Thursday, July 31, 2014

Goldring Travel Visits Seattle To Find Out What's New at Seabourn Cruise Line: A New Ship, Improved Enrichment Programs, New Itineraries, Partnership with UNESCO and More!



What is happening at Seabourn?

What is changing?
What can you look forward to?

Seabourn has been pretty quiet of late compared to some of the other luxury cruise lines, but there not only has been a lot going on, there is a buzz of constant refinement of its product.

You are never going to hear Seabourn make headline grabbing, but very silly, announcements ala Regent Seven Seas Cruises that it has "the most luxurious cruise ship ever built" or it "will establish a benchmark for style and service"...or that it will have the highest guest to space ratio (which simply is not true; no matter how Regent wants to make that calculation!)  I do have to ask a question"If Regent's new ship is where it will establish its benchmark for service and style, what does that have to say about its current product quality?"  I think it says volumes; but I digress!

Seabourn doesn't market hyperbole.  It's just not its style either in its offices or on its ships.  The reasons are known as "class" and "understated elegance".  Seabourn lets its product speak for itself.

In this article you will read about Seabourn's:
  • New ship
  • Greatly Improved Enrichment Program (Conversations)
  • New Itineraries
  • Partnership with UNESCO
  • New e-News"paper" Service
  • Menu Changes
  • Wines
  • A few other tidbits here and there.

I asked Seabourn’s President, Rick Meadows, and Senior Vice President, John Delaney, if I could spend a day with them and find out what's happening and what to expect.  Rick and John  agreed and were the most gracious of hosts.  What fascinated me the most was that, aside from the new ship (to be delivered in 2016), there was no real focus on making big changes, but rather on what sort of refinements are being considered.  OK, the new ship is a big change, but the cruise industry doesn't wait two years for things to happen.  

Menus, Cuisine and Wines

I arrived in Seattle in time for a dinner with John Delaney and the head of Seabourn’s charter and incentives program.  Seabourn arranged for me to meet them at Matt's In The Market, a Seattle institution, where  you have to make reservations a month in advance.  It is located at the Pike Street Market and specializes in fantastic seafood.  This was a purely social evening as the next day a number of Seabourn executives would be converging on the Seabourn Conference Room  as I went through my list of concerns, observations, and questions.


What I wasn’t prepared for was waking in the morning to receive an email at 7:00 AM that Seabourn had just the day before signed the firm contract for its new 604 guest Odyssey-class (plus one deck) ship.  Why wasn’t I told during dinner just hours earlier?   The reason, it seems, is that on the corporate level Seabourn is sort of the antithesis of what the guest experience is on its ships:  Seabourn keeps everything…and I mean everything…very close to the vest.

You need a security card to get into Seabourn’s offices and, even then, leaving items in the Board Room results in the door being locked.  (Seabourn obviously shares some space with Holland America and even getting into the Employee lunchroom requires a security card.)  Now this might seem like the “control freak” approach is necessarily a bad thing, and as I don’t run the company I can’t comment on if it the right way to do business, but it does provide an air of Seabourn being a bit fanatical about quality control…and that is a good thing.

A good bit of time was spent discussing cuisine, menus and complimentary wines…something near and dear to most of your hearts.  The focus: 

1.       How to better promote that Seabourn’s menu offerings – which have been and are expanding - while some guests perceive they are more limited;
2.       How the dishes are more complex with layers of flavors and more sophisticated spices than ever before;
3.       How Seabourn is spending more money on higher quality beef, chicken and prawns than ever before; and,
4.       How Seabourn has 26 wines included in its complimentary pour wine list, etc.  (Did you know that Rick Meadows is actually sort of foodie and it is really important to him that Seabourn meets his, personal, expectations.)

I suggested comparing some similar dishes from five or fifteen years ago with today (photographically and by recipe). I don't know if this will happen, but I am confident that many of the "It was better 'back in the day'" comments would disappear.

