Struggled I did with how to title this article. Seabourn’s parent company, Carnival Corporation has been both its most valued ally and, in fact, savior, while at the same time being its most destructive force.
That said I think it is time for a look back at, and a crystal ball view forward of, Seabourn Cruise Line. It has had a storied past…and there are, alas, many stories as you shall read! Fortunately, I have quite a bit of historical documentation and artifacts from Seabourn’s past as well as two decades of personal experiences that helps untwist and explain how Seabourn, as “the” luxury cruise line almost sailed into the sunset, has had so many iterations courtesy of Carnival Corporation, and how it works to – hopefully – maintain its position as a preeminent luxury cruise line today and into the future.
The Beginning: The Philosophy of a True Luxury Cruise Line
(and a Name Change)
Seabourn originally was called Signet Cruise Line established by two very different, but unique, individuals who were involved with Royal Viking Line: Warren Titus (known as the Icon of Elegance) and Atle Brynestad (a true character and subsequent founder of SeaDream Yacht Club). Signet consisted of one ship, the Signet Pride.
One of my favorite documents is called “The Signet Philosophy” which was drafted by Lawrence Rapp on October 6, 1987. It remains a remarkably insightful and relevant document today as it was visionary back then. I should also note that when I became involved with Seabourn I met and was somewhat in awe of Larry…not that he has a persona or personality that lends itself to same; he was just that good!
So let’s take a look!
Larry prefaces his/Signet’s philosophy by first recognizing that aircraft replaced many of the
trans-Atlantic ocean liners and that the resulting competition for this shrinking cruise market. “In the quest for profit, the philosophy of ‘economy of scale’ won out over the previous standard of ‘excellence in personal service’. This deterioration of service standards could clearly be seen aboard all ships to a greater or lesser degree.” Doesn’t this sound familiar!
Larry went on to explain the “affluent group of cruisers” were being ignored by the cruise industry and that Signet was created by its “insightful owners” to capture that segment of the
market. He noted six (6) main characteristics that would make up Signet:
1. Personalized Service. “In giving service we must also work to treat each passenger as an individual with his/her own unique set of wants and needs…This attitude requires extra effort from everyone onboard. In the end, however, that extra effort pays off not only in passenger approval but in a more satisfying way of working for officers and crew as well.”
2. Professional Excellence. “Our passengers are highly experienced travelers. They have seen the best the world has to offer. We need to surprise these knowledgeable people with our ability to perform.”
3. A Luxurious Ship.
4. Travel Adventure. “Signet itineraries will take us to the most fascinating of the world’s cruise ports…Equally important, officers, staff and crew will need to reinforce this
spirit in their dealings with passengers…Let our passengers sense that you
share their excitement.”
5. Nautical Experience. “A ship is special. We should capitalize on that fact as much as practicable by encouraging passengers to visit the bridge, engine room, galley and other operational spaces. Let us make our passengers feel like the are part of the operation.”
6. Operational Efficiency. “Signet is dedicated to providing our passengers with the best in food, service and amenities…We must buy the best products, but we cannot afford to waste them.”
You may think this is very ordinary today, but when it was written and then implemented it was revolutionary; and there was no Silversea, Regent Seven Seas, SeaDream Yacht
Club, etc. and ocean liner market – and its class system – had been losing its glamour
for most, becoming far more utilitarian.
However, before Signet ever sailed there was a dispute with Signet Oil over the name, and the cruise line name was changed to Seabourn. Other than the name and new marketing materials nothing changed in the ship or the philosophy.
The Seabourn Pride sailed her Inaugural Sailing on December 4, 1988. She was unique because it was all-suite, all oceanview, and only 208 guests. There simply was nothing else like it. In 1989 her sistership, the Seabourn Spirit was launched and the sisters were setting the luxury cruise standard.
Rough Seas for Seabourn
But all was not wonderful on the financial side of things, so the planned third sistership – already under construction – wasn’t purchased by Seabourn, but rather in 1991 it was
transferred as she was being built, to Royal Viking Line (see the connection!?) and was completed in 1992. Originally named Royal Viking Queen, the ship was transferred to Royal Cruise Line in 1995 and renamed Queen Odyssey. (I pause: Do you think the Seabourn Odyssey’s name might be related?).
Seabourn’s financial woes were not limited to purchasing its third ship, but regardless its cache was growing and in 1991 Carnival Corporation purchased a 25% interest in Seabourn, potentially saving the brand…for the first time. With things looking up, in 1996 Carnival
Corporation purchased an additional 25% (bringing it ownership to 50%) resulting in Seabourn now having the necessary financial backing to that year purchase “the lost third sister”: Seabourn Legend.
