Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Luxury Cruises: A Better Value On a Seabourn or SeaDream Ship vs. a Regent Seven Seas Ship? Let's Compare!

When I look for things to write about I admit that I take a gander over at Cruise Critic.  I do this not for information, but for inspiration.  There is a thread on the Regent Seven Seas board which is about a regular SeaDream guest's experience on the Regent Seven Seas Navigator and the differences he experienced.  You can read it here:  Navigator Review - June 8, 2011.

I am not going to focus on the misses on that Regent Seven Seas Navigator cruise (same misses year after year after year), but rather the excuse for them proffered by TravelCat2:  "Even if the service and food on the Navigator had been better, it would be difficult to compare a ship with approximately 108 people on board with a ship carrying 490. Giving personal service on Sea Dream and on the Seabourn's 209 [sic] passenger ships is considerably easier than on Regent."

I paused and pondered, noting that the Seabourn Quest, Seabourn Odyssey and Seabourn Sojourn have 450 guests vs. Regent Seven Seas Navigator's 490:  "I have never had a cruise client say to me that they were willing to accept lesser cuisine or service for their $5,000+ cruise fare to be on a larger ship; no less when discussing a luxury cruise line."  So I responded:

"One thing that I think is a bit inaccurate is to say that you cannot really compare SeaDream to Regent because of the number of guests. Seabourn has two different size ships - 208 and 450 - and they are compared not only to each other, but to SeaDream. Cuisine and Service are easily compared...[I]t is about, in large part, what you are paying. I don't think it is fair or accurate to say that your $5,000+ per person is de facto a better deal on a smaller ship because you will get better cuisine and service. I cannot imagine a Seabourn guest saying, "I know the service won't be as good on the Seabourn Quest because she has 450 guests, so I will expect less than what I just had on the Seabourn Legend." The same can be said for a Silversea guest going from the Silver Cloud to the Silver Spirit.  Or, if you like, it should be better on [Regent Seven Seas] Navigator than Voyager...Of course there will be some differences (like all staff knowing your name) and more intimate venues, but the overall cruise quality should pretty much equal out for the same dollars."

I really don't have much more to say on that specific point because it seems, at least to me, so darn obvious.  But it does bring up a point about what it is a person should reasonably expect on a luxury cruise...or on a cruise line that markets itself as a luxury cruise line.  And that is where I believe the breakdown occurs!
 
Dictionary - rather than marketing - definitions really assist here.  Luxury has been defined as "The state of great comfort and extravagant living" or "wealth as evidenced by sumptuous living".  Sumptuous, in turn, has been defined as "deluxe: rich and superior in quality".  And, to me that is where the slippery slope of wannabes claiming they "ares" in the luxury market exist.
 
I, clearly, believe that Seabourn is the most luxurious of the main cruise lines.  Seabourn does not provide the ultimate in luxury experiences, but the ultimate in cruise luxury experiences.  No one could really challenge that Seabourn meets the definition of "sumptuous" and provides its guests with a "state of great comfort and extravagant living". 
 
While some may think the definition of luxury is "decadent" ("Luxuriously self-indulgent"); the Seabourn, or frankly, any cruise experience it is not about self-indulgence.  You have decided to share a good bit of your space with over 100 other people and, to be sure, those that are self-indulgent are the ones that offend because that trait tends to interfere with the sumptuous luxury experiences of the other guests.  (That is a whole 'nuther topic!)
 
Now without picking apart each cruise line's strengths and weaknesses, it is pretty consistently reported that SeaDream Yacht Club provides great service and great cuisine, but its cabins are very comfortable, but certainly not at the top of the luxury cruise market (and offer no balconies).  There are no discussions of needing to dine in a particular area to get good (not even great) service or of crowded areas (though a larger group can take over an area).  Shore excursions are intimate and less standardized.  There are truly private areas to do exceptional things (like the Bali Beds).  SeaDream provides a casual elegance as its "style".
 
I need not repeat all that Seabourn offers, but suffice it to say, on its 208 guest ships or its 450 guest ships, excellent service and cuisine abounds with some of the nicest suites at sea, consistently high levels of service, free flowing champagne, caviar, etc. with the highest passenger to space ratio at sea.  Its style is a bit less casual, but certainly not formal.  I call it "classy and elegant".
 
And then there is Regent Seven Seas.  It claims that, in a faux luxury marketing manner, everything is "free".  Let's pause:  "Free" and "Luxury" are by definition, two totally different concepts. A person seeking a "luxury" or "sumptuous" experience really has not considered the price. (It may limit those things, but it is not what one looks for.)  But Regent does this by increasing its fares to the highest in the industry and then provides standard shore excursions in larger groups (ala Oceania or Celebrity), admittedly marginal service (even on a premium line your water and wine glasses better be tended to and your food served together and hot), tired decor, crowding on its Navigator, but alas very nice suites and more venues and alternative dining (regardless of cuisine quality).
 
Pause here and ask yourself, "How many true luxury cruise guests are more attracted to the term "free" or the term "value"?  I think you will find that the true luxury cruise guest is more offended than not by the "free" because they did not reach the level of being able to afford luxury by not understanding that "nothing is free".  Value is the more powerful concept.
 
So with this you come to your travel agent looking to spend $5,000 to $10,000 per person for a 7-10 day luxury cruise.  Would you expect your travel agent to say, "Your really can't compare the two lines. Which one do you want to sail on?"
 
Or would you expect your travel agent to through the above and say to you, "You know, Regent Seven Seas service and cuisine really can't compare to what you get on SeaDream Yacht Club, and you may well have a sense of crowding, but since you get nicer suites and more venues you should sail on Regent." 
 
Oh, yes, you can compare SeaDream to Regent Seven Seas. 
You can compare cuisine. 
You can compare service. 
You can compare suites. 
You can compare facilities. 
You can compare styles. 
 
And you can decide which cruise line and ship offers you what you prefer...and that might, in the end, be a Regent Seven Seas cruise.
 
But...and it is a huge "but":  Do not ever believe that a larger ship in the luxury market means lesser cuisine or service.  The cruise line - not the ship - is in control of what is delivered to its luxury guests.  And sometimes, on some lines, the most truly "luxurious" thing it delivers is the brochure promising a luxury experience you aren't going to receive. 
 
Try, say, comparing the Seabourn Quest to the Regent Seven Seas Navigator (heck, they are within 40 guests of each other).  There is not a single aspect of the cruise experience that Regent Seven Seas exceeds Seabourn at...not one:  Service.  Cuisine.  Decor.  Guest Space.  Dining Venues.  Public Spaces. Style.  Oh, yes, and Value. 
 
Now compare the Seabourn Quest to SeaDream.  It gets interesting, doesn' t it!  (But that is for another article!)

Monday, June 27, 2011

Seabourn Spirit - October 21, 2011 - Goldring Travel Special Promotion

Here is a great deal for you...for a limited time only and only for a limited number of suites:

Seabourn Spirit - October 21, 2011 - 7 Day Cruise 
Roundtrip Venice - Visiting Koper, Slovenia; Zadar, Croatia; Dubrovnik, Croatia; Split, Croatia; Hvar, Croatia; and, Rovinj, Croatia.

Goldring Travel is offering you $400 off per suite and a complimentary tour in Dubrovnik (or a $150 per person onboard credit). With fares starting at $2,799.00 per person + taxes...before this deal, it is a fantastic bargain.

Obviously, each suite is subject to prior sale, terms and conditions apply and this offer may be withdrawn at anytime, so book NOW!

There are only a few suites left on this sailing, so if you are interested, please call me at 888-SEABOURN in the United States,  020 8133 3450 in the U.K.; 07 3102 4685 in Australia; and +1 732-383-7398 elsewhere.  You can also email me at eric@goldringtravel.com.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Cunard's Queen Mary 2 Fails Sanitary Inspection

Cunard's "luxury" oceanliner, Queen Mary 2 flunked its sanitary inspection by the United States Centers for Disease Control. More importantly, its score of 84 was not merely on account of technical issues, but because of some pretty basic and inexcusable lapses. 

There hasn't been as ship that failed an inspection in over a year...and only one of seven ships that have failed in the past 4+ years.  I cannot remember the last time any major cruise line had a ship that failed.

"Item No.: 10 Site: Swimming Pool-Minnows Splash Pool - Violation: The pool floor tiling and the pool water were extremely dirty. They were coated with dark soil and hairs. This pool was open at the time of the inspection, but no bathers were inside."

"Item No.: 13 Site: Other-King's Court Locker and Steward Locker - Violation: Numerous food safety violations were observed in the King's Court Locker, the Steward Locker and storage space immediately between the two lockers including: - Potentially hazardous foods stored out of temperature and not properly discarded; - Pests; - Toxic items stored with food and clean items; - Improper storage of food (e.g., food stored on deck); - Improper storage of food equipment, single-service articles; and - Blocked handwashing sink."

