Crystal Cruises at 20

 

Gregg Michel
Gregg Michel was named president of Crystal Cruises in 1991.

Luxury cruise line’s top trio of executives keeps Crystal’s quality evolving year after year.

How does Crystal Cruises maintain its high level of service and keep customers returning again and again? Luxury Travel Advisor spent quality time with three of its top executives, President Gregg Michel, Bill Smith, senior vice president of sales & marketing, and Thomas Mazloum, senior vice president of operations, to get the inside scoop on the team whose product wins consumer and industry accolades year after year.

Gregg Michel, President

Why did Michel get into the cruise business? He was merely “looking for a job,” he says. Hailing from the Midwest, Michel had worked in Ford Motor Company’s accounting department before migrating to the West Coast and finding a position with Princess Cruises as a budget analyst. “They had just been purchased by P&O and were looking for someone to talk numbers back and forth with their parent company,” says Michel, who visited with Luxury Travel Advisor during a Crystal Symphony call in New York.

Michel left Princess to pursue his MBA at USC; along the way he did consulting work involving market research for a cruise line that was being launched by NYK, a large commercial shipping company in Tokyo. The research was to determine if the start-up should be positioned in the mass market, premium or luxury sectors.

It was the late Eighties and the start-up was Crystal Cruises. The decision was made to forge into the luxury arena, which was rather fragmented at the time.

 

 

Crystal Cruises


President: Gregg Michel
Senior Vice President, Sales & Marketing: Bill Smith
Senior Vice President, Operations: Thomas Mazloum
Headquarters: Los Angeles
Parent Company: NYK (based in Tokyo)
Fleet: Crystal Symphony (940 passengers)
Crystal Serenity (1,050 passengers)
Website: www.crystalcruises.com

 

 

“Travel agents played a big role in the launch,” recalls Michel. “Many of us had been in the business, so we were familiar with the travel agent distribution network.”

Michel then worked with the ramp-up team for the new cruise line, which involved selecting the Crystal brand name and its corresponding seahorse logo. “We wanted a name that was clear, distinctive, easy to understand and yet different from anything out there,” says Michel.

In July 1990, Crystal Harmony was christened by Mary Tyler Moore in Los Angeles. Michel became an official employee of Crystal that June, as the senior vice president of finance and administration. He was named president in 1991.

Crystal has maintained a steady course since, launching two additional ships, Crystal Symphony and Crystal Serenity (Harmony retired in 2005), which have sailed the world and served as the venues and conduits for some of the most engaging on-board programs around (think Computer University@Sea, Berlitz language lessons and lectures featuring world-renowned speakers).

Evolving at the same time  was Crystal’s on-board day-to-day high level of service, earning it a 66 percent return rate from passengers and top rankings from highly coveted consumer travel publications.

Crystal Crew
Crystal Crew From left: Gregg Michel, president of Crystal Cruises; Thomas Mazloum, senior vice president of operations; and Bill Smith, senior vice president of sales and marketing.

Fast forward to the present: Michel says the intent is to build on its service strength, noting that in 2011, the cruise line is launching a positioning campaign dubbed “Your wish. Our Command,” which is featured on the cover of its 2011 Worldwide Atlas (see sidebar). “The purpose is to position our core competency, which is service. We want that to resonate more and more with our audience,” he says.

What actually defines service at Crystal? “It’s our friendliness. It’s that attention to detail. It’s the recognition. It’s the smile and that whole Crystal attitude,” says Michel, stressing that the service message will be conveyed to Crystal’s repeat clientele as well as to potential new guests. “We are still focused on the baby-boomer market; that’s a very wide group that’s 76 million strong,” he says.

Where Crystal sees its market skew younger is in its summer Mediterranean cruises, which tend to draw cross-generational families, as well holiday cruises. In fact, Crystal has never positioned itself as an adults-only product, Michel says, citing the line's entertainment program for young cruisers.

