos, the ship’s master as stating, “Marina exceeded all expectations. In fact, shipyard [Fincantieri] representatives commented this was the most successful sea trial in recent history for technical performance.”

Here is a peak at what Marina looks like:






Monday, September 27, 2010

Seabourn Wins Over (Former) Diehard Regent Seven Seas Devotees...Again.

I received an email from a client today...a former Regent devotee....who just returned from another Seabourn cruise. She wrote, in part:

"[I]n a word - P-E-R-F-E-C-T.   (We have a future open booking)"

I have listened for years about how wonderful Regent Seven Seas was and how, absent a balcony, the Regent devotees would never try Seabourn.  And for years I have said that the service and cuisine, as well as the yacht-like size of the Seabourn triplets, more than makes up for the lack of true balconies.  But the staunch (dare I say irrational...even militant) devotion to Regent remained and there wasn't a thing I could do to convince these folks that Seabourn was just plain better:  Better service, better cuisine and better ports of call.

Ironically, it seems that the changes to Regent Seven Seas have been such that those devotees (even the militant ones) are looking elsewhere...and Seabourn is obviously one of those cruise lines.  And, truth be told, while I have been waiting for the irrational complaints (after years of reading and hearing them from these folks who have never stepped aboard The Yachts of Seabourn), I think I am a surprised as they are. 

One poster, who comments on multiple message boards, just wrote, "For being a first timer here on Seabourn, we are quite impressed. The food and service has been impeccable. We haven't missed the balcony (surprise, surprise) as the sliding glass door allows the same view we would have with a normal balcony door closed. We do open the door sometimes for the sea breeze and the French balcony does allow you to step out for fresh air but much too small for any furniture".


Another first timer to Seabourn - while not thrilled with the triplet's pool (who is?) wrote yesterday, in part, "Absolutely love our cabin and the service has been perfect so far...Am loving the inside venues. Always quiet places with views and superb drink service...So far, a fantastic trip."
 
In this time of challenges to the cruise industry, Regent has take the approach of charging more, reducing service, limiting menu offerings and then claiming that the tours and air are "free".  Seabourn has taken a different approach:  It provides excellent pricing and, get this, refuses to compromise on service and cuisine.  Not a marketing gimmick in sight.
 
So if you are considering a cruise, but feel the balcony is the only thing stopping you from trying out one of the Seabourn triplets or you think that all so-called luxury lines are similar, you don't have to listen to me.  Listen to the diehard skeptics.  (And, truth be told, it is music to my ears!)

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Seabourn Listens: An Easy 5% Discount - Another Success Story!

For years I have been dealing with Non-Buyer's Remorse:  Seabourn guests who declined, forgot or didn't know about the 5% discount you receive when you make a refundable Open Booking. 

An Open Booking, which is fully refundable, is just that:  A booking with no specific cruise attached to it; you decide that later.  It is valid for two years and may be applied to any single sailing, whether it be a 5 day Caribbean Sampler or a Full World Cruise.  It costs $1,000 and, again, doesn't require a commitment to any particular cruise.

After settling in for a couple of weeks, many guests are already thinking:  Where do I go on my next Seabourn cruise?  Then I get the call.  And then I say, "I notice you did not purchase an Open Booking.  You could have saved an additional 5%." (I am notified when my client's purchase them as they are automatically assigned to me.) 

I need not go into the efforts I had to make to obtain that 5% discount for my clients because now Seabourn is implementing something I have suggested for years:  If you book a Seabourn cruise within 30 days of completing a Seabourn cruise you will receive the 5% discount on your next cruise.

Of course there remains the benefit of the 5% Open Booking:  You don't need to make a decision on your next cruise within 30 days...you have 2 years.

Now you have two options and you have no excuse for having Non-Buyer's Remorse!

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Oceania Cruises - Learning How to Do It Better: A Success Story.

This is a story of how a cruise line not only can correct it errors, but use the experience to create a "WOW" moment.  Even I, the critical one, am impressed!

A few months ago I was not very happy with Oceania Cruises. I have clients from two countries on the opposite ends of the world booked on the same cruise this December:  Oceania Nautica from Capetown, South Africa to Singapore.  Each client has different requirements for visas (and Africa's nations are notorious for having confusing visa requirements).  Each client is very well traveled and, alas, their travel agent (that would be me) is also very well experienced and is quite familiar with dealing with African visas.

Now the rub:  As is often the case, the cruise line obtains blanket transit visas in many countries, so the guests are either not required to obtain an individual visa or each visa is obtained seamlessly upon arrival (sometimes at an additional cost, sometimes not).  We all posed a simple question:  For which countries must the guests (of two different nationalities) obtain their own visas and which ones will Oceania make arrangements for.

