Monday, January 31, 2011

Cruisemates.com No More! Why Do Message Boards Attract & Foster Vermin?

A while back I started The Gold Standard Luxury Travel Forum as "This is the place to have intelligent discussion and discourse about cruising, travel or just about anything related to having great experiences."  It has a great deal of information and, to be sure, has been a place for "intelligent discussion and discourse".

A few months ago I was approached by Cruisemates.com to be its luxury cruise boards Moderator so that I might breath life into its long quiet and inactive boards.  Overall it was a great experience and some decent discussion was had.  However, I have chosen to end my relationship with Cruisemates.com.  The reason is very simple:  The owner of Cruisemates.com expressly chooses to enable posters that bully, insult and seek to escalate conflict.

While there is no question that my short time as a Moderator for its Luxury Boards (Seabourn, Silversea, Crystal, Regent, etc.) resulted in a significant surge in activity and posts...not to mention the existence of relevant and timely information, I started spending more time dealing with the dregs of message board life - and the possible consequences thereof - than being productive.  It clearly became time to walk away.

What truly underscores that the decision to let Cruisemates.com's luxury board sink back to the bottom of the internet ocean is the request that I say nothing so that the very problem I refused to accept does not become worse and, I presume, so that Cruisemates.com doesn't look bad.  Juxtaposed, there is not a cruise line out there that has ever asked me not to write what I believe...They may not always like what I write, but they know it is my honest opinion. (And, of course, I should add that my position with Cruisemates.com that things change or I am gone somehow became perverted as well.)  It speaks for my making a wise decision.

My job is to provide my clients and prospective clients with the truth as I see it and information that I believe to be accurate.  Why?  Because I want to encourage people to book their cruises with Goldring Travel.  Babysitting troubled individuals on message boards is not part of that job.  Seriously, if I love my job...and I do...why would I want to ruin it with such things?

So please remember that The Gold Standard Luxury Travel Forum still exists and that I will now be putting 100% of my effort into revitalizing it and making it one of the "go to" places for luxury cruise and travel information and discussion.  As you probably know, I own that message board and I absolutely will not tolerate "bullying, insulting or escalating conflict".  That wouldn't be very intelligent, now would it!

What is a Luxury Cruise Experience? - Part II: Service - A Realistic Perspective

In the first part of this series I discussed the concept of "nickel and diming" concluding that the issue, at least from my perspective, is not necessarily of being charge ala carte for everything, but one of being overcharged for things either on an ala carte or all-inclusive basis.  Those willing to pay a premium for the included overcharged items may wish to call it something other than "nickel and diming", but an improvident hand in one's pocket is an improvident hand in one's pocket.

Now let us discuss the issue of "service" because, from my perspective, this is what "luxury" really depends on.  For me service is "The Show". It is what luxury actually is all about. You can serve decent food with flare and it will taste great. You can take an older ship and have the staff sweep you off your feet. It is not, as some think, the icing on the cake. It is the glow of the candles on that cake...you know the ones that made you feel so special when your mom was carrying it over to the table with everyone singing Happy Birthday.

Remember, we all have our own definition of what luxury is, but I do not believe any of us are willing to say service is not a major factor in our definition. In order to discuss service levels, we must first look at what services are "required", which service is "expected" and which service is "luxurious".

I do not believe there is any dispute that on a cruise it is "required" that our staterooms/suites are cleaned (we will leave how many times a day for the moment), our sit down meals are served to us, our drinks are delivered to us and that public spaces be cleaned and made orderly.  Let us just break that down...even just a little bit.

Your stateroom/suite is to be cleaned, but is it once a day or twice.  On some cruise lines it is cleaned in the morning and straightened in the evening, but not cleaned.  Or, if you sleep in, you do not get the morning cleaning and your room will remain uncleaned until the evening when it is given a quick "once over".  We can agree that is not a luxury experience.  Ever have all of your papers that you have nicely placed in various piles all lumped together?  Wonder where the heck your widget went?  Again, we can agree that is not luxury.  But is simply having your room serviced without your stuff being shuffled around and clean a good definition of luxury?  I think we can agree that it isn't.  So what is luxury when it comes to servicing your stateroom/suite? 

What about having your room taken care of even if you sleep until noon?  Or returning from dinner and finding rose petals and chocolates on your bed?  An aromatherapy bubble bath readied artistically in your bathtub upon your return after a hot day of touring?  To me those are all luxurious items, but I believe there needs to be more...There needs to be a person who makes those things something experiential rather than mechanical.

I just returned from a very short cruise on the Celebrity Century and I do not believe I ever saw my room steward.  (I did see my butler.) While there are some that go with the "magically my room was cleaned" approach, the reality is that luxury involves people...and it is the people that make things feel other than mechanical.  On Seabourn, for example, your stewardess is trained to engage you in conversation...or not...picking up on your subtle hints.  This can lead to a personal note left on your bed referencing a comment you made about what you did last evening or were going to do that day.  It gives, in simple terms, a sense that your stewardess cares...and that is luxurious.

On the Seabourn Odyssey this past November some friends of mine were cruising in the Wintergarden Suite.  They arranged with the stewardess for me and my DW to enjoy their whirlpool one afternoon.  On her own she arranged for a bottle of French champagne, chocolate covered strawberries, flower petals surrounding the whirlpool and...extra bathrobes and towels.  Done?  Nope.  She knew I loved Bruce Springsteen, so she found a few of the more romantic ballads (yes, he has some) and had them playing when we arrived.  That is, without question, luxury.

OK, now onto service of food (I am not talking about the food, itself...that is for another post).  There are buffets and then there are buffets.  We know that the days of truly fine dining for breakfast are fading, but that does not mean one should be relegated to walking in a circle piling lots of stuff on your plate.  That, we can agree, is not luxury.  But what if you select what you want and a waiter politely collects your plate and escorts you to your table?  Some may like it and some may not, but it being available gives a sense of personal engagement within your dining experience.  (It is a shame Celebrity has eliminated this service as has Regent.)

Another aspect of this breakfast buffet is waiting for your eggs to be cooked.  I find it painful to wait in a line while somebody cooks the eggs of two people ahead of you...while the remainder of your food changes from hot to cold or cold to hot...and you are dying for that cup of coffee.  Seabourn, for example, eliminates that problem by having waiters take those orders.  That allows you to eat what you want in the order you want and it being hot when it is supposed to be.  Does this define "luxury"?  I am not so sure it does, but what it does do is eliminate an issue that clearly reduces the experience below luxury.

BTW, for those that believe that a buffet of any sort cannot be part of a "luxury" experience, I think they forget the historical excitement over buffets.  The Midnight Buffets, the Chocolate Buffets, etc. that cruise ships used to hold were considered the ultimate in luxury.  This past Christmas, the Ritz-Carlton Lake Tahoe had a buffet dinner...and it was more costly than dining ala carte in its fine dining venue.  Buffets are a style of dining, not an antonym of luxury dining.

Skipping forward to dinner, I will avoid the issue of dress.  That is a topic unto itself and one must consider the relationship between elegance and luxury.  These are interrelated, but not synonymous terms.  But regardless of the clothes, there is a difference between "eating" and "dining" and that does lend itself to discussions of what is luxury.

Entering a large dining hall (on large ships they are "halls" not "rooms") and walking unescorted to your table is akin to self-service eating.  Does the server greet you as you arrive?  Is the table set with crystal and silver or glasses and stainless?  Is there a charger or a tablecloth in front of you? Does your waiter place your napkin in your lap?  Request sparking or still water?  Bring an assortment of fresh bread and breadsticks immediately after seating or are they already on the table...or are they served individually?  Is there a wine steward and is that steward knowledgeable or just wearing different clothes?  How long do you wait from the time you sit until the time your order is requested? And I have just gotten started!

