Friday, March 25, 2011

A Luxury Cruise: What is the "Industry Accepted Definition of 'Luxury'"? Does One Exist?

iWith Seabourn Cruises having a major back-office shakeup, Crystal Cruises joining the "inclusive" cruise lines and Regent Seven Seas seemingly joining the premium/mass market lines with its segregation of luxury suites into Concierge (Regent's term) and Second Class (my term)...and my having commented rather directly on each's big move...someone fairly high up in the cruise industry protested the content of one of my recent articles and used the phrase, "the industry accepted definition of ‘luxury’". That really took me back.

Goldring Travel's Motivation

My motives were questioned as well....and that well and truly baffled me. So let me be very clear about my motives: I find the marketing of snake oil not only to be offensive, I believe it is unlawful. I believe it violates Consumer Fraud laws. Because of my professions I cannot, and will not, simply push a cruise line's sales pitch simply because they want me to. As such, if I do not believe a cruise line is giving an honest representation I am going to say it. You may recall that last year certain cruise lines were fined and/or forced to rewrite their brochures because of misleading representations as to what was "free". And, of course, you know my mantra of "Nothing is free. You are paying for everything!" You will also notice that Seabourn does not offer "free" air and I will, in a very small part, take credit for that...because I voiced my opinion on that subject very loudly.

As you will see herein, I can back up the fact that there is no alleged "industry accepted definition of luxury" and that just because a cruise line seeks to redefine "luxury" so that it can put forth a sales pitch (snake oil if you will) that it is offering a luxury product I am going to tell you objectively why I believe it is or isn't a luxury product. To do otherwise would, in my opinion, be dishonest.

To be sure, there is nothing wrong with a cruise line lawfully engaging in what is called "mere puffery" (something the consumer should know is just marketing hype). This would include comments like, "The finest experience at sea", "Six Star Luxury", "Simply the Best". However, just because it is lawful it does not mean that I am required to (a) push the puffery or (b) shut my mouth and not tell my client that I believe it is mere puffery and not the quality they think it is. My job it to assure that my clients receive the product that meets or exceeds their desires...not jeopardize my reputation or my client's vacation by violating their trust by ignoring the truth.

Who Defines, and How to Define, a Luxury Cruise

I think I have been around a day or two and have dealt with one or two "luxury" cruise lines and, oh, I don't know...appropriately cared for hundreds of luxury cruise clients....attended quite a few conferences, seminars, lectures and I have even given a lecture or two...and I have NEVER heard of an "industry accepted definition of luxury".

In support of that absence and my belief that a definition is actually needed, I recently wrote a four part discussion of "What is a Luxury Cruise Experience?"


Then, just last week I was at the Seatrade Cruise Shipping Conference sitting in on the Luxury Cruise Panel and was baffled by not only the differing concepts of "luxury", but why certain cruise lines were even on the panel.

I listened to the head of Cunard talk about all of the brands on the three Queens (Mary, Victoria and Elizabeth): Todd English, Canyon Ranch, Wedgewood, Twinings, etc., etc., etc. Yes, there is Grill Class and all that comes with it...and it is that which defines luxury to most. It is the rarefied world of private lounges and dining rooms, fine cuisine and spacious and well-appointed suites. But in the end, you are effectively on a mass market ship with thousands of people paying for everything with onboard revenue options everywhere once you leave your confines. Does that meet the alleged "industry accepted definition of luxury"? Well, other than Cunard being on the Luxury Cruise Panel at the conference you don't regularly hear about Cunard being a luxury cruise line, do you? What you actually hear is that there is a luxury class within the cruise line.

As I listened I said to myself, "With so many brands supporting Cunard, is Cunard providing anything that by itself supports the concept of 'luxury'" or is it claiming luxury by presenting someone else's luxury hardware...but without the luxury software (people, etc.)?

What about MSC? It was on the panel because of its somewhat similar to Cunard segregated area known as the Yacht Club. Does that meet the alleged "industry accepted definition of luxury"? For if it does, do we then throw in Norwegian Cruise Lines' Garden Villas? Do we include Celebrity Cruises Aqua Class cabins...or just its suites...or neither?