Oceania not only didn't have a clue, it made a right mess of it.  I need not get into the details, other than to say, after it frustrated and then angered the guests and myself, it realized that there actually was a legitimate question in there and that guests from quite a few countries actually had the same questions.   Eventually Oceania advised it would obtain most every visa (at an additional cost - fair enough) for any guest desiring it and breaking out that cost by country.

It was, alas, the right answer, though a bit late. 

Fast Forward:  I have another client interested in booking a similar cruise for December 2011.  While I was prepared for the same ordeal, I found the experience to be almost embarrassingly efficient.  I made the booking and within a couple of hours I received a telephone call from Oceania, followed by an email, advising me of the various visas there were required for my clients along with an offer to add the visas to the booking or offering to allow the guests to obtain the visas on their own.

It was, contrary to the prior ordeal which lasted for quite a few weeks, a model of Oceania Cruises' attention to improving customer satisfaction, doing its job better, and efficiency.  On ordeal of just a few weeks earlier transformed into a downright pleasure.

Bravo!

Monday, September 20, 2010

Seabourn Quest - She Will Be Early. Want a Sneek Peak Cruise?

Today it was officially announced that construction of The Yachts of Seabourn’s third new ultra-luxury yacht, Seabourn Quest, is progressing well, and the company expects to take delivery of the vessel several weeks earlier than anticipated in May 2011. Following the delivery, Seabourn will operate two pre-inaugural cruises: a three-day round trip voyage from Monte Carlo starting from $1,299 per person, and an eight-day cruise from Monte Carlo to Barcelona beginning from $3,499 per person. Both voyages can be combined for an 11-day sailing starting from $4,549 per person.  [Note:  Goldring Travel is offering discounted rates on these cruises.]


The two sailings will offer travelers opportunities to have a “sneak peek” at the company’s newest yacht prior to its Maiden Voyage. The three-day pre-inaugural voyage will sail June 9-12, and call at Livorno, Italy, the port for Florence, Pisa, Lucca and other Tuscan highlights, as well as the picturesque port of Bonifacio, on the French island of Corsica. That will be followed by an eight-day cruise, June 12-20, visiting Portofino, Italy; Cannes, Ile de Porquerolles and Port-Vendres, France; and Valencia, Spain.

For those of you concerned about the Maiden Voyage not being special...or upset the the glamourous naming ceremony will be without the Maiden Voyage guests (as it was with the Seabourn Sojourn earlier this year), Seabourn Quest’s official debut will be June 20, with a gala naming ceremony featuring fireworks over the city of Barcelona, and a 14-day Maiden Voyage to Athens. Maiden Voyage guests will participate in the festive ceremony, and their names will be engraved on the commemorative onboard Maiden Voyage plaque to honor them. They will also mingle with Seabourn’s President and CEO Pamela C. Conover, who will be onboard and joining guests in a number of special gala events and activities throughout the cruise.

“It’s impossible to predict at the start whether everything will go perfectly in a complicated construction project,“ noted Conover. “Of course we had to plan our 2011 schedule at that point, too, but we are delighted that the building has gone beautifully and that we will have the chance to welcome guests aboard Quest earlier than we had thought. In addition, our guests who are booked on the Maiden Voyage will enjoy the naming ceremony and many special amenities and events we are planning especially for them,” she added.

Cruise Critic and Seabourn: Read What The Posters Write - You Better Be Careful...My Being "Reluctant to Make an Issue"

I received an email this morning about a Cruise Critic poster's idea that Seabourn should spend its money mailing comment cards to guests for their arrival back home, hire a person to be their ombudsman and have focus groups organized by telephone messages to determine when the past guest would like to discuss his/her issues. 

OK, I can see this is a person that wants the opportunity to nitpick at every opportunity and to do it at a time and manner convenient to him/her...and to even have Seabourn pay for someone to press his/her issue so the bother is on someone else.  (Ever met anyone that knows how to ruin a perfectly good party by bringing up a subject that creates unnecessary conflict and then complains that the party wasn't fun...and, "Can you believe that so and so said 'X'"?)

But I digress...

The sentence in the same post that floored me was...Wait for it...Here it comes..."Many CC'ers seem reluctant to 'make an issue' of something, even if it annoys them."  Yes, the folks that are so willing to shout, "I am not going to sail on Seabourn if they do or do not do X" and who wants Seabourn to create opportunities for them to complain longer and with less effort, believe they are "reluctant to 'make an issue'".  That floored me.

