Exclusive: Update from Silversea's Manfredi Lefebvre, Roberto Martinoli & Mark Conroy

Shown onboard a Silversea Cruises ship in Monte Carlo are Roberto Martinoli, the ultra-luxury line's new CEO, and Manfredi Lefebvre d'Ovidio, its owner and executive chairman.

As teenagers, Manfredi Lefebvre d'Ovidio and Roberto Martinoli met at the Francesco Morosini Naval Military School and became fast friends. They both have fond memories as “it was in Venice on the Lagoon,” according to Lefebvre.

Several decades later, Lefebvre, owner and executive chairman, Silversea Cruises, and Martinoli, the ultra-luxury line’s new CEO, sat down with Luxury Travel Advisor in the line’s downtown Miami offices for an exclusive interview. 

Two months ago, Martinoli, a four-year veteran of the Silversea board of directors, replaced Enzo Visone, and earlier this year, Mark Conroy, former president of Regent Seven Seas Cruises, became Silversea's managing director, the Americas.

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Martinoli knows the brand landscape and some employees from his board of directors' gig, but he's now seeking out others and actively digging into the nuances of his new day-to-day leadership post. While based in Monte Carlo, he’ll also spend time in Silversea’s offices in Miami, Singapore, London, Frankfurt and Sydney. “I’m going to be visible and I’m not shy,” he told us.

Together the new leadership team is working to assure stability and brand excellence, as well as enhanced services for travel advisors. It's also a time of growth as next April, Silversea’s newest ship, the 40,700-grt Silver Muse, sails its first voyages from Monte Carlo. 

The new 596-passenger ship will feature more top-of-the-line suites and a new dining concept, splitting the main dining room into two new venues, Atlantide and Indochine. “Probably the most exciting thing about the Silver Muse, among others, is the culinary experience by the addition of more venues,” believes Martinoli.

A Stretch for Silver Spirit?

Silversea holds additional options with Fincantieri for Muse-class ships, but during our chat with Martinoli and Lefebvre, we also got a hint about something else possibly planned too.  

“Manfredi was thinking that one of the things we might be doing is to ