Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Seabourn Takes Delivery of the Seabourn Quest - Goldring Travel is in Rome to be Her First Guest

As I was flying from Sardinia to Rome, Seabourn took the keys to its newest yacht, the Seabourn Quest; completing Seabourn tremendous three year expansion program and completing its growth from three 208 guest ships (the Seabourn Pride, Seabourn Legend and Seabourn Spirit) to six luxury ships also including the Seabourn Odyssey, Seabourn Sojourn and Seabourn Quest.

The irony of my being in Rome to board her on June 3, 2011 is that Seabourn's product is so consistent - even with the rapid growth of its fleet - that I am not anticipating any surprises..."just" another of the world's best luxury cruises.

While I will be meeting privately with Seabourn's president, Rick Meadows, and it senior vice president, John Delaney, the fact is I am more excited to see which of Seabourn's staff and crew have found their way over the the Seabourn Quest.  I know Captain Geir-Arne Thul-Nilsen's arrival has been delayed a couple of weeks, but I do enjoy the surprise when staff from last year or even three years ago give me that warm welcome that reminds me that I am home.

I do have much to tell you about my trip to Sardinia and my time here so far in Rome, so stay tuned!

Saturday, May 21, 2011

2011 American Superyacht Forum - Reality and More

Every year I attend the American Superyacht Forum and most years I attend the Global Superyacht Forum; both hosted by The Yacht Report Group.  Every year I hear how wonderful everything is...or will be...while this clearly troubled industry fails to respond in any substantive way other than to claim "If you build them they will come."

This year, however, it was different.  The three day conference (and networking SuperBowl) was held at the home of American yachting:  Fort Lauderdale, Florida from May 16 - 18, 2011.  And the cold, hard, facts were honestly discussed. 

In a nutshell, the superyacht (over 140 feet) and yacht business has been suffering not only because of the stigma (rather than the bragging rights pre-economic meltdown), but a lack of consistent quality and service and, to be sure, the seemingly increasing in complexity generating oneupmanship while failing to consistently deliver the hype of these new technologies.

The essence is that new, expensive, toys are cool only if they work and the cost is not totally disproportional to the value perceived by the owners and perspective owners. 

One subject that really struck home this point was on paint jobs.  Probably the single greatest area of dispute is the quality of the paint job.  Even with the industry finally moving away (albeit too slowly) from obtuse definitions such as "Northern European yacht finish" to qualitative measurements of such things as gloss, mirror finish, amount of "orange peel" and dust, the paint problems remain many-fold.  For example, Can the human eye really see the difference after a certain level is achieved?  Does a little imperfection in an area never seen up close or by the public really matter?  What intervening events (i.e. crew washing the hull too soon after the last coat) affected the measurements?  And the list goes on. 

Trying to prevent these disputes by achieving an extraordinarily high standard or fighting to use a more reasonable one only increases the lack of a pleasurable experience or a yacht owner.  The owners generally rely upon the captain and their retained "experts" (some of which are not really experts), so there is an element of blind trust...or who do you trust.

Discussion was had about why there even are standards and, if they are needed, why does there have to be one.  In the typical yachting industry fashion, the knee-jerk reaction was that there should only be the highest standards.  This was, of course, pushed by someone in the paint contracting business, so it is to his benefit for higher standards and, thus, a reason to charge more money.

But I put it another way.  I said, if an owner of a yacht is perfectly happy with a finish akin to a Chevy why should that standard not be available to him?  I mean there are other aspects of his new yacht that he may find better value in, such as speed, electronics, mill work, etc.  So if he wants a Chevy finish, rather than a Rolls Royce finish, the industry needs to be able to provide that to him.

But that lead to a discussion after the presentation about why the yards do not do a better job on welding the hull, because if they did, possibly 40% of the fairing (smoothing) compound could be eliminated...which would in turn eliminate many of the finish paint issues, would noticeably reduce the weight of the yacht making it more fuel efficient...and significantly reduce the cost of a paint job. All of these things would make the owner's experience better.

