Sunday, April 3, 2011

Budget Cruises Pitching Luxury: You Don't Get What You Pay For, You Only Think You Do...Because You Have a Bad Travel Agent!

Yesterday I performed a ship inspection of the Norwegian Cruise Lines's Norwegian Gem in New York City.  It was, to be sure, both interesting and educational, but more importantly, frustrating and even depressing.  I am not talking about the ship or the staff of the Norwegian Gem. Everyone was pleasant...at least the ones that acknowledged your existence.

I am talking about what I was looking for:  The elusive Luxury Cruise within a Mass Market Cruise.

While I had scheduled this inspection quite a while ago, just this past Wednesday, March 30, 2011,I saw an article in the Wall Street Journal:  "The Return of the Class System - Cruises Offer Private Areas and Perks to Lure New Passengers; Everyone Else Still Crowds by the Pool".  I thought it was rather ironic that by happenstance the WSJ published that article so soon after my March 25, 2011 article A Luxury Cruise: What is the "Industry Accepted Definition of 'Luxury'"? Does One Exist? .

Let me set the stage...and it has nothing to do with the ship:  Our hostess, Cherry, was actually a true "gem".  She cared, she was pleasant and she was concerned that we have a great experience and see everything.  But, as there can be, a truly arrogant travel agent was so abusive (for no reasons whatsoever) that she literally brought Cherry to tears.  I felt terrible, but as the day went on I could see there was an "arrogance of ignorance" in about 50% of these travel agents.  It was so uncomfortable for me that as I was departing I pulled Cherry aside and said, "I really appreciate you.  I am going to tell you something you probably won't believe.  I am one of world's top selling travel agents for Seabourn and I think you are fantastic."  Her sheepish smile was a breath of fresh air.

But that aside I looked at the famous Garden Villas - approximately 5,000 square feet of alleged private luxury.  Yes, you are in a segregated area of the ship...once you get there...and it has its own private spa and lounges, steam room, etc.  And, assuming you can have your eyes adjust to the intense purple, lime green and/or combinations thereof, you are faced with furniture that is supposedly Euro-design, but reminds me of IKEA (not "sort of like", but as in "actually sold by").  Trying to picture true luxury clients sitting in a semi-circular leather sofa with deep seats and low backs which is focused on smallish flat screen tv, just wasn't happening.  Or the Deluxe Owner's Suite, also with private areas and spa, but accessible only via a steep staircase and day-glo purple everywhere...except the dirty lounge chair covers that were red.  Or, to be sure, the Courtyard Villas - Penthouses with access of a shared semi-private glass-covered courtyard with lounges and a spa.

What I saw was large, very tacky, space with OK finishes that are more akin to Las Vegas (possibly even Reno) then what most luxury cruise clients would be looking for.  To be sure, however, these are expensive digs and the Garden Villas sell out on virtually every cruise.  I could, pompously say, "Money cannot buy you taste", but that would neither be fair or correct.  It is more that there is a market for everything and there most definitely is a market for people that want large, gaudy spaces with an air of exclusivity.  But that does not make that space a "luxury" one.  It merely makes it a large, gaudy space with an air of exclusivity.

And, remember, when you leave the confines of the exclusive areas you are hit smack in the face with the rest of the ship:  A treasure trove (for the cruise line) of onboard revenue making operations.  I do not think I will ever forget the look on a woman's face yesterday:  She just walked onto the ship, was handed an umbrella drink, took a sip and the bar waiter said, "May I have your room key?"  She said, "Why?"  followed by the shocking (for her) response, "We will just charge that drink to your room."  The woman was dazed and confused.  Other than a long wait in the cruise terminal that was her first NCL experience!

And then there is the food. You hear about Freestyle Dining and how great it is.  Television monitors are throughout the ship to let you know how long a wait you have if you want to dine in one of the many small venues..at extra cost.  And most of these venues are not enclosed, quaint, rooms, but rather more akin to shopping mall dining in open areas.

And while you think about the charges for the drinks and food, I want you to understand that in most of the accommodations the furnishings are so space that a mini-suite would be a standard veranda cabin on most lines and a standard oceanview or veranda cabin is so small that you are not even provided with a desk, but rather a wood-like tray affixed under the television.