Believe it or not there are only about two dozen in total that actually post anything on Cruise Critic and, of those, most cruise once a year or twice on transatlantic crossings (because the fare is the lowest and they book the lowest category of suite).  To be fair, there are a couple of folks that actually do cruise for extended periods of time and, truth be told, they generally are not treated very well by some of the crossing/low fare Cruise Critic folks. (Just want to give a flavor of whose opinion or assertions of fact you just may be relying upon.  You may want to ask, "Do these posters reflect my perspective or concerns?"))

Take the present testing of closing the main dining room on the larger ships when there are port intensive itineraries.  It would seem that each and every one of them are the ones that use The Restaurant for breakfast and lunch...And not necessarily on the larger ships; for many are the same people that complained that the larger ships - Odyssey, Sojourn and Quest - would be the ruination of Seabourn and they would never step foot upon them.

So what is it that they are "reluctant to 'make an issue'" about?   And why when there is an issue (be it the dining venue or formal nights or the size of the ships or whatever) they are not reluctant to threaten that they are going to take their business elsewhere?  Let's leave for the moment that there really is no "elsewhere" for they are going to find other issues - more concerning issues - on the other lines.  ("Oh, the service is terrible"; "What to you mean I can't special order?", "You charge WHAT to dine there?", "No caviar?", "You call this 'cuisine'?", etc.)

And, once you actually understand that these "reluctant to 'make an issue'" folks are anything but "reluctant to 'make an issue'" you need to start looking at the inaccuracy of the "information" that they post.  Just on the dining issue alone, a test on larger ships became trauma on the smaller ships...when it was never in effect and never was going to be in effect on the triplets.  They have limited facilities in the Veranda which, even with The Restaurant open, runs at near capacity.  This misinformation caused over a dozen comments about the triplets...and none of them necessary or, frankly, relevant.

I spend way too much of my time correcting the misinformation on Cruise Critic.  Another example from the "experts" on a thread about Overbooking.  First, the "reluctant to 'make an issue'" folks claim that it is plain unacceptable on a luxury line or that it never happened to him on Silversea.  Then the misinformation about why it happens...and it is not because people cancel 91 days prior.  Geez. 

This is the deal:  There are always last minute cancellations due to illness, family emergencies, work issues, etc.  (That is why people purchase travel insurance!)  Over the years Seabourn (and other lines and airlines, etc.) have been able to establish a pretty good idea of how many folks will cancel within the last 30 days before the cruise so they can resell that same suite/cabin.  However, there are cruises that do not follow the averages.  Hence an oversold situation first becomes known to the public (for obviously the cruise was intentionally oversold to compensate for these cancellations...which is where the concept of Guarantee suites comes from.)

Seabourn usually offers a full refund, assistance with air and a complimentary cruise right out of the box.  Believe it or not, most Seabourn guests don't take up the offer because their cruise,  schedules and desire not to have hassles are more important than the free cruise.  However, I am not aware of a cruise where someone wasn't willing to do this, so they are happy and so is Seabourn.  No problem and no loss of luxury for anyone.  (Yes, it costs Seabourn money, but Seabourn also makes money reselling the suite that someone cancelled at the last minute, so overall Seabourn doesn't do so badly...nor do those who accept the offer.)

I pause for a moment:  Do you know why the Cruise Critic poster commented that this never happens on Silversea to his knowledge?:  A.  Silversea rarely sells out; and/or B.  If it happens and he isn't made the offer, he simply would never know about it.   It is not like the offer is made to every single person on a particular sailing.  But let's move one.

Oceania, for example, also finds itself in oversold situations.  What it does is play "Let's Make a Deal!"  One of my very loyal Oceania clients was offered $750 per person to move off...then $1,250...then $1,750...then $2,500 and then a reduced fare on another similar cruise.   That is a pain for the travel agent and an annoyance to the guest.  That is not luxury.

So just as Aunt Millie always seems to find fault, but tells you what a wonderful house guest she is, keep in mind that those on Cruise Critic who claim to be "reluctant to 'make an issue'" are, in fact, the ones that thrive on stirring the pot:  AT YOUR EXPENSE.

Just my opinion.

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!

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Seabourn Quest - Pre-Maiden Voyage Cruises Available in Early June 2011

The delivery of the Seabourn Odyssey was late and troublesome.  The delivery of the Seabourn Sojourn was on time and of great quality.  The Seabourn Quest is going to be early!

So what to do with a brand new ship that is going to be ready before the Maiden Voyage:  Have a couple of pre-Maiden Voyage cruises.  They are going to open for sale with a three day, eight day or, combining the two, an eleven day cruise.  (Not to worry I will be aboard the Seabourn Quest before these cruises, so I will be sure all is in order!)

And for those Maiden Voyage guests, not to worry.  You will have the full fanfare, possibly more, than the prior maiden voyages.  It will be as special as the prior ones. (Remember, people like me get to check the ship out and take her out for a spin before the prior maiden voyages so this is really not much different...just a bit longer.)

