Saturday, March 31, 2012

Selling Luxury Cruises and How to Degrade a Market...and Market Share

Last evening I attended a charity event that raised almost $750,000 for a wonderful organization.  Silversea Cruises really came through with a huge assist and some nice money for the charity was raised.  The issue, to my mind, was that not enough was raised. 

Why? Obviously it was not because there wasn't anyone bidding at the live auction.  It was because the auctioneer did a less than optimal job in selling the cruise package and, thus, there was less interest and less enthusiasm.

So how would you raise the interest, and charity dollars (or, shall we say, "sales"), for a luxury cruise? Let's get back to that charity auction!

Offered was an oceanview suite on a 7 night Silversea Alaska cruise with a corner suite at the Captain Cook Hotel in Anchorage, the domed train to Seward, economy airfare and $500 in spending money...along with some Silversea items and Goldring Travel luggage, jackets and hats.

I was supposed to give a one minute promo for the cruise before the auction.  It never happened.  I am not sure why, but it doesn't matter.  What matters is that it was clear that the auctioneer - a very nice guy - didn't have a clue what he was selling and really had no ability to communicate the salient points.

I was going to say like, "This is a cruise for two on one of the most luxurious cruise ships in the world.  Butler service, flowing champagne and beverages of choice, fine cuisine, no gratuities and only 380 fellow guests.  But before you board you fly to one of the nicest suites in Anchorage and then take a domed train to see wildlife in luxury.  Once you board the Silver Shadow, the itinerary is as impressive, with incredible glaciers and mountains, in depth discovery of Native American cultures and, of course, whales, bears and bald eagles...and salmon.  Added to that is the luggage, jackets and a Silversea Bobby Jones shirt and more.  You are pretty much all set for a dream vacation of a lifetime."  But as I said, that didn't happen.

What was pitched was essentially, "A seven day Alaska cruise with everything included.  Airfare, hotel, train, 500 bucks, all your booze and tips.  It is a great deal."  Now do you have visions of a typical cruise without much value or what?  I mean if you had never been on a cruise would that seem interesting and exciting to you?  Didn't think so.

Now, charity event aside, what I keep hearing from luxury travel clients is, "If I see another email for $2,199 I am going to scream!  I mean who is going to be on my cruise? And, by the way, is that all that the cruise is about?  Price?"

So, I don't care if it is Silversea or Seabourn, putting the focus on price transforms the luxury cruise experience into, well, just another vacation.  And that degrades the luxury cruise market.  And with the luxury market no longer being special - the very reason to go on a luxury cruise - less people will be motivated to jump into the luxury cruise market...and the market share of those taking a cruise drop.

So what does that do?  For those with a mass market mentality:  Drop the prices further!  Thus repeating the cycle and further undercutting their very own product.

But for those that actually understand the luxury market it does something different.  It creates opportunity to differentiate its product.  Explain why your luxury cruise is special, give the reasons it is different, exclusive and enriching...and the demand will increase (not decrease) and prices and sales will rise.

Want an example?  At the same charity event there was a hunting lodge weekend for 8 including meals, wine and cigars.  The auctioneer pitched it differently. He knew what it was and spent the time to make it sound exclusive.  The winning bid was not only higher than the cruise, the demand was so high that two of those weekends were sold!

The money and motivation was there. It is a matter of selling it properly.  And, if done properly, everyone...and it is everyone in the actual luxury happy.

Now it seems pretty obvious, doesn't it?

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

2013 Goldring Travel Panama Canal & Expedition Cruise on the Silversea Silver Expedition

Are you looking for something different in an itinerary or a luxury cruise experience? Well, I think I have found the perfect combination:  The Silversea Silver Explorer Expedition cruise on October 18, 2013.

You may have heard about my traipsing and canoeing through the Peruvian Amazon, staying in thatched-roofed lean-tos, "showering" with a bucket filled with muddy Amazon water (don't stand under that for the first seconds!) and dining on "not sure what that was, but it wasn't chicken". But you have also have heard me rave about the beauty and uniqueness of the environment, the animal life, sounds and smells. While many may think, "Sounds incredible, but not for me!", now you have the opportunity to have a taste of the jungle experience while sleeping in a luxury suite, having hot baths and dining on fine cuisine...without worrying if the water is safe to drink. Oh, yes, you also have the opportunity to transit the Panama Canal - very interesting in its own right!

This cruise combines a truly unique itinerary, easy access by air from the United States, great pricing and the ability to extend this seven day cruise with a pre-cruise exploration of some more traditional Caribbean and some new South American ports.
During this cruise we visit:
Oct 18 2013 Fri Colon, Panama 5:00 PM
Oct 19 2013 Sat Transiting the Panama Canal
Oct 20 2013 Sun Cruise & Explore Pearl Islands 6:30 AM 6:00 PM
Oct 21 2013 Mon DariƩn Jungle, Panama 6:30 AM 5:00 PM
Oct 22 2013 Tue Cruise & Explore Isla De Coiba, Panama 12:30 PM 6:30 PM
Oct 23 2013 Wed Golfito, Costa Rica 8:30 AM 6:00 PM
Oct 24 2013 Thu Puerto Quepos, Costa Rica 6:00 AM 7:00 PM
Oct 25 2013 Fri Puerto Caldera, Costa Rica 7:00 AM

OK, where the heck are these places? What are they like?

I am sure you have heard of the television show, Survivor. Well, two of the series were held in the Pearl Islands. It is a beautiful series of islands with thick jungle forest and beautiful beaches.