Here's something I didn't know…and I bet you didn't either:  Seabourn has a Test Kitchen!  Yes, Seabourn does try its proposed new dishes at its headquarters (sharing the facility with Holland America, of course.)  I was fortunate to not only see the Test Kitchen, but to have lunch with Rick Meadows, It was a very nice lunch with Rick Meadows, John Delaney, Chris Prelog, and Stijn Creupelandt

John Delaney, Rick Meadows, Chris Prelog, Eric Goldring and Stijn Crepelandt
enjoying lunch in Seabourn's Test Kitchen
Salmon, Prawns and Clams with Saffron Risotto
prepared by Bjoern Wassmuth, my dear friend and recently departed head of Seabourn's Culinary Operations 


And I don't mind saying lunch was superb!

You Love Your Stewardess...and Other Tidbits

I am also pleased to debunk the persistent rumor (and, folks, it is a rumor) that the Stewardesses on the Seabourn ships are going to be changed out to Filipino staff.  Seabourn is committed to providing the same, personal, experience with European, South African and South American stewardesses for the foreseeable future.  This is a Seabourn signature and so it shall remain.

There were many other things (little and not so little) that we discussed from
  • Customer Service 
  • Port Operations 
  • Tour Quality and Research
  • Visa Handling
  • Communications with travel agents
  • Pricing, etc. 
And while Seabourn may be very tight-lipped about what it is doing and what it has planned, one thing is for certain:  Seabourn listens!  The amount of notes taken and subsequent follow-ups make it clear that Seabourn is committed to improving every aspect of your cruise experience.

Now that I have your attention, let's move on to the "big stuff"!

Seabourn's New Ship - Some Incredible Experiences Are Coming

Just as I had figured, Seabourn – while being extremely guarded about specifics – confirmed to me that the ship will essentially be an iteration of the Seabourn Odyssey class ships, but with an additional deck, so Deck 8 will be accommodations and Deck 9 will have the Colonnade and Pool. Deck 4 (which previously housed the Oceanview Suites – which will not exist on the new ship) will be used for more public spaces.  One point Rick and John emphasized is that while the passenger count will increase from 450 to 604, the staff will essentially increase by the same proportion and the public spaces - which are rarely, if ever, crowded - are also expanding.

Seabourn has brought in Adam D. Tihany, an icon in the hospitality design industry to rethink the entire vessel from the dining venues to the spa, lounges, casino, outdoor spaces and even the very popular and successful Seabourn Square.  Tihany has created remarkable spaces for some of the top restaurateurs (including the likes of Thomas Keller, Daniel Boulud, Jean Georges Vongerichten, Charlie Palmer, Heston Blumenthal, Paul Bocuse and Wolfgang Puck) and hoteliers (such as South Africa's One & Only Cape Town resort, Mandarin Oriental Las Vegas, King David Hotel in Jerusalem, The Oberoi Hotel in New Delhi, The Beverly Hills Hotel, The Breakers in Palm Beach and Hotel Cipriani in Venice).

Mr. Tihany said, "What I strive to do is to find an aesthetic that expresses the personality of the brand...Thus, my goal is to design a beautiful, and very uniquely Seabourn ship, one that will reflect Seabourn's aura of casual elegance and thoughtful attention to detail, that will make their guests feel welcome and invite them to experience Seabourn's special brand of ultra-luxury."

Here is a wonderful interview of Tihany from CBS News' Charlie Rose...at about 3:30 of the interview there is a little sneak peak of the new Seabourn ship!:



Having been fortunate enough to experience some of Tihany's projects first hand, I can comfortably say that Regent can market its hype all it wants, but Seabourn, quietly, is assuring its clients they will have the ultimate luxury "experience".

The philosophy of Tihany's charge from Seabourn is to not only create new and improved spaces, but to do so in a way that the "older" (they are still "new") Seabourn Odyssey, Seabourn Sojourn and Seabourn Quest can be retrofitted in a way that provides an overall improvement in the Seabourn product and a consistency between all of the ships.