'Item No.: 13 Site: Other-King's Court Locker and Steward Locker - Violation: Numerous food safety violations were observed in the King's Court Locker, the Steward Locker and storage space immediately between the two lockers including: - Potentially hazardous foods stored out of temperature and not properly discarded; - Pests; - Toxic items stored with food and clean items; - Improper storage of food (e.g., food stored on deck); - Improper storage of food equipment, single-service articles; and - Blocked handwashing sink."

"Item No.: 26 Site: Bar-Casino Bar, Kings Court Pantry, and Pub - Violation: Internal beer draught lines were heavily soiled."

"Item No.: 28 Site: Galley-Plate Warming Trolleys - Violation: Previously cleaned plates were stored in numerous plate warming trolleys that were soiled with grease and food debris."

"Item No.: 39 Site: Other-King's Court Locker across from Locker 6.5.4 - Violation: Four live fruit flies and four adult cockroaches were observed in the storage locker on the deck and in the bins containing food."

There are about two dozen examples of contamination of food by it being in contact with dirty (not just unclean) equipment, shelves, etc.

There were numerous issues with the protection, maintenance and monitoring of a number of aspects of the potable (drinking) water supply.

I am pretty much at a loss as to how this could be allowed to happen.  It is, in my opinion, a failure from the top right on down the line.  
 
But the Cunard spokesperson said in a statement, '"The poor assessment on 10 June resulted largely from one small area of the ship's overall operation. All the issues raised in the report were immediately addressed and have now been corrected". 
 
Frankly, the comments had to do with more than "one small area of the ship's overall operation"...unless you think what you eat, drink and swim in is "one small area".
 
YUK

Perspective: Seabourn and Cruise Critic Divas...Not So Perfect Together.

Once again, I admit that like a moth drawn to a flame, I took a look at Cruise Critic to see what the 0.1% of all Seabourn guests are saying.  I did this because the other day one of my clients said, "I was looking on Cruise Critic for the answer and what they were saying just didn't seem right."  Well, what they said wasn't correct....again.

It still puzzles me ("fascinates" would be too kind of a word) why people say things on Cruise Critic that they really don't know the answer to.  You will recall I recently wrote about a person who rather embellished something on Cruise Critic to make himself sound better, but that is not giving bad information or strangely complaining about things...or even speaking in an affirmative "I know" manner when they don't know and their complaints are not about Seabourn's quality of service or cuisine or hardware, but really picky things that are only problematic in the world of "It is all about me."  They are what I now call "Cruise Critic Divas".

Presently there is a thread about how Holland America is apparently managing and directing Seabourn.  The problem with the thread is, of course, that Holland America and Seabourn have gone overboard (sorry) to assure everyone...including their employees...that Seabourn is a separate entity, run by separate executives, with a different philosophy and a different product...even down to its own offices.

And then there is, of course, pretty much only glowing reports on the Seabourn cruise experience since the change in March 2010...right up until the present Maiden Voyage of the Seabourn Quest.

So with that background, I offer what I posted as my response to one of the regular complainers and, in fact, not directly to him, but all of the dozen complainers that poison the well for Seabourn...for purposes that - as I said - frustrate me.  (You will pick up on what the complaints were as you read this):

Please don't take this personally, as it is not intended to be, but it is very interesting that many posts...including some in this thread...are about what a particular person likes; not what actually works or is preferred.

Some Americans love thick juicy steaks, but most find them to be too big and frankly unappetizing when put on their plate. Too much is not a good thing. ([Regent Seven Seas]sort of...and I mean sort of...found that out when it opened its Prime 7 restaurant with huge portions.) The concept for a cruise line, at least Seabourn, is to provide excellent cuisine; not throw thousands of dollars away...offending or not satisfying the vast majority along the way...because say 10 people on a cruise like their steak big and juicy.

I would love the Sky Bar to remain open later...and if there are 20 people (or about 4% of a full ship)...it will. But to keep it open for 4 people (less than 1%) until who knows when isn't really practical and, to some (like me) it could be seen as an opportunity to be unintentionally abusive to the staff...who have to be up early in the morning.

You want the Coffee Bar open after 6PM? Let's just take a moment and consider that (a) after 6PM the vast majority of people are getting ready for cocktails and dinner (not a coffee); (b) from 7:30 - 9:30 pm. the vast majority are actually eating dinner; and (c) after dinner almost everyone either goes back to their suite, to a show or to a lounge. So exactly how many coffees do you think were served after [6PM]?

Also, let's have a reality check here: When the Odyssey came out she was the first Seabourn ship in almost two decades. It was a huge deal. And coupled with that, there were many construction issues that affected the first guests. So between overwhelming the issues with care and kindness and making sure there was great "spin" all stops were taken out. But then reality set in. Just how many of those chocolate whatever were actually selected and, to be sure, they may still be there; just others have selected them before you arrived on your one cruise thereafter.

Now: PERSPECTIVE! Think about what the complaints are? A particular pastry; the thickness of a steak; how late an underutilized coffee bar is to stay open. If these are the things that upset you and make you think that Seabourn...or any other line...is horrifically cutting back, I believe perspective has been totally lost.

As that issue of PERSPECTIVE, do you think it is appropriate for 99.2% of the guests subsidize the wishes of the 4 people that want the Sky Bar or Coffee Bar to stay open longer? (Think increased staffing, wasted unused food offerings, etc.) I know, for example, that Seabourn has recently made the decision to pay more for its entertainment staff so that it can have higher quality shows...and it, well, shows...making many more people's evening more enjoyable.

Oh, and by the way, sticking with the PERSPECTIVE thing, have you compared the cost of the cruise compared to 5-10 years ago? It is actually much lower and while the cruise lines had charged a fuel supplement previously when oil was over $70 a barrel, now when it is about $100 a barrel they reserve the right to, but don't (except Cunard does).

So, in summary, I believe some folks have just lost perspective and, unfortunately, the reality that what they want just might not be what the vast majority of the Seabourn guests want. Seabourn is a business. Because something changes doesn't mean there are "cutbacks" it means there just might be some smart people "crafting" the Seabourn product to better fit the vast majority of the clients.

Now, if the lack of a chocolate pastry is a reason to complain then why don't you take the larger sized Molton Brown bath products that Seabourn now uses, relax and realize that while Seabourn ain't perfect, the issues are actually rather insignificant (IMHO).

There is no question that when you are on a cruise, Seabourn or otherwise, you want what you want.  But then again, there is a limit to what is reasonable even under the most demanding of circumstances. 
 
So for all those on Cruise Critic (or elsewhere) that it is a huge ordeal that they don't have those "little chocolate thingies" you need to ask yourselves:
 
"How much does your cruise fare allow you to be a Cruise Critic Diva?
 
- Does it entitle you to be more of a Diva than when you go to one of the finest restaurants in the world and they changed the menu?
 
- Does it entitle you to be more of a Diva than if you chartered a superyacht for $150,000+ a week and the steak wasn't perfectly to your liking?

 - Does it entitle you to have a staff member dedicated to your personal desire for an espresso, but only in the location that you wish?

Cruise Critic Divas, it is a cruise in a special, but imperfect, luxury ambiance.  Lighten up and enjoy. 

I mean if there is anyone that is going to be critical of a cruise line's performance it is going to be me.  But my criticisms are, hopefully, big picture and focused with perspective. Now:  The café in my building just closed last week.  I think I am going on a rent strike!

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

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Roman Around: The Pre-Inaugural of the Seabourn Quest - Part VI - The Photos!

I have written alot about my time before and during the Inaugural Cruise on the Seabourn Quest.  Now I am sharing some of my photos.


 


Cheese.  Lot of Great Cheese!

Bread.  Lots of Great Bread!




 
You Ordered the Cheese Plate For One?




Seabourn Quest's Penthouse Living Room

David Burke Cooking Demonstration On the Seabourn Quest:  Tuna

Obligatory Wine Tasting Near St. Tropez:  Vin de Provence

Michelin Star Dining:  It tasted even better than it looks.
 
 
Executive Chef Rajat and His Creations, Executive Chef Bjoern and Shannon at Our Little Private Pre-Dinner Event in the Seabourn Quest's Spa Villa

Executive Chef Bjoern Pours the Champagne

And now, having ended our time on the Seabourn Quest with good friends and a special Seabourn Experience with the sun setting with a gentle breeze, it is time for me to look foward to the Goldring Travel 2011 Food & Foliage Cruise on the Seabourn Sojourn.

And, yes, it is that good on a Seabourn cruise!

If you are interested in a Seabourn cruise email me at eric@goldringtravel.com  or call me call me at (888) SEABOURN in the U.S.; +44 20 8133 3450 in the U.K.; +61 7 3102 4685 in Australia; and +1 732-383-7398 elsewhere.  


Seabourn Quest's Inauguration in Barcelona, Spain

Yesterday the Seabourn Quest was christened in Barcelona, Spain just at the foot of La Rambla.


As the sun set Blythe Danner, the award-winning actress, served as godmother to the Seabourn Quest.  Maiden Voyage guests had the unique opportunity to participate in the festivities.