The Darien Jungle is recognized as one of the top-ten birding sites in the world. It is possible to see birds and animals close to the trail systems because the region is so remote and unvisited. Green and chestnut-fronted macaws, rufous-tailed and snowy-bellied hummingbirds and king vultures are common sightings. Endangered species such as great curasows, macaws, white-lipped peccary, tapir, black-headed spider monkey, and jaguar may be seen.

Isla Coiba is a large island consisting of mostly virgin tropical rainforest. Located approximately 30 miles off the Panamanian cost, Coiba Island is remote and relatively undeveloped with over 80% of its natural habitat intact. Coiba Island is hilly at its center with a number of rivers draining to the ocean. The jungles of Coiba are home to howler monkeys, scarlet macaws, and crested eagles. Because of its isolation and location, it has been noted for its growing number of endemic species. For bird watchers, Coiba offers 97 of the 147 species of birds found in Coiba National Park. Coiba is a refuge for Crested Eagles and Scarlet Macaws, birds who have virtually disappeared from the rest of the Republic of Panama. Coiba also offers 20 endemic birds species including the Coiba spinetail. The beaches and waters surrounding Coiba Island offer shelter to four turtle species: leatherback, hawksbill, olive and loggerhead. Other local species include the Coiba Island Agouti (Dasyproctae coibae) the Mantled Howler Monkey, opossum and a white-tailed deer.

The former banana exporting port of Golfito, Costa Rica has remote beaches, fabulous sport fishing and more in the way of beautiful and pristine forest, bird and wildlife including almost 200 species of trees and shrubs including Caryodaphnopsis burgeri, an Asian plant otherwise known in Central America as the “Zamia”, a rare Palm fern. This species is a living fossil and is amongst the most primitive plants on earth.. The vegetation attracts birds such as the red lored parrot, chestnut-mandibled toucan, parakeets, tanagers, trogons, woodpeckers, falcons and hummingbirds, as well as larger animals such as peccaries, pakas, raccoons, monkeys, squirrels and coati. There are poison arrow frogs, large iguanas and countless other reptile and insects.

You may, if you desire, begin to ease yourselves back into civilization when we reach Puerto Quepos, Costa Rica where big game sportfishing is king. There is also a very nice town with restaurants, art galleries and shops. However, for those naturalists, there is Manuel Antonio National Park which epitomizes everything tourists flock to Costa Rica to see: stunning beaches, a magnificent setting with islands offshore, lush rainforest laced with a network of easy to walk trails, and wildlife galore. There is good chance that you will see howler, white faced, and possibly squirrel monkeys, sloths, and coatimundis.

Our cruise ends in Puerto Caldera, Costa Rica, but if you desire, there is much to see traveling from this small port town to Costa Rica's interior.

Prices for this cruise are incredibly reasonable, starting at $2,999 per person and only a 150% single supplement. Silversea air add-on is only $899 per person from East Coast. Of course, being a Goldring Travel group cruise you know there will be some added amenities!

If you are interested, please email or call me at (877) 2GO-LUXURY!

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Gene Sloan (USA Today): "Seabournization" of Viking River Cruises: Parts II and III = More Misinformation

I am not sure why Gene Sloan has decided that Viking River Cruises' new ships...and now the cruise experiences...are fairly compared to Seabourn's ships and cruise experience, but it is as if he is being paid to cross-brand these two separate entities...because his comparisons lack accuracy and smack of hyping an inferior brand by using the cache of a superior one.

It is like Cunard claiming it is a luxury brand because it has a number of luxury-associated brands of soaps and other amenities on its ships...while ignore that any semblance of luxury is limited to 10% of its ship.  I mean the Queen and Princess Grill portions of the ship can qualify as a luxury experience, but the overall experience of the entire ship is not luxury; nor is it anything near a luxury experience for 90% of the passengers.  How is that really different than any other cruise line that has a number of nice suites and some speciality dining?  Dunno.

But I digress.  Gene Sloan is clearly reading this blog as he wrote at the start of his Part II, "the new generation of Longships is a quantum leap forward for Viking River Cruises, not only in the hardware component (the ships themselves) but also in the software component (service and dining)."  Now, doesn't that sound incredibly familiar????

So let's jump to the bottom of Part II where he states, "Service on Viking Odin is professional and personable. That said, it does not match the level of Seabourn, which, along with Silversea Cruises, Crystal Cruises and Regent Seven Seas Cruises, sets a high bar for the service factor."  All I can say is, "Huh?!".

Following on, Mr. Sloan writes,  "Odin features 95 staterooms and suites ranging from 135 square feet, a bit of a squeeze for two I suspect, to 445 square feet, a pair of two-room Explorer Suites". He goes on to state that is Stateroom 201 is 205 square feet including the veranda.  Stop!  Hold Everything!  Seabourn is all suites and on the compared to Odyssey-class ships, the smallest accommodation is about 300 square feet...365 including the veranda.  135 square feet is about the size of a Seabourn suite's  bathroom and closet!

And as for the Odin's veranda, USA Today's cruise guru admits that he can merely step out onto the Odin's veranda.  Meanwhile on Seabourn you not only can lounge on your veranda, you can dine - course by course - on fine linen, china, crystal and silver.  With balconies on river cruises being a new, and welcomed, amenity, why put Viking River Cruise's new ship in a bad light by more than emphasizing its limitations...rather than its growth as a product.

He continues, "Aquavit [the aft open deck area] reminds me of Seabourn Odyssey’s Pool Grill, without the pool, of course".  It is, as on many ships, a very nice open deck with a buffet area.  Seabourn's Patio Grill is a smaller area, midship next to the pools flanked by the Patio Bar on the starboard side and the Patio Grill on the port...serving complete meals (Giant Nigerian Prawns, Steaks, etc., as well as during the day pizza, burgers, salads, etc.).  Someone please explain to me how this is less how this very nice Viking River Cruise space is not worthy of a compliment of its own.