The point is "dining in luxury" is an orchestrated event far beyond putting down and picking up plates.  When your waitress introduces herself and asked how your day was, there is another moment of personal acknowledgment.  Scanning the table to see when it is appropriate to take your orders, rather than having to get the order into the galley so the waiter interrupts.  When your wine steward recalls that you prefer a particular style of wine and suggests an alternative to the evening's complimentary selection there is another...as is offering to change your wine when he notices your main course would suggest a different wine.  "Mr. Guest, the chef has prepared our Beef Wellington gluten free for you, if you would like to try it." is another.  And the service events such as this goes on throughout the dining experience.  That is, to be sure, a luxury experience.

I read how it is necessary, desired or considered "cool" to request a specific waiter.  Hold on there!  Waiters are to compliment my dining experience; not make it.  There should never be "a" waiter, but a team of waiters in a luxury situation.  It is, remember, an orchestrated...not a solo...event.

Ironically, as I am writing this I received a telephone call from The Yacht Report concerning the upcoming American Superyacht Forum.  In the course of the discussion we spoke a bit about a recent silly premise asserted by someone that he believes one can successfully charter a superyacht with low paid cruise-type staff.  If you think the service standards required on a luxury cruise are challenging, imagine them on a superyacht!  This might, actually, become part of this year's conference panel discussions because luxury service levels are so critical.  But I digress. 

Now let's discuss the simple drink.  A luxury beverage service experience is, like dining, an experience; not the plunking down of a drink.  You motion for a waiter to take your drink order, wait a few minutes and it arrives.  Have you ever been served off of a wet drink tray?  Without a cocktail napkin?  A beer without a glass?  Those are not luxury experiences.

The bar waiter sees Ms. R and knows she will order an ice tea and three lemon wedges, so it is ready even before she sits down...and then is replenished before her glass is empty, thank you.  "Mr. Goldring, so nice to see you at the hot tub at 3:30 pm, just as you mentioned to Mr. Smith.  I have your champagne and four glasses right here."  The bar waitress greets you with moments of sitting down with a personal greeting, a quick chat about something and then offering to take your order.  And, of course, there is the placement of nuts (not peanuts) or snacks on your table when the drinks are served.  Passed canapés?  Why not, it is a luxury experience.

There are events, like the Goldring Travel Food & Wine Tastings that go above any beyond...and are true luxury. A private setting with the Sommelier, Executive Chef, Sous Chef, Wine Waiters, Waiters, crystal, silver, 18 different wines, 11 different cuisine experiences...and, of course, personalized menus.  That is luxury service.

Hopefully from this you can see there is a huge difference between poor service, good service and luxury service.  It may well be that luxury service is not important to you.  You are happy to walk up to the bar and have your Boddington's served to you in a can (missing, of course, that creamy flowing head).  You may just want to walk up to a buffet and grab a burger.  It is important, nonetheless, to understand what luxury service is so that you can (a) avoid it because it is not for you; (b) stop identifying service that is not luxury as being it...and overpaying for it; and/or (c) assuring yourself that you are having your expectations met...or, to be sure, exceeded!

By the way, I have been receiving quite a number of emails asking me if I actually book cruises or if I would consider booking their cruises or if I would consider booking cruises on other than luxury cruise lines. The answer to all three questions is: YES. You can email me at eric@goldringtravel.com  or call me at (877) 2GO-LUXURY or internationally on +1 732 383-7398 or UK  on +44 20 8133 3450 or Australia on +61 7 3102 4685.

 

Saturday, January 29, 2011

What is a Luxury Cruise Experience? - Part I: "Nickel and Diming" - A Realistic Perspective

Having just completed a five day cruise on the lower end of the premium market, I think now is a great time to consider the factors that make a cruise a “luxury” experience. I am going to write this as a multi-part article because there is a lot to cover on this subject.

Please remember that not everyone wants, needs, is willing to pay, or can pay, for that “luxury” experience. So I am not going to be writing about why charging for things is wrong.  I will, however, comment about the cost of those things.  I will also make some comments concerning “luxury versus value” and “luxury versus style” along the way.

Let me start by stating that I believe the marketing of “Six Star Luxury” is as bogus as ‘No Nickel and Diming”. I do not recall any cruise line ever marketing “Three Star luxury” or defining what is considered “Nickel and Diming”; considering that nickels and dimes are never sought…only dollars over and above the cruise fare.  How about establishing some uniform standards rather than pushing one standard for one cruise line and another standard for another? 

That said...

What is this “nickel and diming” thing? I think the concept was developed in protest of cruise lines charging for what people think should be included in the basic cruise fare; something that irks you to pay for or to pay too much for. To me the concept should not be applied to paying for a bottle of water, but paying an absurd amount for a bottle of water ($1.50) and then getting hit up for a mandatory 15% “gratuity” on top of that…making that bottle of water cost a captive passenger $1.75 that you can pick up at Costco for about 11 cents (so you know it costs the cruise line less than that.)

Does it matter how you are paying that $1.75 or is it the fact that you are paying that absurd amount? This is the twist that many people don’t see. To me it is the fact you are paying the absurd amount…so the “nickel and diming” isn’t necessarily whether I am paying it ala carte, in a beverage package or included in my cruise fare. Let me give you three examples:

1. I was recently on the Celebrity Century and I had the ability to pay for a bottle of water ala carte or to purchase a beverage package which includes unlimited water (still or sparkling) for about $12.50 per day (which I think is very expensive) or a Premium Non-Alcohol Package for $18.40 per day, which also includes sodas, smoothies, specialty coffees, waters, etc. (To be fair, if you purchase a Classic or Premium Beverage Package and you have 4 or more alcoholic beverages you are going to receive all the water you want at no additional charge!)

2. Regent Seven Seas Cruises includes water calling it “free”, but its cruise fares are unquestionably the highest in the cruise industry…and, as I have previously, shown by up to over $300 a day more than a Silversea or Seabourn cruise. While it does include other items in its cruise fare, clearly the cost of that water is not “free” and, to be sure, is probably far more expensive than what it costs on Celebrity! I consider this “Nickel and Diming with Snob Appeal”.

3. Ironically, Regent’s sister company, Oceania Cruises, and Azamara Club Cruises – both of which explicitly market themselves as “not luxury” – provide water (and soda) but do not claim it is “free” in the same manner Seabourn Cruise Line, Silversea Cruises and Crystal Cruises offer it. In these instances you are paying for the water, but its cost is included pretty much seamlessly and without a significant premium.

So let me ask you, “Under which scenario are you being “nickeled and dimed”? To me it doesn’t matter if you are being charged $1.75 per bottle of water, $12.50 per day in a water package, or as a portion of a $300 per day excessive fare, you are being “nickeled and dimed”.

So you disagree and think I am being anti-mass market or anti-Regent Seven Seas (Boy have I heard that before), please keep this in mind, not so long ago the airlines included taking your luggage with you without additional charge, then it had to be of a certain size, then it had to also be within a weight limit, and now the airlines are charging $25+ for luggage with gamesmanship to make sure those two pieces don’t total the 80 pounds allowed (so weight is not the issue), but that the weight is equally distributed between the two bags.

Does the person who buys an economy ticket get “nickeled and dimed” or is he being charged ala carte? I mean, I only have a carry-on, so why should I pay for the fuel and labor associated with handling that guy’s bags? We can all agree, rationale aside, it isn’t free. Think about Example 1.

Does the person who paid five times the amount paid for the economy ticket and is sitting in first class actually get his luggage checked for free? Do you really think it is “free”? Nope. Think about Example 2.

Does the frequent flyer who paid for an economy seat, gets the extra legroom seat without extra charge then is upgraded without charge to first class on the day of the flight…and gets his luggage checked without charge, get his luggage taken for free? You bet he does! Think about Example 3.

Paying ala carte or paying a premium makes it, in my opinion “nickel and diming”, but the person paying the premium enjoys calling it something else.

