Monday, January 31, 2011

What is a Luxury Cruise Experience? - Part II: Service - A Realistic Perspective

In the first part of this series I discussed the concept of "nickel and diming" concluding that the issue, at least from my perspective, is not necessarily of being charge ala carte for everything, but one of being overcharged for things either on an ala carte or all-inclusive basis.  Those willing to pay a premium for the included overcharged items may wish to call it something other than "nickel and diming", but an improvident hand in one's pocket is an improvident hand in one's pocket.

Now let us discuss the issue of "service" because, from my perspective, this is what "luxury" really depends on.  For me service is "The Show". It is what luxury actually is all about. You can serve decent food with flare and it will taste great. You can take an older ship and have the staff sweep you off your feet. It is not, as some think, the icing on the cake. It is the glow of the candles on that cake...you know the ones that made you feel so special when your mom was carrying it over to the table with everyone singing Happy Birthday.

Remember, we all have our own definition of what luxury is, but I do not believe any of us are willing to say service is not a major factor in our definition. In order to discuss service levels, we must first look at what services are "required", which service is "expected" and which service is "luxurious".

I do not believe there is any dispute that on a cruise it is "required" that our staterooms/suites are cleaned (we will leave how many times a day for the moment), our sit down meals are served to us, our drinks are delivered to us and that public spaces be cleaned and made orderly.  Let us just break that down...even just a little bit.

Your stateroom/suite is to be cleaned, but is it once a day or twice.  On some cruise lines it is cleaned in the morning and straightened in the evening, but not cleaned.  Or, if you sleep in, you do not get the morning cleaning and your room will remain uncleaned until the evening when it is given a quick "once over".  We can agree that is not a luxury experience.  Ever have all of your papers that you have nicely placed in various piles all lumped together?  Wonder where the heck your widget went?  Again, we can agree that is not luxury.  But is simply having your room serviced without your stuff being shuffled around and clean a good definition of luxury?  I think we can agree that it isn't.  So what is luxury when it comes to servicing your stateroom/suite? 

What about having your room taken care of even if you sleep until noon?  Or returning from dinner and finding rose petals and chocolates on your bed?  An aromatherapy bubble bath readied artistically in your bathtub upon your return after a hot day of touring?  To me those are all luxurious items, but I believe there needs to be more...There needs to be a person who makes those things something experiential rather than mechanical.

I just returned from a very short cruise on the Celebrity Century and I do not believe I ever saw my room steward.  (I did see my butler.) While there are some that go with the "magically my room was cleaned" approach, the reality is that luxury involves people...and it is the people that make things feel other than mechanical.  On Seabourn, for example, your stewardess is trained to engage you in conversation...or not...picking up on your subtle hints.  This can lead to a personal note left on your bed referencing a comment you made about what you did last evening or were going to do that day.  It gives, in simple terms, a sense that your stewardess cares...and that is luxurious.

On the Seabourn Odyssey this past November some friends of mine were cruising in the Wintergarden Suite.  They arranged with the stewardess for me and my DW to enjoy their whirlpool one afternoon.  On her own she arranged for a bottle of French champagne, chocolate covered strawberries, flower petals surrounding the whirlpool and...extra bathrobes and towels.  Done?  Nope.  She knew I loved Bruce Springsteen, so she found a few of the more romantic ballads (yes, he has some) and had them playing when we arrived.  That is, without question, luxury.

OK, now onto service of food (I am not talking about the food, itself...that is for another post).  There are buffets and then there are buffets.  We know that the days of truly fine dining for breakfast are fading, but that does not mean one should be relegated to walking in a circle piling lots of stuff on your plate.  That, we can agree, is not luxury.  But what if you select what you want and a waiter politely collects your plate and escorts you to your table?  Some may like it and some may not, but it being available gives a sense of personal engagement within your dining experience.  (It is a shame Celebrity has eliminated this service as has Regent.)

Another aspect of this breakfast buffet is waiting for your eggs to be cooked.  I find it painful to wait in a line while somebody cooks the eggs of two people ahead of you...while the remainder of your food changes from hot to cold or cold to hot...and you are dying for that cup of coffee.  Seabourn, for example, eliminates that problem by having waiters take those orders.  That allows you to eat what you want in the order you want and it being hot when it is supposed to be.  Does this define "luxury"?  I am not so sure it does, but what it does do is eliminate an issue that clearly reduces the experience below luxury.