As full orchestra was arrayed on either side of the swimming pool, a projection screen set above the deck allowed guests to view the climactic moment when a bottle of champagne smashed against the bow of the ship.

Right next to the screen, a contingent of crew members who had served in the start-up teams of all three new ship launches instantaneously broke confetti-filled champagne bottles in a synchronized wave pattern and as the bottle crashed.

The evening was capped off by a dazzling fireworks display sparkling against the city's skyline.

Monday, June 20, 2011

A Seabourn Cruise: What Is It Like? Watch This!

Most people have never heard of Seabourn Cruises and, as a result, don't ever consider what is, in my opinion, the finest luxury cruise experience at sea.

Some people have the erroneous impression that Seabourn is for "old people" (whatever that means) or that it is too formal or stuffy.

Take a moment, watch this video...it is a bit longer than usual...and I think you will see that a Seabourn cruise is personal experience that you can make your own, but done in an informal, but luxurious, setting.  Enjoy!



If you are interested in a Seabourn cruise (or, frankly, any other cruise)  email me at eric@goldringtravel.com or call me call me at (888) SEABOURN in the U.S.; +44 20 8133 3450 in the U.K.; +61 7 3102 4685 in Australia; and +1 732-383-7398 elsewhere.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Clarence Clemons - The Big Man - Takes His Final Bow

Last night, after suffering from a massive stroke about a week ago, Clarence Clemons died.  He was known by most as Bruce Springsteen's saxophone player and sidekick, but I remember him as a incredibly gentle person who had a huge heart, a bigger smile and kindness that was immeasurable.

The tendency is to remember his by listening to his solo in the Springsteen song Jungleland, but I will first remember his kindness and that big smile:



But Clarence Clemons was also about the music and the emotion he could bring out in people through his saxophone, so a listen to that Jungleland solo, played in New Jersey, is a must.  He had a way of just taking over through his presence and drawing you in.  I mean, as you will see, he just stood there...The Big Man...and you felt "it":



Watching him for the first time at the Stone Pony in Asbury Park I was too young, too brash and too naive to appreciate who he was.  Now, just a few miles away from there, on Father's Day over three decades later, I do.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Avid Cruiser - Goes "All In" On Marketing; Not Critiquing - But Doesn't Fully Disclose His Apparent Conflict With The Cruising Consumer

Yesterday Ralph Grizzle, the Avid Cruiser, announced to the industry that he has been hired by Royal Caribbean to create 10 minute videos on all of its various ports and, to be sure, it is speculated that those videos may well trickle over to RCCL's sister companies:  Celebrity Cruises and Azamara Club Cruises. But...consistent with his prior actions, that information is not on his website and is not on his blog.  It is, in fact, nowhere to be easily found by the consumer.

Why is that important?  If the consumer does not have confidence in the cruise information being provided to it by supposedly unbiased sources or by his/her travel agent, then the entire cruise industry suffers. That is not something I wish to let happen.

For some background, a while back I was very critical of Ralph Grizzle, the Avid Cruiser, because he failed to disclose that he was being paid by Silversea Cruises to provide a supposed critique of its new ship, the Silversea Silver Spirit, and that he then followed on with a rather curious (and I believed skewed) "review" of the Seabourn Odyssey. See my January 2010 article:  Avid Cruiser - After Reading the Posts on the Seabourn Odyssey Should Be Renamed Avid Loser - Seriously, What Gives?

But then he began disclosing...if you looked very carefully...that he was, in part, being paid by certain cruise lines to provide his reviews and videos.  That did not, however, result in any asterisks being put on his work (past or present) that he was essentially a "hired gun (copywriter)".  How did he do this? I guess as a result, in whole or in part, of my criticisms - he added a new "Full Disclosure" page...which you can only find if you scroll to the bottom of his home page

Unfortunately, it is clearly, and I personally believe intentionally, not a "full" disclosure at all, but rather a non-disclosure other than the fact that he cruises for free, is treated like a VIP and, "Cruise lines, destinations and travel agents do support Avid Cruiser, primarily through project-based fees. Cruise lines and destinations, for example, hire me [the Avid Cruiser] to produce videos or other projects." What is missing is which cruise lines pay him.  That would, obviously, result in "full" disclosure. 

Instead of providing that "full" disclosure, Ralph Grizzle he added to his website a new - easily found - page assuring he is not biased: "Cruise Reviews You Can Trust" along with another page "Trustworthy & Helpful Cruise Reviews" with a section captioned, "The Avid Cruiser’s Mission: To Help People Make Informed Decisions". Gee, I would have thought that "Full Disclosure" page would have been right up there...front and center...with those pages flaunting his integrity...which were put, well, front and center.  But it isn't. 

Why?  To me the answer is obvious.  The Avid Cruiser's Mission is not to help people make informed decisions.  His mission is to sell his copy and videos.  And if his copy is thought to be biased or paid for maybe, just maybe, those travel agents paying for his content might not pay for it.  WAIT A MINUTE:  That's it!  Travel agents that do not have the expertise, want to present Ralph Grizzle's copy to their clients make them seem more experienced.  Now, if those travel agents are pushing biased reviews...or reviews that are not disclosed to be paid for by the cruise lines or destinations either directly or indirectly...that would seem to be rather unfriendly to the consumer and, possibly, deceptive.

To be sure, I am not in competition with Ralph Grizzle. He is a paid for supplier of video and copy and I am a travel agent. I provide my opinions, which may or may not line up with his, for a different purpose. And, without question, everyone knows that I try to be objective - possibly to a fault - but that in the end, my mission is to sell more cruises because the more cruises I sell, the more money I make...and I sell lots of Seabourn cruises (and a good bit of other luxury lines too; like Crystal Cruises).  Folks, that is "Full Disclosure".
So if you were to read the Avid Cruiser's "reviews" on his or a subscribing travel agent's website:


- Would you wonder if his glowing review of the pretty much universally agreed to be less than stellar (but still nice) Silversea Silver Spirit was biased?  He claims not, but wouldn't it possibly sway you - the consumer - if you knew he was paid to make videos for Silversea while he was writing it? 

- Would it not be relevant when you - the consumer - read his review of the Seabourn Odyssey shortly thereafter...with his nitpicky comments taking up as much on the page as his other comments?  By the way:  Did you know that shortly thereafter Seabourn hired Ralph Grizzle/Avid Cruiser to do some promotional videos for it and his present comments about the Seabourn Odyssey/Sojourn are nicer and reside on his home page?  Coincidence I think not.



- Wouldn't it be relevant if you read his Royal Caribbean reviews if you were told, upfront, that he was paid by Royal Caribbean?

Why am a I so disturbed by Ralph Grizzle, the Avid Cruiser's, conduct?  Because it undercuts all of us in the business that try to provide actual critical analysis and discussion of the cruise industry.

More importantly, it plays the cruising consumer for a fool. The most unfortunate part is that the seemingly duped cruising consumers are the ones actively seeking out accurate information.  As I said at the outset, if the consumer does not have confidence in the information being provided to it by supposedly unbiased sources or by his/her travel agent, then the entire industry suffers.

It is, to me, a shame because the Avid Cruiser does provide quite a bit of good information and videos... and I have even referred to some here.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Luxury Travel Agents and Their Consortiums: Do They Make A Difference to Your Seabourn, Silversea, Crystal or Regent Seven Seas Cruise?

Preface:

I.  Goldring Travel clients have a "cancellation after deposit rate" of less than 2%...and most of those are as a result of extraneous personal issues.  In contrast, Mark Conroy, president of Regent Seven Seas Cruises recently spoke at a conference and stated that Regent Seven Seas Cruises has a 25% cancellation after deposit rate. To me that is horrific. And it means that when you add in those people that are taking their "ordered" Regent cruise because they were hesitant to cancel because of the upfront $200 penalty or embarrassment, etc., probably close to 40% of the people that book actually don't want to take that cruise.

II.  In more than 75% of the cases, a new Goldring Travel client goes on a different cruise, ship and/or cruiseline than the one he/she "ordered" when first contacting me. That is a pretty remarkable statistic and we will explore if it is a result of pushing a new client onto, say, a Seabourn cruise they really do not want to take or making sure the client goes on the cruise they truly desire.  (Short answer:  See the less than 2% cancellation rate noted above.)

Here We Go:

Over the past few weeks I have been thinking about what it is that makes one's luxury cruise more of a individual and personal experience.  There are many elements that come into play, but for some folks all that seems to be overshadowed by brand loyalty to a particular luxury cruise line.  Why?  What is that all about?  Is that a good thing?

As we approach the Maiden Voyage of the Seabourn Quest, I wonder what is it that makes the Maiden Voyage special?  They days of the "new" innovations seem to be coming to an end, for over the past few years it seems every possible new bell and whistle has been put onto this ship or that.  And, to be sure, I am very confident that whether it be a two story indoor/outdoor spa or a putting green, the number of guests that sail on the Seabourn Quest, Sojourn or Odyssey because of those specific things are nil.