The itinerary, commencing on June 9, 2011 is as follows:

Monte Carlo
Livorno (Florence)
Bonifacio, Corsica
Monte Carlo (Disembark/Embark)
Portofino
Cannes
Ile de Porquerolles (Marina day - subject to weather & sea conditions)
Port Vendres
Palma de Mallorca
Valencia
Barcelona (overnight)

I cannot show pricing yet, but what I can tell you is that you can expect pricing to be a good value with the 11 day cruise being available for under US$5,000 per person.
If you are interested, email me or call me at (877) 2GO-LUXURY.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

You Asked For It: Why Not to Book a Seabourn Cruise in the United Kingdom

I am, frankly, tired of cleaning up messes and responding to emails about the problems British and other guests who book Seabourn and many other lines in the United Kingdom, so let me just put it out here.

THE RULES ARE DIFFERENT!!!!  I have mentioned many times that if you book in the United Kingdom, or with a United Kingdom travel agent, you are going to be subject to different terms and conditions than you will be if you book with an agent in, say, the United States.  It is, in most instances, black and white.  Period.  End of Sentence.

If you book with, say, Goldring Travel, there is no change or cancellation fee charged...ever.  If, however, you are within the penalty period (which generally starts 90 days prior to sailing) you will be subject to the cruise line's penalty charges (which range from the amount of your deposit up to the full amount of your cruise dependent on how close to the sail date you cancel).

Now, if you book with a United Kingdom travel agent, or even if you book directly with Seabourn (including onboard), you generally have ten (10) days to change or cancel your cruise...no matter how far in advance you book...or you will be hit with a minimum of a 10% change/cancellation fee.  Your final payment is probably not going to be due until 57 days prior to departure.

A word of caution for those of you in the UK who book onboard directly with Seabourn, if you wish to have your onboard booking direct with Seabourn transferred to Goldring Travel or some other US agency you will be hit with that 10% fee if it isn't done immediately.  While it may well be that I can absorb that cost, the better (required?) practice is to assign that booking to a US travel agency (preferably Goldring Travel) when you book onboard; not later. 

There is virtually no downside.  No downside?  Nope.  None. 

How can I say that?  Well, assuming price is not the issue (read my post from the other day on that subject) there are no fees, charges or penalties for changing your mind.  You want to change the cruise?  Absolutely fine.  You want to cancel the cruise?  Your choice.  You want to give the cruise to a UK agent?  Go ahead and rebook with a UK agent (the bookings cannot be transferred between countries...even if booked directly with Seabourn) and cancel the US booking without penalty.

By now you are asking, "Why can't I assign my onboard booking to whichever travel agent I want whenever I want at no cost to me?"  The answer is:  I dunno.  I don't have a clue.

But what I do know is that if you are dealing with Seabourn UK, you are not dealing with the same folks I deal with in Miami.  I do not claim to be perfect or to have the magic wand at all times, but what I do know is that I consistently hear of Seabourn UK being unresponsive and I am, frankly, troubled by that.

Anyone who deals with me knows I respond quickly...sometimes crazy quickly.  (I had a UK client email me on Saturday while I was at the US Open...an annual outing with my wife.  I emailed him right back, during the match.  He commented to me yesterday it was remarkable.  I also did the same with an Italian client of mine, but since he didn't mention he was watching the Open I didn't mention it to him.) 

One of the things that makes me look so good is that Seabourn's main office, in Miami, is just "That Good!" For example, today I had a request by a Canadian client to have an onboard booking discount applied to her new booking.  At 10:34 a.m. I made the request and at 12:49 p.m. I had the revised confirmation sitting in my Inbox. 
 
Another issue that seems to pop up is the quality of the travel agents that UK folks are dealing with.  As you may know I was one of literally only a handful of US travel agents flown over to London for the Inauguration of the Seabourn Sojourn (and, to be sure, I remained onboard for the black tie charity event and the Maiden Voyage, which you can read about on my blog).  The focus was to have as many UK travel agents as possible inspect the Seabourn Sojourn and see, at least to a small degree, what The Yachts of Seabourn is all about. While there are some excellent UK travel agents, the fact is that there are only a couple of significant sellers of Seabourn and, alas, that is where the breakdown comes. 

Today I read on Cruise Critic (because I was directed there by a client of mine) about a first time UK Seabourn guest who complained his suite was down some corridors and suffered from the sound of anchors, waves, etc.  He, obviously, had purchased one of the least expensive suites far forward but was not cautioned that for but a few pounds/dollars more he could have avoided the issues he complained of.  I can conjecture as to why, but the fact these things came as a shock to him makes it pretty clear to me.  And, to be sure, the story is not shocking to me, for I hear of UK-based letdowns time and time again. 