Seabourn’s First Dark Period:
Corporate Focus on Alleged Efficiencies Rather Than Understanding the Luxury Market Almost Sinks Seabourn
For me, 1998 marks the beginning of the First Dark Period of Seabourn. Carnival Corporation not only began its long-term play to purchase the remaining 50% of Seabourn (which was owned by a Norwegian consortium), but also to purchase Cunard Line. Once completed Carnival Corporation merged Cunard and Seabourn with a focus on the supposed efficiencies of combining back-office operations for two smaller lines, but not appreciating the dramatic differences and needs of a pure luxury product. (Sound a bit like the later and somewhat ill-fated Holland America-Seabourn marriage in 2011?).
Seabourn’s elegance and elite stature was seriously degraded when Carnival Corporation transferred most of the Cunard ships to Seabourn. This new hodge-podge of (a) the Yachts of
Seabourn suited triplets combined with (b) Cunard’s two far more casual 110
passenger stateroomed Sea Goddess I and Sea Goddess II and (c) the much larger 740 passenger far more traditional cruise ship Royal Viking Sun and renamed Seabourn Sun.
This ill-fated effort by Carnival Corporation was only part of the problem. The big change that almost sunk the cruise line. Seabourn’s later president, Rick Meadows, decided that Seabourn – now no longer being marketed solely as a luxury cruise line – should no longer be an all-inclusive product. While that may have made sense for the Sea Goddess twins and the Seabourn Sun, for they were not in the luxury market, it was a terrible and costly decision for the Yachts of Seabourn.
There was a revolt by the historical Seabourn guests who were the beneficiaries of “The Signet
Philosophy”. So with the dissatisfied guests, the total lack of identity due to so many different ships, Seabourn’s future looked bleak.
Seabourn’s Renaissance and Reinstitution of “The Signet Philosophy”.
With the “corporate approach” having failed, in 2001 Carnival cleaned things up! It bought out the Norwegian shareholders (completing its 1998 play), demerged Seabourn and Cunard, sold Sea Goddess I and II to the newly created by Byrestad’s SeaDream Yacht Club and transferred the Seabourn Sun to Holland America, who renamed it Prinsendam. And Seabourn was, well and truly, saved from this historical scrapyard!
Seabourn was now where it was intended to be: A singular luxury cruise line with three sisterships: Seabourn Pride, Seabourn Spirit and Seabourn Legend. And the elegance and luxury of Seabourn were brought back to the fore. (Kind of exhausting, huh?)
Soon after, and leading Seabourn into its most successful period (according to Carnival Corporation!), Deborah Natansohn was named President of Seabourn, after being at Cunard as its Senior Vice President of sales and marketing. Debbie was a straight-talking, no-nonsense but incredibly personable and funny, New York Jew…so we instantly got each other.
Debbie instilled in me, by personally teaching me, so much about what it was that made Seabourn “Seabourn” and how important – no vital – engagement from crew to guests was.
The Seabourn team from executives to captains to staff were infused with the philosophy that everyone was essentially family; no corporate language or approaches. Seabourn’s mantra,
with now three older ships, was “It’s not about the hardware. It’s about the software.” And, of course, Seabourn under Natansohn’s tutelage instilled, “On Seabourn you can’t say ‘No’”. In other words, find a way to meet – no exceed – the guest’s expectations. (Remember Larry Rapp’s philosophy from 1987?)
In short, by providing the ultimate in the luxury cruise experience Seabourn thrived both in reputation and financially. As a result, Carnival Corporation or, actually, Micky Arison
its Chairman and CEO, had a very special relationship with Natansohn and
believed in her vision…and results. So he gave Natansohn a mission: Design the finest luxury cruise ship. In Natansohn fashion, input was obtained from everyone, including me, not only on how much to align the new design with the design of the Seabourn triplets, but how to differentiate it without offending the now-beloved triplets…right down to the china.
I remember visiting Seabourn’s office on Blue Lagoon Drive in Miami, Florida and visiting with everyone with open doors, open arms, and an openness to any suggestion that might make
Seabourn a better product. Heck, sending cookies and brownies to the Reservations Department at the holidays resulted in feigned claims of theft and hoarding or, alternatively, upset over another department not also receiving them. There was a positive energy that was palpable.
And then, in October 2006, just as construction of the 450 guest, all-suite, Seabourn Odyssey was to start, Debbie Natansohn suddenly died of a massive heart attack. It was an emotional gut-punch that nobody thought they, or Seabourn, could survive. But Seabourn survived…and so did her baby, the Seabourn Odyssey, which was when delivered in 2009 a resounding success with even the most loyal Seabourn guests who swore they would never sail on the
larger ship embracing it (and eventually taking over as their favorite class of ship).