In another session on managing the supply chain I was shocked to hear one of the more prominent technology companies admit that it had been ordering antiquated parts rather than discussing with its supplier if the parts it was order were the best available for the purpose intended.  I said to myself, "OMG!  There is the nightmare of an owner. He buys what he thinks is the newest, latest and greatest, but when it fails that particular part is no longer available and, rather than going to the same supplier, another genius wrongly advises that an entire portion of his system has to be rebuilt because of that antiquated part."  That happens more than you could imagine.

So the bad news is that there is dirty laundry.  The good news is that it is being aired and, hopefully, addressed.  And, believe it or not, the biggest takeaway was that maybe...just maybe...more complicated isn't better.  Maybe it makes more sense to build 140 foot yachts...and more of them...than one 240 yacht that can bring a yard to its knees and an owner to tears.

A friend of mine owns a company called Intelisea.  It is a pretty cool interface system, but what is better is his tag line:  "It Works.  Period."  As an industry we need to build on that.

OK, enough of the analytical stuff.  We also has some nice social activities.  Of interest to many of you who depart on cruises out of Fort Lauderdale, we had our annual dinner at the revolving restaurant on the top of the Hyatt Pier 66.  It was as it has always been, a rotating restaurant with acceptable food and a great view. 

We also engaged in a sport fishing tournament which was sponsored, in part, by my law firm Goldring & Goldring, P.A.  A fleet of 20 sport-fishing yachts headed out onto the high seas.  Our boat was quite successful with all four of us catching something.  I caught a nice dolphin (mahi mahi) which was later grilled for us at a barbecue at Bahia Mar Yachting Center.  But the big fish was a 7 foot 5 inch hammerhead shark caught by my boatmate.  (Unfortunately, the fish was hooked so deep it did not survive.  Quite a shame.)   So if you are interested in doing something pre-cruise, a bit of fishing just might be an interesting alternative.

An ironic note:  Wartsila, the manufacturers of the engines aboard the Seabourn Odyssey, Sojourn and Quest was present at the conference as it seeks to enter into the superyacht industry.  It had a door prize.  I won.  Coincidence?

To close this out, I thought I would give you a bit of perspective.  As I sat on my balcony with a yacht friend, we looked out and saw the 59 meter (195 foot) Azteca docked right in front of us.  While most people would be thrilled having a view of a superyacht, my friend turned to me and said, "Why don't they move the damn boat.  It's blocking our view!"

That might help explain why I look at the cruise industry a bit differently.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Goldring Travel To Address FIAVET - Italian Federation of Travel & Tourism - in Sardinia

I have been honored with an invitation to speak to FIAVET, the Italian Federation of Travel & Tourism, at its annual Congress being held May 27-31, 2011 in Cagliari, Sardinia, Italy. 

At a time when the cruise industry is seeking ways to better penetrate into the European markets, I have been asked to speak to the issue of why the small or mid-size Italian travel agencies should remain in business and how to do it.  (You may have heard that, for example, in England the mega-travel agencies have become so cut-throat that Carnival slashed their commission rate to a level that now requires them to compete, to a far greater extent, on service.) 

Knowing me you can anticipate I am not going to be saying what the Congress expects!

It will also be very interesting for me to participate in the panel discussion, "How to be Competitive in the Market:  Comparing Experiences".  As someone who, literally singlehandedly, took on the challenge of competing with the mega-travel agencies and succeeded in becoming one the the top selling travel agents - worldwide - of Seabourn Cruises with a wide-ranging national and  international client base (and I am still growing) I am very excited to hear what others say and to learn how Italians view the "proper" way to engage in the travel business.

It is also going to be a great opportunity for me to visit Sardinia; a place that I have never been to and really do not know much about.  It does look like there is a great deal of natural beauty and I, hopefully, will have time to explore some local towns.  I will let you know.

Just to make things more interesting....after this speaking engagement I will be spending a few days in Rome at a new, ultramodern, hotel (stayed tuned for that!) before being Seabourn's guest for the Seabourn Quest's first cruise!  (Stay tuned for that too.)

