Monday, March 17, 2014

Luxury Cruising - Don't Let The Cruise Lines Define YOUR Luxury (Millennials, Are Your Listening?)

Last week was Cruise Shipping Miami, the largest cruise industry convention in the world...and known as "Where the Cruise Industry Does Business".


For me it is a gold mine of information, perspectives...and questions.  The biggest question annually for me involves the world of luxury cruise travel.  Whether it is "What is it?"  "What are the perspectives of the various cruise lines?" or "What is new?" it always gets me thinking.

This year the Upscale Cruising Panel was excellent...not only for what was said, but for who said what.  And, to be sure, it focused me on what many of the luxury cruise lines are missing...or will be missing in just a few years:  The Millennial Generation (those who were born during 1981-200).

The panel consisted of Rick Meadows, Edie Rodriguez (nee Bornstein) - Crystal Cruises's new president, Bob Lepisto, SeaDream Yacht Club's President, Larry Pimental, Azamara Club's president and Diane Moore, of PG Cruises (Paul Gauguin).  Each person was assigned some aspect of "luxury" to present on.The standout moment for me came from a presentation by Rick Meadows, President of Seabourn Cruise Line.  (Honestly, I was shocked because Rick is not what I would call an extrovert, so public speaking is not his favorite thing.)

Before getting to what I found truly fascinating, I do want to mention that Bob Lepisto was his usual smiling, low-key, very SeaDream self talking about segregating luxury cruises into three categories:  All-Inclusive; Highly Inclusive and Inclusive and that for many there is absolutely nothing "luxury" about bundling everything together as it reduces choices and all but eliminates the luxury concept of private tours.  It is exactly what discuss with my clients when they are considering a Regent Seven Seas cruise versus a Seabourn or Crystal cruise:  Is having most everything bundled together where you pay a premium price and a get lesser individualized experience the luxury you are looking for?

Larry Pimental shocked me.  After listening to him for years about what a luxury cruise experience was, I heard a distinct re-positioning of his brand.  Larry claimed that it is the ports, not the ship, that are the focus of Azamara Club and its experience.  To me that is merely delivering someone to a place where they may, independent of the cruise, have a luxury experience.  While I am all for experiential travel (and that is, to be sure, one of my "luxuries") if I do not have a sufficiently luxurious home-base (hotel or cruise ship) the unevenness of the experience can lead to a serious degradation of the overall experience.

Edie Rodriguez was...well...Edie. High energy.  High volume.  And, to my mind, really not too much about what creates a luxury experience, but more about what luxury supposedly is in more analytical terms. (Do you really want to hear about the "multifaceted spectrum" of functional, individual, social and financial value?  Didn't think so.)  What struck me, however, was her actual focus on ostentatiousness. (Edie made sure we knew she loves her $10,000+ Hermes Birkin bag...almost as much as her sleep.)  

Edie reminded me of a less elegant and less refined version of a presentation by Pam Conover, then president of Seabourn, a few years ago who focused on the luxury guest wanted ownership, but more so on experiences and less on material things. Let's just say "Money Don't Buy Class!" and while Pam Conover elegance drew everyone in, I was totally turned off by Edie's "I'm better than you because I can afford it" philosophy.  And it made me wonder: Crystal Cruises is a class operation with elegant, understated ships, a focus on enrichment and individualized experiences for those who more likely than not like to fly below the radar.  What the heck is Edie doing as the new head of Crystal Cruises?

But I digress...

Rick Meadows was, for me, that star speaker on topic of luxury cruising:  Service.  In short, it is not about delivering an item (like a drink), but a series of small, but wonderful, experiences that create a continuum of exceeding your expectations.  It is also about the staff member viewing their position as a "profession" rather than merely a "job".

Seabourn "Hires Attitude and Teaches Skills"
Seabourn "Hires Attitude and Teaches Skills".  That is why Seabourn invests so much in its staff in the way of training before they ever arrive on one of its ships and then afterwards (initially through its Seabourn Academy).

So what is  the attitudinal  profile of the person who can consistently deliver luxury service?  They are people that embrace the following factors:

  • Selflessness - having a concern for the Seabourn guest first and foremost
  • Above and Beyond - having a desire to exceed expectations; not merely meet them
  • Care - having that trait which cannot be taught
  • Honored - having a feeling that not only their job, but the task at hand, is of special merit
  • Appreciation - having the belief that serving a Seabourn guest is a privilege and that without those guests they would not have their job.
And what are the skills that are taught to create that ideal Seabourn staff member?  It is to be:

  • Highly Intuitive
  • Deep Into Listening
  • Anticipatory
  • Detail Orientated
  • Engaging
  • Caring
  • Consistent
I put it this way:  Do you want a waiter that says, 
  • "Good Afternoon, Mr. Goldring!  How was your day in Istanbul?  Did you do anything exciting?  Please have a seat.  Would you like your vodka and soda with a lime?" or,
  • "Hello.  Would you like a drink?"
There is nothing wrong with the latter, but that staff member is merely a delivery service while the former is creating a series of small, but wonderful, experiences...especially because it matters to the staff member!  And when an exceptional experience occurs it has a name:  A Seabourn Moment.  The name is not a marketing ploy, but a training tool.  It takes an esoteric thing and makes it real and identifiable not only for the staff member, but for the Seabourn guest.

Now, think back to your cruise on Regent Seven Seas and ask yourself if you needed to dine with a specific waiter in order to obtain that sort of service (or anything like it) or on Silversea if you need to visit a particular waiter in a particular lounge.  Maybe said less eloquently, I have always believed that great food served by a lousy waiter is terrible, but marginal food served by an outstanding waiter is still a wonderful experience.

And for those of you who love it when a Seabourn staff member remembers your name now you know it is not merely an exercise.  They really want to remember your name because to them you really are that important!  (By the way, Edie Rodriguez has met me at least four times and she has never remembered me, no less my name, while literally ever other cruise line head knows me and greets me.  I remember Edie bragging and, to be sure, her love of her Birkin bag!  Recognition does matter.)


As a final observation, last year at Cruise Shipping Miami after hearing the head of Vships (a company that manages crew for a number of cruise lines) claim that Filipino crew were great and Chinese were better - not for having any of those qualities - but because they never leave their job (low turnover), I wrote an article, "Aspiration in Luxury Cruising - Is Losing Staff a Good Thing?" on this very point.  This year that same person from VShips was in the audience and attempted to pose the same assertion.  I don't need to ponder too long why.  Meanwhile Viking Recruitment, the company that Seabourn and some others work with to recruit crew into the yacht and cruise industry saw me on the convention floor, said hello, and invited me back to their booth to show me the extensive training facilities they are building in England.  (Who knows, maybe I will be a guest lecturer!)  

So whether you want an "all inclusive", "highly inclusive" or "inclusive" experience or you want to see a particular port; they do not - in my opinion - define luxury.  They define a manner of delivering a product or thing.  Elevating the price or including tours or things that are of lower quality or will never be used do not make the experience richer...just of an ultimate lower overall quality.

What truly defines luxury is high quality service, amenities and cuisine provided to you by people that actually care about you.

What do you think?  Post your thoughts on The Gold Standard Luxury Travel Forum, send me an email at eric@goldringtravel.com or, better:  Give me a call at (877) 2GO-LUXURY to figure out which cruise line and itinerary best fits your desires.