Friday, February 11, 2011

Oceania Marina - A Great Addition, But It Is NOT Luxury

As many of you know I have withheld my opinion of the new Oceania Marina until she is truly operating under normal day-to-day conditions. There is no question that master marketer, Frank Del Rio, knows how to put on a show and to create buzz. That is not only because of his talents, but because he knows what people in his intended market want. Mr. Del Rio has gone out of his way to say that Oceania Marina is not a luxury cruise ship, but an "upper premium" one.

He has to have a reason. To be sure, to the educated luxury travel agent and the sophisticated luxury traveler it is obvious: Oceania Marina is NOT a luxury product. That is not a slap at the ship or Oceania or Frank Del Rio. It is simply the truth and what Oceania Marina is.

What do I base this on?  Over the past weeks I have been writing about what is "luxury" and what is faux luxury, misperceptions of luxury and, in fact, what is the standards that should apply when determining if something is "luxury".  While I haven't finished the series, its timeliness suggests that if you haven't read the articles, you take a moment or two and read them before proceeding:

What is a Luxury Cruise Experience? - Part I: "Nickel and Diming" - A Realistic Perspective
What is a Luxury Cruise Experience? - Part II: Service - A Realistic Perspective
What is a Luxury Cruise Experience? - Part III: Cuisine - A Realistic Perspective 
What is a Luxury Cruise Experience? - Part IV: Shore Excursions - A Realistic Perspective

But, of course, there are those in the press that are more interested in making headlines or, to be sure, simply have no idea what they are talking about...despite their beliefs that they do...exclaiming Oceania Marina is a new standard in luxury and that every cruise line from Crystal to Seabourn to Regent Seven Seas needs to watch out.  Puuuullleeeeeze!

Oceania Marina is a beautiful ship and she has some very nice restaurants and a culinary school.  She has larger staterooms and some truly top of the line suites, but it is not just about the hardware.  For me it is not about walk-in closets or showerheads that some don't like, but rather how the ship's facilities are offered to the passengers and how the staff utilizes them.

For example: 

- Oceania remains a "pay as you go" (a/k/a "nickel and diming") product.  You are going to pay for your drinks (other than soft drinks and water), wine with your dinner, etc.  And, on top of that you are going to pay a hefty 18% gratuity.  Internet is $.95/minute and $.70/minute in the smallest package.

- You want to order "off menu" for dinner? Not happening.
- You want special services?  If you can get them you are going to pay for them.
- Ambiance in the public spaces are, it is said, very nice, but then you read about hundreds..yes hundreds...of people converging on the Observation Lounge after dinner.
- Enrichment lectures?  No so much.  (Port shopping talks, yes.)
- No matter how you slice it there are 1,250 people on the ship, so when you go to the casual (buffet) dining venue there are going to be lots of people and food of a type, nature and presentation that can keep those crowds moving.

And, speaking of food, from what I have seen, the offerings seem good, but the overall presentations are not what you would expect on a luxury cruise line.  (Some yes, but most not so much.)

Crystal carries about 1,000 guests.  Its cuisine is consistently tops and its enrichment lectures are the best at sea.  It provides hefty onboard credits so that you are not paying additional for your drinks (if you drink) or your spa services (if you spa) and it has some pretty amazing shore excursions (also paid with the onboard credits).  And, to be sure, you never hear a complaint about Crystal's service.  So, does Marina have better standard cabins?  Absolutely.  Does it have a few more dining venues?  Yes it does.  But do these things establish it as a challenger in the luxury market?  I don't think so.  However, I am certain there will be competition from Oceania Marina and that Crystal may have some worrying to do.  However, it is not because Oceania Marina is a luxury product, but because it is a wonderful new ship that provides significant value.  There is a balance that each person must make (itineraries aside).

Seabourn carries 208 or 450 guests, so you are talking only 16% or 27% of the guests.  It has highly trained, intuitive, service with the lowest guest to staff ratio and the highest space to guest ratio, resulting in highly personalized service in a spacious and uncrowded setting.  Cuisine is just not going to be comparable in most instances (some I am sure would be), but then again, if you want something "off menu" Seabourn not only will do it, the staff may well suggest it or anticipate your desire for it. Sorry, it is just not in the same class.

Regent Seven Seas is the most interesting of them all.  Oceania's sister company operates ships that carry 700+ guests and the staff of Marina was, in large part, trained on Regent's ships.  Since Regent has the highest prices in the industry, the issue is not so much if the drinks are included, but is the premium worth it as compared to the much newer and more modern Oceania Marina.  Cuisine will be comparable or better on Marina, but Regent does offer "off menu" dining.  With many Regent faithful complaining about lines for tours and sizes of groups on the tours...and, at times, even just getting off the ship because of lines...and inconsistent service in the dining room, one must ask first if Regent is luxury and then if Oceania Marina is competition.  I would say no to the first question and yes to the second question.

I will end by saying this:  I have said repeatedly that on Celebrity's newest ships it is most definitely possible to have a near luxury experience on a clearly not luxury product.  Without having even set foot on the Oceania Marina, in the right accommodation and with some planning I do believe you can achieve a near luxury experience (and, even, possibly a luxury one) on this "upper premium" cruise ship. 

But that said, I must remind everyone that Frank Del Rio has insisted his baby is not a luxury product, but still an extraordinary one.  As of now, I agree.