BTW, for those that believe that a buffet of any sort cannot be part of a "luxury" experience, I think they forget the historical excitement over buffets.  The Midnight Buffets, the Chocolate Buffets, etc. that cruise ships used to hold were considered the ultimate in luxury.  This past Christmas, the Ritz-Carlton Lake Tahoe had a buffet dinner...and it was more costly than dining ala carte in its fine dining venue.  Buffets are a style of dining, not an antonym of luxury dining.

Skipping forward to dinner, I will avoid the issue of dress.  That is a topic unto itself and one must consider the relationship between elegance and luxury.  These are interrelated, but not synonymous terms.  But regardless of the clothes, there is a difference between "eating" and "dining" and that does lend itself to discussions of what is luxury.

Entering a large dining hall (on large ships they are "halls" not "rooms") and walking unescorted to your table is akin to self-service eating.  Does the server greet you as you arrive?  Is the table set with crystal and silver or glasses and stainless?  Is there a charger or a tablecloth in front of you? Does your waiter place your napkin in your lap?  Request sparking or still water?  Bring an assortment of fresh bread and breadsticks immediately after seating or are they already on the table...or are they served individually?  Is there a wine steward and is that steward knowledgeable or just wearing different clothes?  How long do you wait from the time you sit until the time your order is requested? And I have just gotten started!

The point is "dining in luxury" is an orchestrated event far beyond putting down and picking up plates.  When your waitress introduces herself and asked how your day was, there is another moment of personal acknowledgment.  Scanning the table to see when it is appropriate to take your orders, rather than having to get the order into the galley so the waiter interrupts.  When your wine steward recalls that you prefer a particular style of wine and suggests an alternative to the evening's complimentary selection there is another...as is offering to change your wine when he notices your main course would suggest a different wine.  "Mr. Guest, the chef has prepared our Beef Wellington gluten free for you, if you would like to try it." is another.  And the service events such as this goes on throughout the dining experience.  That is, to be sure, a luxury experience.

I read how it is necessary, desired or considered "cool" to request a specific waiter.  Hold on there!  Waiters are to compliment my dining experience; not make it.  There should never be "a" waiter, but a team of waiters in a luxury situation.  It is, remember, an orchestrated...not a solo...event.

Ironically, as I am writing this I received a telephone call from The Yacht Report concerning the upcoming American Superyacht Forum.  In the course of the discussion we spoke a bit about a recent silly premise asserted by someone that he believes one can successfully charter a superyacht with low paid cruise-type staff.  If you think the service standards required on a luxury cruise are challenging, imagine them on a superyacht!  This might, actually, become part of this year's conference panel discussions because luxury service levels are so critical.  But I digress. 

Now let's discuss the simple drink.  A luxury beverage service experience is, like dining, an experience; not the plunking down of a drink.  You motion for a waiter to take your drink order, wait a few minutes and it arrives.  Have you ever been served off of a wet drink tray?  Without a cocktail napkin?  A beer without a glass?  Those are not luxury experiences.

The bar waiter sees Ms. R and knows she will order an ice tea and three lemon wedges, so it is ready even before she sits down...and then is replenished before her glass is empty, thank you.  "Mr. Goldring, so nice to see you at the hot tub at 3:30 pm, just as you mentioned to Mr. Smith.  I have your champagne and four glasses right here."  The bar waitress greets you with moments of sitting down with a personal greeting, a quick chat about something and then offering to take your order.  And, of course, there is the placement of nuts (not peanuts) or snacks on your table when the drinks are served.  Passed canap├ęs?  Why not, it is a luxury experience.

There are events, like the Goldring Travel Food & Wine Tastings that go above any beyond...and are true luxury. A private setting with the Sommelier, Executive Chef, Sous Chef, Wine Waiters, Waiters, crystal, silver, 18 different wines, 11 different cuisine experiences...and, of course, personalized menus.  That is luxury service.

Hopefully from this you can see there is a huge difference between poor service, good service and luxury service.  It may well be that luxury service is not important to you.  You are happy to walk up to the bar and have your Boddington's served to you in a can (missing, of course, that creamy flowing head).  You may just want to walk up to a buffet and grab a burger.  It is important, nonetheless, to understand what luxury service is so that you can (a) avoid it because it is not for you; (b) stop identifying service that is not luxury as being it...and overpaying for it; and/or (c) assuring yourself that you are having your expectations met...or, to be sure, exceeded!

By the way, I have been receiving quite a number of emails asking me if I actually book cruises or if I would consider booking their cruises or if I would consider booking cruises on other than luxury cruise lines. The answer to all three questions is: YES. You can email me at eric@goldringtravel.com  or call me at (877) 2GO-LUXURY or internationally on +1 732 383-7398 or UK  on +44 20 8133 3450 or Australia on +61 7 3102 4685.