Black Tie Affair

By Mike Beirne

Ultra luxury cruising should be like vacationing in a private club, where the wait staff knows your name, strains the pulp from your morning orange juice and serves that nightcap martini shaken, thank you, not stirred.

While money is no object for yachts of Seabourn’s core base of millionaire vacationers a one-week Mediterranean cruise, for example, can run up to 415,000 per person, the Carnival cruise line’s clientele is attuned, perhaps more so than any other, to calculating value. Yes, they want the extras, just not at the rack rate. Therefore, these customers are apt to appreciate the brand’s soft touches in a category were cruisers complain about getting nickel and dimed to death for onboard amenities.

When passengers return to the Seabourn Pride from a complimentary shore excursion, they can rejuvenate at on-deck masseuse stations for a Random Massage Moment, a free 15-minute rub down. Or they can relax with another comped amenity, Pure Pampering, by choosing one of six aromatherapy bath selections from U.K. toiletries designer Molton Brown. Then, a stewardess comes to their suite, draws the water and tosses in a few rose petals. After dinner, guests can stroll on deck toward Movies Under the Stars and watch a Hollywood film with free popcorn and drinks (top shelf liquor, of course) thrown in. Wine and spirits are free throughout the ship during the entire journey. Tipping is discouraged.

The cruise industry carried a record 7.4 million passengers in 2002, according to the Cruise Lines International Association. Just about all boats rose with the tide, as consumers flocked to a broader menu of embarkation points just a drive or short flight away. But while mass market brands rebounded by adding ships or resorting to discounted tickets, Yachts of Seabourn reaped the rewards from a different voyage it began in 2000 when it repositioned its brand and returned to its roots as a luxury cruiser.

The parent company does not break out performance results by brand, but Yachts of Seabourn’s bookings during the last “wave” period (the November through January time frame when the industry is aggressively courting advance business for the coming year) jumped 307% in 2001-02 above the 2000-01 period, when the company had six ships.

“While our costs of operating the ships are much higher than they were before, the profitability of the ships have greatly improved,” said Howard Frank, Carnival vice chairman/COO.

Customers and travel agents have noted the results. “They added a lot of new services that have been very well received,” said Barbara Valeriay, master cruise consultant with Reid Travel, Boca Raton, Fla. “We absolutely have had no negative comments from our clients about their Seabourn cruises, and they have the best service in the industry.”

Seabourn, as it was simply called before the rebranding effort began two years ago, always boasted a sense of service and style for the wealthy traveler. But its fleet of six ships delivered far different onboard experiences, confusing consumer perceptions of the brand. Pride, Spirit and Legend were the classic vessels, accommodating 200 passengers with a virtual one-to-one crew-to-passenger ratio. The level of personal attention was different aboard both the casual milieu of Goddess I and II (both 100-passenger ships) and the Sun, which carries 700 guests.

“When you have three [different products] under one brand, it is hard to communicate who you are,” said Richard Meadows, svp-worldwide sales and marketing for Yachts of Seabourn. “That confusion extended to the delivery of the brand itself.”

At the time, Seabourn was integrated with sister brand Cunard, whose reputation was also fading from a lack of focus. When competitors Crystal, Radisson Seven Seas and Silversea challenged by the adding feature-rich ships sporting balconies (accommodations that were missing from the two Carnival brands), Seabourn and Cunard responded with discounts. Bookings declined and guest feedback told marketers that Seabourn was not up to par.

Carnival, the No. 1 cruising company _ which operated its namesake Carnival ship, Holland America, Costa and Windstar, and is on the verge of merging with P&O Princess Cruise _ reorganized its corporate structure during 2001, allotting Seabourn its own team of dedicated sales and marketing personnel. Meadows took the helm, committed to emphasizing the brand’s yacht-like intimacy.

While other cruise lines added ships, Seabourn scaled its fleet back to those three classic vessels and updated it brand name /logo to the Yachts of Seabourn. The name was chosen to connote small and intimate at a time when cruise lines were launching floating cities. Marketers then dispensed with Seabourn’s “On top of the world at Sea level” ad campaign in exchange for “Intimate ships, Uncompromising luxury,” a print effort from Tinsley Advertising, Miami, which also handled the badge redesign. Previously, ads urged travelers to take in the Alps, the pyramids, the Serengeti and other destinations through three styles of ships. Now, Seabourn pitches one type of sailing that is “as intimate as a gondola without the bad opera.”

The company invested $25 million in refurbishments _ including adding balconies _ and partnered with the likes of chef Charlie Palmer, House of Heidsieck champagne and Molton Brown to create a fancy club atmosphere.

“We distilled the brand to its core essence: the three classic Seabourn ships with extraordinary high crew-to-guest ratio and a complete focus on service and the soft touches of the ship itself,” said Meadows. “Getting back to those roots and communicating the brand’s unique selling proposition helped reestablish us back to a place where we can be successful.”

Seabourn reinvented such routine offerings as room service by delivering meals in courses like a find restaurant. Caviar in the Surf caters to passengers with the crew manning floating caviar and lobster tail stations during private beach parties.

A New co-branding effort with acclaimed chef Charlie Palmer _ purveyor of the five-star Aureole, Metrazur and Alva restaurants in New York _ brought ship menus to a more contemporary and stylized level. Arriving guests always had been greeted in their suite with a complimentary bottle of Heidsieck, but now the fine bubbly get poured throughout all lounges and bars. This year, a Bose radio/CD with a library of music in all styles will be installed in cabins, which have been refurnished with new wall coverings, fabrics and accents of richly polished wood, granite and leather.

“When you’re defining yourself as a brand that provides the best of the best in ultra luxury travel, you have to surround yourself with people who have the same vision,” said Meadows. “We started to seek out companies that wanted those relationships and it’s turned out to be a smart thing so us.”

Direct mail was augmented last April with the return after a five-year hiatus of Seabourn Club Herald, a lifestyle magazine with a circulation of 60,000 past guests. Tucked between features about Panoz Esperante roadster and the Blue Hole of Belize are Palmer recipes, Seabourn news about itineraries and onboard amenities and Seabourn guests posing in front of the ruins of Pompeii and the Sawyer glacier.

A “tremendous amount” of past guests returned after learning that significant investment was poured into the brand, said Meadows.

“Brands excel when you clearly know who you’re trying to attract, and you have a product that matches the audience succinctly.”