The short answer is "It is the sum of the parts that matters"; not the particular parts.  It is not the spa or the putting green, per se, that makes the cruise special, but rather knowing it is there if and when it is desired that matters.  The same goes for the alternative restaurants, the marina (should one want to kayak or just have bragging rights). The fact is that while I can sell a Royal Caribbean cruise because of all of the "stuff" (rock climbing, Flo-Rider, ice skating, etc.), I have never sold a luxury cruise because of it.  In fact, I don't think I have every heard a single luxury client tell me, "We ate at every alternative dining venue during our cruise" or "That lens cleaning thing by the pool made me book another cruise."

Ironically, on the Pre-Inaugural cruise on the Seabourn Quest almost two weeks ago (has it been that long?) Seabourn gave me a Penthouse Suite to enjoy over the short three day journey.  While it was very nice (and probably would be extremely welcome if I was on a 10 day cruise), I found it had very little to do with my overall Seabourn Experience. I mean I was so busy taking in everything that just sitting in the living room didn't happen...other than for about an hour watching the French Open tennis.  Alas, it was not the "stuff" that made my Seabourn cruise a luxury experience, it was the people and the service.

While dining with Rick Meadows, Seabourn's president and John Delaney, Seabourn's Senior Vice President, were very nice nods of appreciation, what stood out for me...I mean really stood out for me...was my Seabourn Odyssey stewardess, Tracey, from the 2010 Goldring Travel Food & Wine Cruise, making an effort to find me to say hello; the bar waiter that came to the hot tub on the bow, fully prepared to offer me sunscreen and a glass of champagne within two hours of the Seabourn Quest's being "open for business"; before I even sit for my breakfast I hear, "Double espresso coming up!"; and, of course, being the recipient of a truly "over the top" Indian feast prepared and presented by Chef Rajat then enjoying it with Chef Bjoern and Shannon in the spa villa at sunset as we sail away from Le Lavandou, France.

Each one of these moments really have nothing to with the ship, but the people and, more importantly than the actual service they provided, the knowledge, care, and pride...and even friendship...the staff have in supplying them.  And I have received many emails thanking me for assuring them Seabourn has remained
"Seabourn" despite the new management and the move to Seattle.

Now, let's take a step back: 

You are not yet on that blissful cruise.  You are sitting at home or in your office dreaming about going on that cruise or, possibly, thinking about taking a luxury cruise for the first time.  What is it that gets you on the cruise?  Is the experience you have before setting foot on the ship as good as when you are on it?  Are you filled with questions that go unanswered or do you feel like you have a handle on what it is you will be expecting (whether it is your first time with wonderment or your tenth...when you just want to know your spa appointments are in order.)

This is where a luxury travel agent better earn his/her keep.  There is not a single client, new or  old, that I do not "qualify" for the cruise they are considering.  What is it you are really looking for?  It is a remarkable thing, but many times people come to me thinking they want X, but they really want Y.  The reason:  Somebody told them they want X or an advertisement for Y sounded like what they thought they wanted; or, as I say, "They drank the Kool-Aid" (they believe the marketing of their friend, message board poster or cruise line).

I pause:  One of the biggest obstacles to my doing my job, as a luxury travel agent, is a first time client's fear of looking unknowledgable...sort of like looking at wine list and being intimated so you order Château Whatever with confidence or buying wine by the label; and then just hope it is a good as it sounds or looks on the outside. My job is to, in part, make you comfortable enough to drop your guard and do something simple:  Talk to Me. I mean they came to Goldring Travel because they wanted the benefit of my expertise, not because they want me to take their "order"; didn't they?
In "qualifying" a client I find out if you really care that there are 450 or less guests (some people don't, but think they are "supposed to"), what matters in their accommodations from size to amenities, how they dine, what their cultural interests are, if they have special needs that can be appropriately met, etc. There is, without question, a long list of things that I cull from the conversations I have...rather than the "order" I take.

Let's add one thing to the mix:  Most, if not all, luxury travel agents are members of a travel consortium such as Virtuoso, Signature or Ensemble Travel Group (of which I am a member).  By being a member of these consortiums (which do have a significant cost) travel agencies not only get some special deals with their "preferred" cruise lines, they are able to offer added amenities such as shore excursions or onboard credits, hotel upgrades and/or meals and amenities, etc.  To me it is a very interesting mix of concepts.  Do I book someone with a "preferred" supplier to better line my pockets?  Do I use the added amenities to sweeten a deal or to persuade a deal?

This, of course, raises the question of:  Do these added benefits really matter?  I have come to the conclusion that they most definitely matter, but in the vast majority of the cases not as to the cruise or hotel selected, but more as "the sugar in the coffee", to wit:  It gives my clients a little something extra
to remember me.  Why do I say this?  For two reasons: 

1.  Because despite all the emails sent out by my consortium on my behalf (I assure it is only a couple a month!) and the mailings of magazines and promotions (but I make sure they do not fill your mail boxes with junk!) I can count on my fingers the number of people who have said, "I am calling/emailing about that promotion." and,

2.  Because on a $7,000 or $70,000 vacation, my clients are not going to be swayed to book somewhere other than where they desire (after "qualification") because of a $300 amenity, a shore excursion or free breakfast/internet.  [If you are buying a $1,000 cruise it might make a significant difference, but that is not the luxury market.]

OK, so now we have the cruise line, the ship and the cruise and hotel selected. Most travel agents now consider this a "done deal", but not a good luxury travel agent.  I need to make sure that my clients get the most out of each port...whatever that means.  As readers of my blog most of you know that I am a huge fan of actually wandering the port you visit as opposed to hopping on a cruise ship bus and running off to some other place.  So there needs to be a decision as to whether that port is "one of those ports" and, if so, how to see it (and if not, what to do). 

And if there is one thing that drives me crazy it is seeing the following on an itinerary, "Private Sedan - Half Day - $1,000".  I can hire you a bus for half a day at that price and you tell the driver where to go.  I want to see, and review, where that $1,000 half day private tour is taking my clients...not field the complaints after they come back and say, "You know, Eric, for $1,000 I expected more than a 1 hour drive-by, 45 minute lunch and 1 hour of shopping".  A luxury travel agent needs to assure his/her clients see what they want to see and that they see it with appropriate exclusivity.

Consortiums can be a big assist for travel agents here because they have vetted private tour operators in many ports so that they can assure their clients of a high quality and relevant land experience.  Let's face it even with  extensive travel experience, it is impossible for even a luxury travel agent to know everything about every port and to have a personal contact there.  But again, just because a consortium's operator is used, it does not mean the luxury travel agent's job is done.  There may be a number of different things of interest in a port from culinary to cultural, from religious to sun worship, and more, so the luxury travel agent must make sure the tour provided is the right one.  [BTW, remember that in most of the ports there are only a limited number of quality tour operators, so don't think for a second that Ensemble or Virtuoso is going to have "the" best one, because the best one is probably going to be associated with both!]

So, what does this all mean to you, the luxury cruise traveler?  It means you may be drawn to a particular cruise because of marketing, you may believe that a Virtuoso or Ensemble logo means status or quality, but in the end it comes down the actual luxury travel agent...and that, not unlike visiting a lawyer for the first time, you get the expertise of that agent; not the agent's associate.

Travel Consortiums by themselves (Virtuoso, Ensemble or Signature, as examples) do not make a difference in your travel experience.  How a luxury travel agent uses the tools provided by the travel consortium most certainly does.  And, as I have shown, it can either be a good thing or a not so good thing.  So, in the end, it is the Luxury Travel Agent, not the travel agency or the consortium, that makes the difference.

It is Personal.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Roman Around: The Pre-Inaugural of the Seabourn Quest - Part V

Last evening I dined with Seabourn’s President, Rick Meadows and three other of Seabourn’s top producing travel agents. It was a very nice evening and Rick was a very gracious and welcoming host. He is reserved by nature, but I truly enjoyed his genuine smile…though I am a bit put off that he looks so young and is almost my age. Seriously, it was really nice to spend some social time with Rick. After all he has done to right the ship, so to speak, to be able to sit back…even for just an evening…is truly well deserved.

Our meal was a Chef’s Dinner:
- Smoked Salmon Tartare & Malossol Caviar
- Celeriac Cappuccino
- Warm Potato Ravioli with Black Truffle Sauce
- Citrus Sorbet with Champagne
- Herb Crusted Halibut/Beef Tenderloin/Crisp Roast Chicken
- Napoleon of Berries/Soft Centered Chocolate Ganache Cake

After dinner was one of the most pleasant surprises: The entertainment was truly excellent. The singers were so good, especially the male lead, that they received an enthusiastic standing ovation; not an obligatory one. (This morning, John Barron, the cruise director – and we love to tease each other – asked me what I thought. I heaped praises…and then he introduced me to the entertainment director who was sitting at the table with him.)