Obviously, you can apply the same concepts to other things people have included in the "nickeled and dimed" category:  shuttles from the port into town, specialty restaurants, soft drinks, alcoholic beverages.  Remember I said "you can"; not "you must" because some folks do not drink alcoholic beverages or limit them to a glass of wine with dinner, others (like me) never drink soda and yet others never use the speciality restaurants.  Oh, how murky the term "nickeled and dimed" can actually be.
By the way, I have been receiving quite a number of emails asking me if I actually book cruises or if I would consider booking their cruises or if I would consider booking cruises on other than luxury cruise lines. The answer to all three questions is: YES. You can email me at eric@goldringtravel.com  or call me at (877) 2GO-LUXURY or internationally on +1 732 383-7398 or UK  on +44 20 8133 3450 or Australia on +61 7 3102 4685.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Goldring Travel's 2011 Celebrity Century Cruise - How Close to Luxury Can Celebrity's Smallest Ship Get? - Some Final Observations and Thoughts

My last day on the Celebrity Century was a bit of fun, a bit relaxation and a bit of "this feels like the longest cruise I have ever been on". 

After a leisurely breakfast and some more observational strolls, it was time for a light lunch so my DW and I went to the Grand Dining Room.  Again there was disappointment.  Today was "brunch".  It consisted of a fairly typical buffet, but it offered far less than the buffet in the Islands Café and, more importantly to me, it was horrifically noisy and dirty.  We arrived at 12:30 PM and literally not a single table in the entire dining room was clean.  If two people at at a table for eight, their plates were gone, but the rest of their remnants remained (napkins, glasses, etc.) were not and if it was a table for two, it was no different.  Hence, we were left with either sitting at a dirty table, compromising on less appetizing food and staying in a loud area or heading back to the Islands Café and carrying our trays to the Sunset Bar to dine al fresco.  You know what we did.

Then it was time for a shuffleboard tournament within our group.  We had a fun time, but we had to find our individual way to the bar to get drinks and the equipment was a bit shoddy, the deck seriously in need of a good sanding and oiling and only a few older loungers available.  (I did think of the Seabourn Odyssey and Sojourn's new "fancy" shuffleboard and putting greens with comfortable all weather chairs and sofas...and the bar waitstaff, but kept it to myself.)  My DW and Nancy won; a tremendous victory!

Then it was time for a nap on my balcony.  Aside from the stains on the lounger cushions the two on our suite balcony were quite comfortable, so with one of my bath towels used for a bit of cleanliness, I was quickly asleep...only for my DW to come bursting onto the balcony yelling in panic "I lost my glasses!" (Like I had something to do with that!).  So, still in a half-sleep I said, "Give Nancy a call.  I am sure she picked them up at the shuffleboard tournament."  Her response, "I can't!  I can't see the numbers on the bloody phone!"  I tried not to laugh...Really I did...but I had to.  (Nancy had her glasses, so I was off the hook.)

I was then forced to see the pre-dinner show.  After the barwaiter gave me the wrong drink...and then spilled it on my pants...I was forced to stay.  And then I was forced to stay even though the show was terrible.  (Anyone want to buy a CD or DVD after the show?)

Dinner was good; truly enjoyable.  But the waiters and barstaff were just too smiley and asked too often if everything was to my liking.  Oh, yes, that is because it was the last night and even though we had paid our gratuities ($15.00 per day in a suite), that wasn't enough.  They wanted more.  And, to be sure, some of those in my group did give more but I was - as a seasoned cruisers - more offended than shamed into slipping twenties here and there.  (And I gladly tip extra when deserved.)

I should note that my butler was present thought the cruise and was more than willing - always with a nice smile - to do anything I asked, but I just didn't ask. He dutifully brought us tea and finger sandwiches at 4PM everyday, but generally we weren't in at 4PM. He would bring us canapés at 6PM, but we generally weren't in at 6PM.  Would I consider this "luxury"?  Not really.  It was nice, but as I have always said, it is more show than substance...and not worth paying a premium for.  (I should also note that I do not think I ever saw my room steward.  He did an acceptable job keeping the room tidy.)  I do still recommend paying the extra for the Sky Suites and their amenities...just don't do it because you get a butler.



Now for my concluding thoughts:

My premise in writing this was actually not based upon any true belief that a five day cruise on the Celebrity Century (the oldest and smallest ship in the fleet) could actually provide a luxury experience because there simply is no way it could.  It is not its purpose and the clientèle that enjoy this ship want a particular product that is more upscale than Royal Caribbean or Princess and without all of the glitz and activities and announcements...or they just found it to be a good value for a five day getaway.  Other than dinner in Murano, certain times at the Sunset Bar or Michael's Club (stained furniture aside) "luxury" in its true sense is not what the Celebrity Century is about.

Someone said to me that they felt five days was the perfect amount of time for a cruise.  I asked them if they had some more cultural or other activities off the ship (visiting ruins, snorkeling, sailing, ATVs, cultural tours, etc.) so that the ship was less the focus and days were more diverse would five days be enough?  The response was "Good question.  I don't know."  Because of the lack of those things...even more so than the state of the ship...I felt five days was far more than enough...for me. 

Does that make me a "cruise snob"?  No, it means I need my cruising time to be more mentally rewarding and enriching.  I need to walk the fish market in Catania, Sicily or visit the ruins of Ephesus in Turkey.  There are many people that those things simply hold no interest.  They would just as easily and quickly say, "Seabourn has fancy ships with nothing to do and its way too formal.  Yuk."  They are not wrong; Seabourn is just the wrong product for them.

What was truly disappointing and a bit shocking for me was the difference between the Celebrity ships.  I am sure the Solstice-class ships have spoiled me, just as the Celebrity Suites on the Millennium-class ships have, but to a lesser degree.  Celebrity does not try to be everything for everybody, but I think just as the Meridian, Zenith, Horizon, Galaxy and Mercury have said goodbye, the time for Century to do so may be near.

I am not sure what will be done, if anything, to spiff her up before she spends her summer doing 7 night Alaska cruises and then travels to Australia.  Considering the options out there for similar cruises one really needs to look hard to be sure this older lady that is showing a bit of neglect is one's best choice.  You really need to ponder whether what she offers is what you really want.  I am sure that for many it is, but for others don't see the Celebrity name and assume she provides what Celebrity markets.  Other Celebrity ships do, but Century...

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Goldring Travel's 2011 Celebrity Century Cruise - How Close to Luxury Can Celebrity's Smallest Ship Get? Part IV

On Tuesday we arrived in Grand Cayman and I had absolutely no motivation to do anything. In hindsight, the ordeal of Jamaica really put me into a negative mood.

Now I found myself in Grand Cayman where I had previously enjoyed Stingray City and snorkeling and Seven Mile Beach. In the years since I have done the same thing on a much higher and far more personal level in Bora Bora (OK, call me jaded, spoiled…or an experienced traveler) and I have had enough skin problems to keep me from just lying out on the beach. So that left me with shopping (not my favorite pastime). As a result my time on the island was about 1.5 hours.

Back on the ship my DW and I decided to have lunch in the Grand Dining Room…Closed. So we were relegated to the buffet. Now, as I have said, there are good varieties and the food is fresh, but the quality is not what I really enjoy. There are a few decent curry dishes, but most everything else is seasoned not to offend. The fish is always bland and the chicken tastes fresh enough, but mostly of whatever sauce is on top of it. But we service ourselves and carry our trays out to the Sunset Bar area and enjoy the venue, if not the inoffensive food. It is interesting that the bar staff no longer even asks us for our SeaPass card; having noted that we have the Premium Liquor Package.

With a good amount of free time I decided to stroll around the ship and take a critical look. It put me in a more negative mood. I found the cushions in literally every venue stained or dirty (in varying degrees to occasional to consistent). Certain areas of the carpets in the buffet are damaged. One venue that I cannot understand and literally makes some people ill is the Martini Bar. While it’s dirty looking white chairs initially put me off, what the real offending element is the ever-changing lighting…from lime green, to red, to purple, to orange. While food and serving surfaces are immaculately clean, the ship is just is tattered.