As a final note for now, back in May 2010 I wrote a piece entitled:  So You Think There is a Better Deal Out There? Think Twice If You Think "Currency" where I discuss the issues surrounding the purchase of your cruise based upon currency differences.. As hopefully you see, there is far more to the purchase of a cruise than the price in dollars vs. pounds...like fees, service and expertise.

Have any questions?  Drop me an email or give me a call.  You can even Skype me.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Cruise Lines International Pricing Strategies - Protecting Pricing and National Travel Agencies; Not the Consumers!

I wasn't going to write about this subject for a while, but it may just be coincidence...or not...but recently I had some issues with Oceania about booking my non-U.S. clients on the line.  For privacy reasons I will not go into the details or the resolution, but when I read the following announcement today in Travel Trade Gazette, it kind of made my blood boil:

Oceania Cruises is introducing sterling pricing and launching a brochure using pounds for the first time in its history.  Sterling will be in all brochures featuring cruises starting from January 1, including the winter 2011-12 programme, which goes on sale next week. The Miami-based line said the move signified a “new level of commitment from Oceania Cruises to its British guests”.


European sales and marketing director Bernard Carter said: “This is an incredibly big step forward for us and will certainly lead to some of the large travel agencies selling Oceania Cruises for the first time.  “To date, we have sold to our partners in US dollars, and they have had to convert into sterling before selling on.


“This created uncertainty for many agents and customers, and the move to sterling prices will undoubtedly lead to a rise in demand, particularly as we are maintaining our policy of offering fully refundable deposits until the final payment date.”

Oceania said brochures would start arriving in agencies from mid-September.

As many of you know, I have clients who live all over the world (some with more than two countries of residence) and, as such, I have a bit of experience in dealing with different currencies, exchange rates and what I will call questionable pricing and troubling business terms.

In May I wrote a piece titled:  So You Think There is a Better Deal Out There? Think Twice If You Think "Currency".  It discusses some of the pitfalls of looking at currency and exchange rates rather than the overall business terms such as cancellation fees, price guarantees, service, expertise, etc.  I would suggest your read it before continuing here.


Over the past few weeks I have had some "issues" with one cruise line in relation to my dealings with some long time clients living in New Zealand.  While we (the cruise line and I) are working through the problems and issues with some success, the fact remains the first line of misplaced attack (and I use that word purposefully) was that I had no business servicing non-U.S. or Canadian clients.  The issue wasn't that I pressed to find the answer to visa requirements that no travel agent in New Zealand, Australia, England, Scotland or the U.S. could obtain...because the cruise line actually had dropped the ball and, I guess, forgot to address the issue.  No, the issue was that I was an American meddling in an area of the world that I do not live.  (BTW, as a result of the hullabaloo the visa information was found by the cruise line...even for Americans and Canadians.  So I guess it was my doing my job rather than it being my fault for being a "foreigner".  Never did get a thank you from the cruise line; my clients from various countries on the same cruise did, however.)

With the cruise lines spending millions of dollars seeking people from all over the world to sail on their ships to visit yet other parts of the world, the whole concept of protectionist attitude seems counter-intuitive, doesn't it? 

One would think that it would be in the cruise line's interests for the best travel agents to be providing the best service to their passengers so that the passengers receive the best experience before they even board the ship and then board set up for the best cruise experience (rather than, "But my travel agent didn't tell me that...!" or "But I was told by my travel agent that X was included.")

But the fact is that most (not all) cruise lines are terribly protectionist.  They set up rules trying to prevent (or at least limit) international bookings.  They do this for two basic reasons:  They want to manipulate pricing and they want to develop travel agency infrastructure in various countries. The lines may tell you that the reason is actually that selling across currencies is very complicated.  (I guess Oceania has just figured it out!)  It isn't really as the cruise lines do it on the operations side every single day and, alas, international travel agents like myself do it as well.  The reality is that it is about trying to protect pricing and existing powerhouse travel agencies. 

Oceania's announcement, at least to me, is a giant step backwards, not forwards.  It is an antiquated way to isolate markets.  Figuring out your price in US Dollars around the world is simple.  Non-US folks do it all the time (as our economy is relatively enormous compared to almost every other one) as part of their lives.  By changing to using Pounds for UK passengers it sends a signal that Oceania is going to be engaging in pricing games (strategies) including dabbling in the aribitrage of currency markets.  (Remember, Oceania Cruises and Regent Seven Seas - sister companies - use non-US banks, so many passengers wind up with hundreds of dollars of foreign transaction fees that they will reimburse if requested.  Simply put, played correctly, there is a lot of money to be made in working foreign exchange markets!)