We had very nice evening chatting after the show and then it was to bed early because I have an 8:00 a.m. massage. I have no idea what made me book it, but I figure after so many Seabourn cruises…and cruises in general…I should try it once. Up at 7:30 a.m., a quick cup of coffee (yeah, I know that is not the right thing to do before a massage) and I had my massage. It was, admittedly, very nice…but afterwards I felt just like I did before I had it. It is definitely on the “been there/done that” list for me.

Today, after breakfast and a chat with some Seabourn folks, myself and my wife were off on a private tour we were very generously invited to. After an OK wine tasting at Bertaund Belieu, it was off to St. Tropez for an absolutely spectacular lunch at Hotel Villa Belrose; a wonderful Michelin star restaurant. Each dish was an incredible feast for the eyes and the palate. It was well and truly a special event and with some special people.

Immediately upon my return it was back to work. Seriously, it was work! I had an hour long meeting with the Seabourn executives. While most of the discussions would not be of interest to you, one thing was very clear: Seabourn’s management is not only learning more about what Seabourn service is, it is putting things into place quickly so that the Seabourn way familiar and important to its guests is there. To be sure there is a learning curve, but it is being learned and appreciated; most certainly not ignored.

Another thing discussed that I really cannot go into now, is that new – very cool – itineraries are being looked at. Itineraries that are not repeated; possibly not repeated the following year. To use my words…because alas they are my words: Itineraries that are not on people’s bucket lists because most people don’t even know they exist. No promises as of yet, because the logistics, marketing, etc. is very complicated, but they are on the radar.

How about making sure that a new loyalty program not only doesn’t change or alter, in any way, the free cruise benefits as they now exist, but add value that the Seabourn guest – not just any guest – will find relevant, of value and appreciated.

One last point: With Seabourn’s pricing strategies going forward: BOOK EARLY TO LOCK IN THE LOWEST PRICES. Goldring Travel’s policy of reducing your cruise fare if the price happens to go down before final payments are due protects you …and do not anticipate many reductions going forward with the smarter pricing being put in place.

That is really about all I can say on that meeting…though I have also seen/discussed some new innovations that I think are truly forward thinking and very exciting.

So after a final soak in the forward hot tub, the Seabourn Quest is headed to Monaco for our disembarkation. So you think my cruise is over? Not quite.

As I am returning to my suite, Chef Bjoern tells me he has a surprise. A few minutes later he calls me and says my wife and I should meet him at 7:30 p.m. in the Spa Villa. Hummm? We arrive and see his fiancé (my words!) Shannon dressed in her whites and looking stunning with the sun setting behind her and Chef Rajat in his whites (OK, not so stunning, but certainly impressive) are by with a table filled with all sorts of Indian tastes…elegantly presented, of course. As Raj is explaining everything he put together for us, Bjoern pops open a bottle of champagne. After Raj hurries off to attend to dinner service, Bjoern, Shannon, my wife and I sit as friends with the sun setting, a slight breeze, soft music playing…and just enjoy our friendship while savoring every bite of Raj’s Indian delicacies. (I will post pictures later.)

That is what makes Seabourn simply the best: The understated elegance while going over the top, and with wonderful caring people and true friendships. (And, by the way, just in case you think Seabourn’s new management doesn’t support this sort of old-time Seabourn experience, when I bragged about it to Senior Vice President John Delaney, the first thing he said was, “Put that on your blog. I love it!” And, to be sure, when I mentioned it to Rick Meadows, he had one of those wonderful smiles.

So, after a wonderful dinner, it was time for the Rock the Boat celebration on the pool deck. I can tell you that this was not like the other ones I have seen. This was high energy, with great music – yes that is right, great singers, people really dancing and having a fun time. Dare I say it was contemporary and youthful? Yes I would.

Three days on Seabourn Quest is just too short. They have been a very busy three days (remembering I am just giving you the highlights). And, without question, I can say that Seabourn is better than ever and Seabourn is going to be stronger, more vibrant, more exciting, more youthful and more enriching sooner than you might think.

Now I just have to wait until September 21, 2011 for the 2011 Goldring Travel Food & Foliage Cruise on the Seabourn Sojourn from Quebec City to New York City…followed by the September 22, 2012 Goldring Travel Food & Wine Cruise on the Seabourn Pride from Dover to Lisbon.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Roman Around: The Pre-Inaugural of the Seabourn Quest - Part IV

My second day on the new Seabourn Quest began with an al fresco breakfast at the Colonnade. I had my standard starters of pickled herring, herring wrapped around pickles (yes, they are totally different), smoked salmon with a little cream cheese on brown bread, and two poached eggs.

Oddly, the last item made me think back on January’s cruise on the Celebrity Century where they pre-cook poached eggs and then warm them in hot water as you wait in the buffet. On Seabourn the poached eggs must be made ala minute so they are warm, soft and perfectly cooked. It is the little things like that just make your Seabourn experience feel so much more personal…and, of course, tasty.

This morning was the obligatory sales meeting. There were some interesting statistics which I will detail in another article, but one you should know is that when I tell you Seabourn is the best luxury cruise product out there, it is not only my opinion, but that of many others. No, I am not talking about the various magazine polls (you know I have no belief in them, even though Seabourn ranks in the tops of all of them).  What I am talking about is an actual survey of people that have cruised on the other luxury lines as well. In every single category: service, cuisine, value and pricing, Seabourn rated significantly higher than any other cruise line. (You also know which one came in last…just like I have been saying all along.)

After the meeting I wandered the ship, spending a good bit of the day chatting with Chef Bjoern (Note to Bjoern: I did not forget the “e” this time!), Chef Rajat (who had a rather long conversation with my wife about ashrams and meditation (she is reading “Eat. Pray. Love”), seemingly the entire back-of-the-house food and beverage folks, and celebrity chef David Burke.

“David Burke?” you ask. What happened to Charlie Palmer? Is this a signal of a big change? No, it is one of those good things that comes out of the synergy with Holland America without it being Holland America. Charlie Palmer was not available for this cruise (though you may remember he was onboard the Seabourn Sojourn for her Inaugural), so enter David Burke – who has an affiliation with HAL. I didn’t realize that David was born very close to me and that in the very same year I was bartending at the now James Beard award winning Doris & Ed’s Restaurant in Highlands, New Jersey, David started working as a prep chef in another outstanding restaurant one town over: Fromagerie in Rumson, New Jersey.

I do not know if you recall the Remington shaver commercial where Victor Kiam said, “I like the shaver so much I bought the company”. Well, when Fromagerie came up for sale, David Burke bought the restaurant. It is a totally different dining experience now, as Fromagerie had always stood for romantic dinners and now it is cheesecake lollipops, Burger Tuesdays, aged beef and Angry Lobster. It is one of his five or six restaurants and it has, under his supervision, once again become one of “the” restaurants in the area…and only ten minutes from Goldring Travel’s office.

Anyway, Chef Bjoern and Chef Rajat have very quietly told me that they are working on something special for me and my wife for tomorrow. I am both enjoying the anticipation and struggling with the fact that I am going to have to skip some sort of dining experience as I think I am truly reaching my limit after four days of Sardinia’s pork-fest, Rome’s Jewish and then cheese-fests and 24 hours on Seabourn.

By the way, lunch today was a Greek theme: Whole baby octopus with squid in a tomato sauce was great. I’ll just have one lamb kebob with tzatziki. OK, half of a chicken gyro. One dolma to see how they taste. You get the idea: Today’s lunch was not the dining experience I skipped.

I also should note that I have heard comments about Seabourn’s complimentary wine pours and, to be sure, I have been very pleased with the offerings. I did mention that yesterday’s lunch was accompanied by a very nice French chardonnay for me and a pinot grigio for my wife. At dinner I had a very nice albarino (a Wolf Blass cabernet was also poured) and today at lunch a Gavi was selected. There was a wine tasting today at 3:00 p.m., which I skipped because, quite honestly, I am on a cruise…so I took a nap! And then I enjoyed a Massage Moment on deck; the complimentary 10 minute massage that Seabourn offers on every cruise.

Cocktail hour is upon us.

Roman Around: The Pre-Inaugural of the Seabourn Quest - Part III

Today we are off to board the brand new Seabourn Quest on her Inaugural cruise. After a nice breakfast we take a taxi to meet the Seabourn shuttle to the port of Civitavecchia. After dealing with a protest and march (riot gear included) we were – a few miles later - were warmly greeted, advised of our suite number...since I left for Sardinia before the cruise documents arrived (happily hearing "Suite 917" – a Penthouse!) and then boarded a warm bus (broken air conditioning) for our one hour drive to the ship.

We arrive, sweaty but happy, and then it must have taken me half an hour to board; not because there were any lines or difficulties, but because there were so many Seabourn folks that were so genuinely happy to see me…like finding a friendly face in the crowd. Chef Bjoern, and John Barron appear, and then Chris Prelog and then…and then, of course, the infamous, “I remember you being taken off the Seabourn Sojourn in a pilot boat”…and then Bruce Good and then the staff. Put another way, Seabourn is Seabourn and it is home. Don’t worry about that for a minute. 