And, to be sure, there really is no style element that can compare to the larger Celebrity ships; especially the Solstice-class. There are little bits here and there that are intended to tie Century to the other ships, but just as having a spring roll on the dinner menu calling it a Taste of Silk Harvest, the nods just don’t have the intended effect.

I have decided that I am really not on a Celebrity cruise, but on something more akin to my experience on Holland America on its older Maasdam a few years back. Neither are fair representations of the lines’ true product.

OK, with that off my chest it is time to pull things together because it is this night that is our private event in Murano. Fortunately, Murano is a wonderful and fairly newly installed venue and, by happenstance, the maitre de is the same one we had on Equinox on a prior cruise.

The evening started with Pierre Jouet champagne with passed high quality warm and cold canapés. This was followed by a truly wonderful dinner of the highest quality. Warm goat cheese soufflé served a bit more creatively, but not as stylish, as previously. A perfectly prepared and presented filet mignon with foie gras with wonderful vegetables. I finished with the famous Grand Marnier soufflé and a 20 year old tawny port. Oh, I wasn’t done. There also was an excellent tiramisu birthday cake along with a visit from the Captain, Staff Captain, Cruise Director and Activities Manager. This was followed by more champagne at the Sunset Bar and then some nice cigars. (This was a Luxury Evening. Yes, it is possible on the Celebrity Century.)

Next up, some final observations and thoughts.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Goldring Travel's 2011 Celebrity Century Cruise - How Close to Luxury Can Celebrity's Smallest Ship Get? Part III

Our day at sea was, for me, nothing more than pacing, waiting and getting ready for the Jets-Steelers’ game.

Pre-game a few of us went to the Sunset Bar located aft on Deck 11. I have to say that the bar staff at this venue is excellent. They do have the interplay with the guests that I enjoy and find on luxury lines. They know your suite or folio number so they don’t ask for your card. And because the bar is smaller and tucked behind the buffet area and you pretty much need to walk through the buffet to get there, it is fairly intimate and quiet.

(Note: I would strongly recommend you do not book the Sunset Verandas on Deck 10. When you are at the Sunset Bar you literally look down on the balconies, so there is very little privacy; not to mention the noise, cigar smoke, etc. Celebrity really should put an awning over these verandas which would solve most of the issues.)

Now, back to the Conference Championship football games. Celebrity had set up one lounge (Hemisphere’s) for the game, but it was too small and without near enough televisions…which in turn led to some very grumpy people. An alternative was needed…and found: The Casino. We sat at the bar for both games with our new best friend, Fernando, taking care of us with charm and a great smile.

Celebrity would not allow us to be served food, but it also had no objection to us bringing food to the bar. So aside from the peanuts provided, we created a nice buffet of pizza, sushi and meat pies. Surprisingly, nobody else figured out this great setup and the casino was essentially empty other than us, so it really worked out well…except for the fact that my Jets lost (and they should have won!).

The next day (after an evening of sorrow over my Jets’ defeat) we arrived in Ocho Rios, Jamaica. It was as bad getting off the ship as I remembered it. All we wanted to do was walk over to Margaritaville as Dunn’s River Falls, etc. just isn’t that big a deal and not worth the time or money (in my opinion). In that short quarter mile walk we must have been accosted by 25 taxi/tour drivers waiving photos in our faces, giving a wide variety of pitches (from it only costs $1.00 a person to drive to downtown to give the business to us, not the Indians that own everything near the ship) followed closely by countless people trying to sell us trinkets and necklaces for $1.00 each. Charming, it was not.

We eventually arrived at Margaritaville…away from the hawkers…and it was nice enough. After a few hours it was even nicer. LOL. Then it was back to the ship for a sunset sailaway (yes, the sun did come out today!).

Dinner was fine from a service and cuisine standpoint. It was, as it should be, pretty much seamless and friendly, if not personal. When a nice bottle of wine was ordered the wine waiter brought over the proper high quality Reidel wine glasses and presented the wine appropriately. (It does make a difference.) That said, I figured I would put things to the test by ordering my nemesis: Seafood Risotto. The dish was attractive and the seafood was cooked and flavored nicely. The risotto was not so good. It isn’t possible to make a good risotto for so many people, but as I wasn’t that hungry so I figured why not take a long shot. To be sure, I am not being critical here; I am just observing that even though flavored nicely and presented well, it didn’t make my grade.

After dinner we retired to the Sunset Bar for a whisky and a cigar. The service was, once again, excellent.

Postnote:  As I post this...after the internet was down for quite a while...the woman in the suite next to me is yelling on her telephone as we are at sea.  She is telling the person on the other end of the line, "I am having the time of my life!  They are treating us like queens!  Oh, and I touched a stingray!" 
 
In other words, remember the perspective I am writing this from.  This is a well run ship with many very satisfied guests.  I, too, am satisified when the appropriate expectations are used.
 
Obviously, my next post will be about my day in Grand Cayman and, more importantly, our group's evening in Murano, the speciality restaurant.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Goldring Travel's 2011 Celebrity Century Cruise - How Close to Luxury Can Celebrity's Smallest Ship Get? Part II

Our too early in the morning flight had us arrive in Miami about 9:45 a.m. and at the Port of Miami by about 10:45 a.m. After a brief wait for security, we were quickly through check-in and aboard the ship well before noon. With a quick and efficient check-in, things are looking good.


With our suite not yet ready we headed to Islands, the casual buffet restaurant for an early lunch. The first topic was, however, not about the ship or the food, but rather whether it made economic sense to purchase a beverage package and, if so, which one. I had pre-purchased the Premium beverage package for $281.00 including the 15% gratuity for this 5 day cruise. At about $49 per day if you enjoy a good whisky, some of the nicer wines by the glass or even a bottle of water without hassle, it makes good sense.

The question then became was it worth it for spouses to get a beverage package as well. After about 15 minutes of this discussion I was pretty much sick of it and, to be honest, didn’t want to have my cruise sucked down to the level of “nickel and diming” or, for that matter, talking about nickel and diming. So I made an executive decision: Buy the second card, good or bad economies aside, and just enjoy the cruise.

The next thing you know it was no longer about the economies, but how the drinks were now “free”. So a glass of faux champagne became a true glass of champagne, a glass of house white became a nice chardonnay and it was “cruise on”. This really changed the entire tone of the cruise for many in my group. OK, it is not "The next round is on me", but it is certainly a way to upscale your experience...and it immediately does.

To be sure, if you are someone who has saved to purchase a standard cabin for your annual cruise and this is it, the cost of the beverage package is nothing other than really expensive and, to be honest, there are ways to have a really good time without spending that kind of money on drinks. But, as I said, I am looking at whether there is a luxury experience to be found on the Celebrity Century.

Now, with that out of the way, I am now able to eat my lunch with a nice glass or two of wine without guilt or debate. I wanted to eat light (yeah, like that is going to last) so I had a small portion of a basmati rice dish and two small fried chicken legs. They were actually very tasty. My wife had some cream of tomato soup that she also really enjoyed. And then I just took a walk to see what else was at the buffet and I saw steak and kidney pies, meat pies and pasties. They were, without hesitation, excellent. I am traveling with a few Scots, Irish and English (all now naturalized Americans) and they could not believe how good they were. They were very happy to hear that they will be available all cruise. (Jumping ahead, there also was excellent blood sausage and streaky bacon available at breakfast.)

No one had any complaints about the food. No, it is not Seabourn, but the standard still was quite high with proper carving stations, Indian cuisine, fresh pasta, etc. I found this interesting because being the oldest and smallest ship in the Celebrity fleet I was pleased to see that even though the modern layout of the Solstice-class ship isn’t really possible, the food offerings were. To be sure it is an adventure finding the different dishes as some are forward port side, some are dead aft and others are midship starboard.