In 2006 Pamela Conover, fresh off overseeing the construction and launch of Cunard’s Queen Mary 2, stepped in as Seabourn’s new president. Pam had actually been the president of Cunard during the First Dark Period, so she oversaw Seabourn until the demerger. Pam also oversaw the construction of the Seabourn Odyssey’s sistership, Seabourn Sojourn, which was delivered in 2010, and the Seabourn Quest…almost to delivery. Pam also took the concept of
Seabourn now-famous guest service to levels that were truly amazing and, possibly to a fault, with everyone from travel agents to guests having direct access and forging guest expectations at an all-time high.
Carnival Corporation’s Combining Cruise Line Operations Didn’t Work the First Time,
So Let’s Try it a Different Way?
Despite Pam Conover’s efforts, the combination of the huge financial outlays for the new triplets, the costs of operating the now quite old original triplets, and the pricing pressures brought on by the economic turmoil of 2008-2010, Seabourn (and the luxury cruise market overall) were financially stressed. This caused Carnival Corporation to step in and, once again, seek to blend/merge Seabourn with another one of its brands: Holland America (it recently having jettisoned Windstar Cruises in 2007 with which it had been blended).
This enters what I call the Corporate-Driven Period (or Second Dark Period) of Seabourn. Carnival Corporation moved Seabourn’s headquarters out of the friendly confines of Blue Lagoon in Miami to the more reserved and corporate world of Seattle, Washington. Seabourn’s new president was Rick Meadows, who was not only doing his second tour with Seabourn (see a theme?), but was simultaneously Holland America’s Executive Vice President. Rick had been part of Holland America’s significant expansion. I had concerns because of his prior history with Seabourn, the marked difference in demographics (both generally older clientele, but HAL’s definitely being more modest in expenditures and expectations) and the lack of allegiance to a single brand. (Remember the Cunard/Seabourn failure?)
The Further Loss of the “Signet Philosophy”
Rick’s right hand man was John Delaney, who was Senior Vice Present of Sales and Marketing. John was brought over from Holland America’s Finance Department; another red flag! John invited me to Seattle (I was Seabourn’s Seattle offices first official visitor!) and while I was warmly greeted, the first thing I noticed was that there were locks on every door and hallway; even just to get into the cafeteria. This closed versus open door philosophy was shocking. Making matters worse, the vast majority of the Seabourn Miami executives and staff were let go and replaced with those from Holland America, but with a disquieting pledge of Seabourn would remain distinct.
With the “Signet Philosophy ”, the energy and moxy of Natansohn, the caring of Conover and the open door approach, coupled with much of the Seabourn brain trust gone, I found myself constantly repeating “That is Not Seabourn!!!” I mean, how could new Seabourn know what Seabourn was about? They were virtually all Holland America folks…with a more mass market and very corporate approach.
The one thing that kept Seabourn being, well, “Seabourn”, was its officers, staff and crew. They were of the Signet Philosophy and Open Door Miami Seabourn. So when the Seabourn guests boarded the ships, they received “This is Seabourn!!”.
It also began an onboard philosophy that goes along with dealing with corporate “suits” that seemingly only look at the bottom line: “What goes on the ship, stays on the ship!” as long as the bottom line is met.
In June 2011 the Seabourn Quest was delivered completing the Odyssey, Sojourn, Quest (OSQ) trio.
But what to do with the now truly aging Seabourn Pride, Seabourn Spirit and Seabourn Legend; especially now that the Seabourn guests had truly embraced the newer ships? John Delaney, who by now, was really understanding “This is Seabourn!”, and who had become yet another true friend arising out of my relationship with Seabourn, struggled with the economies of refitting the ships with the conflict of the ships not having all the amenities of the larger ships, and the other luxury cruise lines’s newer ships. (While having French balconies retrofitted into some suites, the triplets really didn’t even have balconies.)
In other words: Didn’t the new ships put Seabourn into a similar untenable position it was when it took over the Cunard Sea Goddess I and II and Seabourn Sun?
A decision was made that it made more sense to have consistent ships and, thus, replace the beloved triplets with two new even larger 600 guest ships, selling off the original triplets.