Continuing on, while Seabourn designed its ships specifically to be more of a Palm Beach hotel style - and done to perfection - Gene Sloan writes, "Much of the emphasis on Odin, in fact, is aimed at harmonizing with nature, not in a Feng Shui sense but in a practical Scandinavian way where the appreciation of nature is, well, natural and abundant....The table settings are particularly attractive and of a Nordic nature...Viking River Cruises is increasingly getting in touch with its inner Viking (and its Norse heritage), thus the simple table settings: colored plates and glasses, fresh flowers and elegant cutlery."  Again, I know - because I was there - Seabourn went with a 100% white format for its modernistic plates and dishware; focusing on shape and function.  (And, ironically, Seabourn eliminated fresh flowers in the dining areas!)

OK.  Why have a written this article?  Is it to criticize Gene Sloan.  To make USA Today angry with me?  To promote Seabourn...yet again?

The reason I wrote this is so that you, the cruising public are not mislead and have the accurate and fair comparisons.  If I was to suggest to you that a Viking River Cruise was anything like a Seabourn cruise and you stepped aboard one of Viking River Cruises' new ships you would be shocked and terribly disappointed.  That is not fair to Viking, which has a very good product.

Now, if you want to compare Odin to some other ships, how about doing it with AmaWaterways new ships or Uniworlds' new S.S. Antoinette?

And now you know why you need a truly high quality travel Goldring Travel.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Gene Sloan (USA Today): "Seabournization" of Viking River Cruises: Sounds A Bit Too Much Like My "Oceanification" of Regent Seven Seas Series...And What Is The Message, Anyway?

While imitation is considered by some to be a form of flattery, I must take issue with Gene Sloan, of USA Today, essentially lifting my phraseology, but not just because "Seabournization" is pretty much the twin sister to my term "Oceaniafication". 

The problem is...and I see it as one for that the Seabourn brand is now being recognized for its hardware (ships); not its software (people - service and cuisine).  Considering my last few articles, you can most certainly understand why it makes me shudder.

But first, the terminology thing!  On June 30, 2008 I wrote an article, "The Oceania-fication of Regent Seven Seas Cruise Line" and since then I have written a series of articles using this I watch Oceania surpass it sister in ship quality, cuisine and flexibility of options, with my most recent article being on March 7, 2012 "Oceania Cruises New, Creative, All-Inclusive Approach (The Oceania-fication of Regent Seven Seas Cruise Line - Another Chapter)". 

Now I appreciate that many in the industry read my articles and I, most certainly, take pride in that fact...because it means what I write is considered relevant and that, in turn, means that my clients and potential clients, are given real insight and information which allows them to choose the cruise vacation that truly meets their desires.  But I do get a little disturbed when I start to read or hear things that eminated from me or or Goldring Travel and it is not credited to me.

OK, enough of that. 

Now on to what the term "Seabournization" means.  I read Gene's article and I looked at his article's photos and Ralph Grizzle's video of one of the staterooms.  The Viking Odin is definitely a good looking river cruise ship, but I am not seeing how it can, in any respect, be measured up to a Seabourn standard in the public areas or the suites. (My goal here is not to criticize the ship because Viking is not making the comparison...which I think is both inaccurate and unfair...but the use of 'err ummm, "my" term.)

More importantly to me is that until now I have never heard Seabourn being first measured by its ships.  Even when the Seabourn Odyssey was being designed, the concept was to mirror - when possible - the triplets so that the people (guests, staff and crew) could feel "at home" and perform their jobs (whether that be vacationing or serving fine cuisine) in the same Seabourn comfort and style.  The Seabourn ships were, first and foremost, about the personal experience.

I appreciate that Yran & Storbraaten were integrally involved with the Seabourn Odyssey-class ships, but they also were with regard to the Oceania Marina, Holland America's Nieuw Amsterdam, Regent Seven Seas Voyager and Navigator, etc. They are excellent at what they do.  But someone using their prior works to brand another of their most recent work is, well, as unfair to Viking River Cruises - who is proud of its new ships in their own right - as it is to Seabourn.

Let me explain it this way:  I met with one of the Business Development Directors of Viking River Cruises while I was attending the Seatrade Cruise Shipping Conference in Miami last week.  I have known him for years.  We ran into each other at a cocktail party and carried on after.  He was incredibly enthusiastic about Viking and its new ships and never...and I mean never...compared them to Seabourn in any way.  Oh, I should mention he worked for Seabourn for over five years.

Congratulations to Viking River Cruises on its new ships.  They are not Seabourn and are not "Seabournized".  They are what they are...and something you just might want to look into if you are looking for a river cruise.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Making a Difference at Seatrade Cruise Shipping Conference

I think it was five years ago that I spoke at Seatrade about environmental issues affecting superyachts and cruise ships.  I talked about carbon footprints and a number of then new topics and terms.

During the conference I attended a press conference where the head of the Venice cruise terminal announced its plans for cold-ironing...plugging cruise ships into land power while in port.

I was really happy to hear this so I went up to him to say so.  He smiled and said "Mr. Goldring!  I remember you sitting with me after your talk and explaining what a carbon footprint was."

Sometimes life just has great rewards...and you can make a difference...You just don't always know when or how.  Obviously I cannnot take credit for this great news, but it is nice to know I actually started the conversation.

Hopefully soon a city I love will be just a bit more environmentally better off.