As for the actual ships, Crystal Serenity will be refurbished during a dry dock in May 2011. While details have not yet been finalized, Michel says he’d like to see refinements similar to that of Crystal Symphony, which underwent $25 million in refurbishments in 2010 that renovated its Penthouse category accommodations. Symphony’s pool deck was also modernized and the Lido Deck was reconfigured.

A Crystal Penthouse
A Crystal Penthouse aboard Crystal Symphony. The 982-square-foot suites now have expanded living space and floor-to-ceiling windows.

As always, the question begs to be asked: Is there a new ship in Crystal’s future? The short answer is “yes.” “Crystal and our parent company, NYK, have been working together on developing something but I can’t make any announcements,” says Michel. “Strategically, we are looking at what that new ship might look like.” Michel says timing is the determining factor. “Our business is certainly up in 2010 over 2009 and advanced bookings for 2011 are up over 2010. So things are headed in the right direction, but I think we want to have the right ship at the right time for Crystal Cruises.”

Michel says that being a wholly owned subsidiary of 125-year-old NYK, which owns more than 600 commercial shipping vessels worldwide, provides Crystal with great economies of scale when it comes to purchasing insurance and obtaining access to financing and capital; NYK also purchases vast amounts of fuel every year.

At the same time, Crystal, which is based in Los Angeles, has a fair amount of autonomy from NYK.  “We depend on them for certain things, but they allow us the freedom to identify and target our markets,” Michel says. “I think we have a very good relationship.”

Thomas Mazloum, Senior Vice President, Operations

Based in Crystal’s Los Angeles corporate office, Mazloum can be found every four to five weeks on either Crystal ship to ensure things are running smoothly. “That’s one thing you can’t delegate; you’ve got to be on the frontline no matter how good your technology and data are,” he tells Luxury Travel Advisor.

 

 

ADVISOR INSIGHT


Crystal Cruises reaches out to travel advisors in several ways. This year, it celebrated its 20th annual Top Producers Gala, at which it rewarded its highest performing travel agencies; 74 agencies qualified, having reached the required minimum $500,000 in annual sales volume for 2009.

Winning attendance at the Gala is a hot ticket for luxury travel advisors, who are hosted aboard one of Crystal’s luxury cruise itineraries and afforded a sneak preview on the newest product and marketing initiatives from top executives.

To further introduce all travel advisors to Crystal, the cruise line launched a “Sell Three, Sail Free Program,” which is being extended to next year. The program in 2010 brought 500 agents onboard, who earned a free cruise. “It achieves two things; it gets agents onboard the ship and it gives them an incentive to sell our product. So it’s really a win-win,” says Bill Smith, senior vice president of sales and marketing for Crystal.

On the ground, Crystal has 19 sales people in the U.S. and Canada, a sales person in Asia and an office in London that oversees international sales. Crystal also hosts a training program on Travel Agent University and Luxury Travel University which are owned by Questex Media, the publisher of Luxury Travel Advisor.

 

 

Mazloum’s role makes him directly responsible for the line’s high level of service. How does he do it? “People always ask me what my training program is like and I always respond that training is so overblown. To me, training is the final step in the process of delivering service,” he says. “It is the corporation’s job to say, ‘My role is to provide the resources that my frontline people need to provide all of our customers with the right service.’”

Another step is ensuring the correct cultural balance on the ships. “It’s a very fragile thing. Whether it’s the captain or the dish washer, they both need to fit the culture,” says Mazloum.

That’s where hiring for attitude comes into play, he says. For example, Mazloum knows he can train a waiter to serve wine from the right rather than the left. “Those are the technical details that you can train anybody on but you cannot train somebody to have a good attitude. It’s all about how that person made you feel,” says Mazloum.

Along those lines, it’s important to know when you’ve made a mistake in hiring. “When you understand that you made a mistake, you need to ensure that you need to eliminate that mistake because it only takes a few to spoil the broth,” he says.