Some guesses:
  • There will be a new, additional, alternative restaurant
  • The Club will be significantly redesigned
  • The Observation Lounge will be tweaked with a skylight brightening the space
  • Restaurant 2 will not only be redesigned but reinvented
  • Patio Grill and Sky Bar (the place to be on the smaller ships) will be tweaked
  • The suites will be tweaked, but without major changes
One thing that needs a change and which Seabourn is already working on is the lounge furniture.  While it is quite comfortable, the ocean air has taken its toll on the finishes.  New furnishings are already being installed throughout the fleet, but it will be interesting to see if something new will be used on the forthcoming ship.

As things progress Seabourn will slowly provide more details.

Enrichment Enhancements - It's Not Just About The Ship

Seabourn has made huge improvements in the one area I felt was previously its weakest:  Enrichment.  It has done this two ways:  Seabourn Conversations Series and partnership with UNESCO...as well as some special culinary and other focus cruises.

The Seabourn Conversations program is bringing literally dozens of world renowned speakers on topics ranging from world affairs to marine biology, historians to culinary geniuses and more onto a wide range of Seabourn itineraries.  Please click:  Seabourn Conversations to see a list of sailings by subject matter interest and dates.  (This is a dynamic page, so it is updated regularly.)


Seabourn Captain Hamish Elliott
holding Jon Landau's Oscar for Titanic
Just recently Jon Landau, producer of Titanic and Avatar brought one of his Oscars onboard for the guests to hold while he chatted with them and Apple's co-founder, Steve Wozniak, providing some very insightful and enjoyable discussion.

The UNESCO Partnership, according to John Delaney, Seabourn's Senior Vice President, has been a two year project and as it continues to roll out it will become more robust and more offerings will be provided.  This is one improvement I am particularly happy to see, as I am always looking for ways to make my time on shore "experiential" rather than just looking at things and ticking them off.  UNESCO stands for the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.  Many people believe when they hear something is a UNESCO World Heritage Site it must be historical, but alas that is not the case.  It can be of special cultural, physical or scientific importance and includes things as massive as Africa's Serengeti Plains or Australia's Great Barrier Reef to as small as a cathedral in Central America.

Believe it or not Seabourn visits 170 ports with UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Seabourn's program has two types of tours that involve UNESCO:  Seabourn World Heritage Tours and Seabourn Discovery Tours.  Each of these tours has a small donation to UNESCO added to the tour with the former being focused on tours of UNESCO World Heritage Sites, while the latter is focused on an enhanced experience through Seabourn's alliance with UNESCO.

Seabourn's New e-News-"papers"

Seabourn has also announced it has installed PressReader Offline on all of its ships.  It has been testing a version of this for a while.  Essentially you download an app to your iPhone, iPad, Mac or Android device (Seabourn will have a limited number of tablets for those guests who don't have one) and then you will have complimentary access to over 2,500 newspapers and magazines.  And, the best part is, you do not need an internet connection to accomplish this as you can simply log into the Seabourn wireless network.

So if you want to stay connected via  your hometown paper you will be able to do it.

Seabourn's Late 2015-Early 2016 Itineraries

Seabourn is going to be spending less time in the Caribbean and more time with exotic destinations ranging from Southeast Asia to Australia to South America and the Antarctic in January and February 2016, coupled with two trans-Pacific Ocean cruises to/from Los Angeles, California.

Winter 2015 includes cruises in Asia and Arabia, the Antarctic and the Caribbean, but in March 2016 Seabourn is headed to China and Japan as well as the Pacific Islands with an eventual transition to India and Arabia before returning to the Mediterranean in the late Spring of 2016.

With only three ships and extended itineraries, the the demand is going to be extremely high, so don't wait to book one of these improved itineraries.

Conclusion

While I still receive comments about how Holland America will ruin Seabourn, the fact is that while the approach today may be much more corporate and almost secretive, the goal remains to keep Seabourn at the top of the luxury cruise market; not by resting on its laurels, but by improving the product and the onboard experience...quietly and with class.

If you are considering a Seabourn cruise, why not give me a call at (877) 2GO-LUXURY, in Australia on (07) 3102 4685, in the UK on 020 8133 3450 or elsewhere + 1 732-578-8585 or drop me an email at eric@goldringtravel.com.