It was, in a way, great for the new Seabourn management to see what “Seabourn” really means. I mean theory is one thing, but reality is another thing…and this was, to be sure, their first taste of "my" Seabourn reality.

We have a quick lunch in the Colonnade of salmon with bok choi, some really good vegetable curry and, of course, a few other wonderful tastes. The wine steward goes through about 5 different wines being offered and I “settle” on a very nice French Chardonnay with a very light oak aging. It is yet again like coming home, but I notice the new staff is more affirmative in "being Seabourn" than I have previously experienced on the Odyssey and Sojourn inaugurals. Game On!

And then one of those little things that let's you know Seabourn is, well, Seabourn:  One staff member comes up to me and proudly says, “Did you notice the difference in the Colonnade’s chairs?” I say “No” to which he replies, “We found that the weave of the prior chairs caught the jackets of some of our guests, so these chairs have a slightly different material and weave to avoid that.” So if you think Seabourn is no longer looking at the little things, Fuggedaboudit…as we say.

I also noticed that the pool and lounge towels are now beige, rather than white.  I presume that it was a smart decision to cut down on the use of bleach and, therefore, reduced laundering times which saves not only time and money (efficiency in business!), but is good for the environment.  (I also think it looks a bit classier.)

Being honest, as I am…so you know what I am telling you is always true…we finally arrive at our Penthouse suite and find it has no air conditioning.  After the less than cool bus ride this is not good. But, and it is a big but, Seabourn quickly moves us to another suite, Suite 923. What is amazing is that, as I observed this, Seabourn moved us literally drawer by drawer. Separate wicker baskets for Drawer 1, Drawer 2, etc. But what really blew me away was that my ties were placed in the tie holders in exactly the same order they were in our first suite. Remember this is the first time guests were on this ship and the service was flawless! (My effort: Zero.  The staff would not let us help!)

The sailaway was nice, but I have to admit there was a bit of an homage to Holland America…it seemed so awkward (do I sound like a teenager?) because everything else was so Seabourn as you know it.

I dined this evening with the John Delaney, the Senior Vice President. Representatives from Ensemble Travel Group (of which I am a member) and Virtuoso were there. (OK, the Virtuoso rep has miniature donkeys and we have miniature horses, so he is a good guy!) There was no special dinner…except that every dinner on Seabourn is special. I had to have the Goat Cheese Soufflé, followed by Beef Carpaccio and the Lobster Tails. Dessert was the trio of Crème Brulee with a nice tawny port. Mama, I am home. (Did I mention this before?)  BTW, we dined with a couple that is new to Seabourn, but has sailed on the other luxury lines.  They were amazed at how much better Seabourn's cuisine was both from presentation and portion size.  And they did fall in love with the breadsticks.

After dinner we went to see the show. All I will say is I heard “Holland America” and there was a slight hush in the audience.  The entertainment was not my cup of tea.  It was not bad, just not to my liking.

Folks, they are trying really hard to be sure nobody thinks Seabourn is HAL, but there is an overlap that as long as it is under control has to be accepted. I can deal with the 40% off for spa treatments, rather than complimentary, and being flown economy rather than business… I mean I am a "just" travel agent, so why should Seabourn pay for me to fly business class or give my wife a free massage?  I am serious.  I think that Seabourn being run more as a business is essential to making sure that your - The Guest - experience remains the best at sea.  And if being cooperative with the resources of HAL makes sense, and it does, the little slips here or there don't bother me; so please do not let it bother you.

What is essential is that you, my readers and Seabourn’s guests, have no sense of HAL…and other than the slip of the tongue there is no sense of it onboard. I PROMISE.

There are some really interesting things in the works that I cannot expand upon, but what I can tell you is that enrichment programs Seabourn is working on are really exciting and a new guest loyalty program with real benefits starting at something like thirty days (no promises on that) are in the works.

So with the smell of freshly oiled teak, the enthusiasm of the Seabourn Quest’s crew and what is, incredibly, the pleasure of a relatively light meal (compared to my Sardinian adventure) I can sincerely tell you the Seabourn Quest may be the youngest of the big sisters, but she is a refined and as ‘Seabourn” as both her twins and her smaller triplet sisters.  Did I mention I have air conditioning?

Life is good…no, incomparable…on a Seabourn cruise!

Friday, June 3, 2011

Roman Around: The Pre-Inaugural of the Seabourn Quest - Part II

We awoke to a lovely breakfast in the Hotel 47 courtyard which has nice background music and a calming quiet with beautiful plantings, rich red umbrellas and modern wicker furnishings. And, importantly, Café Americano is fresh brewed; not Nescafe.

Today is Republic Day so, we are told, “Rome is closed”. Actually, Rome is not closed, but most of the major roads are as everyone is preparing for the big parade. Outside of our hotel are dozens of military and police vans parked while the marchers head up Via Petroselli to the Monumento Vittorio. We head out towards the Trevi Fountain, but find that is just not going to happen with crowds building along the parade route, so we decide to walk the approximate two miles towards Vatican City to see whatever it is we see along the way…other than hundreds of people passing us going toward the parade. It is good to see everyday Rome without traffic or throngs of people. It lets you really appreciate the remarkable art and architecture that is everywhere.

One place that we “discovered” was Castel Sant Angelo, which is now a museum. More impressive was, however, the Ponte Sant’ Angelo (the bridge) with beautiful sculptures all along its length. Walking from there down the Via dei Corridori is a great way to enter into Vatican City. We eventually arrive at the Vatican and it is clear that the throngs going to the parade have had no effect on the ridiculously long lines to get into the Vatican. We, however, just buy a couple of postcards and mail them to friends.

My wife loves horse and carriage rides so we bargain the rate down for an hour’s ride which eventually lets us off at the Trevi Fountain (our original destination) passing the courts (Piazza dei Tribunali), traveling over the Ponte Cavour eventually winding our way to the Spanish Steps and then Trevi Fountain. Well worth the 130€ for a bit of a rest and a sightseeing, but more importantly, a way around the thousands of Romans enjoying their day off. The streets were incredibly crowded!

Fully rested we wander more, heading about another 2 miles to Piazza Trilussa, where I had been drinking wine two days earlier. It was a wonderful walk with many beautiful surprises along the way. One memory is of a fantastic balcony covered in brilliant bougainvillea and framed by two small pine trees against an old wood door frame and ancient plaster walls.

We wander the streets, but the restaurants that are open seem more touristic than the ones open only in the evening for the Romans. We wander here and there, finally settling upon a place where the waiter says, “Excellent Food. Terrible Service.” Unfortunately, he should have said “Excellent Service. Just OK food.” You can’t win them all.

A short walk back to the hotel, just in time, as a rain shower appeared. We decided to stay and eat in the hotel (unusual for us!) because the light lunch we had been so good. Our dinner was, well and truly, outstanding…though the service (probably due to the national holiday short-staffing the restaurant) was not good. Because my experience at Hotel 47 has been outstanding, I am more willing to dismiss it as a hiccup than I normally would. But, as I said, the food was fantastic. I started with a foie gras with some of the best sautéed apples I have ever eaten that was rich, fatty, and clean tasting. This was followed by a Squid Ink Pasta with Seafood and Artichokes. When it appeared I thought it was a bit of a small in portion size, but with the richness of flavors it was actually perfect. Now it was time yet again for cheese. But Hotel 47 doesn’t serve huge wooden trays filled with cheeses, but rather you have a choice: Four cheeses or six cheeses. It is up to the chef as to which you get. It was delicious, accompanied by appropriate fruits and an unusual marmalade. The cheeses were not as unique or memorable of Beppe’s, but I doubt I will ever experience a cheese nirvana like that again. Coupled with a nice Barolo wine I was beyond happy.

But then we met a Scottish couple and had a wee dram. It all became a bit fuzzy after that!

Tomorrow: The Seabourn Quest!

Roman Around: The Pre-Inaugural of the Seabourn Quest - Part I

I arrived in Rome in anticipation of boarding the brand new Seabourn Quest for its Pre-Inaugural cruise. As I have been on the Inaugural cruise of the Seabourn Odyssey in Venice and the Inaugural and Maiden Voyage of the Seabourn Sojourn in London, I am not anticipating any great changes on the newest of Seabourn’s big sisters.

But what I am very interested in is how the new Seabourn management, from President Rick Meadows right on down, handles things and whether those differences, if any, are good, bad or indifferent.

However, before I board the ship I have some things to do in Rome! I mean you can’t come to Rome and do nothing. I arrived on an Alitalia flight from Sardinia and, in true Alitalia fashion, the time it took for me to retrieve my luggage (thankfully, though, it arrived with me) was longer than the flight. The Hotel Forty Seven had arranged a car for me at a very fair 50€ and I arrived mid-afternoon to this newer modern boutique hotel. Initially I wasn’t sure that it was such a great place, but in just a few hours I found it is a truly wonderful hotel that I strongly recommend.