Seabourn's Staff & Crew Still Make You Know You Are A Guest

I have, to be sure, been quite harsh about what is going on with Seabourn's Seattle office approach.  But I have also been quick to remind you that the staff and crew on the ships remain the best at sea. 

Both the Seabourn Staff smiles and the Caviar are Plentiful!
This is an example of what I mean...from just the past 72 hours:

A client booked a Seabourn cruise long ago in an Guarantee Suite.  From more than a decade of history with Seabourn I "knew" my client would be well taken care of and, most certainly, would not be placed into a suite without a bathtub (and, let's face it the odds of that are extremely small anyway).  Well, it happened and the client was not all.

Old Seabourn would have found a way to fix the problem, but New Seabourn couldn't/wouldn't find a way to solve the problem. After many weeks of disappointment, eventually someone made a last minute cancellation and the client was moved to a very forward suite, but with a bathtub...And then there was silence.

Two days after my client boarded the ship I called Seattle to find out what the status was of my client (Yes, I do check up on you if I know there might be a concern or is what I do and most of you never knew I do it!).  This triggered what would have, under Old Seabourn, been done automatically:  Seattle contacted the Hotel Manager who then came up to my client, explained the situation and offered to move them, if possible, for the second week of her cruise.

Magically, this anonymous "cruise line passenger" was transformed into a "Seabourn guest"!

I then received a very nice email from my client letting me know how much the Hotel Manager cared, that her suite was acceptable and she was having a really nice cruise.

This morning I received a second email from my client asking for pricing for another Seabourn cruise.

There are two very important points to be made here:
  • A luxury cruise line must be "high touch" as luxury is not about providing fancy or expensive "stuff".  (See my article on what The Industry Definition of Luxury Is...Are) Luxury starts with truly acknowledging the person and making them feel important;
  • The sale of next year's cruise is not happening because of "fire sale" pricing or any other gimmick.  That sale is being made primarily because of one thing...and one thing only:  Seabourn's staff and crew delivering exceptional service.
New ships.  New itineraries.  New menus.  All of these are nice, but when you get down to what keeps a Seabourn guest coming back it comes down to three things (to steal an old real estate adage):  Service, Service and Service.

Regardless of the bumps in the road, know that Goldring Travel is there as your advisor and advocate, but also know that the Seabourn staff and crew are there as your warm, gracious and talented hosts.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Seabourn: Computers, Culture and...What Happened to "The Yachts of..."?

When Seabourn was placed under the Holland America umbrella I was confident that things, while clearly different, would be just fine.  And I was personally assured of same…repeatedly.  There were things at Seabourn before the move that needed addressing and, to be sure, many of those things have been addressed; most specifically, the lacking robust computer system and focus was on keeping the product separate and at the same level or better.

But I had a concern:  Rick Meadows was installed as Seabourn’s president, but he never gave up his “day job:  Executive Vice President of Holland America.  There is a saying, “You Cannot Be a Slave to Two Masters” and, so to be sure, it is coming to fruition that the planned segregation of Seabourn from Holland America has not been as seamless or consistent as it should be. 

Maybe I should have voiced my concern louder. Maybe it would not have made a difference.  But what I do know is that when there are delays in just about everything…as is happening with Seabourn today…it smacks of indecision and that leads to falling back on what you are most comfortable with.  And to me it is clear that Rick Meadows and John Delaney are falling back on what they actually know:  Mass Market.

Remember those new and creative Seabourn itineraries that would be put in place and put out early?  Well, Seabourn is so far behind in getting those itineraries out, it has significantly shortened the booking window (now isn’t that counter-intuitive) and refuses to even give a clue as to what is to come.  We all like Christmas, but we really enjoy window shopping…and that builds the excitement. 

The concept was to build upon Holland America’s vast experience and infrastructure. Heck, Holland America has itineraries out through November 2013…while Silversea, Crystal and Regent have itineraries through at least December 2013 and some as far out as late 2014.  Seabourn has some into April 2013. 

Where is the leveraging that was so highly touted?  It may be coming…but most certainly it is delayed…more so than when Seabourn was governed from Miami (not that those itineraries were perfect!)

Remember that new Seabourn Loyalty (Past Passenger) Program that was going to be rolled out?  Remember how it was going to be the best and most robust in the industry? Well, here it is almost a year after it was supposed to be announced (It was in the works before the move to Seattle) and…nothing.  Nothing like telling your loyal guests that a new program is coming out and then over a year later those loyal guests have sailed yet again and have reaped none of the anticipated benefits.

Remember how Seabourn offered some very low fares – especially for singles – on every cruise, but never had “fire sale” pricing.  Well, Seabourn now is having “fire sale” pricing as far as eight months out…ignoring the shortened booking window that the luxury clients are now being trained to consider.  Pricing integrity has been compromised.

But worse than that the folks in Seattle deemed it appropriate to charter out one of its ships in August long after quite a number of longtime loyal Seabourn guests had booked their holidays.  Yes, Seabourn got the ship chartered, but now its loyal guests are no longer loyal.  Besides making this decision without regard to them, the initial offer of compensation was insulting because the mass-market mentality assumed that the displaced passengers would just book another Seabourn cruise so there was no harm.  To the contrary, anger and bookings on other cruise lines has been, to my knowledge, the result. 

Did Seattle think long term about the effect of sending out the message “Don’t Trust Seabourn!  Your summer holiday is not as important as the $$$.  Hence Seabourn is not loyal to you, but expects you to be loyal to it.”  I mean how can I tell anyone that if they book their summer holiday with Seabourn, Seabourn won’t sell them out?  

