I just returned from yet another incredibly important and valuable Seatrade Cruise Global Conference. It is truly where the cruise industry (not travel agents) convenes and discusses trends, forecasts, weaknesses, and strengths. It is also probably the most intensive and productive place for networking, exploring destinations, technology, equipment, food and beverage, and just about anything else cruise-related you can think of.
For me, the opening question from just about everyone from just about every segment of the industry that is aware of the dispute and litigation between me and Seabourn was, in some form, “Now that Josh Leibowitz is no longer Seabourn’s president are you back with Seabourn?“ Similarly, the first question my clients seem to ask me is pretty much the same thing.
So, before I write about the rest of the industry – and there are a lot of interesting things that went on – let me explain where things are and how the industry folks I have spoken to perceive things. I really want to get this out of the way, as there is so much more to my life, Goldring Travel, and the cruise industry!
Leibowitz is Gone and Goldring Is Still Here
There is not a single person I have spoken to that had anything positive to say about Josh Leibowitz. Comments ranged from his not being respected or liked, to his being the person that lead Seabourn down a terrible path, to – frankly – that he doesn’t matter and never did; especially outside of Seabourn. Nobody cared where he went or what his future holds. Honestly, I cannot think of another time in my over two decades in the business where there has been such negativity or ambivalence towards a cruise line president.
The perceptions have been uniform that the conflict was a vendetta or personal issue that Leibowitz has (had?) with me and that since he is gone Seabourn would be crazy not to have me back; especially considering not only how much business I brought to Seabourn, but how much of an advocate I was.
Seabourn’s New President, Natalya Leahy, Is Very Nice, But…
The good news is that Seabourn’s new president, Natalya Leahy, is uniformly liked as a person. That is, to my mind, a huge first step in righting a floundering ship. The issue is that Natalya has, for the past seven years, been the financial person (Chief Financial Officer) behind the scenes for both Holland America and Seabourn. That has virtually, if not literally, nothing to do with what a luxury line is supposed to deliver to its guests or how to deliver it.
Because of the litigation and the demands of Seabourn’s attorneys, I was not able to even say, “Hello” to her. However, I did attend the Luxury Cruising CEO Panel session. Natalya was on the panel with Michael Ungerer (Explora Journeys), Navin Sawhney (Ponant), and, Barbara Muckermann (Silversea). It became clear that Natalya doesn’t have the experience or knowledge base to discuss service levels, booking trends, sustainability issues, etc.
That is not to say that she cannot learn things. Natalya clearly is very smart, enthusiastic, and charming; all of which are necessary traits. The questions are essentially,
Where Does Seabourn Stand in the Luxury Cruise Market? – Perceptions and Reality
There is no question that the dispute between Seabourn and me is seen as Seabourn being petty, foolish, and undercutting Seabourn’s credibility. While I would normally discount such comments a bit since it is possible I am told these things to curry favor, however, once that hump is gotten over, the other issues with Seabourn come to the fore.
With the incredibly broadly publicized negotiations with the Saudis for the sale of the entire line, the future of Seabourn has been called into question throughout the industry. With the sale of the Seabourn Odyssey (rumored to be for between $150-$215 Million), the future has been even further muddied.
Carnival Corp. reinforced its position that it is not investing in new ships or major refurbishments until 2027 at the earliest. That means more than the Seabourn brand won’t expand, but rather that – best case scenario – it will stagnate.
Add to that the cutbacks that, I am told, include Seabourn wanting to use only Holland America level tours (That is an idea and an ordeal I fought against when Seabourn moved to Seattle and for years after), and the stature of Seabourn has just been degraded even with the tour operators it utilizes.
Obviously, I cannot use names, but a few thoughts were discussed:
NOTE: I did – finally – have an opportunity to briefly speak with Cruise Saudi about my being informed that the sale had been completed. I don’t think I have ever had my hand squeezed so hard while being told -with a smile- that they cannot say anything other than the deal didn’t happen and they cannot say more. But they did say that with the new ships (Aman, etc.) they are going in a different direction. From the warm welcome, it seems to me that Saudi Tourism got ahead of itself and thought an almost-done deal was a done deal.
Another issue discussed is that there are virtually no executives left at Seabourn who really know what the Seabourn product was and is expected to be. (I did note that there are a number of excellent culinary folks and some in hotel that remain, but alas they clearly have constraints and edicts they must work within.)
Discussed during Seatrade was the continued issue with the lack of staffing due to crew and staff leaving the industry during Covid. Seabourn, however, has a different issue. As you look at crew and staff on other cruise lines, from Scenic to Windstar, from Silversea to Explora and beyond, it is pretty clear that the staff and crew that left Seabourn did not leave the industry, they just left Seabourn! (Yes, I do still have friends working on the Seabourn ships, but they are in the minority and appear to be working shorter contracts.) In fact, I have written about this before basically noting that the corporate attitude at Seabourn, combined with the lack of luxury knowledge has resulted in more mechanical operational standards being mandated than being guided based on creativity and human interactions.
Add to that Seabourn’s loud and clear message that stagnation and lack of innovation (no less expansion) is the new Seabourn, those who are truly motivated to grow and be their personal best are looking elsewhere in large numbers…and this trend may increase.
Speaking of degraded, I have observed many photographs posted online that are sailing on Seabourn. I clearly see less being offered on deck, with the previously lavish culinary and spirit displays being replaced with that are more plates and glasses than substance. But more disheartening than that is the use of truly worn out and frayed bathmats or the use of towels in their stead. (Supply chain is one thing, but delivering tattered items to a suite is a whole other – shocking level.)
How Relevant is Seabourn?
With all of the issues at Seabourn, the number of previously loyal guests becoming disgruntled with no sign of their concerns being assuaged in the near term, the rise of Silversea as a new luxury behemoth, Explora Journeys as the new luxury brand, and the expansions at Windstar, Scenic, Ponant, etc., the issue becomes, “How relevant is Seabourn?”.
More than one person said they think Seabourn has gone from clearly the top of the luxury market to near irrelevance. That truly shocked me. But it also has me thinking. Alas, that is for another article.
Seabourn’s Downturn is Painful, But…
I guess it is somewhat ironic, but nobody seems happy with what is happening at Seabourn. There are folks that were at Seabourn in its heyday and consider it, like me, to be part of their soul. There are others – in fact, most others – that want and need competition, as it livens the markets, causes innovations, and just plain makes things interesting for both the industry and consumers.
But with all of the negatives, there is still a new change in Seabourn’s presidency. It is not known what Natalya will want to do, will be able to do, or even if she has a focus on luxury rather than short-term dollars or the sale of all, or part, of Seabourn.
My hope is that Seabourn will turn around and that all of this negativity will become something of the past by next year’s Seatrade Cruise Global. I am not betting the farm on it, but I am hopeful that positive changes will be coming.