I don't want to make this post into one about how some cruise lines try to dump cruises in some markets with the belief that a Brit won't tell a Yank that he got his cruise for a lot less (or visa versa)...or at least he won't do it until it is too late (i.e. onboard).  I have already discussed that.

I am not sure (OK, I really am) why those cruise lines do not allow all travel agencies to offer the special pricing based upon residency if the issue is truly one of only pricing strategies.  I mean many cruise lines have Residency Specials where if you reside in California or New York or wherever you get special pricing and the cruising public is OK with that.  They can see and therefore accept it.  I can sell those cruises with the stated limitations...and all I need do is caution my clients that they need proof of their residency.  Why then should I not be able to do the same thing internationally?  I will get to that...Right Now!

There is a curious situation that unless you have lived and visited there you would probably not be aware of.  Australia and New Zealand are two separate countries, with separate governments, separate visa requirements, etc.  They are not even that close to each other.  And calling an Aussie and Kiwi or visa versa is not a good thing.  The distance from their closest major cities is over 1,300 miles...about the same distance from Florida to Venezuela.  But since geography puts them in the same less populated quadrant of the world I guess they are connected by default.  I can say the same about the U.S./Canada...but not Mexico...coupling, but I don't want to make this political.  But then again, why would I know anything more about the visa requirements of a Canadian (a member of the British Commonwealth) as an Aussie (also a member)?

And I think you are beginning to get my point.  The point is there is no actual, rationale, fact-based logic for the faux groupings and limitations.

Now, that established...it is pretty easy to have clout as a travel agency if you do not have any real competition.  And in the UK and Australia you have only a very limited number of larger travel agencies.  Most of you will have never heard of them...or their business terms...or of their expertise.  Why?  Because it is not to their advantage to let you know about them. They need to have their protections and stay in their corners to keep their business models viable:

- Change fees:  Yes. 
- Cancellation Fees:  Yes.
- Price Guarantees:  None or very limited. 
- Ship Knowledge:  Mostly not so much.

[Note:  Look at the announcement above again.  Do you see where the concept of no cancellation fee by the cruise line - not necessarily the agent - is touted as a progressive policy?  As I have told you, the terms are different...so be careful!]

More importantly: 

- Direct contact with the cruise lines:  Not really

There is a curious set up where there is an intermediary office.  Other than being protectionist, I truly do not understand the utility of, or need for, this sort of arrangement.  It may be regulatory, but that is only a surmise. 

Now what has brought this article on...other than incredible frustration and seemingly needless conflicts when all I want to do, and ultimately do do, is service my international (non-U.S.) clients in the best possible manner?  Believe it or not, it ultimately is not my challenges with the cruise lines or my conflict with at times knowing there may be better fares out there that just are not available to a client. 

It is that there are trade organizations that Goldring Travel should qualify for membership in, but it is not permitted to join.  Why?  Because the purpose of the trade organization is not, as marketed, to provide the consumer with the protections of working with a qualified travel agency, but rather to limit the consumers to local travel agencies which the organization seeks to protect!  Yes, imagine that:  Goldring Travel has sought membership in some trade organizations to provide international clientele with further assurance as to its quality and abilities, but it is barred from membership because it is "Not One of Ours".

Are you, the public better protected?  You now know that you are not...either as to quality of the travel agency's services or business terms or, possibly, pricing.  You are essentially being forced to use a possibly inferior travel agency or have inferior terms just because you live in X.  (To be fair, there are times pricing is better outside the US, but again it is more than price we are concerned about.)

Add that to some of the cruise line pricing schemes of not providing transparent pricing...even though you all wind up on the same ship and talk about pricing (and then some get very upset!). Oceania's change from worldwide consistent pricing in US Dollars is because why?  It makes you wonder.

At least it makes me wonder.

But in the end Goldring Travel gets it, and works in the international markets all the time.  I will make sure you get the best pricing and, as I have done in the past, I will tell you if I know there is a better value out there if you book with a local agency.

What do you think?  Post your thoughts on The Gold Standard Luxury Travel Forum.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Seabourn vs. Silversea vs. Regent - Forget Loyalty; Which Provides the Best Luxury Cruise Experience?

UPDATEI have written a few articles since first writing this that are worth considering.  While the following article remains highly relevant, these articles are well worth considering when deciding which luxury cruise line most likely meets your desires.: 
I eoncourage you to search my blog for other articles on each cruise line.  (A Search feature is located on the left hand side.)  There is a lot of useful information, analysis and opinion here.

Now the original article!