But before all of that, tomorrow I am off to Ft. Lauderdale, Florida for the American Superyacht Forum; an annual three day total immersion into the business, regulations and design of the world's largest yachts from a more or less American perspective.  (OK, you can stay tuned for that too.)

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Oceania Cruises Hit An All Time Low - Cruises at Up to 75% Off!

I received notification today that Oceania Cruises is offering some very attractive cruises at some pretty incredible discounts of up to 75% off.  Now, you know that I am not generally sucked in by cruise lines offering large percentages off, but 75% is something that grabs even my attention.

"Off of what?", you may ask.  That would be an artificial price that the cruises were never sold at.  But if the original "real" fare was 50% off, these prices do represent a significant savings.

To be sure, most of the following cruises are not 75% off, but all are significantly discounted. And, of course, remember that the discounts do not include taxes or fees and that the offers are subject to terms and conditions set forth on Oceania Cruise's website including, but not limited to, that they are subject to prior sale, are not combinable with certain promotions, may be withdrawn at any time and expire on August 31, 2011.

Here they are:

San Francisco to New York - September 9, 2011- 21 Days onboard Regatta
Istanbul to Athens - September 19, 2011 - 12 Days onboard Marina
Istanbul to Barcelona - October 1, 2011 - 14 Days onboard Nautica
Istanbul to Barcelona - October 15, 2011 - 14 Days onboard Insignia
Rome to Istanbul - October 21, 2011 - 12 Days onboard Marina
Istanbul to Athens - November 2, 2011 - 12 Days onboard Marina
Athens to Dubai - November 4, 2011 - 18 Days onboard Nautica
Venice to Rome - November 12, 2011 - 10 Days onboard Insignia
Athens to Rome - November 14, 2011 - 10 Days onboard Marina
Dubai to Cape Town - November 22, 2011 - 30 Days onboard Nautica
Miami to Los Angeles - November 30, 2011 - 16 Days onboard Regatta
Miami to Miami - December 10, 2011 - 12 Days onboard Marina
Rio de Janeiro to Buenos Aires - December 10, 2011 - 12 Days onboard Insignia
Rio de Janeiro to Valparaiso - January 3, 2012 - 19 Days onboard Insignia
Bangkok to Beijing - February 28, 2012 - 25 Days onboard Nautica
Hong Kong to Athens - April 9, 2012 - 35 Days onboard Nautica
Beijing to Hong Kong - March 24, 2012 - 16 Days onboard Nautica
San Francisco to Miami - May 24, 2012 - 18 Days onboard Regatta

If you desire any additional information or would like to book one of these cruises, email me at eric@goldringtravel.com or telephone me at (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.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Regent Seven Seas - Wall Street Journal Reports An IPO May Be In Its Immediate Future

There was an interesting article in the Wall Street Journal MarketBeat today discussing the amount of money which has recently come available in the junk bond market.  It noted, "The Leveraged Commentary & Data people at Standard & Poor’s are tracking several more issuers trolling the market today, including Regent Seven Seas..."

This is not the first time there was discussion about spinning off Regent Seven Seas, thought it does seem a bit odd if it would only be Regent Seven Seas and not Oceania Cruises as well.  As I previously have written Oceania has pretty much taken over most operational aspects of Regent Seven Seas, so I am not sure what the Initial Public Offering would be, well, offering.  Might it be three ships, the good will of the name and a very large and expensive management contract benefiting Prestige Cruise Holdings and/or Oceania Cruises?

With it recently being announced that Regent Seven Seas is no longer "free", "free", "free" equally across the board, but more "free" for those that pay extra and it announced it would be spending approximately $20,000,000 per ship starting in October to replace carpets, curtains and balcony furniture as well as alter the restaurants in some undisclosed fashion, I have to wonder what the positive direction of the cruise line is.

Seriously, I am not sure how "free" alternative dining and shore excursions are when you have to pay extra in order to assure you get them (priority selections go only to the new Concierge level guests).  And, while cheapening the product while raising the prices to have the same level of service one used to have (penalizing those that don't pay yet more by purchasing more expensive suites), Mark Conroy speaks of the possibility of another ship.

