This Cruise Line Sails 5-Star Luxury Hotels On The High Seas. I Had To Find Out More.

Micah Solomon
Forbes - October 28, 2019

When I heard there was a cruise line that’s sailing, in essence, a fleet of mobile ultra-luxury hotels, I wanted to know more.

The company, Seabourn Cruise Line, is a small, elite division of Carnival Corporation, and the way Seabourn does things is intended to delineate itself in nearly every way from the larger and more populist cruise options out there: 

•  Small ships: Seabourn’s crafts carry 458 to 600 passengers, where the industry norm is several thousand, with some of today’s most massive cruise ships carrying as many as 5,000.

• An unusually high (nearly 1:1) ratio of crew to passengers.

•  Ultra-fine dining options, including an actual Thomas Keller restaurant (The Grill), staffed by crew members who have been trained in the ways of Chef Keller’s organization, which of course includes his flagship French Laundry on the West Coast and Per Se on the East. 

•  Strikingly well-outfitted (and, of course, spacious) staterooms. Even standard staterooms on a Seabourn ship measure 300 square feet, and available accommodations extend to more than 1,000 square feet for some of the premium suites. Beyond size, each room is graced by custom woodwork and other high-end fittings throughout.

•  Understated (but clearly costly) elegance in the construction, outfitting, and maintenance of the vessel: The high-end finishes to be found throughout the ship are reminiscent of the most intimate and luxe land-bound hotels, such as the one-of-a-kind Ritz-Carlton hotel in Kyoto and the stunning EDITION hotel in Barcelona (which was particularly close to mind for me, as it was from there that we set out for our ocean-bound Seabourn adventure).

•  Unique architectural touches intended to spark new traditions for the cruise line’s guests (“guest” is how Seabourn religiously refers to its passengers): notable here is the central, circular stairwell that most passengers take to and from their staterooms, allowing them to incidentally encounter each other en route; it’s a sociable bunch who travel with Seabourn, by and large. (Thank you, central staircase, as well, for helping me beat my daily step-count target, even on days that didn’t include a shore excursion.)

Another architectural element included on each one of the fleet’s ships that’s designed to create a new tradition is Seabourn Square, a commons area for reading newspapers, provided, library-like, on hanging rollers, and the books in the ship’s library; engaging with the concierges and other passengers; and indulging in small bites and irresistible gelato, which the culinary crew learned how to make authentically through training from a top proprietor in Rome that, after some cajoling, agreed to share its creamy secrets.

All of which is quite striking in intent and execution. Yet to be considered an ultra-luxury hotel (whether at sea or onshore) means to engage in and uphold essential customer service principles, at least in my estimation and methodology, which I’ve developed in the course of my practice as a customer service consultant, both outside of and within the hospitality industry itself.  [Clarification: Even though I use the term “5-star” colloquially in this article’s title, the Forbes 5-Star standard for hotels, arguably the most meticulously reviewed and enforced grading system in the hospitality industry, has its own proprietary standards, which are not specifically considered below.]

Let’s see how, from my subjective viewpoint, Seabourn measures up to the standards of the world’s best purveyors of hospitality and customer service.

The power of recognition

The first element that a great customer service experience requires is recognition. Every guest needs to feel that they are seen, welcomed, and, if they’re returning, welcomed back. 

Recognition, as restaurateur and master of hospitality Danny Meyer puts it in an interview I included in my book, The Heart of Hospitality, is ‘‘the number one reason guests cite for wanting to return.”

Here, Seabourn excelled, starting even before passengers had boarded the ship. Each of the employees checking in passengers at the Barcelona port terminal was adept at making returning passengers (of which there were many) feel like old friends coming back to grace the ship with their presence. And for us, completely new to Seabourn, the recognition was palpable as well. The crew was clearly aware that this was our first time with them, and they seemed dedicated to making sure we didn’t feel like outsiders who had failed to uncover the secret handshake shared by Seabourn veterans.