Service was also good with more than enough staff to make sure the tables were cleaned, but to be sure the quality of the cleaning (like crumbs on seats) is not what it used to be. It is clear that there is far fewer staff in the buffet area to service the tables and carrying your tray is long gone as is any real interaction with the guests.  There is just too much to do with the number of staff present.

Did this lack of interaction truly affect my experience?  Not really, but it did immediately adjust downward my level of expectation and the possibility of finding a "luxury" experience.

We finished lunch and went to our suite (1064) which is a Sky Suite. It has a nice layout with more than enough space, plenty of storage, a flat screen TV, small sofabed and chair. Our balcony is very large with room for a teak table and two aluminum and mesh chairs and two chaises with comfortable cushions on each…with room to spare. The first thing that struck me is that the sofabed and chair are more than tired as the fabric is stained and worn. While the suite is otherwise clean and pretty well maintained, that really puts you off…and raises your antennae as one begins to look closer at everything.

I noticed that our teak decking is in good shape, but some of the painting done to the metalwork has splashed or dripped here or there. Some of the stainless steel needs a good cleaning and, while our suite’s has a finished overhead the one next to us has what is above it exposed and it has paint over rust in a sloppy fashion. None of this will affect our cruise, but it most certainly confirms Doug Ward’s (Berlitz Cruise Guide) observations.

One true complaint is the bathroom lighting. It is terrible. It is a small florescent strip light that actually makes one feel like you are in a small dimly lit basement. With today’s lighting technology a solution would seem to be easy. Other than that, the bathroom has a whirlpool tub with shower above, plenty of storage and a single sink with more than enough counter space. The amenities are fine and the towels are just enough (2 facecloths, 2 hand towels and 2 bath towels).

Once again:  Luxury...not really.  Good enough for me on a five day Caribbean cruise?  Probably.  (Though the furniture is really kind of offputting.)
Sailaway was pleasant, but with cloudy skies and cool temperatures it was pretty uneventful and subdued…which was just fine with me.

We have three large tables on the second level of the main dining room overlooking the lower level. Our waiters and wine waiters were very good, but you really have more interaction with servers, which I found interesting. Everyone enjoyed their meals with one exception. The woman sitting next to me ordered Prime Rib and the piece she was served never should have left the galley. It was small, grey and truly unappetizing. But with a quick word it was replaced with a very good piece of meat in about 3 minutes. I had fish (not sure what it actually was) that was actually borderline excellent.

Being with friends makes the interaction with staff less important, but there is no question that if you are looking for that sort of interpersonal experience, it is not happening on this ship.  If you think about it, the staff is used to seeing passengers for only 2-5 days, so there is no real chance to have any meaningful interaction.  Everyone is very nice and accomodating, but they know you will be gone before they can even figure out what your likes and dislikes are.

My DW insisted that there was no need to purchase a bottle of wine as we had our drink cards, so the wine waiter should be adept at pouring and refilling our glasses as needed; not at 20 minute intervals. The wine by the glass is very limited in selection, but there are some OK choices if you are not looking for a critical tasting. It actually worked quite well. Again, it was not a Seabourn experience, but our glasses were tended to more than adequately and, once they knew we had the beverage package they never asked for the card again.

After dinner we went in various directions. A few of us wound up in Michael’s Club, which is one of my favorite venues on any Celebrity ship. Years ago it was the cigar lounge, so you know the look and feel. There was a very good pianist and singer who was quite adept at being entertainer when appropriate and being background music at other times.  The service was excellent and, of course, once they saw your card one time they never asked for it again.  (BTW,  YOU NEVER SIGN FOR DRINKS, but merely show the card...so for those complaining about always having to sign...don't.)

There is no question that you feel more people and that you need to adapt to walking around this group of five standing in the passageway. You also need to appreciate that this is truly an economy type cruise and for most it is a very exciting experience, but for others it is a rather inexpensive quick getaway from their home in Miami. When Seabourn did its three day New York City cruises to nowhere the crowd was different so I have to make sure I am taking that into account when I look at things.

Overall it was a nice first day. It is going to be a nice cruise.  It is not, however, going to be "luxury", but that truly was a long shot to begin with.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Goldring Travel's 2011 Celebrity Century Cruise - How Close to Luxury Can Celebrity's Smallest Ship Get?

I am departing tomorrow for a rather unusual cruise for me:  A five day Caribbean cruise sailing out of Miami, Florida on the Celebrity Century.

While my cruising with Celebrity Cruise Lines is fairly normal (I have earned Elite state in its Captain's Club  past passenger program after sailing on the Millennium x2; Constellation x 2; Mercury; Solstice and Equinox..at least that is what I recall), the idea of a short cruise stopping in Jamaica and Grand Cayman isn't what I am normally looking to do.

However, when a friend of 20 years says, "Hey, its my 60th birthday (old bastard isn't he? LOL), so let's get a group together and go on a cruise rather than having the same old party!" I, frankly, had no choice.  So I went to work trying to put together a cruise that 22 people could have some good fun and some upscale experiences at a reasonable price. 

It is going to be interesting to see how it all plays out...from the perspectives of so many different people.  Our group has first timers (I have golf clubs and Florida so why cruise?), ones who cruised 15 years ago, regular mass market cruisers, frequent Celebrity cruisers and, of course, me.

Our accommodations are 10 Sky Suites, 1 Royal Suite and 1 Concierge Class cabin all on Deck 10.  I will see what I can do about providing comparisons between them both from a stateroom layout/amenity standpoint and from a service one.  We are all dining together at late seating in three tables so people can mix and match through the cruise.  I should be able to get some good feedback about the food as well.

One special thing I arranged was the booking out of the entire Murano specialty restaurant for the evening of July 25th for a birthday party in high style.  It will be interesting to see how cocktails followed by dinner in this venue works out.  I have never had anything but a wonderful dining experience in a Celebrity luxury speciality restaurant (Murano, Olympic, etc.)

It is also interesting to note that Celebrity had arranged for a private golfing outing in Jamaica (Cinnamon Hill) including transfers, carts, clubs and greens fees for a very reasonable price.  However, while some in the group were interested most of them want to enjoy the cruise and golf afterward.  The fact that Celebrity is able to organize this for such a small group and at a very reasonable price I think is impressive.

Hey, it snowed this morning and is supposed to be 12 degrees tomorrow.  I guess it is a good time to take a cruise!

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Some Assurance from Seabourn's New President - Seabourn Will Remain Seabourn

While my conversations with cruise line executives are confidential I feel it is worthwhile to pass along my impressions from a very frank discussion I just had with Seabourn's new president, Rick Meadows.

First of all, I - like many - have some concerns about what is happening at Seabourn and, to be sure, some of the things that had previously been happening at Seabourn.  These are not issues with what happens on the ships, but issues that more affect operational and back-office issues that you probably will never know exist.  (That, by the way, is as it should be.) Despite all of the things going on, Rick Meadows got back to me in a matter of a day...with an apology for the delay...and then we had a real conversation.

Second, I truly believe Rick Meadows cares about the Seabourn product...and maintaining it as an independent Seabourn product; not an offshoot of Holland America.  Unfortunately, the transition from Miami to Seattle and the transition from a small, standalone, operation to one which can productively exploit the increased scale of Holland America's infrastructure can seem like making sausage (it it ugly, but the end result tastes really good).

Third, Rick is emphatic...I mean really emphatic...that Seabourn is not going to change AND that it is going to be, from the guest-side of things, run separate and apart from Holland America.  Am I repeating myself? Seabourn will continue to have the same officers and crew, the same intuitive service and outstanding cuisine with all six ships (YES, ALL SIX SHIPS) and, listen to this, there will be improvements.