I dunno, I am not so sure I would want to invest in that sort of this (the Oceania-fication of Regent Seven Seas) on the one hand, the efforts to boost sales volume by undercutting the product for those that won't willingly pay yet more and then seeking out funds to refurbish ships and then buy a new one...maybe. 

It is starting to sound a bit to all-over-the-place for my liking.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Crystal Symphony - Goldring Travel's Pacific Exploration of Crystal Cruise's Luxury Experience - "Reflections"

Having taken some time to digest my luxury cruise experience on the Crystal Symphony I have come to some, I hope, interesting conclusions that may assist you in deciding if Crystal Cruises is right for your cruise vacation.

Crystal Cruises provides a luxury experience in many ways. 

- Regardless of the style of service, the service is excellent and over my cruise I found very few service flaws and none that were worth noting.  I initially found the, "Hello!  My name is John.  And what is your name?" disconcerting, but once I got it was part of the experience I was fine with it.  By Day 2 it was finished and I must have been greeted by name about 90% of the time.  Nothing was ever an issue or a problem.  I never did have much of a connection with my stewardess, but she was very efficient.

- The cuisine, other than the Lido, is excellent in quality, diversity and presentation.  I found the main restaurant to be excellent in ambiance, service and cuisine.  Silk Road was the highest quality cuisine experience I have had in a cruise ship's restaurant, thought it cannot for ambiance or style be considered an extraordinary dining experience.  (I did rate the food a 12 on a 10 point scale!).  Prego is an excellent Italian restaurant and very comfortable with fine cuisine.  And, of course, one cannot leave out the Vintage Dinner which was simply phenomenal.  It may be why I found the Lido to be such a let down, as a "standard" buffet just seems so out of place with so many other superlative venues.

 - Enrichment is the best I have encountered.  I know there are those that truly enjoy the Terry Breen type of enrichment and, to be sure, I thoroughly enjoyed her on my Regent Seven Seas cruise in Alaska, but...and it is a big "but"...the sophistication of Crystal Cruise's enrichment lecturers and the provocative discussions they had were exceptional.  Add to that courses for Photoshop, piano, Rosetta Stone for languages, bridge (serious bridge), etc., there is just not a cruise line that can compare.

 - As for the ship itself, its maintenance was superlative.  Everywhere I looked things were clean and well maintained; I mean everywhere.  And, to me, it does not feel like a large ship.  In fact, I was shocked at how comfortable the ship is.  I might feel different if I had a cabin that was far forward, as the stateroom hallways are long and very straight giving a real felling of distance, but otherwise it is very manageable.

So, what's not to love?  The standard staterooms at 202 square feet.  They are undeniably small for a luxury cruise and their layout has some shortcomings.  But, in their defense, they have most everything you would want from refrigerators that hold full bottles of wine to two hairdryers (bathroom mounted and at the vanity desk) to a proper sized table that raises and lowers.  A couple of quirks:  The reading lights are strange and get in your way if you want to sit up in bed; and, the entertainment system needs updating so that you can see the day's menus, check your account and have more robust movie choices.  The bathrooms are excellently designed and function well, but are small.

One thing that this cruise got me thinking about more than I normally do is:  How important is the size of the cabin if everything else is so good?  That is simply a personal question, but I would suggest you really think about what is important to you rather than simply concluding the space is the thing that matters most without going through the exercise.  This particular cruise was perfect for me and my family.  It gave us a really unique and interesting itinerary of the Pacific Coast (encompassing old and new) with a perfect schedule as far as the children's school vacation went, with easy and affordable flights.  And, to be sure, while the cabins were a bit small, it was not like we suffered.  Seriously, the beds were comfortable and other than when getting ready for dinner we had no real issues.