You know the old saying, “Fool me once, shame on you.  Fool me twice, shame on me.”  So when can a client relax and say that their summer Seabourn cruise isn’t going to be cancelled for a charter.  (To be fair, in off-season a charter can happen and in the past the compensation was far more appropriate.)  But in the middle of the summer?  I cannot remember that ever happening.

But on the other side of the equation is how Seattle expects to be treated.  There is not an expectation of being treated extremely well.  There is a demand that they not only be treated well, but with a Seattle approach, language and mellowness.  In other words, Seabourn has gone from the business of the “business of cruising” on an international arena with multiple approaches and a respect for all of them, to the demand of conformance with the Seattle culture.  I mean to do otherwise is disrespectful…Or, is it possibly, that Seattle is just downright disrespectful in its refusal to respect and deal with the cultures ranging from New York to Shanghai?

Another problem, it seems, is that Seabourn is now so totally dependent on its robust computer system that it cannot act if the computer system isn’t ready.  Whether this is a result of the robust computer system not being quite as robust as advertised, or is not be utilized to its fullest or those that can really run the thing have left or were not hired, I do not know.  

But, as my dreaded English teacher, Mrs. Cunliffe used to say, “Enough is enough and too much is plenty”.  Well, Rick Meadows and John Delaney I get the computer system stuff and to be sure I must say “Enough!”

Computers can grab all the data you want.  It can compile it, segregate it, cohort it, etc.  But what it cannot do is include the human factor.  You may be able to market upscale or luxury by computer, but you simply cannot deliver it that way.  I say this for two reasons:

First, the very nature of how the computer segregates its data and applies it to real life situations is based upon the program a human being programs into it.  If that person (as is the case here) has no feeling or experience in the luxury cruise market, then the factors – while seemingly logical – are mass market because they are cold, hard facts and nothing more.  As such a calculus of category purchased, price paid, and number of days sailing are clearly relevant factors, but so are many others important to guests…and long term loyalty…and the Seabourn message.

Second, while computers can take bookings…and let’s be totally upfront about this:  Seabourn is clearly going to be accepting direct bookings from its website in the not too distant future (just like it’s now almost identical Holland America website does), the issues with computer-driven bookings are huge. And, to be sure, the questions generated by, and requirements of, the luxury cruise clients already overwhelm the Seabourn reservations team.  (By the way, I see this as a potential boom to my business.  Once there are more direct bookings, the problems already complained of will get worse and more will seek sanctuary from experienced travel advisors like me.)

I met the head of Starwood Hotels VIP management team on a flight about two years ago.  Starwood uses computers extensively to track their most loyal and VIP clients; noting their every wish, whim and requirement.  And they use that data to impart upon human beings (i.e. Starwood employees) the discretionary power to exceed those guests’ expectations.  To make them go “WOW!

Seabourn in Seattle has the first bit:  The computer. Seabourn in Miami had the second bit.  It is a shame that Seabourn left the first bit in Miami and, apparently, is not willing or able to get it back.

In closing, what is happening so reminds me of when I was involved in the takeover of a shipyard in Brisbane, Australia named Runmere Pty Ltd.  The first thing I did was stop the delivery of flowers to the conference room and lunches to the executives.  I declared, “We are a boatyard in the business of building yachts.  We do not own them and have not earned the right to be treated like we do.”  

Similarly, Seabourn’s Seattle office is not in the position to pay for luxury cruises on Seabourn, but to provide them for its guests.  Seabourn’s Miami office lived to make Seabourn the best cruise line in the world…and they were to an individual proud of that.

So Seabourn, how about getting those sleeves rolled up, get dirty and get it done? 

You have six ships filled with the best staff and crew at sea;
You have some of the best, most experienced travel advisors, wanting to effectively sell your product; and,
You have a great number of past guests who want Seabourn to be…just Seabourn. 

Nothing more.  But most certainly nothing less.  Now, tell me why is it you dropped the name "The Yachts of Seabourn".

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Has Seabourn Left Its Heart in San Francisco...I Mean Miami?

The past weeks have been quite disturbing and conflicted for me.  And, while I usually can just sit down the write articles, this one has been quite a struggle.

But my attendance at the Seatrade Cruise Shipping Miami Conference this year - always an incredible place to learn and network – has brought me clarity and, strangely, peace.

For over a decade I have – with great enthusiasm – endorsed, and even grown with, Seabourn. It has, until now, always focused on the “Software”:  Customer Service, Staff, Crew…Exceeding Expectations…even while building new ships.

Unfortunately, now with Seabourn’s move to Seattle complete, Seabourn is – curiously- focusing on the “Hardware” (and, as you will read, not just new computer systems)…and Marketing with less than easily understood offers which promise more than is perceived by its customers they will receive.

How can I say this…and be so bold? 

Follow me down the path to clarity, if not peace:

Over the past three days, I have seen and met with so many of my “old” Seabourn friends who didn’t follow Seabourn to Seattle (mostly because they weren’t asked).  It has really brought home the contrast between what was and what I see the new management of Seabourn is installing. But I still needed to assure myself that my perceptions were not emotional ties to my friends and that I was merely frustrated by a learning curve that the Seattle folks have to climb.

As I have long said, the folks at Silversea (Ken Watson, Christian Sauleau and Steven Tucker) are true gentlemen, Larry Pimentel an enthusiastic and sharing person (even if as “in your face” as I can be!), the technical heads at Carnival Corp. (from the person in charge of sustainable energy to the Vice President of Corporate Shipbuilding) engaged “partners” and the list goes on.  All of them have made time to chat or even socialize with me.

But, alas, who is missing from this list?  Seabourn.