OK, I admit it.  I am, at times, light a moth drawn to a light bulb.  Once in a while I get the urge to check out CruiseCritic to see what the few folks that do post there are saying about their cruises on Seabourn, Silversea and Regent.  (I also read some of the Crystal posts.)  There is a very similar themes when the threads are read on each cruise line and, to me, some of those consistencies are troubling.

Regent Seven Seas is the one that strikes me as the most disturbing.  There are service issues and then there are service issues.  Then again, there are service issues.  I will be perfectly honest:  My last cruise on Regent was on the Navigator in 2006. (I was on the Paul Gauguin in 2007, but as that is no longer a Regent product - and it was always different - I will not include it.)  At that time I saw an arrogance in the ship management (hotel director, front desk, tour desk, etc.) that exuded a "Sorry, deal with it" attitude, coupled with marginally acceptable stewardess service and dinner service in the Compass Rose that was pretty close to shocking.  And, to be sure, it was an improvement in many ways over my 2005 cruise on the Mariner. You can read about it here:  Goldring Travel Regent Navigator Review 2006

Now let's fast forward to 2010.  What is different?  What is improved.  What has changed?  I am struggling here. 

I really don't care where you get your cruise information, the complaints are the same...especially in the main dining room. Time after time, on website after website, I read about the misses in the Compass Rose at breakfast, lunch and dinner.  I have worked as a waiter in a summer camp and a bartender in a James Beard Award winning restaurant and I have seen enough superyacht and cruise ship galleys to really understand what it takes.  (And following around a particular waiter - as a few do - is a red flag:  It means most of the wait staff is incapable of delivering service!)  Seabourn delivers markedly better service.  Silversea delivers markedly better service.  And, folks, Celebrity delivers better service.  And you pay a premium to sail on the first to use the term "Six Star" cruise line because why?

Then there is the issue with consistent complaints about Regent having limited its menus and having made its food bland and uninteresting.  The irony here is that its sister line, Oceania Cruises, delivers consistently solid cuisine (if not luxury quality) and has an affiliation with Jacques Pepin.  Years ago I attended the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen, Colorado and Jacques Pepin held a seminar/demonstration on how to create a really wonderful and tasty meal for under $6.00 a person.

Folks, this ain't rocket science nor is it magic. It is about training and attitude from the top to the bottom. While I do not expect Regent to be serving extraordinarily expensive food all the time, I do expect that its chefs and cooks will be able to perform the simple tasks that can make a $0.10 egg into a treat and a chicken breast into a sumptuous and juicy event.  (Anyone watch "Master Chef" with Gordon Ramsey?  It is remarkable how simple technique makes all the difference.)  There just is no excuse for less than very good meals...ever.

And now I hear grumblings about the Prime 7 Restaurant. I was critical of Regent serving grotesquely oversized crab legs and steaks and declared it "not luxurious", but rather a waste and very middling.  Now a number of people are admitting it was uncomfortable being service huge portions, but are also complaining that the recent changes have made the portions too small and, of course, not consistently prepared to at least a "very good" standard. 

And, as I predicted, the "free" or "inclusive" tours are leaving many people wondering just what it was they were paying for.

Yes, the ships  are physically nicer and better kept now, but they are also completely full...which those ships really were never designed to be.  And, to be sure, if you compare the hardware and dining experiences available on Seabourn and Silversea...which are at lower prices, it leaves you wondering.  I mean it should leave you seriously wondering.   And remember folks, this is not only me talking.  This is a consistent mantra from past guests. 

So who is venturing onto Regent and finding things OK:  Those that may not know any better.  New cruising families; those moving up from NCL or Holland America.  You don't find many Seabourn or Silversea past guests deciding on cruising on Regent...and now you know why.  (For those moving up, please think about that.  You want to have the best cruise experience for your money...not one that may be better than the experience on a contemporary line.)

Silversea Cruises is another one...and this is soooo frustrating for me.  I want Silversea to succeed.  I want to have confidence in the product.  But I keep hearing of disappointments and very few raves.  I will not repeat my criticisms of the Silver Spirit (which you can quickly find by searching this blog), but rather will simply say that the ship is the result of a combination of financial problems, desires to cram in as many guests as possible, poor design and a troubling change in philosophy toward generating "onboard revenue" and reduced overhead costs....probably intended to be instituted fleetwide.

I can get over such things as eliminating complimentary caviar and even cheapening the ticket wallets.  (You would be surprised how many of my clients use Seabourn's optional e-Docs when the full presentation box remains the default choice, so you have to select e-Docs.)  What I can't get over is charging for specialty restaurants...and then charging for the liquor in the restaurants.What infuriated me is Silversea's automatic charge for a donation to the cruise line head's wife's charity...that you have to ask to be removed.