How do we deal with the Oceania Marina? Frank Del Rio, Sr., the head of Prestige Cruise Holdings, Oceania Cruises owner, insists that his new, and beautiful, ship with incredibly high guest satisfaction ratings is NOT luxury. Paul Motter, of CruiseMates.com argues that it is, in fact, a luxury product. I wrote an article on why it is not: Oceania Marina - A Great Addition, But It Is NOT Luxury. Anyone hearing about an alleged "industry accepted definition of luxury"?

Seabourn Cruises is presently running a bit on its website which states, "Seabourn believes clairvoyance is a job requirement." It would seem that Seabourn is focused on intuitive service...its own branding...rather than the brands of others or, to be sure, that hardware establishes luxury.

So with that preface I revisit the former Regent Seven Seas' ploy of asserting it provides a "Six Star Luxury" Experience...reminding you that I consider the phrase to be "mere puffery". Regent sought to portray itself as being better than regular luxury, better than some supposed industry definition (which, you will remember, has not yet been defined), better than its competition. But, once again, it never defined what was required to achieve "Six Star Luxury". Making it more offensive...at least to me... is that Regent Seven Seas was knowingly providing a inferior product to Seabourn and Silversea and, cabins aside, Crystal Cruises. But it was argued (and is still argues) that it was still a luxury product.

To be fair and accurate, when Apollo Management and its Prestige Cruise Holdings took over Regent Seven Seas, Frank Del Rio, Sr. and his people, made many, many changes to the Regent Seven Seas product from hardware to cuisine because, in reality, Regent was pressing to reach "four stars", forget "six stars". (For all the Regent loyalists out there, even if you argue that Regent is as good as Seabourn, there has never been any consistent assertion or substantiation that Regent provides a superior experience....and isn't that was the whole Six Star Luxury thing was asserting?)

Now, Regent Seven Seas after significantly changing its product to be more "inclusive" with a "free", "free", "free" mantra even though every soul pays for everything, but merely in an inflated lump sum - and insisting that is "luxury" - declares that providing such amenities as "printed air boarding passes" and a Regent tote bag...but only in the upper categories...defines luxury. Now I must pause: I am trying to remember the last time I needed to printout boarding passes on a luxury ship and was denied same or paid for it...or the last Seabourn cruise that I didn't receive a tote bag (heck, for that matter the last time on Celebrity cruise!). Priority luggage handling, dinner reservations and spa appointments also don't cut it as even marginally defining luxury.

Are these things that are within the alleged "industry accepted definition of luxury"? Me thinks not! More importantly, are the absence of those things something that excludes the cruise experience from being within the alleged "industry accepted definition of luxury"? Again, I think not.

Why Cruise Lines Claim to be "Luxury"

The fact of the matter is that the main reason cruise lines want to claim their product is a luxury one is so that they can find justification for charging you, the consumer, a higher fare. There is nothing wrong with that...as long as you are "an educated consumer" (Thank you, Sy Syms!) and understand that just because it says "Coach" or "Jaguar" or whatever it doesn't mean that the product is of the highest or luxury quality. The brand may cause you to think "luxury", but you should not stop "thinking" there.

And that is where I come in. I seek to educate my clients and potential clients. I want to you know not to rely upon "mere puffery" or blindly follow claims of inclusion in the luxury market because of a non-existent "industry accepted definition of luxury".

On December 10, 2010 I was quoted in an article on FoxBusiness.com. I was described as follows:

"[C]ruise ship connoisseur, Eric Goldring, a yachtsman, maritime lawyer and luxury cruise expert...sells cruises the same way the sommelier at the Le Reserve sells wine. He doesn't care about volume, but is maniacal about customer satisfaction."

I guess I am "maniacal" when it comes to customer satisfaction and, so, when I sell you a "luxury" cruise it is going to be just that...and not because some mythical industry definition or mere puffery says so, but because it actually is luxury. And, to be sure, that it not only is luxury, but they type of luxury you desire; whether it be formal or casual, touring or expedition, exotic or stayed.

Join the conversation on The Gold Standard Luxury Travel Forum: What is a Luxury Cruise Experience?