Once aboard, the power of recognition continued to warm us, including Seabourn employees’ impeccable–uncanny, really–use of our names. But recognition went beyond this. It included the crew’s awareness of us as people, individual people and members of a family, in a way that went well beyond the generic.

Anticipatory Customer Service

Beyond recognition, an exceptional customer experience can only be delivered by an organization that knows how to apply a special spice I call anticipatory customer service. Anticipatory customer service is the element that elevates a merely okay customer experience–what I refer to as satisfactory customer service–to a level that builds true customer engagement and, ultimately, customer loyalty. This is the level of customer experience which, if achieved, makes customers excited to come back and willing to spend more money with you on line extensions and upgrades, as well as making them price-insensitive (within reason) and eager to do all they can to act as ambassadors for your brand, spreading the word and singing your praises online and off.

The best definition I can offer for anticipatory customer service comes from the methodology and ethos of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company. It means to serve even the unexpressed needs and wishes of your customers or guests.

Your guests may have failed to express such needs and wishes because...

•  Your customer “doesn’t want to be a bother.”

•  Your customer doesn’t know enough about the situation to know what they should be asking for.

•  Your customer isn’t aware of the range of what you can offer as a service organization, and therefore has no inkling that such a request might be reasonable.

•  Your customer simply doesn’t have the problem-solving, solution-creating ability that you, the service professionals, can bring to bear on the situation.

•  You simply beat your customer to it: you took care of what they were hoping for before they even had time to express it in words.

Anticipatory customer service is clearly smack-dab right within the Seabourn wheelhouse (Oh yeah! I got the chance to use the term “wheelhouse” in an actual nautical context.) Here are just two examples, selected from many.

•  In passing I had mentioned to a Seabourn employee, when we booked our passage, that our son is an aspiring pianist. Once aboard, we found that the crew had arranged to have one of the ship’s pianos available for his daily practice, and that the nearby employees were, without us needing to ask, proactive about turning down the music coming out of nearby speakers so he could hear himself play.

•  Noting our family itinerary, which included one day where I had opted out of the shore excursion and would be remaining aboard, and having pegged me as an incurable worker bee, the crew offered me a day pass to “the retreat,” a hidden-away poolside “adults only” area with cabanas and its own service staff, where I could type away in piece. (The adults-only restriction was unneeded, at least on this autumnal cruise; my fifteen-year-old was the youngest guest aboard by a margin of about 18 years. Apparently, other parents are better about observing truancy rules than we are.)

A Conduit for Relationships

One of the realities of providing hospitality (or customer service, the term used in most other industries) is that the most important relationships your guests have are not going to be with you, but rather with their friends and loved-ones. So, a great provider needs to strive to be a conduit for relationships. In the Seabourn context, this was often achieved via their attention to the onboard groupings of passengers at their food venues. Seating areas were designed to allow for flexible configurations that could accommodate, when needed, everyone from a solo traveler or a couple to the many multi-generational groups on board. Although waitstaff were, of course, supremely attentive, they also took care to not interrupt intimate and animated conversations as they were cresting. And they seemed well aware of everyone’s relationship to each other, a lá, “Mr. Solomon, your wife and son are in the outdoor seating area; let me take you to their table.”

The Prominence of the Human Touch 

As a customer service consultant and customer experience designer, it’s my belief that the human touch is the new luxury, at least in many contexts and for many customers. After a recent period in time when it seemed like tablets were taking over the world, something different has in fact evolved, at least among very luxe service providers: a realization that technology is best kept “below eye level” or otherwise out of view of the customer.

And this was how it was on Seabourn: plenty of places to plug in your own devices, of course, but no need to use a tablet to order amenities such as room service. (Nor did we have to attempt to manage one of those horrific scrolling-via-remote scenarios on the in-room TV, one of the worst technical developments of our era.)

Nor were employees of Seabourn visibly burdened by electronics themselves. The only time that the crew had to break eye contact with a guest was on occasions when they had to refer to a clipboard sign-up sheet for a shore excursion or when they used a handheld ID card scanner when we were embarking and disembarking the boat.