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.