That’s right:  Seabourn.  

On Friday, I had a difficult one hour plus telephone call with President Rick Meadows (also attended by Senior Vice President John Delaney, and others) focused on my demanding – yes demanding – that Seabourn guests be treated as “guests” and not “passengers” and that “giving them only what they paid for” and changing rules and new policies retroactively, will undercut the years of loyalty “old” Seabourn had built up because “exceeding expectations” is Seabourn’s in DNA; not a mass market philosophy sworn a year ago to never be implemented.  (Was I being talked to honestly and there was just been a shift in approach?   I don’t know.)

But when you take those away and you no longer have “Seabourn”, but a different cruise line.

At the end of the call Rick Meadows told me he, unfortunately, would not be attending Seatrade.  Well, guess who was one of the first people I saw at Seatrade?  Rick Meadows. 

Not to worry, he was there with Stein Kruse (Seabourn’s CEO and the head of Holland America)…and Rick didn’t even politely and properly introduce me.  I pretended Rick didn’t misstate his schedule and left them. 

So as I walked the Conference I heard grumble after grumble about Seabourn and, of course, Seabourn was nowhere to be found:  Not on a panel; not hosting a table at the annual charity event; nowhere.  Someone suggested I speak to Stein Kruse, so I sent him an email and the response was shall we say “disappointing”.

And then it hit me!  Eric, this isn’t about you at all.  It is about the “new” Seabourn being lost at sea.

By putting this bit of information from here and that bit of information from there together, it became undeniably clear to me...and it is no secret as this conference has made clear...Seabourn is working on building new ships…something that I knew about from various whispers in the past.  I cannot tell you exactly when and I won’t tell you any details that I understand, as that would be improper.  Let’s however leave that for a moment.

So then I am sitting in on a panel today on “Upscale Cruising” with Mark Conroy (President of Regent Seven Seas…who, by the way, was an excellent speaker this time around!); Ken Watson (President of Silversea); Peter Shanks (President of Cunard…Seabourn’s old stable-mate) among others.  The focus of the Panel was really on how the luxury market has shifted in the last five years from “acquiring things” and “showing off” to being more introspective and personal.  (Gone are the gala dinners and the flashing of diamonds, replaced by wonderful personal cuisine and intellectually enriching shore excursions.)

And then there was a discussion of price integrity:  Most of the lines are trying to maintain prices and would rather sail with ships less full then fall into the morass of steep and last minute price cuts – which may fill the ships with discount-seekers, but alienates those that have paid full price and, without question, trains people not to book until the last minute…thus causing more inventory to sit and therefore more price slashing occurs.  (It was just announced that I can sell you a seven day Seabourn cruise this Spring for an unbelievable $2,199.00 per person.)

A light went off!  So I asked a question of the panel:  With the change in what the luxury market is looking for, how important are new ships versus new itineraries and experiences?

And that the calculus is complete:  Rick Meadows and John Delaney are, in my view, focused on bringing out new ships as being the answer to Seabourn’s sagging sales.  Everything that I, and the Seabourn guest, believe in may be out the window or cut back because the mass market mentality has arrived at Seabourn. 

Heck, Seabourn undeniably already has the best luxury cruise ships of any major player so if you can’t fill those ships, why would you build more ships…and do so when you are slashing prices and cutting back on customer service while installing a “Meeting Expectations” rather than the prior “Exceeding Expectations” philosophy?

Mr. Meadows:  Seabourn is not Holland America.  A new ship with lousy customer service before or after a cruise, troublingly worded ads, “sail full” mentality and being deceptive to travel agents (who, by the way, have been left to twist in the wind with inexperienced “support” from the home office) is not luxury…it is not Seabourn.

I have said for years that my criticisms of Regent Seven Seas was not personal, but my honest opinion, and some have criticized me for being a Seabourn loyalist.  I said (and you can search my blog for this) that if Seabourn gets it wrong I will say it.

I am saying it.

I don't know if Seabourn has the wrong captain, a poor navigator, bad charts or simply some rough seas.  What do know is that now...right now...righting the ship and correcting Seabourn's course is a pretty easy task.  But if you don't know you are lost or off course, well...things happen.
Does that mean cancel your present Seabourn cruise?  Absolutely NOT.  It means be vigilant and adjust your expectations accordingly.  Remember, the Seabourn staff and crew on the ships are still, in my opinion, the best at sea. The staff and crew deliver! And many are personal friends.

And remember that I will remain your advocate, but now more upfront rather than behind the scenes. 

Will I continue to book Seabourn cruises?  As long as Seabourn allows me I will do it.  But now the comparisons are going to be different.  How many times have I quoted Sy Syms, "An Educated Consumer Is My Best Customer"?

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Seabourn Changes the Way Guarantee Bookings Are Handled. Is It The Start of a New Trend?

Seabourn quietly had changed the way it handles guarantee bookings.  

You know the ones:  The ones you have all considered to be like a lottery ticket.  You book a suite in a category (say the lowest category, an A Oceanview suite).  And then you wait...and wait...and wait...until about 30 days prior to sailing.  Then there is the scratch-off to see what you won.  Is it an Owner's Suite? Penthouse?  Veranda? Oceanview?

On just about every line there was a good shot of getting something better than that Category A.  Why?  Because you gave up the ability to pick a suite, allowing Seabourn the flexibility to put you where it liked...just not worse then the category of guarantee you purchased.  (So a V4 Veranda Suite Guarantee could never be placed in a V3 or Oceanview suite.)  It was...and I repeat "was"...sort of a quid pro quoYou give Seabourn flexibility and in return you potentially got treated a little bit better.