It is located in Central Rome, but away from the tourists and traffic near the back end of the Forum, actually across the street from the Temple of Hercules, which I can see from my large window, and around the corner from Circus Maximus. The room is large with hardwood floors, a large LCD television, great bed, two chairs and a mini Nespresso machine with a very functional desk that disappears into the television/refrigerator unit. The bathroom is very large with a great shower and all the amenities. (Note: The one problem is the lack of a proper hair dryer. There is only a wall unit. For me, though, hair dryers are not an issue.) While the lobby is small and modernistically sparse, there is a large inner courtyard with comfortable seating, where you take your breakfast in nice weather, as well as a bar and sitting area. There is also a beautiful, but understated, al fresco dining area on the roof. While Hotel 47 is nice, it is the staff that makes the difference. They are warm, charming, very accommodating and efficient!

As I had the afternoon and evening to myself, as my wife would be arriving in the morning to join me on the Seabourn Quest, I took the afternoon to simply wander Rome. My first stop was the Jewish Ghetto; a place of both pride and deep wounds…but that is not to be discussed here. I wanted to visit the synagogue, but my delay prevented me from securing the necessary guide. That was fine, actually, as I was more focused on having a good Roman Jewish meal in this tight-knit community. I had a fantastic lunch at Nonna Betta including, of course, fried artichokes, followed by an excellent (and hugely portioned) gnocchi with gooey mozzarella, followed by baccala (cod) baked in a tomato and onion sauce. All simple and all simply delicious. A nice kosher pinot grigio rounded out my meal…which I had wanted to be light, but simply could not help myself.

After lunch, and a look around the ghetto, it was off on a sort of circular tour past the Monumento Vittorio, around the Forum (dodging all the preparations for tomorrow’s Republic Day parade), around the Coliseum, around the other side of the Forum, down to the Temple of Hercules, along the Tigres River and back to the hotel. Then, after getting some work done, and having a bit of a rest of my legs, it was right back out there…but not for a sightseeing walk, but to drink some wine in a very local Roman venue.

I walked over to Isola, which is oddly enough, is an island in the middle of the Tiber River, and took its marble bridge turned right and headed to Piazza Trilussa where Enoteca Ferrara is located. This tiny wine bar is nothing fancy and, I frustratingly found out, doesn’t even have a sign over its door. (It does have a beautiful restaurant attached to it, but I most certainly was not there to eat!). What it does have is a fantastic variety of great wines by the glass…which are no bargain, but they are available by the glass; and it has some nice snacks to nosh on. I had a very nice Amarone della Vapolicella, Allegrini followed by an excellent Barolo Albe. The fullness and richness of the wines, along with the generous pours, were just enough for me.

But as I sat outside in an old wicker chair watching what seemed like hundreds of Roman youths eating, drinking, talking and wandering, my eye kept looking over at the street food and, more particularly, a pizza place. So after I finished my wine I headed right over and purchased a slice (which you purchase by weight, not the slice) for my walk back to the hotel. I am not really sure what was in that pizza, but it was excellent with a great thin, but chewy, crust fresh tomato and cheese flavors and a bit of spicy heat. A perfect end to my day.

My wife arrived in the morning and I then left her for a sleep after her long flight. I strolled over to Piazza Cavalieri di Malta for a short beautiful walk to a most peculiar “attraction”. If you look through one particular keyhole you have a perfectly framed view of St. Peter’s Basilica. It was great when I got there as the piazza was empty, but there must be some sort of timing thing because five minutes later there was a traffic jam of vans with tourists of every nationality there to see this famous keyhole. I, instead, wandered the gardens and enjoyed all the flowers, architecture and views. Back to Hotel 47 for a light lunch on its roof before heading out on a three hour culinary tour of Rome.

Our tour, guided by Eleonora Baldwin (no, she is not Italian, but does live here) started at a gelato joint that was not on our tour (huh?), but after meeting up with her and one other couple, we headed back to the Jewish Ghetto. First stop was a little hole-in-the-wall place that I almost went into the day before, for a few savory tastes (fresh anchovies with fried escarole was one) and then two doors down for some kosher baked goods which smelled and tasted like my grandmother’s home.

From there we headed just out of the ghetto to Beppe ei suoi Fromaggi (Beppe and his Cheeses) and I was in heaven. Dozens of different cheeses, artesian cheeses, stinky, gooey, ashy, hard, soft, you name it. They had a small restaurant attached to the shop and since the girl at the counter was so nice and the cheeses were so good (and I was still full, so the big dinner I had planned wasn’t going to happen) I made and executive decision: Dinner at Beppe’s.

But before that we had to continue our afternoon eating our way through Rome! The next stop was Roscioli’s Bakery; apparently voted the best bread bakery in Rome. It was impressive…but so was the roasted pork they had in the little restaurant attached to the shop. (Seeing a trend here?). Then it was off to the other Roscioli’s; the gourmet shop. There we had a small feast of some excellent prosciutto, fresh bufala mozzarella, semi-sun dried tomatoes in olive oil, a nice crisp white wine (that I did not get the name of) and, of course, some nice bread. About to burst, we had to head off to the chocolate shop, but that really was kind of a letdown; feeling more like a sucker play to buy chocolate than part of a foodie experience. (Seriously, we walked in, were given four small samples to share and that was that.) We finished up at what is supposed to be another award winning venue, a gelateria (gelato shop). I have not been able to find anything awarding it any such accolade, but I have to say I had the best gelato I have ever eaten. The flavor: Crème de Maiz (Cream Corn). Sounds terrible, but it was fantastic.

After a short walk back to the hotel, it was time for a rest, shower and…eating again! Back to Beppe’s.

In the evening Beppe's restaurant didn’t look as inviting with harsh florescent lights (typical of many small restaurants in Rome). But looks can be deceiving. Asked for the wine list and the same charming girl waived her arms essentially saying, “Pick anything in the shop.” So I had a wander and found a nice Barbaresco; knowing cheese was going to be the main dish. After a small starter of anchovies with butter on some great bread, it was time for cheese. What an experience! I believe there were 15 or 16 cheeses presented beautifully on a huge wooden board in an incredible variety and, to be sure, impossible for two people to finish. (In fact, we invited the people next to us – whom we had been chatting with – to assist…and there was still cheese left.) The flavors ranged from mild and grassy to something akin to “There has to be a dead body in there”. Of course, despite its description, that gooey, stinky, cheese was just impossible to stop eating. However, that was not the highlight. There was a cheese from Switzerland that is scraped into a beautiful, light, rosette called Tête de Moine (Monk’s Head). That cheese they offered a second portion of.

Only one more day until we board the Seabourn Quest.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Goldring Travel's Sardinian Experence at the FIAVET Conference: "When in Sardinia..."

As I sit at Hotel Forty Seven in Rome, Italy, I am still trying to figure out the best way to describe my time at the FIAVET (the Federation of Italian Tourism) Conference? Not surprisingly, all I can think of is it was “a very Italian…not touristic Italian…experience”. It has was filled with hospitality, lack of hospitality, poor planning, decent to excellent food (and lots of it), free-flowing Sardinian wine, frustration and, in the end, I met some of the nicest people, may well gain some significant business, and learned to “travel” just that much better.

As you read this you must understand (gee, I think I am writing in “Italian”) that Italians truly have a “Live in the moment” lifestyle or, as Alfred E. Newman (of Madd Magazine fame) would say, “What? Me worry?” As such, there is a definite period of adjustment: American to Italian lifestyle and Italian to an American who is not insisting on being American. You will see what I mean.

I arrived in Cagliari, Sardinia on Friday because I was to speak at a major roundtable discussion of how to be competitive in today’s Italian travel market the next day. Because of flight schedules I arrived late in the Sardinian morning and was promptly greeted by a driver in a new Chrysler 300M sedan; not the Italian welcome I had expected for a truly Italian – not a tourist - event. I ask the driver how long to the Chia Laguna Resort where I will be staying. He says 15 minutes, but after 10 minutes I see a sign that says, “Chia Laguna 45 km”, so he obviously meant 50 minutes.

During my drive I quickly drove past Cagliari which, to be honest, was not very impressive, but appeared to be a city in decline. It was not in terrible shape, but rather just ordinary and empty. The scenery on my right was very pretty with mountains, wildflowers and dozens of pink flamingos (that weren’t very pink due to their diet obviously lacking carotene). On my left: the sea and oil refineries, cheap “hotels” and dozens of “ristorante tipico”.

I eventually arrive at the Chia Laguna Resort…and was left to carry my bags up the stairs into the lobby. I was told I was not staying there, but rather at the “5 Star” Hotel and the porter would take my bags. I was also given a telephone number to call if I needed anything. Off I went…walking up the hill to the Hotel…where my room was not ready, though the hotel was anything but crowded. I am told it will be ready “soon” which turns into a 2.5 hour wait.