Now, those that know me know that I am skeptical of...well, everything...so I do not say that there will not be some things happening that are not disappointing to some. (And I am not so sure I will not be blindsided by some announcements down the road.) But, I also believe that if half of what I have heard has been in the works comes to fruition in the next months, those disappointments will be overcome by the excitement over some of the improvements.

To be sure, I am certain...I mean really certain...that there are some at Holland America that think they can just jump in and do it better and, in reality, they don't have a clue what Seabourn... and the Seabourn guest..are really all about.  But, as you know, I will be making sure that they learn or get out of the way because I view each of my clients and "MY clients" first and Seabourn guests second.  In other words, and said positively, I will work to make sure Seabourn is Seabourn. 

Now, before you think I am full of myself, the important thing relative to the last statement is that there is someone (or more) at Seabourn that understands what Seabourn is about and is willing to take the steps necessary to make sure that those  people that don't get it, get it...once he knows about it.  I believe Rick Meadows is that person...and that there are and will be others.

And you know that if I didn't believe it I wouldn't write it.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Seabourn's Move to Seattle: The More Things Change The More They Stay The Same: GREAT NEWS!

I have been waiting for Seabourn to announce what I have been hearing from within, but have not been able to publicly report for lack of Seabourn's overt endorsement, but now I can...and it is great news for all of you who have been wondering what the effect of the move to Seattle will have on Seabourn's ship. 

Today Seabourn, in the strongest possible words, has announced that nothing will change.  I have highlighted the most important words:

"For our guests, the award-winning Seabourn onboard experience will not change in any way. Guests will still experience the superlative service of our same onboard staff and the professional and personal attention of our dedicated officers. Seabourn will continue to be the ultra-luxury line our guests have voted the World’s Best, delivering everything you expect and more. Quite simply, no aspect of your experience will changenot our ships, not our officers or crew, not our world-renowned cruise vacations. The headquarters move will enhance the shoreside support areas of our organization, enabling us to focus more attention on what matters most: our guests."


As I have been saying, the move is related to back-office and marketing; not the onboard product.

Now, relax and figure out which cruise you want to take before the second wave of price increases in March catch up with you!

Monday, January 10, 2011

Oceania Cruises Insignia Is Leaving The Fleet - Capacity Controls????

I have had a few very interesting industry-insider onversations as of late concerning the rapid expansion of Seabourn and Oceania cruise lines.  They have been taking some very different approaches and, to be sure, there is one that Oceania took that I just new would be coming...but Oceania denied it UNTIL NOW!

Oceania announced today that it is chartering the Insignia to Hapag-Lloyd starting in the spring of 2012 (just a year from now).  This coincides with the arrival of Oceania's second larger ship, the Regatta.

What this does is reduce Oceania's capacity (seeing the softness in its 2011 sailings to Alaska for example and the issues Seabourn has with too much new capacity too quickly) in order to prevent issues and it significantly reduces its operational and staffing costs...with many of its Insignia crew obviously being targeted to staff the new ship or rotate to the other Oceania ships as that staff is used for Riviera. 

If you think about it, Oceania will then have a net increase in births of less than 50% of what was expected and that really is a boost for a company with a focus on a quality product and a strong bottom line.

You may recall that I have wondered for quite a while how Oceania is going to market two totally different types of ships (the R-Class having smaller cabins while the Marina-Class have near suite accommodations and far more dining options).  I have gone so far as to conjecture that Oceania and Regent Seven Seas will, in one way or another, combine as there is far more symmetry between Regent's Voyager and Mariner than the R-Class ships. One year ago to the day I wrote Hello Oceania Marina...and, Quite Possibly: Bon Voyage, Regent Seven Seas.  Last month I wrote: Oceania Cruises to Acquire Regent Seven Seas Cruises: A Theory?

Unlike Seabourn that has a clear symmetry with all-suite ships and consistent (if different) venues and, thus, a consistent market, Oceania is obviously faced with a conflict in markets that goes far beyond the Inside Cabin to Suite concept on a ship to a conflict as between the ships themselves.  If you look at Celebrity, it has made a clear focus on the Solstice-class and is in the process of ridding itself of its older hardware and "Solsticizing" its Millennium-class ships.  That simply is not a viable option for Oceania as the differences are just to great.

So is Oceania in the process of jettisoning its older ships?  And is it doing so in a way that it makes sure those ships do not become much in the way of competition?  Hapag-Lloyd seems to fit that model.

We shall see.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

The Yachts of Seabourn and Holland America - Goldring Travel Offers a $500.00 Discount Per Seabourn Suite to Holland America Mariners

I know there are some worried about what the announcement that The Yachts of Seabourn move to Seattle and sharing support with Holland America means.  Personally I think it is an excellent move that will strengthen Seabourn as a cruise line, establish a method to improve Seabourn's marketing and accelerate positive changes such as more creative and diversified itineraries, among other things.

In an effort to take a step into the future and, as I try to do, be at the cutting edge...

In celebration of the new relationship between The Yachts of Seabourn and Holland America Cruise Line, until March 15, 2011 Goldring Travel is giving a $500.00 per suite discount on any 2011 Seabourn cruise booked with Goldring Travel by any Holland America Mariner (past passenger) who has never cruises on The Yachts of Seabourn!

This offer is based upon double occupancy and no suite guest having sailed on Seabourn. Proof of prior Holland America cruise required.

This offer is combinable with any Seabourn promotion, applicable Ensemble Travel Group complimentary shore excursions and/or onboard credit, and American Express Platinum/Centurion benefits. Restrictions apply.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

New Seabourn Private Sale Cruises From Goldring Travel

I am pleased to be able to offer to you some incredible rates for a very limited number of cruises.  These Private Sale prices are for Category A (Oceanview) Suites, but excellent rates for Veranda Suites are also available.  These rates are extremely limited, are subject to prior sale and may be withdrawn at anytime. (Government fees of $32.58 to $498.66 per person are additional.  These fares may qualify for complimentary Ensemble Experiences and benefits and American Express Platinum/Centurion benefits.  Some World Cruise special events may be excluded.)

Seabourn Pride
Thailand & Vietnam
Bangkok, Thailand to Hong Kong, China (12 days) $3,199 MAR 7, 2011

Jewels of India & Arabia I
Singapore to Dubai, United Arab Emirates (16 days) $3,199 APR 2, 2011

Seabourn Spirit
Orchid Isles & India
Singapore to Dubai, United Arab Emirates (16 days) $3,599 MAR 5, 2011

Kingdoms of the Sun I
Dubai, United Arab Emirates to Civitavecchia (Rome), Italy (18 days) $3,999 MAR 21, 2011

Seabourn Legend
Caribbean Hideaways
Round-trip Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas (7 days) $2,199 FEB 25, 2011

Legendary Crossing
Fort Lauderdale to Malaga, Spain (13 days) $2,249 MAR 21, 2011

Seabourn Odyssey
Portugal Passage I
Fort Lauderdale to Lisbon, Portugal (12 days) $2,149 MAR 18, 2011

Mediterranean Spring
Lisbon, Portugal to Istanbul, Turkey (12 days) $2,999 MAR 30, 2011

Seabourn Sojourn
World Cruise Segment 3
Hong Kong, China to Singapore (14 days) $4,599 FEB 26, 2011

World Cruise Segment 4
Singapore to Dubai, United Arab Emirates (14 days) $4,499 MAR 12, 2011

World Cruise Segment 4
Dubai, United Arab Emirates to Civitavecchia (Rome), Italy (20 days) $5,999 MAR 26, 2011

If you are interested, please do not hesistate.  Call (877) 2GO-LUXURY or email me at eric@goldringtravel.com.

Friday, January 7, 2011

What Does Seabourn's Move to Seattle and Working With Holland America Mean?

Earlier today I posted the press release about Seabourn's shake-up.  Now, what the heck does it mean?

First, a foundation.  In my opinion, Seabourn is the finest cruise product on the market today.  Even if you think there is one or two better, there is no question from any legitimate source that it is among the best. 