Nordstrom’s, which Mazloum first experienced in the Eighties, when he arrived in the U.S. after growing up in Europe, had a strong impact on his service philosophy. “When I walked into this department store I had never been to a place where people were so friendly, made me feel so good and provided such ‘wow’ service,” Mazloum says. He read up on the company’s service philosophy, which explained that the corporation didn’t hire people and train them for service; they hired people whose parents had already trained them. “You can’t put in what’s been left out,” says Mazloum. “We always say, ‘hire for attitude, train for skills.’”

A promotion this year gave Mazloum added responsibility for Crystal’s land experiences, whose itineraries can range from a simple overview of a port to extreme, expensive programs, such as sleeping on the Antarctic for a night, or taking a MiG flight over Moscow.

To ensure a high level of service on land, Mazloum’s team works closely with the owners of the destination management companies in each port and insists they come up with new ways of presenting a destination.

“We say, ‘Look, I know you sell this to companies A and B, but what can you do for us that is different, more relevant and more authentic?’ This is so they don’t fall into the trap of just offering us the cookie-cutter experience.”

 

 

Crystal’s New Initiatives

Crystal’s new “Your wish. Our Command” positioning will manifest in such new programs as “Perfect Choice Dining,” which will be introduced in the main dining rooms on Crystal Symphony and Crystal Serenity this January. The move allows passengers to continue dining at the standard 6:15 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. time slots, while also providing them the option of reserving a table at a specific time. President Gregg Michel says Crystal kept set dining times because its repeat passengers say they enjoy having the same traveling companions and waiter each evening, who knows their preferences.

Perfect Choice Dining slots can be made onboard or ahead of time at CrystalCruises.com, which has a new technology platform that supports a newly rolled-out priority check-in and planning center, which lets paid-in-full guests to submit their immigration and credit card data online prior to their trip, which greatly expedites the check-in process. They can also book shore excursions, spa treatments and dining in Crystal’s restaurants, Prego and Silk Road. Luggage Concierge services, airport transfers and tuxedo rentals can also be pre-reserved. Once the selections have been made, guests can print out a customized calendar-style itinerary that includes their reservations, the daily port visits and suggested style of dress for each evening.

In other news, Crystal has updated its Computer University@Sea program with new iMac workstations. Introductory classes to the Mac OS X 10.6 platform have also been added.

On land, Crystal has new Pacific Coast itineraries for next spring and the fall, focusing on the regions’ wine destinations. Alaska will be big in 2011, with nine consecutive itineraries departing from San Francisco.

In 2012, Crystal will offer itineraries with overnight stays in Europe, with the potential for up to three nights in a destination. Ships will also visit more ports during each cruise with fewer days at sea.

Staying very “value oriented” is another goal for Crystal; as a result, it announced early booking promotions for 2011 that emphasize its verandah and penthouse suites for a variety of its destinations. It will also continue into 2011 its “All-Inclusive. As You Wish” spending credit that includes up to $2,000 per couple.

Crystal has also revealed that its World Cruise for 2012 will be a 94-day roundtrip sailing out of Los Angeles that focuses on the Pacific. The itinerary was devised using feedback from world cruisers last year. “They really liked the idea of the Australia/Asia opportunity,” says Michel, who says he jumps on a segment of a world cruise each year to speak with guests.

The world cruiser is loyal to Crystal; on average, about 70 percent of guests who sailed the line on a full World Cruise have done so before.

 

 

Another Crystal rule: Motor coaches are never filled beyond a 70-percent capacity. Additionally, a random member of the crew always takes part in the excursion, returning with a full debriefing on the experience.

“Our operators know we are deploying a member from the crew who writes up a report,” says Mazloum. “If we see things that we don’t like, we address them with that operator before we leave port.” That’s not the end of it; the operator is reminded of those inconsistencies on the next visit from Crystal.