Seabourn Enters the Expedition Market
In 2011 another decision in the Bigger is Better corporate approach: Seabourn was to enter into the expedition market announcing its Seabourn Ventures program and hiring Robin West away from Silversea Cruises (which had purchased an older expedition ship). Seabourn’s newest ship, the Seabourn Quest would be modified with an ice-hardened hull and have larger high quality zodiacs installed along with the creation of a dedicated expedition staff. While the first Seabourn Venture expedition was in Norway (and I was part of that), Seabourn has since expended the Seabourn Ventures program to including regular expeditions with landings in Antarctica as well as a robust presence in Alaska. Modifications, except to the hulls, were eventually made to the Seabourn Sojourn and Seabourn Odyssey. Seabourn’s first Antarctica expedition was in November 2013 and continues to this day.
Changes to the Seabourn Fleet
In April 2014 the Seabourn Pride, Seabourn Spirit and Seabourn Legend were sold to Windstar Cruises. This transfer would occur over a year with the Seabourn Pride (the
oldest ship and in need of the most work) transferring immediately and the Seabourn
Spirit and Seabourn Legend leaving the fleet in May 2015.
The Seabourn Encore was delivered in March 2016. Its physical design is very similar to the Seabourn Odyssey-class ships, but with a 600 guest capacity is broader in the beam, and has an additional deck. There were subtle improvements to the suites and much larger and
additional public spaces. The sistership to the Seabourn Encore, the Seabourn Ovation, was launched in September 2017.
These changes resulted in Seabourn having the newest, most modern, and most consistent fleet of luxury cruise ships in the world!
The Corporate/Meadows (Mis) Rebranding of Seabourn
During this period there was a growing conflict between Rick Meadows and John Delaney. John by now had embraced both the “Signet Philosophy” and the open door approach, while Rick Meadows further clamped down on the closed and locked door approach.
Meadows did something else: He stopped marketing Seabourn and began rebranding Seabourn with a focus on Three Michelin Star celebrity chef, Thomas Keller, and world-famous interior designer, Adam Tihany. Meadows was so wrapped up in the promotion
of Keller and Tihany that Seabourn’s marketing was all about them, rather than Seabourn.
Heck, one of the Maiden Voyage gifts was a ten-pound book of Adam Tihany’s work
rather than, say, something that was about “Seabourn”. It didn’t matter that hardly
any Seabourn guests or potential guests knew who Keller or Tihany were or that
Seabourn has a large international market that found the “Americanization” to be offensive.
Meadows even doubled down on the concept of promoting pretty much any brand other than Seabourn, that he installed Dr. Andrew Weil wellness program as a third prong.
The Corporate/Meadows Approach Caused Major Defections From Seabourn
This internal conflict ended in July 2016 when John Delaney left just months after the Seabourn Encore was delivered, to become the president of Windstar Cruises. So the now Windstar Pride, Windstar Breeze (there already was a Windstar Spirit) and Windstar Legend were now in the hands of a former Seabourn executive.
But, alas, that was not the only defection from Meadow’s Seabourn. Many, if not most, of the Seabourn executives that had risen through the onboard ranks to become executives in the areas of hotel, culinary, and ship operations also defected to Windstar Cruises and a few other lines…further excising many of the remaining devotees to the “Signet Philosophy”.
Seabourn Expands Its Expedition Commitment
In May 2019 Seabourn announced it was building two true luxury expedition ships, the first 264 guest ship named Seabourn Venture. The ship, which is to be delivered in December 2021 (delayed from July 2021 due to the Covid-19 pandemic), will feature two six-person submarines, 24 zodiacs, a bow lounge that has monitors that mirrors the bridge and many luxury and expedition-enhancing features that are not found on standard expedition ships. The second expedition ship, yet unnamed, is schedule to be delivered in 2022.
The Next Chapter
In May 2020 the Covid-19 pandemic hit Seabourn hard, as it did literally every other cruise line. Not only were the literal last vestiges of “old” Seabourn employees terminated, Meadows was asked to retire and Seabourn’s staff (again like all others) was reduced to a
In June 2020 Josh Leibowitz was named President of Seabourn. Josh joined Carnival Corporation as chief strategy officer becoming Senior Vice President, Cunard North America in December 2016 (not so ironically also taking that position over from Rick Meadows who held that position after being his stint at Holland American ended, but while acting as
President of Seabourn). While it appears Josh and his small team have fortunately slammed shut the closed and locked door approach of the past decade, there is much to be done to bring the luster back to Seabourn.
While economies of scale matter in the luxury market success focuses on three things: Service. Service. Service. Whether Seabourn has expanded too much or is positioned to again be “the” luxury leader depends are more on its culture…and not its corporate culture…than its ships.
While it is hard to say how things will proceed once the Covid-19 Pandemic is over, what remains on the Seabourn ships, and is hopefully embraced in its offices, is the “Signet Philosophy” also known as “This is Seabourn!“.