However, Seabourn's marketing has been terrible.  It has been terrible in pretty much every respect. 

1.  Seabourn has bland and confused brochures and mailers that consistently fail to provide an exciting or informative message.  A person could not tell Seabourn's 2009 marketing from its 2010 marketing from its 2011 marketing.

2.  Seabourn has engaged in pricing strategies (such as heavily discounted prices) that undercut its own market.  From my experience,  those price reductions caused me to lower prices on previously booked cruises in amounts greater than the amounts received from the new, but lower priced, cruises subsequently purchased.

3.  Those lower prices tended to bring in a significant number of folks that wanted to "get their money's worth" rather than enjoy a Seabourn experience.  This resulted in much more work for the staff, more expense for the line and a different onboard experience as perceived by some of its guests during certain periods (like last summer).

4.  Seabourn de-incentived most travel agents (those focused on their income first) because Seabourn's lower prices meant that commissions (which are based upon a percentage of a sale) became half of what, say, a Regent Seven Seas cruise would pay that same agent for a similar-enough cruise.  (Yesterday I wrote about how Regent, in some instances, is selling cruises for almost double what Seabourn does:  Regent Seven Seas Pricing - It Is Out of Control...Seriously, Why Pay That Much?)

5.  Seabourn's travel agent booking engine is a nightmare.  Lost bookings, payments that don't go through, an inability to find the best suites, system lock-ups, general limitations, etc.  If you ask anyone as Seabourn...or most people that call me while I am working with its Inside Line...they will confirm I hate the system.  On the other hand, I do use the Holland America/Cunard/Princess/P&O Cruises Australia booking system and it is pretty darn good.

While I am very pro-Seabourn as a product, there is much that I do not say about the "back end of the business" because, honestly, it is not relevant to Goldring Travel providing its clients with the best cruise experience.  My protests on the above issues, and a few others, have been loud and, to some, even offensive. 

The point is, however, that the departure of Pamela Conover and some others are not a shock to me.  It doesn't make me happy, but then again, from my perspective it is not about being happy it is about business.  And having the best product out there and not having comparable marketing is not good.  (Imagine if I was the best travel agent out there and people couldn't find enough about me about me to make them comfortable using me?  I would be out of business...if I had a business.)

To be sure, Seabourn is not out of business.  Seabourn is evolving.  It is making some changes - possibly drastic changes - in how it does business...not what its product is.

As an example of how this can work to Seabourn's great advantage, let's take a quick look at Regent Seven Seas Cruises.  It was floundering as a standalone brand with poor marketing and some incredible inefficiencies which lead to, in part, poorly maintained ships and a downward slide in service and cuisine.  It was then taken over by Apollo Management and joined, in part, through Prestige Cruise Holdings with Oceania Cruises...a well run operation with great marketing.  Over the past couple of years Regent's backend operations have been integrated with Oceania's which has created some real efficiencies.  Like the product or not, Regent's marketing changed dramatically and it now sells cruises at a huge (and profitable) premium and its backend costs are way down.

I do want to point out that, for example, Princess and Holland America use the same booking engine, but the vast majority of the cruising public has no idea that these two companies are owned by Carnival Corp., no less that they use the same computer software systems.  Further, there is no question that these cruise lines are in competition with each other.  And, would you believe, that Cunard and Princess share operations?  Yep.  What effect has that had on each other's cruise experience, policy terms, etc.  I think you would be hardpressed to figure out any.

So do not think that because Holland America and Seabourn are going to share somethings, life as Seabourn is over.  (BTW, how many of you know that Seabourn used to be in a similar relationship with Cunard?  And that was just a few years ago!)

I have no idea as to how much of this is going to play out.  I am also certain there are going to be things that happen that I will not be happy about.  However, I am not as negative about the move as you might have thought.  (That said, without question, I am quite upset, personally, for those people in Miami that have helped me immensely over the years that are hurt by this move.  I mean we are talking people here!)

Is this going to make me pause to recommend or sell a Seabourn cruise?  Absolutely not.  Why?  It is the best cruise product...and that is not going to change.

Seabourn is Moving to Seattle and Associating With Holland America - Rick Meadows is the New President

Miami, Fl., Jan 7, 2011 – Seabourn has announced that the company’s headquarters will move from Miami, Florida to Seattle, Washington. The transition will take place over the next few months.


As a part of a reorganization plan, Seabourn will join sister brand Holland America Line, expanding further the cruise industry presence in the Pacific Northwest. Seabourn and Holland America Line will maintain independent brand management teams while leveraging efficiencies from shared resources including a unified field sales force and state of the art technology platforms.

Seabourn’s President, Pamela Conover, will continue to serve in her role during the transition period but has chosen not to move to Seattle at this time. Following the transition, she will continue to serve as special advisor and brand ambassador for Seabourn. Richard Meadows, who has held a number of executive positions at several Carnival Corporation& plc brands during his twenty-five year tenure with the company, will assume Seabourn’s presidency once the move to Seattle is completed. Meadows previously served as Seabourn’s senior vice president of sales & marketing where he played a significant role in developing the ultra-luxury brand. He will continue in his role as executive vice president of marketing, sales & guest programs for Holland America Line.

“We are proud to welcome the Seabourn headquarters to Seattle,” said Stein Kruse, President and CEO of Holland America Line. “Seabourn and Holland America Line will benefit from the proximity of two award winning brand teams, while also enjoying more streamlined operations resulting from shared technology such as reservation and customer relationship management systems. We are fortunate that Pam will continue her association with Seabourn, and Rick’s prior experience with the company makes him the ideal candidate to lead Seabourn into the future.”

Seabourn provides ultra-luxury cruises on smaller, more intimate ships to the most desirable destinations in the world. Seabourn cruises are exceptional vacations, satisfying the highest expectations of its discerning guests. Throughout its twenty year history, Seabourn has consistently been rated not only among the top cruise lines, but also among the world's premier vacation choices. The Seabourn fleet currently includes Seabourn Pride, Seabourn Spirit, Seabourn Legend, Seabourn Odyssey and Seabourn Sojourn. The Seabourn Quest will enter service in June of 2011.

Seabourn’s sister company, Holland America Line, operates a fleet of 15 premium ships offering more than 500 cruises to 350 ports on all seven continents. The company’s Signature of Excellence enhancements, a commitment totaling more than $566 million, showcase the Culinary Arts Center presented by Food & Wine magazine — a state-of-the-art onboard show kitchen where more than 60 celebrated guest chefs and culinary experts provide cooking demonstrations and classes — Explorations Café powered by The New York Times, Digital Workshop powered by Windows, teens-only activity areas and all new stateroom amenities highlighted by flat-panel TVs and plush Euro-top Mariner’s Dream Beds.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Regent Seven Seas Pricing - It Is Out of Control...Seriously, Why Pay That Much?

WARNING:  This is NOT an advertisement.  This is a continuation of what seems to be an ever increasing disparity of pricing between Regent Seven Seas and virtually any other cruise line considered by anyone to be "luxury".

So a man walks into a bar...I mean my office...looking at a 10 day Regent cruise on the 700 passenger Mariner in May 2011. The itinerary is quite good and the fare is $7,800 per person in the lowest category Veranda Suite or $780 per day per person.


Just for comparison, we look at a 14 day cruise on the 200 passenger Seabourn Legend, also in May 2011 which covers a number of the same ports, and the price for an Oceanview Suite is $5,000 per person or $357 per day per person.  The man says he really doesn't want to take many tours and, in fact, hates bus tours. But he is concerned about air. Great flights out of the airport of his choice on a major airline will cost him under $900 per person...which adds $64 a day to the Seabourn fare. Want to throw in a pre-cruise hotel and transfer for $150 a person...it adds $11 a day.  So his total comparison cost is $432 per day per person.