You may recall I recently wrote an article:  Budget Cruise Pitching Luxury discussing the concept of the "ship within a ship", where you get fairly nice to luxurious accommodations...but, alas, are stuck suffering with the crowds and the ordeals and lesser qualities found on mass market cruise ships.  Crystal Cruises, in their non-suite staterooms, is in a away the opposite.  It is a bit of an overstatement as its standard staterooms are superior to the standard staterooms on most cruise ships.  In essence the question is not "Am I willing to compromise most everything about my cruise so that I have nicer accommodations", but "Am I willing to compromise my accommodations as to size only, so that I have a nicer cruise experience regarding everything else?".

This leads me to the next question I discussed with myself (and, yes, I did answer myself back!):  Who does Crystal Cruises best compete with?  While it may seem obvious that it would be a Crystal Cruises vs. Seabourn vs. Silversea vs. Regent Seven Seas, I believe it is Oceania, Regent Seven Seas and Azamara Club cruise lines that Crystal Cruises more properly competes with.

Why?  Because regardless of how good the cruise product is, when you start talking to luxury cruisers about compromises, the discussion pretty much will shut down.  So the fact that Crystal Cruises provides a superior cruise experience as compared to Regent Seven Seas or even possibly Silversea, it may well be pretty irrelevant.  One must also consider that those folks most likely would look to book a Penthouse or better, so the entire exercise is somewhat irrelevant.  (Of course the issue of ship size would need to be addressed.)

With Crystal Cruises staterooms being larger than Oceania's and Azamara Club's standard stateroom and being as plush (if slightly smaller) than it Penthouse suites...or even most of Celebrity and Holland America's suites...I think the overall cruise experience needs to be considered.  To be sure, this is not to say that the Crystal Cruise experience is necessarily superior as it depends on what it is you are looking for (i.e. enrichment, bridge, non-Italian or Steakhouse alternative dining, etc....or that consistent higher level of service), but I believe Crystal Cruises has been overlooked as a good option.

One thing that makes Crystal Cruises a bit easier to consider and price is its new all-inclusive pricing commencing in March 2012.  The effect of this change I am excited to see, but as I wrote, the fact that I was "forced" to choose my wines at dinner actually made my pairings better so paying ala carte is not necessarily a bad thing.

Upon "reflection" I believe Crystal Cruises is a fine luxury cruise experience where the emphasis is placed a little differently than on the other luxury cruise lines.  Knowing and understanding this should, hopefully, make Crystal an option you look forward to considering.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Seabourn Cruise's Job Requirement: Clairvoyance!

I am sure many of you have heard this story from me, but I am inspired by a writing from someone on the Seabourn Sojourn presently.

One morning on a recent Seabourn cruise I was having breakfast with a friend in The Veranda (al fresco dining area on the smaller Seabourn ships).  I said to him I would meet him at the forward hot tub (on the ship's bow) at 3:30 p.m. We said nothing to the staff.

That afternoon my friend arrived with his wife about 3:20 p.m. and I with mine at about 3:25 p.m.  At 3:30 p.m. a bar waiter appeared with a bottle of champagne and four glasses announcing, "Mr. and Mrs. Goldring.  Mr. and Mrs. 'Smith'.  I am so glad you are on time.  How was your day?"

The Cruise Critic poster wrote today, in part, that after lunch in The Colonnade (the al fresco dining area on the larger Seabourn ships) the retired to the small pool area aft of The Club on Deck 5:

At the rear there is a small area with a jacuzzi and plunge pool. As the weather had calmed down, we sat on sun loungers facing aft. It was absolute perfection. We thought of a gin and tonic and as though there was someone reading our thoughts, at our shoulder appeared Jan, an omnipresent waiter. I said two Gin and tonics please and he said to Barbara, “would you like two also?”

It doesn't matter if it was two years ago or yesterday, Seabourn continues to provide consistently excellent service on both the smaller and larger ships, cruise after cruise after cruise.

Yes, there are some changes afoot, but the ultimate onboard product remains at the top of the luxury cruise market.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Seabourn's New Shore Excursion Policy - Not Good At All

Seabourn is not going to be happy with me writing this, but my brand is "Goldring Travel"; not Seabourn.  I am always honest with you and, to be sure, I am honestly very disappointed with Seabourn's new - and I am now advised not interim - policy of requiring pre-payment of shore excursions when they are booked; no matter how far in advance you purchase them.  (Now you will know what I say I truly believe in.)