Now it is time to sample NCL's food.  We were directed to some large tables in one of the main dining rooms, which was actually a fairly attractive space (relatively speaking?). I found most of the food to be inedible or close to it. So whether it was Asian ribs (flavorless and fatty) or a goat cheese salad (greens were fine, but that wasn't goat cheese or any natural product) or rib steak (not ribeye) that was very thin, previous cooked and fatty (it's only flavor), that is what the "luxury" guests in the Garden Villa is going to be eating!

So what does this have to do with bad travel agents? Let me continue!

The travel agents I sat with or otherwise met were essentially two types (other than that nasty woman): 

.....1.  Those that are alleged travel agents, being more concerned about which is the next highly discounted cruise they were going to take than the products they were going to sell; and,

.....2.  Those that had absolutely no idea about anything other than the lowest end of the market.  (I did speak with one who actually sold Holland America and one that was so adamant that Regent was the most luxurious cruise line, but had no idea why...other than she has one client that loves it.)

So me being me, I thought let me get a conversation about how travel agents discuss travel with their clients.  My favorite comment was from the most arrogant at the table who demanded that in order to see anything outside of the Caribbean you must take as many ship's tours as possible so that you can see everything.  When I asked her if she ever thought about, say, walking around the town and seeing how people live there, she responded that her clients aren't interested in the people, they want to see things.  Huh?  (Of all the travel agents I spoke to I don't think 30% had been outside the US or Caribbean.)

So I tried another tact and asked, "Why do your clients pick a particular cruise?"  They almost all told me that their clients were "Destination Driven" and really didn't care about the ship.  So I asked, "If that is the case, why don't they just fly there?"  Silence.  Not a single one had a clue.  I let them off the hook and said, "Don't you think if that was really the case they would all buy inside cabins and never spend a dime on the ship?" 

I pause and wondered to myself, "If the travel agents say their clients are destination orientated and they know little to nothing about the destination and, further, no little about anything other than the lower categories of cabins on mass market ships...that they insist their clients don't really care about...it is no wonder that the cruise lines can pitch this garbage about there being luxury cruises within mass market ships."  All any travel agent needs to do is find one "whale" (a gambling term") and the cruise line has an easy buy-in from that knowledgeless travel agent.

I was then asked a question about how I get people to purchase the more expensive cruises.  Aside from the fact that I don't "get" people to purchase more expensive cruises, I gave them a metaphor:  If the ship doesn't matter than, just like a plane, book them in Row 40 by the bathroom.  But do you think you clients might be willing to pay extra for a little more leg room, or possibly to sit closer to the front (so they can get their meals and drinks sooner)? Forget the First Class cabin...or should you?  Not a single one had ever thought of that.

Don't worry I wasn't thinking about the additional commissions those travel agents could have earned.  I thought about all those poor clients  - who blindly listened to their inept travel agent's advise - virtually sitting in Row 40 by the bathroom who would have purchased better seating, and even possibly first class accommodations, if they had been presented with the options and they were properly explained to them.

So where does that leave the novice cruise client who wants a luxury experience:  With most travel agents, worse than lost in the woods!  They have a guide that can't see the forest from the trees!

Make no mistake, if you are looking to spend over $22,000 for two people on an NCL seven day cruise in a Garden Villa ...before you have paid for drinks, specialty dining, gratuities, etc.  you will, without question, be spending $25,000.00 for your seven days of either exclusion or inundation of masses of mass market cruisers, or both, you just might want to speak with a travel agent that actually knows travel, understand the various products and can explain wherein the value lies.

And, after you make your decision, remember:  Plunking down $25,000 does not give you the right to redefine what luxury is.  It gives you the right to spend seven days on an NCL ship in a particular accommodation.  From my perspective, all I can say is, "You don't know what you are missing and, alas, if you stick with most travel agents, you will not have a chance to know."

As the Wall Street Journal said, you were "lured" into it...like a big ol' fish.  Doesn't sound so good, does it?  Blame your travel agent; not yourself.

And where does Goldring Travel fit into all this?  Do you find it shocking that one of the world's top sellers of Seabourn Cruises, the guy that sells the top suites on Crystal Cruises and other luxury experiences, would waste his time inspecting the Norwegian Gem?  I don't....because I am that travel agent that can specifically explain the differences and, to be sure, let you know what you are actually buying.

If you have any questions about luxury cruising please email me at eric@goldringtravel.com, call me at (888) SEABOURN or (877) 2G0-LUXURY in the U.S.; +44 20 8133 3450 in the U.K.; +61 7 3102 4685 in Australia; and +1 732-383-7398 elsewhere.