You do want to make sure your travel agent is an expert AND provides you with excellent service and prices, right?

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Goldring Travel Cruising the Peruvian Amazon With G Adventures - Part IV (What Group Travel Should Really Be About!)

During the first three parts of this series I have explained some of the ups and downs of going on this G Adventures small group tour in a remote area where you are essentially 100% dependent on your tour company, your guides and your fellow travelers (and tourists).  But even with imperfections some truly remarkable and otherwise impossible experiences are possible.

Of course, where as here, G Adventures simply did not deliver a good portion of what was promised in the itinerary and delivered other portions out of context and time, there is no way around the frustration of the missed opportunities...especially when in an area that most will only visit once in a lifetime.  (I must note, however, that G Adventures is extremely concerned over the failures on this tour and have been extraordinary in communicating with me and working on making things as right as possible. Things happen and G Adventures is an excellent company with a mindset and philosophy that I wish more companies had.  Sometimes out of something not so good, very good things happen.  I will keep you posted.)

That said, there are a few techniques that I use to  assure I am not blinded by the "admiration of  problems", but have the vision to see through the issues and not miss out on all that is still actually there.  I have embraced this after listening to some of my clients that, unfortunately, become so emotionally wrapped up in the problems that are degrading their vacation by 10% that it becomes more like a 75% problem.  (This is probably one of the toughest things for some to accomplish, but it is well worth the effort.)

The first one is to keep things in perspective.   Put into play here:  I AM IN THE AMAZON!  HOW COOL IS THAT!

So while I am sitting in the lounge/dining room organizing and editing my photographs to the din of yet another round of cards, beer drinking and inane conversation, while the recently sunk skiff is still being repaired, I look out the window and see gray Amazon river dolphins feeding and playing.  I take my camera outside and take this photo:

Gray Amazon River Dolphin showing off
Clearly my focus changed from "Ugh" to "OMG!"

The second thing I do is make sure that their loss is not my problem.  On this trip I was truly shocked that some of my fellow passengers were technically well-traveled, but actually were tourists that focus on getting good deals to exotic places so they can say they were there.  I didn't hear one of them tell a story about when they were someplace; only that they were there.  Ironically, the first thing that jumped into my mind was the long, and usually humorously, debated, "Is cruising really travel?"  which I now must expand and restate!

If I didn't love to tell stories interrelated with my travel I would not be able to write this blog and, importantly, I wouldn't be able to see my kids' eyes roll and then say, "Dad, not another story...PLEASE!)

Local Amazon fisherman cleaning fish caught
in one of his gill nets on a creek. 
Creek banks literally lined from one end to the other with gill nets, and then the occasional gill net strung across the creeks.  Those nets trap anything that is big enough to have its gills caught up in the netting.  That got me thinking about the ecology and pressure on various types of fish; if any of the fish were merely discarded as "junk"; if these fisherman were truly fishing for the "locals" or if there is a "mother ship" they are actually working for; how much of the fish is eaten fresh or is salt cured; what effect this sort of fishing has on bird and other wildlife, etc. While the guide didn't give me the answers...or even raise the questions...my "travels" have got me thinking and researching this topic of interest to me.

School children we were supposed to be visiting with...waiting to be recognized
while some in my group waited...to pose with a baby sloth.
It was interesting walking through was clearly was a "show" school with concrete sidewalks (in the Amazon...really?!) and pristine-ish classrooms.  While there was a "pitch" for us to provide pens, notebooks, etc. I didn't notice any.  In fact, I didn't see a single book anywhere.  It got me thinking about not how long children in the Amazon go to school, but what do they actually do in school and what do that do afterwards as there is literally no sign of industry (save rudimentary fishing, rice crops and the horrific slash and burn charcoal production).

So just as I looked behind what was simply in front of me, while some of my group chatted on the skiff about whatever (which became nothing more than a drone not dissimilar to that of the engines) I looked up (as did some others in our group) and saw macaws:


and, honestly, the beauty of the colors flying overhead will remain an inspirational memory of mine far longer than than those later while sitting underneath some other macaws...and that was pretty special.