My motto/business plan is simple:  Be Treated By Your Travel Agent As You Will Be Onboard.  I developed this as an outgrowth of my work in the superyacht business where a charterer can have pretty much whatever he/she desires...as long as they pay for it.  The answer is never, "No."  It is for that reason that I have had such a strong belief in the Seabourn product because the synergy has been similar.  One newer phrase on the Seabourn website that I believe reflects the Seabourn experience is "At Seabourn clairvoyance is a job requirement."

From those concepts Seabourn has evolved into, in my opinion, the premier luxury cruise product providing a consistently excellent product from ship to ship (208 or 450 guests, it doesn't matter) and cruise to cruise and it has done so at prices that are fair and appropriate (even, at times, more than fair).  Please keep this in mind as I continue, for while things may not be perfect, I do still firmly believe that Seabourn is consistently the best luxury cruise product out there.  Just now a little less so...and keeping in mind...and the perspective...that most Seabourn guests do not book many shore excursions through the ship.

After a long discussion with the top Seabourn management I remain baffled at the concept of a luxury cruise line requiring its "passengers"  (now hard to still call them "guests") to pre-pay for shore excursions even before final payment is due.  It is, to my mind, well and truly inconsistent with the Seabourn product and its position as the premier luxury cruise line.  To me it seems not only cheap, but sends a wrong message; the message being, "We used to welcome you onboard as a guest, but now you are first a revenue stream...and then we will deal with the cruise experience." 

That may sound harsh, but from a luxury perspective, most Seabourn guests - like yacht charterers - are definitely willing to pay for luxuries, but do not believe they should be pre-paying as if they are required to either open their wallets on demand or be treated like they would otherwise skip out of town without paying their bills.

One can talk about making sure that having "passengers" buy in...so to speak...by making for more solid commitments to booked shore excursions and bettering Seabourn's ability to forecast demand (to add or reduce capacity), but all I really heard was blah, blah, blah.  I am very confident that doing things like more strictly enforcing a cancellation policy and extending the cancellation period on premium shore excursions - which Seabourn has always identified as special anyway - would make far more sense than offending the luxury market that Seabourn is trying to rapidly expand into.

Seabourn is a business and, as such, I fully understood and supported the virtual elimination of the complimentary Seabourn Experiences due to a reduction in participation coupled with a high no-show.  I am not sure how charging far in advance will increase sales or product quality, but that is obviously where Seabourn is going with this.  (I don't know everything, so maybe this will work out.)  What I perceive, however, is a muddying of the standard cruise line drive to increase onboard revenue against the rarefied world of luxury cruising...and to get that onboard revenue long before the passenger ever arrives onboard.

To be fair, from a marketing perspective, Frank Del Rio has far exceeded Rick Meadows...so far.  The "Del Rio" magic has sold lots of Oceania and Regent Seven Seas cruises, but to be sure that magic is wearing thin and cracks are beginning to show.  Pick almost any Regent cruise and there is good space available.  Want to sail on Marina in mid-July or August? I can get you pretty much anything other than the top suites. 

And it is not fair to measure Rick Meadows by the actions of Seabourn to date...as there were so many areas where Seabourn's former management had dropped the ball, the fact that he has been able to keep those ball in the air is quite impressive.  So I believe that compliments to Rick Meadows are more appropriate than scowls.  From the guest perspective...and I have said this before...you are entitled to your cruise at 100%; not excuse misses because the product is going to get better.  So far, other than this change in shore excursion policy, Seabourn has been consistently providing cruises at 100%.

But in Rick Meadows first change to the Seabourn product...his very first that touches the guest cruise experience... he has found a way for Seabourn to differentiate itself from Silversea, Crystal and Regent Seven Seas...and not in a good way.  But this move by Seabourn, must be kept in perspective.

