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".