So the question, assuming arguendo that the food and service is equal (and to be sure I do not believe Regent's is on a par with Seabourn), is there enough value in the Regent cruise to warrant paying $348 per day per person more ($698 per couple per day) for a balcony and some tours? [Yes, that is approximately double the price of the Seabourn cruise. It is not a misprint.]

Regent Seven Seas profusely markets that its cruises are a great "value" and that everything is "free". In fact, quoting directly from Regent's website (capitalization is original to Regent):

"All-Inclusive Value
Regent Seven Seas Cruises fares include:

FREE Roundtrip Air
FREE Unlimited Shore Excursions
FREE Luxury Hotel Package
FREE Business Class Air in Penthouse Suites and higher on Europe sailings
FREE beverages including fine wines, beer and premium spirits, soft drinks, bottled water, specialty coffees and tea served throughout the ship
FREE in-suite mini-bar replenished daily with soft drinks, beer and bottled water
FREE 24-hour room service and no additional charge for specialty restaurants
FREE Pre-Paid Gratuities..."

In other words, when does the "free", "free", "free" or more inclusive package (take your pick as to wording), lose its cache...or does the Regent product really hold its value?

I pause...and I pause again...because I know I will get those emails and some others will think, "Well that is Goldring Travel just pushing Seabourn by again battering Regent Seven Seas."  However, I would ask you to pause...and pause again...and think, "Rather than damning the messenger, maybe we should take a closer look at the message."
From my perspective, it is absolutely appropriate to discuss the "value" provided by Regent and if what it is providing is "free". It is also absolutely appropriate to use examples to compare and contrast to determine what that "value" is.  That is why I worked in the other "free" items before I came up with the $700 per day difference...now we really only have to discuss tours (and will ignore that which you get on Seabourn that you don't get on Regent such as in-suite liquor, designer soaps, Molton Brown bath amenities, in-suite chapagne, complimentary caviar, stewardess-drawn aromatherapy baths, etc., etc.)

I tried to look at it like a Coach bag.  It hold stuff, looks good, and had a brand cache. But there is nothing in any of the marketing that gives Regent marketing cache over Silversea, Seabourn or Crystal; NCL most certainly, but not the other luxury lines.  So that can't be where the value is.

I tried to look at the inclusiveness, but honestly, every single cruise line offers air and, to be sure, in almost every instance you can find air - probably on better flights meeting your individual needs - for less money. And, as I showed, the cost of the few other items is not great.  I can, however, give a little bit of a nod to the marketing of it as inclusive in favor of Regent...but not near warranting the doubling of the prices or $700 a day.

I also looked at the tours.  Now, this is where it  - for me - gets a little interesting.  I have NEVER sold a luxury cruise where my clients have taken ship's tours every day.  I have clients that take one or two...and I even provide some special events myself...but generally I find my clients to be people that want to wander a town, take a private tour and only occasionally take a ship's tour (and then with 25 people; not 50+ as happens many times on Regent). 

So I am left with the feeling that the tours are sort of like an "all you can eat" buffet.  Some people indulge in more than you normally would...even if the quality isn't the highest...and feel that by having that overstuffed feeling they have gotten their money's worth.  There is absolutely nothing wrong with that.  Heck, "all you can eat" buffets are popular...and they are offered because the sellers find them to be incredibly profitable, so everyone that involves themselves are happy.

But does this buffet of tours warrant a $700 a day price difference?  I guess to some it does.  And for Regent - as with the seller of the "all you can eat" buffet it is a veritable gold mine because the profit margins are huge.  (Ever wonder why the mass market lines offer so many different tours:  HUGE PROFITS.)

Obviously there are some that find value in a Regent Seven Seas cruise.  In fact, based on the fact the ships are double and triple the size of the Seabourn and Silversea ships, there are quite a few that do. 

But my job is not to simply take your order for a single cruise.  My goal is to make you an educated cruiser and one who finds that the value is not only in the cruise, but in the travel agent.  Why do I say this?  Because when presented with all the information not a single potential client of mine has decided to purchase a Regent cruise.  Not one.*

*Oh, there was on one very well-know Regent-loyalist, but even he just booked a Seabourn cruise...that is after he wasted many hours of my time reaping all sorts of information and then booked with a heavily discounting travel agent (who obviously was incapable of having the knowledge I do) to save a couple of bucks.  It is as if he is the sort that comes into a bar at Happy Hour, eats the food at the free buffet and then walks never buying a drink.  (I guess I just have a problem with buffets?!)

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Cruising and Traveling In The Western Hemisphere - What A Concept!

Over the holidays I had some time (actually very little time as many people were booking cruises while snowed in and before Seabourn's fare increases) to look forward into 2011.  And what I saw was somewhat surprising.  I am visiting and cruising a lot of North America...and I am excited about it.

On January 22, 2011 I am hosting a small group (do I host any other size group?) on the Celebrity Century for a friend's 60th birthday.  It is a short five day cruise out of Miami visiting Ocho Rios, Jamaica and Grand Cayman.  Everyone has booked either a Sky Suite or a Royal Suite and we have reserved Murano, the specialty restaurant, for our exclusive use one evening.  I didn't pick the itinerary, but keeping in mind that most of the guests haven't been on many cruises it probably will be interesting for them.  As I do not plan on getting of the ship for long it will be a great experience to revisit the concept of "luxing up" a Celebrity cruise and comparing it to what is received from the luxury-designated cruise lines.

In March I will again be making my way to the Seatrade Cruise Shipping Conference in Miami, Florida to hear all of the cruise lines big announcements and learn more of the subtle changes and focuses coming in the industry. It is a great conference focused on the industry...not on travel agents or the public.

After that, on April 17, 2011 I will be boarding the Crystal Symphony with my family for a seven day cruise of the West Coast in Veranda Cabins. We are departing out of Vancouver and then visiting Victoria, BC; Seattle; Astoria, Oregon; San Francisco; Santa Barbara, California; and, Los Angeles.  I think it is a great West Coast itinerary with a little bit of a taste of everything...and with some snow still on the ground up north.  I am not sure how Crystal came up with this itinerary or why it is available in mid April, but for me and my family it allows us to revisit some places we love and to experience some others that we really should be more familiar with. 

Of course, the comparison between our Celebrity Sky Suite and Crystal Veranda Cabin experiences will be very interesting.  The one thing that strikes me immediately is that the Crystal itinerary is so far superior in diversity and interest that I "fear" the experience will be skewed.  I am also certain that there will be a bit more enrichment on the Crystal cruise and a bit more football playoffs for my New York Jets (hopefully) on the Celebrity cruise.

Then, after quickly unpacking in May it is off to the American Superyacht Forum which this year is being held in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida.  This three day event is one of my favorites of the year.

Taking a break from the Western Hemisphere the plan is to revisit the little mountain village of Islamlar, Turkey in July.

In September it will be the nine day 2011 Goldring Travel Food & Foliage Cruise on the Seabourn Sojourn departing out of Quebec City, Quebec and then sailing to Port Sanguenay, Quebec; Sydney, Nova Scotia; Halifax, Nova Scotia; Bar Harbor, Maine; Boston; and, New York City.  I will be writing more extensively about this great cruise which will be (hopefully) at the peak of leaf season and with the cold waters providing some great fresh seafood.  And, of course, the Ensemble Experience in Halifax, a Goldring Travel Exclusive Experience and a private Food & Wine Tasting are all included at no additional cost.

So with travels in 2011 starting in Lake Tahoe, California and then from Miami, Florida into the Caribbean...and then back to Miami...and then Victoria, British Columbia to Los Angeles, California...then to Ft. Lauderdale, Florida...and then Quebec City, Quebec to New York City it looks like this world traveler is going to be enjoying his own backyard.

How many of you have been to the Western Hemisphere cities I will be visiting?  I bet there are a few that peak your interest.  You may not want to wait to read what I have to say about them!