The irony here cannot be escaped:  All of a sudden the Regent Seven Seas mantra of everything is "free", "free", :free" can start to sound good.  And many people think it did...right up until they saw the price of "free", "free", free"....which is the highest in the industry....and the differences in the products.  So with the Seabourn pricing structure clearly a more realistic one, and this change not (to my knowledge) being associated with any overall increased cost for a Seabourn experience, I believe (hope?) it may well be a distinction without much of a substantive difference.   
The fear (which has been defined as extreme concern over the unknown) is that if the change to
pre-paying shore excursions is Rick Meadows first change to Seabourn's cruise experience, what is the good news?  It is a fair question.  I have been told good things are coming...but I wasn't told about this move.  'Nuf said.
So what can you do? 

1.  You can bite the proverbial bullet and pay when you book your shore excursions believing that "paid and done" is better, a non-issue or the best solution to a bad situation;

2.  You can delay booking your shore excursions until closer in and hope that there will still be space (and unless there is a change in Seabourn's tour operations that should not be a problem other than for the more exclusive and expensive tours which require special handling); or,

3.  You can book shore excursions privately and pay for them either shortly before your departure or upon completion of the tours.

What you shouldn't do is start throwing the baby out with the bath water.  As I preface this article, most Seabourn guests do not book many shore excursions anyway and, of course, you have options.  I would suggest that this change (as much as I do not like it) is minor in the overall cruise experience. But, alas, it most certainly garnered my attention.

What do you think?  Join the discussion on The Gold Standard Luxury Travel Forum.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Community Service - Why It Must Be Personal

It has been a rather curious and, in part, troubling time for me.  In the past days I was involved in three different aspects of community service:  A beach cleanup in Astoria, Oregon; a beach cleanup in Point Pleasant, New Jersey and the Colts Neck Board of Education elections.

Why troubling?  Let me digress for a moment by mentioning a poignant question after I lost my bid for re-election to the Colts Neck Township Board of Education, "So this isn't going to be the end of your career in politics, is it?"  The question took me aback.  I never thought of my involvement with the Board of Education as "Politics".  I thought of it as supporting "the Community" and improving things for both the families that used the schools and those that pay taxes, but either no longer do or never have.  Politics???

When my family recently was on the Crystal Symphony and I saw there was an opportunity to engage in Voluntourism (I love that word)  in Astoria, Oregon there was never a question in my mind what we were going to do:  We were going to clean the beach.  Why?  At the time, it was because it just seemed like the right thing to do.  In the end, I know it was...and not for the reasons you might think.

We were greeted by dozens of cheerful, helpful and enthusiastic citizens of Astoria welcoming us to their town.  These were some of the nicest people I have met in all of my 1,000,000+ miles of travel.  And their town - despite all their efforts - appears to be suffering greatly.  After we loaded onto a local school bus a gentleman came onboard and spoke to us about the town's appreciation and made special note of how Crystal Cruises' renting a school bus was a big assist for the local school district.  I mean saying thanks is nice, but to be running so tight that a rental of a school bus is worthy of note sent a message.  And, to me, that little comment was worth more than the actual beach cleanup. 

But there was another aspect of this voluntourism project that struck me.  Two parents were nicely, but sternly, focused on assuring all the paperwork was in order for their children to get community service credit to meet their California high school mandated obligation.  They were not there with the premise of volunteering simply because it was the right thing to do, but rather as an easy way to earn school credit...rather than doing something for their own community.  While I can see the good intention of the requirement, I believe the opportunity to really learn a valuable lesson was lost because it was no longer about doing good just for the sake of doing good. 

This activity was now was about performing a task that has been labeled as "good" in order to obtain personal benefit...like a job that pays you money.  The lesson of selflessly doing something for the betterment of a small part of society simply because that is what we do was lost.  That, to me, is a far more important lesson.

On Saturday my son took part in the Clean Ocean Action beach cleanup in Point Pleasant, New Jersey.  It is a community service project required of the People to People Student Ambassador Program he is engaged in.  While it is a "requirement" in order for him to participate in this summer's program visiting France, Italy, Switzerland and Austria, it is not something that he is doing for school credit, but rather as part of an overall program which also includes doing a community service project while traveling in Europe.  The lesson:  Community service begins at home, but has no boundaries.

