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"?