A third thing I do is find "alone time"...time to just go "WOW":

Just another awesome Amazon sunrise
Just another awesome Amazon sunset

Looking to Starboard Cruising Down the Amazon River

Looking to Port Just After Looking to Starboard - Amazingly Beautiful
A fourth thing I do is keep things in perspective.  (OK, that is the first thing I do as well!)  I was on a $2,500 per person G Adventures tour which, for that price, had to deliver two upscale hotel nights, transfers, two flights, a six night cruise, a naturalist and meals.  If I expected the best ship, the best naturalist, the best food, etc., I best have my head examined.  (When I started out in the travel business a now good friend of mine said, "If you sell someone a cruise for $399 they will unrealistically expect a white gloved assistant to meet them and take their luggage as well as the captain greeting them at the top of the gangway holding a glass of champagne for them...and it will never happen...")

There are alternatives at varying price points that provide you with very similar itineraries.  For example, Aqua has a true luxury cruise with high tech skiffs, gourmet cuisine and a gorgeous ship. Prices start at $6,650 per person (more than 2.5 times the cost of the G Adventures trip).

Aqua Amazon River Cruise Ship
In between the two is International Expeditions, with prices starting at $4,398 per person.

International Expeditions' La Estrella Amazonica River Cruise Ship
You can compare the Aqua Itinerary with the G Adventures Itinerary and International Expeditions Itinerary and determine if the improved or significantly improved amenities are worth the price difference.  For some they will definitely be...and, in fact, may be the only real option.  For others, not so much.

But remember, I have been to the Amazon on both a river cruise and a land tour.  For me a land tour gives you far more opportunities and allows you to have an experience that is greater in depth..but some of it is quite rustic.  International Expeditions offers a 14 day land itinerary that does a good job of balancing the "get out there" with a respite of modern amenities.  That also helped with my keeping perspective as rarely does a cruise provide the same amount of time (or quiet) to explore.

While it is my job to really analyze any trip I am on and ask if it delivers for me and if it will for my clients, I do not lose sight of the fact that being in the Amazon is - with all of the compromises that need to be made - so well worth it.  This was my second trip there and I know that there will be a third one.  It will be longer (as a week just isn't enough for me).







Comments?  Please post them on The Gold Standard Luxury Travel Forum.

If you are interested in visiting the Amazon, please give me a call at (877) 2GO-LUXURY or +1 732-578-8585 or email me at eric@goldringtravel.com.


Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Goldring Travel Cruising the Peruvian Amazon With G Adventures - Part III

A knock on the door at 5:00 a.m. and it was finally time to get up and get exploring the Amazon River!  As I lift my coffee for a first sip I not only notice an absolutely beautiful sunrise starting to unfold, but some large splashes in the water:  River Dolphins!


And that is how our first exploration went.  After boarding our skiff we watched the sun rise and the jungle come alive:   Monkeys (Squirrel and Dusky Titi),

Dusky Titi Monkey
Squirrel Monkey
two-toed sloths (even one moving!),

Two-Toes Sloth
herons, hawks, cormorants, kingfishers, storks, terns and more. 







Having been to the Amazon once before I know what an “A” day is and we were having one!



We were back on the ship for breakfast at 8:00 a.m., which consisted of tamales, scrambled eggs, thick bacon and fruit.  A waiter comes around offering fresh juice (noting that a wide variety of fruit juices are offered in rotation throughout all meals).  Towards the end of each meal there is a very short briefing of what to expect, so the morning activities are explained the evening before, the afternoon’s/evenings are discussed at lunch.

After a short rest it was time to reorganize and head back out on the skiff at 9:30 a.m. for another exploration before heading back to the ship (which moves when we are out exploring) for lunch, followed by a well-needed siesta during the extreme heat of the afternoon in the Amazon.  At 4:30 p.m. we head again with dinner to follow around 7:30 p.m.  There is no real evening entertainment (though the crew does a 30 minute musical performance on three nights).

