Last week I wrote a brief article about the pretty rapid demise of Josh Leibowitz as president of Seabourn Cruise Line. Leibowitz is Out as President of Seabourn – What the Heck is Going On? What I honestly didn’t expect were the communications – direct and indirect – from Seabourn folks: current and former, employees and guests.
The primary perception – which I obviously think is accurate – is that “Goldring was right all along!” For most, it wasn’t new news, but for the doubters or the confused, it certainly opened some eyes.
The second query was, “Does that mean the end of the litigation?” And to that my response has been that I doubt it. Once litigation gets started with Carnival Corp., there generally is a “take no prisoners” approach, not merely as to me, but overall. As I said to many a client (both as a lawyer and a travel agent) focusing on “being right” is very expensive. However, focusing on obtaining a result can be elusive, but far more productive. I hope the litigation can be resolved, but I am not optimistic that Leibowitz’s departure is going to instantly make that happen.
What has been quite fulfilling is that some of my largest and longest-term clients have been back in touch – even though some of them decided to transfer their bookings to Seabourn directly. As I previously mentioned, their comments and many of the others have an undertone of disappointment and frustration with the Leibowitz-fashioned Seabourn and, for most, a hope that the new president, Natalya Leahy, will turn things around.
A bit of a reality check, as you will read below. As much as it is hoped that Seabourn will once again be the Seabourn of old, if there is a change to the positive, it is going to take time. This is because of a number of factors; some of which are more complicated to address.
Well, the past few days here in Lake Tahoe, California have been a Snowmageden with over seven (7) feet (2.25 meters) of snow, so I had plenty of time sitting inside. I used some of that time to take a break from cooking and sipping red wine to dig a bit deeper into the Seabourn situation. I looked at posts on Facebook and Cruise Critic, other social media posts, reviewed news articles and emails, and recalled various telephone conversations with guests, old Seabourn executives, and industry folks.
I want to preface the following with a simple, accurate, statement: Seabourn may not be the Seabourn of old, and it has its problems (both avoidable and not), but when compared to most cruise lines it remains a luxury cruise line. While I used to unquestionably say Seabourn was the best, I now think of it as a usually viable alternative. That isn’t bad. It is just reality.
I figure the best way to do this is in a “point by point” manner.
- I think I may have been used by the Saudis or, alternatively, I was given bad (overly optimistic) information about the sale of Seabourn. The fact that Seabourn was for sale was plastered all over the travel industry news and I merely reported it. Then, if you recall, I was asked to meet with the Saudi Tourism Authority (I did not request the meeting). Without belaboring things, I have the feeling that I might have been a bit of a pawn while the Saudis were considering buying Seabourn. Alternatively, I think there might have been a bit of “putting the cart before the horse” and the negotiations for its sale fell through, possibly because Carnival Corp. went from a very troubling cashflow position to one where its debt could be better managed. (Carnival still isn’t in great shape, but it certainly is better than it was.)
- Speaking of not great financial shape, this is an issue for much of the cruise industry. While Royal Caribbean (Silversea, Royal Caribbean, and Celebrity cruise lines) is doing well – all things considered – Carnival Corp. is struggling. But Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings (Regent, Oceania, and Norwegian cruise lines) is reported to be in pretty bad shape. (Don’t fall for NCLH claims of trying to be environmentally responsible with its itinerary changes and cutbacks. These are purely financially based decisions designed to help slow the bleeding.)
- Carnival’s efforts to combine the operations of Seabourn, Holland America, and Princess seems to have been – as I protested when it was happening – a failure. It has been publicly reported that things are going back to a Seabourn-Holland operational relationship – without Princess. While some think this is a new thing and that HAL is going to change Seabourn, the fact is that this has been what has been happening for years. (I protested this when Seabourn was moved to Seattle and was falsely assured by Rick Meadows – who was both Seabourn’s president and HAL’s executive vice president – that it wasn’t the case.) I see it as imperfect, but better than Princess folks that seemingly perceived Seabourn has a thorn in their sides running much of the Seabourn show.
- Seabourn has a number of wonderful staff and officers; quite a few of which are my friends. They remain focused on trying to provide the Seabourn experience that all of you have come to expect. However – and it is a big one – many of the Seabourn executives, officers, and staff left Seabourn due to their dissatisfaction with the Carnival corporate approach, being “told” what Seabourn is…knowing, as I often protested, “That is not Seabourn!“, and a disassociated executive branch. As such, there are many new crew and staff that are trying to fill the shoes of those who have left for Explora Journeys, Scenic, Silversea, etc. There might be a staffing shortage, but not nearly the size of what there is…and an already-trained staff can make up for staff shortages far better than those learning on the job.