(BTW, how amazing is it that a 15 year old can engage in community service projects on both the Atlantic and Pacific Coasts within 10 days of each other.)

While waiting for him and walking a few miles on the Boardwalk...staying out of sight so as not to embarrass or interfere with this teenage event...I could not help myself any further.  I needed to make a monetary donation.  But I felt like I was trying to buy my way out of doing what was right.  So I grabbed a bag and started to walk the beach, cleaning things up as I went along.   Why?  Because inside of me it just seemed like the thing one does.  My son didn't ask what I did while I was waiting and I didn't tell him.  The lesson was about him doing; not me.

This brings me back to the Colts Neck Board of Education election. 

Just before the election I wrote about my outrage at the conduct of one of the people running for election.  She virtually never attended a school board meeting, violated campaign laws, she (or some people) paid thousands of dollars for full page ads, signs around town, even a mailer to every home in the district and her ideas were, in my opinion, clear evidence of a total lack of understanding of what the position was about. (Buying land and building an assisted living community?  Seriously, that was part of her platform!) And she stated that she "almost" had three masters degrees.  (You gotta wonder what that means!)

Another candidate is a 26 year old son of a local councilman who also never attended a school board meeting, who admitted he probably would only live in town (at his parent's house) for one year, admitted he had no idea what the school board had been doing and spoke of wanting to assure the district didn't purchase solar panels (not knowing that I had previously...and tediously...investigated the matter as Chairman of the Buildings and Grounds Committee and that, after many discussions with the Board in open meetings, it was determined that solar panels were economically a bad idea.)  To listen to this young man, who was ill prepared for the League of Women Voters debate was, honestly, embarrassing.  He is, though, probably quite nice and will mature into a person who can assist whatever community he eventually resides in.  But a qualified candidate today, in my opinion, he was not.

What became clear from the vote -with that woman garnering 46% more votes than any other three year term candidate and that young man missing out on a one year term by a mere 26 votes...and a virtually unknown candidate winning 28% more votes than anyone else - that the election was not about doing for the community, it was about:  Politics.

Those that know me know that I speak my mind.  And to my mind there are some pretty silly ideas that some of the Old Guard demand...yes "demand"...must be put in place.  They do not look at the fact that their ideas resulted in horrible performance by the students, a revolving door of administrators, runaway teacher costs and an otherwise bloated budget.  Nor do they look at the millions of dollars in savings, skyrocketing student performance, elimination of 30+ positions, stable administration, etc. that the past three years had accomplished.  In hindsight...and having spoken my mind...it should not have been a shock that I was not re-elected, because it was not about the $1,000,000+ I personally saved the district on a construction debacle or the hundreds of thousands of dollars saved because of the environmental and technology initiatives I spearheaded.  No, it was not about what is best for the community.  It was about:  Politics.  

How can I be so sure:  The school budget passed!  (Interesting statistic:  that woman candidate received hundreds more votes than the budget did.  Coincidence?  I think not.)

The thing that really got to me...and still does...is that friendships and the sense of community have been sacrificed for Politics.  The horrific talking behind people's backs, keeping information "hidden" rather than having public discourse, pretending people that were once socially acceptable are now pariahs, etc. all have arisen in small town politics.

(Oh, yes, and the Superintendent of Schools resigned.  I believe it is in part because of the Governor's short-sighted constraints on salaries and in part because of the now sense of lack of community and who will be sitting on the Board of Education.  I mean why get paid less and be focused on politics rather than education?)

So is my life in politics over?  It never started.

But is my life of Community Service over?  No and it never will be. 

And for all of those who bathe themselves in "community service" when it is about politics or selfishness, just try to be honest about it.  Or, perhaps, we can talk about the local "community service" orientated folks that stole money from the coffers of volunteer fire departments, little leagues, etc.

You see I do what I do because it is something within me that I just need to do.  It is not about what someone else thinks.  It is not about what I get out of it.  It is personal.