In the end, it all comes back to finding the right people and holding them accountable, says Mazloum. “I can say that while we may have not launched a ship every year, our experience has always been that we are consistent for our customers,” he says.

Bill Smith, Senior Vice President, Sales and Marketing

When Bill Smith was in college, he worked part-time in a garden nursery. One day, an affluent woman he knew from town approached him and asked him the name of the plant that was in the hotbed he was working on.

“Well, it’s a strawberry daisy, and this is the only one we have,” Smith politely replied. The woman marveled that she’d never seen such a plant before, and so Smith offered to sell it to her. She bought it and returned a few days later to ask the nursery manager if they had gotten any more strawberry daisy plants in. Turns out, even the manager had never seen such a plant before, since it was actually a weed.

It was then that Smith knew he’d be successful in sales.“You sell the sizzle, you don’t sell the plant,” he tells Luxury Travel Advisor.

Smith realized his aspiration for travel when he was growing up in Wichita Falls in West Texas. His mother was a schoolteacher, and one of his father’s businesses involved owning a small gas station on a major highway.

“People would drive through on their way to Colorado or the Grand Canyon, or they would be coming from the west toward Florida or someplace else,” says Smith. “I was always fascinated as a kid seeing people come through; I’d talk to them and it was so exciting.”

Smith and his family did their own share of travel; every summer his father packed up a homemade trailer and they’d venture off to Yellowstone, Jackson Hole, Banff or the Grand Canyon.

Lust for travel in place, Smith left Wichita Falls and eventually ended up at Braniff International Airways in the engineering department as a production control coordinator. One day, while at Dallas Love Field, he noticed a distinctive looking group of people coming off an airplane.

“I can close my eyes and still see the guy, he had on a pair of purple pants and an Acapulco wedding shirt. The woman he was with was elegant and beautifully dressed up in resort wear. It was Harding Lawrence, the president of Braniff, and Mary Wells of Wells Rich and Greene. I said, ‘I want to be them,’” says Smith.

That “aha!” moment spurred Smith to move from engineering to sales, where, he says, “I had some incredibly great experiences.” A fantastic travel career ensued, taking him, among other places, to the top of 10 Rockefeller Center in New York, as Eastern Airlines’ Northeast regional director.

When a headhunter approached him to join Sitmar Cruises, Smith reluctantly took the interview, but was soon ensconced in the cruise industry where he couldn’t help notice the vast difference between selling air and sea.

“With the airlines, you try to sell them on taking your airplane, which was really at that point becoming a commodity. Nobody really was excited about flying from New York to Chicago,” says Smith. “But cruising was a discretionary sale; from the very beginning the buyer was interested in a cruise because it was something they wanted to do. It was exciting just to sit and talk to people about it.”

Smith fell in love with the entire process of selling cruises. This new stint in his career took him to lines such as Princess, Regency, where he worked as a consultant, and to Silversea, where he served as president.

After leaving Silversea, Smith went to New Mexico for some time off, only to get a phone call from the chairman of Crystal Cruises. Smith made the trip to Los Angeles to speak with Gregg Michel. The year was 2004 and Smith decided to join the team. “They were doing the things that I enjoyed the most at Silversea,” Smith says.

Throughout his career, Smith has held the travel advisor community close to his heart; he cites cruise executives he’s worked with, such as John Bland, Dick Revnes and Warren Titus “who had a passion for the cruise industry and a passion for the trade.”

The Newly Designed Pool Deck
The Newly Designed Pool Deck aboard Crystal Symphony. The ship underwent $25 million in refurbishments in 2010.

“I was fortunate to have worked with people who understood travel agents and the relationship you need to have with the trade. An experienced and knowledgeable travel agent is part of your product; it’s essential that they understand and know your product because they can sell it more effectively than anybody else,” says Smith. “When you hook up with agents who have a passion for cruising, for selling and for creating an incredible experience for their clients, that’s where the whole thing kind of comes together in my mind.”