- Seabourn was always a team effort – heck almost family-like at times – but it apparently is not any longer. Virtually, if not literally, everything is done remotely. So much so, that the building that was the home of Seabourn and Holland America has all but been abandoned, being rented out and, I am told may well be for sale or is soon to be. Microsoft Teams meetings for hours on end are different than in-person interactions…and, as a travel agent, it is frustrating, as everyone seemingly “is in a meeting” so decisions and assistance are delayed. Heck, Leibowitz advised the court in my litigation that he rarely goes to Seattle and is based in Miami. Corporations look at numbers and projections. Luxury products are far more emotional and need interpersonal relationships. (Can you imagine never spending time with your superiors? Never having a team-building dinner? Being one island in a sea of islands? Being told decisions were made without your input that affect you directly?)
- With the loss of so many executives and Seabourn-focused employees, there has been a loss of knowledge as to what to do, what loyal guest expectations are, what prior resolution philosophies were, etc. The result is a disconnect between Seabourn (the product), Seabourn (the employees), and Seabourn (the guests).
- Added to the issues with No. 6, the financial situation isn’t great. That results in not only cutbacks (some of which are decided upon by folks that don’t know “luxury”), but just-in-time logistics because carrying unused inventory is expensive. However, when the talent that could accurately anticipate needs is gone and the ability to accurately project delays outside of Seabourn’s control, etc., bad things happen. This has resulted in complaints of things being out of stock, ranging from notepads and pens, to liquor to lobsters for Caviar on the Beach parties. My concern is that “out of stock” may well become a euphemism for “Seabourn isn’t carrying that anymore” and/or “Seabourn couldn’t purchase it as the price corporate set”, etc.
- The pricing strategy at Seabourn has been a disaster for years. Rather than “right pricing” cruises, prices are jacked up unrealistically, and then, without fail, the ongoing “sale” happens. And then there is the juggling of price and onboard credits (especially using “up to $2,000 when it will be $300-$500 or none at all for the vast majority). This may make stock-related projections look better than reality, but it chases potential bookings away. This has gotten worse, in my opinion.
- One of the most important things, and I will close my list with this, there has been a painful and disturbing increase in the lack of transparency. This ranges from such things as the ordeals with the Maiden Voyage of the Seabourn Venture – improperly tying up guests’ money with gimmick after gimmick, to the stabilizers apparently having fallen off the Seabourn Venture but guests only being told they malfunctioned and “may” have an effect on comfort…knowing it would have such an effect that it would cause the cancelation of some ports (like South Georgia) and that certain landings and zodiac cruises would also be canceled. There are more, but you get the point.
Unfortunately, what I and others see is a loss of confidence with Seabourn; especially with those that have sailed her previously…more so than new to Seabourn folks. Yes, there are a few that feel their most recent Seabourn experiences were wonderful, but from my review that appears to be the minority.
This lack of confidence based upon what has been reported both online and by friends has caused a good number of people to cancel their future Seabourn cruises and/or to book other luxury lines. There are others, however, that are holding on, hoping their loyalty to Seabourn will be rewarded with the next cruise meeting their expectations. (Seemingly gone is the anticipation of Seabourn exceeding expectations.)
So how does Seabourn fix this? I don’t think it is hard.
- Return to Transparency
- Put People over Corporate Edict
- Improve Customer Service
- Treat Staff and Crew as truly valued Members of The Team.
If there is a problem with a sailing, be upfront about it and work to please the guest.
If things are in short supply or no longer carried, just say so.
Avoid onboard frustrations by first training the staff before they get onboard and then modifying service, etc. until the new staff is up to speed.
Recreate the feeling of a “Seabourn Team” or Family; not just on the ships, but in the back office!
And, finally, don’t penalize those who voice their protests…because they actually care about the product, the Seabourn employees, and the Seabourn guests. Leibowitz once said to me that what I was saying was valuable, he just didn’t like the way I said it. Seattle/Miami meet New York. Maybe if more time was spent on what was valuable rather than one’s thin skin or ego, Seabourn wouldn’t be where it is today.
More importantly, the focus need to be on fixing things – the result – rather than insisting on being right…as defined by the guy that just was terminated.