Now, as we say in New Jersey:  Fuggedaboudit

When it comes to your suite on Seabourn the concept now is: "You get what you pay for and expect no more."

After an hour telephone call with the top executives (and you all know what that means), I am so very disappointed...and concerned.  It undercuts the very concept that Seabourn was built on: Exceeding Expectations

And to me it is an indication that Seabourn is parting with the very soul of that Debbie Natansohn and Pamela Conover and others embedded in the DNA of Seabourn. 

So if you book a V1 Veranda Guarantee, unless Seabourn has no option that means you will get a V1 Suite. And, of course, which V1's are going to be left to shove you into? The worst ones all the way forward and with the smaller balconies. Book an A Guarantee on the small ships and you will assuredly receive the most forward ones...possibly even the ones which historically have been set aside for guest lecturers and visiting staff (not that they are "bad", but their layout is quirky...and not consistent with the overall Seabourn experience).

And for those of you looking at the new category of OB (a veranda guarantee at a significantly discounted price), you are not going to receive any American Express Platinum or Ensemble, Virtuoso or Signature amenities.

Oh, yes, those courtesy upgrades that used to happen...and, to be honest, I thought became a bit too common...are also pretty much a thing of the past.

Message:  Book What You Want, Right Down to Suite Number!)

Simply stated the Seabourn concept has always been that if you treat your passengers as guests and exceed their expectations from the moment they make that first call to the moment they leave the ship (or after any lingering issues are resolved) not only will they return to Seabourn they will bring their friends and families to Seabourn.

It is, in fact, the model that Goldring Travel was founded on...and continues to do (and improve upon).  It is one of the reasons that I have been such a proponent of Seabourn not only as a cruise product, but as a cruising lifestyle.  And, let's face it, it works!  (I highlighted this point just this past Friday when speaking at The New York Times Travel Show.)

To be fair and complete, the fact is that the economy has put significant pressure on pricing so that Seabourn, Silversea, Crystal, etc. have been selling at artificially low rates and eventually something has to give.  It ain't my company, but running weekly sales while the product itself has not significantly improved (though I am promised much is in the pipeline...and Seabourn isn't saying much of what is in that pipeline or how long the pipe is!) - even if it is the best overall luxury cruise product out there - isn't going to generate more long-term dollars or loyalty for Seabourn.

In my opinion, by changing the initial contact with the cruise line (NOT Goldring Travel!!!) from being a guest anticipating its expectations may be exceeded right from the start to a passenger who will get what it paid for and no more, the door is swung wide open to seeking value now; not waiting a year or six months to step onto the ship and have expectations exceeded.  I cannot fathom how someone treated as a passenger at the start transforms into a guest.

Not to worry, Goldring Travel will do its utmost to assure you are a cruise line's "guest"...and most certainly our valued client...from that first email or telephone call.  And, as you see, Goldring Travel will also assure that you are fully informed.

Let us know what you think.  Join the discussion on The Gold Standard Luxury Travel Forum.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Oceania Cruises New, Creative, All-Inclusive Approach (The Oceania-fication of Regent Seven Seas Cruise Line - Another Chapter)

In 2008 I saw a trend starting just after Apollo Management purchased both Oceania Cruises and Regent Seven Seas Cruises and put them under the Prestige Cruise Holdings umbrella.  I called it the "Oceania-fication of Regent Seven Seas Cruises".  And, over the past few years, I have written about how things have continued to impress that belief upon me and now I have yet more.

Quickly bringing you up to date (you can search "Oceania-fication" on this blog for all of my articles on the subject), PCH combined the suppliers for the two lines, the back office systems, the actual offices, the staffing, the training, and - with the building of Oceania's Marina and Riviera - ships of very similar size and quality (some might say higher quality!)

Please do not get me wrong.  I actually think it is a very good thing.  Oceania Cruises is a very good product and I book clients on Oceania regularly (and that trend is starting to increase).  Honestly, as I am writing this a regular Seabourn client just booked his third Oceania cruise with me (which, I guess, makes him a regular Oceania client too!)

Ironically, Oceania actually stresses cuisine and wine quality far more than Regent does.  In sort of a marketing marvel, Oceania has focused on cruise QUALITY to grow its brand,

while Regent - the alleged luxury product - has focused on QUANTITY to grow its prices (while I have seen a drop in quality). 

As a side note:  My bone of contention with its sister brand, Regent Seven Seas, is not what it offers, but what it has marketed itself to be: The best luxury cruise product...asserting a "Six Star" status...with many "free" things (air, drinks, tours, etc.) that are not free.  In short, it has simply incorporated things that have comparatively make it the most expensive cruise pricing out there.thus it is unquestionably (to me) deceptive marketing.    (Note:  Regent did turn a slight profit in 2011 based primarily on higher cruise fares...but, truth be told, Regent has done a good job in selling its product as a "value" product even if it isn' my opinion.)

Hence it is Regent's claims to being so inclusive (no matter how you get there) that has been both my bone of contention and its positive distinction in the marketplace.  So while my client-base generally does not look first to ship tours, but to personalized service by all of the staff (rather than the Regent guest tactic of always dining with a particular waiter who is known to be good), there is no question that there is a market for a more inclusive experience. 

Now the positive:  Oceania is, again, changing the conversation...and your cruise experience!

There is a significant segment of the cruising public that enjoys having their tours included in their cruise price.  Oh, but how to balance paying for tours you will never take and getting the benefits of a tour-inclusive product?  The answer lies with yet another Frank Del Rio, Sr., innovation (and he is known for them!):  Offer tour packages of varying levels on Oceania Cruises.