In the meantime I ask if my lunch was included and where do I eat. I am directed to a restaurant; a buffet style with large tables; some of which have signs “FIAVET” with complimentary wine. I go to the buffet and see they have two beautiful, large, groupers covered in cherry tomatoes (a specialty of Sardinia I learn) and oils with a wonderful Sardinian olive oil-based sauce. I am happy…right up until a child bumps into me and the fishy-oily sauce goes all over my pants.

I re-group(er)...sorry…and as pretty much the only person who speaks English that I have found…enjoyed my meal taking as much time as possible in the hopes that my room will be ready so I can have a lie-down after my long flights. It worked. Only a “mere” 30 minutes after I finished lunch my room is ready…and I am now compliantly working on an Italian schedule. My room is actually quite large, nicely appointed with a large bathroom (Acqua di Parma toiletries), seating area and a huge balcony filled with flowers a table and chairs, sofa and loungers. BUT…and it is that kind of trip…the air conditioning is broken, there is only internet in the lobby (“But it is free!!) and a single English speaking television station (BBCW).

I venture down for a glass of wine and some internet before dinner. When I arrive at what I still do not know is the only restaurant I hear a Scottish voice. It is John Downes, a fellow member of IFTTA (International Forum of Travel and Tourism Advocates). He is sitting with Michael Tanti-Dougall, a third attorney, from Malta. They are old friends and warmly greet me and make me feel welcome. For the next days it is “us”.

Lunch was a feast of pork products (typical, as they say, of Sardinia): sausages, chops, hams, etc. followed by some wonderful grilled whole sea bass. And, of course, there was the pasta station. Two types of pasta at every meal; made in huge batches as you waited. (Note: Spaghetti in tomato sauce was by far the favorite over my time here, so don’t think it is an American thing and you need to order esoteric menu items to be truly Italian.)

During lunch – not being Italian! - we immediately jump into what we are going to specifically speak about, what order we should go in, how we will address the language barrier (Michael is the only one of us fluent in Italian) and then quickly start a friendly legal debate on various issues ranging from John’s work drafting tourism legislation in Zanzibar to whether my selling to European Union clients creates legal issues, to developing the superyacht refit business in Malta, to let’s have another bottle of wine…OK, just one more bottle.

That evening we met a few nice couples… which we determined after one husband and one girlfriend in the group acted as our interpreters. As the evening went on the Italian became as prevalent as the wine and the English became a tri-country debate (Scotland, Malta and U.S.) about everything from IFTTA gaining United Nations recognition to marrying the concept of effective legislation in Africa to the known existence of “TIA” (This is Africa…so whatever happens happens), to why the heck isn’t there anything to do here other than eat and go to the beach/pool.

As our talk is not until 3:00 p.m. the next day we meet for breakfast, have a nice chat, do some work, have a nice lunch (huge grilled prawns), have a chat…and then are told the conference is running behind schedule so we will convene at 3:30 p.m. No problem. It is not like we are going anywhere…because there is nowhere to go! (Fortunately, my air conditioning is now working.)

Michael takes the time to arrange a tour for the two of us the next day, as John was flying out in the morning.

We arrive at the Congress at 3:15 p.m. in suit and tie, well prepared and ready to go. The room, rather than having a table for us to sit behind has a number of chairs in a semi-circle...We are not the only ones speaking any more, so they had to make room. John gets ready to present and just before he does we are told they don’t have his PowerPoint presentation and because they combined presentations we have only 10 minutes each to give our presentations. But, we are promised, there will be plenty of time for questions and debate.

My presentation, PowerPoint included, went really well and afterwards I received quite a few compliments…But there was no time for questions or debate. Huh? But what was important for me is that my message did come across and my “American” approach was both eye-opening and well received. Sometimes less is more.

Yet, the three of us were “What the heck just happened?” What happened was that we were really in Italy. Italian Italy. A schedule is a general concept. A plan is a mere thought. I mean, seriously, what was really the difference? We made our points. The attendees like what they heard. Basta. (Enough. Finished.) (And we three said, “The European Union just paid this guy Eric Goldring’s airfare plus hotel and food to give a 10 minute presentation. Either he is really good or…”

Afterwards we had a drink and caught upon emails before attending a typical Sardinian dinner. It was a port-fest with literally dozens of piglets cooked over an open flame. I am very confident that my pork fat intake was at an all time high…but it was sooooo good.

As we ate dinner and into the night we had a great laugh looking at the various older Italian men with their younger (sometimes Russian, sometimes not so attractive) girlfriends. In Italy it is very “normal”, but to us it all seems so ridiculous and unseemly that we were very happy to be in good relationships and not be one of “those guys”…even if that Russian girl had fantastic 6 foot legs, she ate without much elegance.

The next morning John had left for Scotland and Michael and I were up, had breakfast and were ready for our tour. You remember: The one that he arranged with the Conference organizers. Well, it seems, the tour is “impossible” as it is Sunday. But we could for 100€ each way take a taxi to Cagliari to visit the Sunday market (everything else would be closed). So we asked what else we could do and were told: beach or pool. That’s it…so we got a couple of bottles of wine and discussed the superyacht business issues for Malta and, of course, drank the wine!

By the afternoon Chia Laguna Lodge became, to us, “a prison”: Absolutely nothing to do other than go to the beach and we were many miles from anywhere. So we had lunch, did some work and then met for dinner. Black ink risotto was good, but the Sardinian wines are really starting to wreak havoc with my palate.

After dinner we go to this large open area where we hear music, but it was a lone girl singing 1960’s American songs with a bad accent. Our prison now has become – jovially said - corporeal punishment. But, alas, there was some good entertainment…for me at least. At the table next to us is an elderly Italian man having an argument with his younger (and not terribly good looking) “girlfriend” who is begging him for more of a relationship. After a few minutes, it was time to extract ourselves from that train wreck and adjourn to our balconies for a last glass of marginal wine since Michael had an early departure.

I awoke on my final day to a totally different world. Apparently, a busload of British package tour families had arrived for their holiday. I was very tempted to take the one tour offered just to get away, but when I found out it was a 2 ½ hour bus ride each way just to see some ruins I gave it a miss. It was, for me, off to the beach because, alas, the beach is truly the only thing (other than pork) that Sardinia is famous for. I see two people that I had eaten with, had been very nice and, since she speaks some English, we chat as we go to the beach and I am made to feel welcome.

But, and isn’t there always one, the “train” (resort shuttle) to the beach is broken! So we are told to get in a van…but that is broken too. Third time lucky, the next van works and we are off to the beach across the road.

The water and rocky outcrops are pretty, but are obscured by the rows and rows of umbrellas and loungers and the sound of the waves lapping on the shoreline is drowned out by some of the most obnoxious English children whose parents could care less that there is an entire beach for them to play on, but they chose to do so right amongst all the adults trying to relax. After an hour and a half I gave up and went back to the hotel; truly fed up.

So I went to lunch and my “friends” and their friends (who have also been very nice to me – though not so fluent in English) sit with me. But then something happens: Everyone starts to try and speak English with me! It seems that as I become more of a friend, they become less shy about trying out the English they haven’t used in years. One man, an attorney named Antonio, really opens up and we have a wonderful discussion. He “arranges” for the others to take care of me that evening as he is flying back to Rome for a trial, but promises to be in touch.

That evening was the Gala Dinner. At this point I am waffling as to go or not. I decide to go. I sit with my friends and discover that they are the most important people at the Conference! The quiet, extremely well dressed, and extraordinarily polite gentleman is the President of FIAVET! We eventually wander off a bit ourselves and his English is getting better and better and business ideas, differences in approach, and opportunities are discussed. His partner was the woman who spoke English with me as I went to the beach. I discover she has a fascinating history and she and I discuss different views on expanding tourism into and out of China. Others at the table were also the ones to know. It was a lovely evening and by itself made my trip to Sardinia worth it.

How was it worth it? In the past I have been the one making things happen; be it the refitting of a superyacht or organizing a tour. I dealt with the frustrations of being an American in Italy “needing” to get things done. In the present, I was “forced” to do things the Italian way and, in the end, I found my frustrations were a waste of time. By quietly doing it the Italian way I was welcomed, I accomplished more than I had anticipated, and I was the recipient of true, not packaged, Italian hospitality.

I flew to Rome in the morning and by the time I reach Hotel Forty Seven there is an email from Antonio making good on his offer to be available if I need anything…but not just in case of an emergency. His trial went well and, with true Italian hospitality, he emails me the name of a wine bar nearby (and some suggested wines) as well as some places I should visit.

It is, alas, just a bit more growth in my philosophy that travel is not about seeing things, but of appreciating the culture and people of where you visit. My 2.5 hour wait for my room, my 10 minute presentation and my “prison” not only seem just so irrelevant now, my frustration/disappointment seems like such a waste of time.

Possibly the next time you spend hours complaining at the front desk you might want to consider what you might be missing in the present because you are spending so much time concerned over the past. It is not a matter of making lemonade out of lemons, but not worrying about the lemons as you find that you just might be standing in a strawberry field and not realize it! Note: I do not suggest that you or I should take on the Italian way of life, but rather – as they do say – “When in Rome…”