One afternoon we were at the confluence of two rivers where both pink and gray river dolphins frequent and feed.  My last time to the Amazon was more downriver where the dolphin populations are, apparently, much lower.  Here the challenge was not seeing them, but capturing them in a photo as they quickly rise and then dive.  As frustrating as it was, the lighting was perfect and some decent shots were had (though betters once would come later in the trip!)




This is pretty much how the first three days of our Amazon cruise went.  Of course there were variations, including an evening skiff exploration where we hunted for the red glow of the eyes of caiman, 

The red glow of a baby caiman's eyes at night
What a baby caiman looks like at night with fast ISO and a slow shutter speed
a morning skiff exploration which included al fresco breakfast served on our skiff,


a swim in the Amazon River with dolphins nearby,


a short paddle with a local a traditional canoe


and piranha fishing, as examples.

It would have been a bit more exciting fishing for Piranha
that could actually bite you!
Of course, there was just the beauty of the Amazon which, if you looked, surrounded us.



If my experience continued as it had it would have been far better.  However, this G Adventures cruise is a bit more touristic than I would have liked as it as Day 4 an on unfolded and there was a distinct “We are done with the wildlife, now let’s do tourist stuff” approach.    The signal was a morning "wildlife" walk that was literally right next to a small village where we had stopped for the evening.  (Folks, animals don't hang out where humans live.  I think we all know that.)  But nonetheless there was beauty and interest that was seen...if only fleeting (as this 1.5 hour stroll could have taken 3 or more hours so we could really see and understand the environment if not observe more wildlife).





Unfortunately, these tourist experiences were made worse by some of the Canadian teachers/educators whose conduct was off-putting even to my recent high school graduate son.  With this relatively large contingent more focused on this being a holiday rather than a nature/ethnic experience coupled with them not being terribly respectful of the fact that others with different interests were sharing the same small space, our trip took a definite turn for the worse.

That is not to say that “my” desired experience is more important, but that when you are on a small boat with a single skiff courtesy is truly a needed commodity.  It also made it virtually impossible for the full “educational” experience to be provided both as to wildlife and indigenous people because talking about birds or dolphin behavior or environmental issues would have been poorly received, if not ignored or talked over.  (Yes, it should have been done regardless, and I am frustrated by that…more for my son missing out on these things.  G Adventures should have done much better.)

For example, we had a visit to a local school where we were supposed to – if we wanted – purchase school supplies for the children (but, of course, with visits about once a week they would have years and years’ worth of supplies; so what happens to them?)  This faux “interact with the locals” became a farce when part of our group decided that their “feel good help the children” plans should be sidelined so they could hold a pet baby sloth.  Not good for the sloth and not good for the children.  But, alas, for my fellow passengers it was all about them and not where they were.  Shameful.

A far more touching photo is of a boy with his pet sloth
than one of me posing with it 
This was not dissimilar to when we were to go on a nature hike and we spent almost 30 minutes while they swung on a vine…scaring away all the wildlife.  When challenged the comment from the biggest mouth of them all…an administrator no less…was that it was OK because it was fun.   (My comment that he should do that on a playground, not scaring wildlife was not warmly received.)  I have to wonder how many students have gotten detention or were suspended by this guy for simply screwing around in gym class!  But again, there was beauty...if you looked.


Making matters a bit worse, those “skiffs” we were to have was actually one skiff.  And one night we had a very intense rain storm and two of the scuppers (drains) on the side of the boat poured even more water into the skiff sinking it.  A day was spent hauling the boat and getting the engines to work, if imperfectly.  Thus, our visit to a shaman became a visit on the ship by a shaman and a lunch with a local family was cancelled. These were not huge losses for me, as I would have preferred to have preferred to have had more sort of authentic experiences.  (I was baffled by the comments about how wonderful the skiff driver was repairing the skiff and how some wanted to tip him extra.  I was thinking, "Why didn't he cover the skiff or move it so that it wouldn't have sunk in the first place as this was not his first tropical downpour?!")

Anyway, through the frustrations and disappointments, there were some pretty spectacular experiences...with more to come!  (Macaws, dolphins and more!)