Oh, and while you are at it, offer some innovative beverage packages as well.  I mean there are people that truly enjoy having their champagne, wine and spirits included in their cruise fare so they do not need to sign for each drink they have or budget.  There are others, though, that complain that they only have wine with meals and others that say the don't drink any alcohol, so why should they pay for drinks they will never have (similar to my "problem" with Regent's all tours are "free" approach for my non-ship tour tendency clients). Oh, but how to balance paying for wine and spirits you will never drink and getting the benefits of a beverage-inclusive product?

Oceania has rolled out two creative and spot-on answers:  Creative Beverage and Tour Packages:
  • House Select Beverage Package ($29.95 per day) includes a selection of wines during lunch and dinner (including through room service)
  • Prestige Select Beverage Package ($49.95 per day) includes a selection of wines, most top shelf spirits and cocktails, all of which may be ordered at any time at any onboard venue during regular operating hours as well as through room service during meal times.
  • Ala Carte Tours - Pre-purchase your tours prior to embarkation and receive a 10% discount.
  • Your World Collection - Pre-purchase a package of tours (say 5 tours in 8 ports) and receive a 25% discount on the total cost of the tours.
  • Unlimited Passport Collection - Book an unlimited number of select tours for a fixed price (for example, $699 per person for a seven port cruise) plus receive a discount on any limited-availability tours.
With brand new, excellent, ships, strong itineraries, very good cuisine and service, open seating and ways to make your cruise as inclusive or ala carte as you desire, it is clear to me that Oceania Cruises is offering a product that is actually superior to its sister-brand, Regent Seven Seas...and it is doing it at a lower price...creating greater value.

There is little else to say other than "Bravo!"  Oceania Cruises is truly finding its way to live its motto, "Your World.  Your Way."

Monday, March 5, 2012

An Incredible Life's Moment at The New York Times Travel Show

On Friday I spoke at The New York Times Travel Show and while that was an enjoyable experience, it was not nearly the highlight of the day; though the highlight would not have been possible without the show.

Just prior to the presentation I met one of the two other participants.  I almost immediately had that, “Oh, no! I am on a panel with a typical overbearing travel agent who thinks she knows everything, but knows nothing” feeling.    So I excused myself, took a deep breath, checked out another panel and then met with a colleague.

As time was nearing when I was to speak I went to the appropriate venue and met the other panelist.  She, fortunately, was an absolutely charming and intelligent woman, Sara Kearns, who runs a safari company.   I had just told her about my two safaris and what an incredible experience the private safari was. 

Sara’s friend walked up and began speaking with her.  I couldn’t read her name tag and inquired.  She gave me her card:  Clair Mathews Crawford, of Mathews Safaris.  

My private guide those years ago was Rick Mathews, but he had died tragically many years ago.  Could they be related?  I mean what was the chance of that being it is 25+ years later and 7,000 miles away.  And if so, should I even mention his name considering the tragedy?

But me being me, I had to ask the question, so I said, “I used a private guide in Kenya and Tanzania years ago.  His name was Rick Mathews”.  Clair smiled and said, “He was my husband!”

And the rush of stories about Rick started to flow.  The moment gave us both chills.  But it was time for Sara and my panel. 

During the panel Sara and I quickly shared with the audience that this incredible moment had just happened, but I didn’t want to overtake the panel by telling the story.  The moderator insisted and, after relating the story, I discussed how Rick (who was in his 20’s at the time…25+ years ago) actually taught me how to travel.  It was the first time someone said to me, “Slow down and observe.  Don’t just tick off that you saw a lion.  Sit and watch.”  And he also showed me what real customer service was about…being prepared and thinking ahead.  And with Rick we did sit and watched and observed and listened and smelled…for hours...

Courtesy of Mathews Safaris
One day in Tanzania we watched a pride of lions lazing in the late afternoon sun.  Off in the far distance was a topi (a weird looking purple antelope) meandering along.  As time passed some of the lions sauntered out to the left and then some strolled to the right.  And then, with a flip of a tail, they silently converged and killed that topi, who had foolishly wandered towards the pride.  Out of nowhere a huge male lion came leaping over the tall grass with the sun at his back and let out a roar.  (It was then that I understood that the sound of a lion’s roar was not what impresses; it is how it vibrates your body that does it.)  And with that he leaped onto the kill and threw the other lions off of it.  (Unlike what you have been told, none of the females voluntarily leave the kill for the male.) I didn't sleep for two nights reliving this experience.

I then explained to the audience that from that moment on I never traveled trying to tick things off…and that is the message a successful travel agent must give to his clients.

But speaking of not “ticking things off”, I was not done with my new friends.  Sara rushed up to me a bit later and asked me to join them for dinner…but I had a doctor’s appointment I couldn’t move back in New Jersey.  So…I did what I had to:  I went to the doctor and then came back to the city for dinner.  

(And while I wasn’t ticking meeting Clair off my list, I embarrassingly found out that Clair hadn’t ticked me off hers:  She sat in on our talk and heard me boast about her late husband.)

During our four hour dinner at Giorgione in The Village we traveled back in time sharing stories of Rick, talked of the present and even of the possible future…like a possible “Wine & Wildebeest Safari” hosted by Goldring Travel and organized by Mathews Safaris during the Migration.

It was truly a Life’s Moment.  It was a moment delivered to me through the love of travel. 

So when your cruise ship has a port of call in Sorrento or Le Lavandou, or you want to see all of Spain in a week, don’t think first about what tour you should take or how many museums you can visit; think about just slowing down and observing. 

You just may experience something that touches your soul a quarter of a century later...rather than merely filling a photo album.