But what concerns me is the consistent mention of a reduced level of service; even more than the cuisine (notice I call it cuisine on Silversea and Seabourn, rather than food on Regent!) going from consistently excellent to consistently very good.  What is consistently reported is that there is a degraded attitude toward service.  Yes, most all will be done, but that is about it.  The reports are of a disconnect with the guests.  While remembering one's name may or may not be important, remembering birthdays or being greeted with a genuine smile or a bit of flare in the dining room do make huge differences.  (Even on the premium lines, I always point out to my clients that on Holland America the service is more of a subservient quality, while on Celebrity it tends to be more proactive and interactive.)  In other words, "Just Getting It Done" is not good enough when you are discussing a luxury product.

I also have concern about the cuisine, but not one that would make me avoid a Silversea cruise.  It seems to me that the flare and presentation is just not what it used to be.  Aside from some pretty common claims that the menus have become somewhat uninspired, there is a poster on CruiseCritic (TLCOhio) who loves to post photos about anything Silversea.  When I look at the cuisine, it looks good, but not great.  There is a polish in presentation and a fresh combination of ingredients (rather than mixtures) that seems to be consistently missing.  And then there is Hot Rocks Grill on the Silver Spirit.  I get having fun at dinner, but slapping huge hunks of meat on a stone and cooking it myself - while wearing a bib so the grease doesn't splatter on me - is not a luxury experience.  (We are talking a luxury cruise here, correct?)

A poster on CruiseCritic, Stines, created a very good comparison between Silversea and Seabourn which you can read here:  Stine's Review.  I think some of the comments by others are also enlightening.  What you need to remember is that what is important to him or some other poster may not be that important to you or may be coming from a different perspective.  My point, however, is that while comparing Silversea to Seabourn is worthwhile because they both (ship dependent) deliver a quality product, there are real differences both in quality and value.

The Yachts of Seabourn is, without question, the leader in luxury all-inclusiveness.  I will not repeat all of the inclusive, but will note what the others do not.  Seabourn does not charge for Alternative Dining which (ship dependent) ranges from grilled tiger prawns to Restaurant 2's tasting menu.  Nor does it charge for caviar.  It also doesn't cut back or "forget" to stock your in-suite bar.

The remarkable thing about Seabourn is that you never hear that you are not addressed by name.  Some experienced Seabourners have noted that they prefer the smaller ships because on the newer ones not everyone knows your name and the time spent on personal moments may been a bit less (I did not find this to be true, either for myself or any guests I have traveled with.) Note the issue is not the lack of recognition or personal treatment, it is that it has remained at the level it always has been on the smaller ships and that the larger ships may be slightly less.  (Note:  My latest rating from the Seabourn Odyssey:  11 out of 10.)

Complaints about Seabourn's cuisine?  Try these on: 

(A) "I am not allowed to special order meals (like a curry lunch or dinner) in the Colonnade, but have to dine in the Restaurant."  That's right, you can still special order, but not whole meals at any venue you desire.  And this is a real problem?

(B) "After 21 days the menu becomes repetitive."  Again, no complaint about slimmed down menus or falling off of cuisine quality.  Rather it takes about 3 weeks to start seeing the same menu options.  I did have a discussion with one client that noted the vegetable options on his Asia cruise was a bit more limited than he would have liked.  When I mentioned to him that provisioning for American/European tastes in Asia can be difficult, he responded, "But Seabourn told me they fly in the vegetables."  'Nuf said.

Another feature well worth noting is the space to passenger ratio and feel.  If you read the comments about a full Regent ship or a full Silversea Silver Spirit (albeit rare), you will be amazed at the comments about how spacious the Odyssey, Sojourn and soon to be Quest are.  Personally, I find there to be far more personal space on the larger Seabourn ships than the smaller ones...and that is saying something both as to design and a cruise line making sure you receive a luxury experience in luxury surroundings.

There you have it.  A straight up, albeit limited, comparison from my perspective.

If you think I have "missed the boat" drop me an email or post something on The Gold Standard Luxury Travel Forum.

If not, why not book your next cruise?  Let me know.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Summer Isn't Over Yet - Slope Brook Farm Sunflowers

I know I haven't posted much lately as I have been very busy with work, visitors, getting the kids ready for school, etc...just like many of you.  But in all the craziness and rushing around, sometimes you just need to stop and say, "Wow, that's pretty!"

A dear friend of mine is raising a crop of sunflowers near my house.  (You may remember him as the farmer with the long horn steers that stampeded:  A Thanksgiving Story That Is "Bull" .)  I love to take a moment now and again and drive by just to say, "Wow, that's pretty!"




Thank YOU for stopping by!

Come back soon.  I have lots on my mind and lots of information to share and will be doing so shortly.