Thursday, August 9, 2012

Silversea Cruises - Making a Real Effort to Improve

I have been keeping my eye on Silversea Cruises for quite a while now.  Recently there has been a pretty-much wholesale change at the top.  On August 1, 2012, Ken Watson, who was the COO, quietly was moved to the role of an "advisor", pretty much completing the housecleaning. Now, virtually everyone that was there is no longer there.  I liked the people at Silversea. They are genuinely nice people who wanted their cruise line to be the best and look to their guests as, well, guests.


Silversea is a unique proposition, however, because it has truly been run by its owner, Manfredi Lefebvre with the CEO, Enzo Visone. So many of the decisions, desires and ideas of its now former top executives were rejected, delayed or merely "considered".  (Maybe that was because they were too nice and didn't fight harder.  I don't know.)  To be sure, it was a huge frustration for them.  You could see it in the eyes of those nice people who truly wanted to make Silversea better, different and unique.  In short, any conversation of substance ended with some sort of acknowledgment that they had limited empowerment.

Now, I am sure some of this is as a result of ownership style, but some if it was also the result of a financial approach that - whether be need or philosophy- caused cutbacks in areas that probably should not have been cut back. (Doing things in a privately held company can be easier in some instances, but much harder when it comes to the financial side of things....especially with the economic issues of the past few years.)

So, understanding a bit of the background of Silversea explains some of the previous cutbacks that I have not been too enamoured with including the replacement of many European staff with Filipino staff (thus, instantly changing the culture and style of the line...with the person who made that decisions two COO's ago claiming it was because the European staff didn't smile enough), seeking out executive chefs from the superyacht industry (rather than the cruise and restaurant industries...they are less expensive, but can run a galley for 12...not 412...guests) and the Silver Spirit being a bit functionally and stylistically challenged compared to her competition (Seabourn's Odyssey-class ships).

But today is a new day and I am liking what I am seeing.  (I am, thus, also looking forward to my October 13, 2013 sailing on the Silversea Expedition in Central America.) 

In March 2012 Ellen Bettridge was announced as the new President of the Americas.  While Silversea maintains a distinct European management (as the owners are Italian), obviously the largest driver of marketshare is the United States...whose marketing has a significant impact worldwide.  And from there a number a philosophical changes became apparent to me.  Some of the inclusions from the recent past started to marry with the subsequent announcements and it has peaked my interest.

One thing I know is that if you rest on your laurels, you will be left in the dust and, if one thing is clear, Silversea has no intention of being in that position.  And, while the proof is observing the execution of the concepts, the concepts look very good to me.

The first thing that caught my eye is its collaboration with Slow Food Italy.  Silversea has introduced a three night pre- or post- cruise land experience that is designed to show off its Italian side.  Departing from Rome you go to the Estate of Castello Banfi to combine culinary and cultural traditions of Tuscany through wine tastings, cooking classes and food and wine tours and three nights at Il Borgo Hotel.  It is not inexpensive at $3,599 per person, but it is a great immersion type of experience worth considering.

Then I noticed a significant improvement in the quality of its Enrichment Lecturers.  Just this year Silversea is offering cruises with speakers of varied international appeal including Maggie Beer, Terry Waite, Morton Dean, Bernard Kalb, Alastair Bruce, Terry Hughes, Bill Bryson and James Bradley.

Significant improvements in Shore Excursions followed with a real focus on food, wine and an appreciation of culture rather than a ticking off of various sites.  In other words, "travel" and "experiential" moments more than cruising has come into focus.



Silversea then acquired a Galapagos tour company.  After the Galapagos Explorer II undergoes a major refurbishment in September 2013, Silversea will be offering year-round Galapagos cruise opportunities with 50 suites (24 with balconies).  This, of course, pairs nicely with the Silver Expedition which, to be sure, has really had a difficult time getting great traction as a one-off ship with no real connection to the other Silversea ships.

Significant offerings of unique overnight experiences on is 2013 World Cruise in Australia, Southeast Asia and South Africa really highlighted its uniqueness and provided its guests with some special in depth opportunities.

And then two days ago Silversea announced it was changing its bed linens to Pratesi.  A June Wall Street Journal said, "Pratesi is the Chanel of bedding. It's a label synonymous with everything posh: flawless fabric, a historic design archive and top-drawer clients. For three generations, the linens dynasty has had a lock on the high end of the market and its customers have included everyone from Liz Taylor to Stella McCartney. Even the notoriously picky Michael Jackson demanded only Pratesi sheets for his houses."  OK, sheets don't do much for me (and I can't sing), but I do appreciate that for some it shows an acknowledgement of elegance that is appreciated.

And while I know there is more to come Ms. Bettridge recently asserted she wants Silversea to be the most expensive (read:  "Most Prestigious and Profitable") cruise line.  I appreciate the boldness and confidence of the statement...and the belief that there is more value in providing a product that people will pay a premium for rather than one which focuses on bargain hunters.

But along those lines, and while not noted in Silversea's press releases, there has been a significant change in the Cancellation Fees charged by Silversea.  The penalties now start when you pay the deposit.  Cancel anytime after that and it'll cost you $200.00 (but you can apply that to any cruise new cruise that travels...not booked...within 12 months of the cancelled voyage's date).  At 120 days prior there is a 15% penalty, at 90 days it is 50%, 45 days is 75% and 30 days is 100%. While I appreciate it is very difficult to resell a cruise 120 days prior to departure, I am not in favor of being less consumer friendly on penalties while trying to get the same consumers to pay a higher cruise fare.  The focus should me on making the bookings stick through quality; not penalty.

Now, while the overall plans of Silversea sounds good, and whether you believe Silversea's providing butlers for all suites is a great thing or not (I don't really think it adds to my cruise experience as the style of a person's uniform who does x or y for me doesn't matter), I truly hope that with all of these improvements and desires to add premium fares to a luxury product there will be a focus on improving the consistency of the onboard cuisine and service standards.  It is not that they are bad, but they are - by very regular report - just inconsistent (80% there is a B-...and almost a mere C+).

For me:

  • The stewardess that extraordinarily cares for my suite and greets me with a genuine smile will afford me a better night's rest than new sheets. 
  • The waiter that offers me a drink rather than asks me if I want one makes me more relaxed. 
  • Knowing that when I sit down to dinner  or lunch I will receive an attractive and tasteful meal by a waiter who has style and personality makes me happy.
There are the things that matter most.  And, to be sure, I think they matter most to my clients.

My fingers are crossed and my hopes are high.  So far I like what I see.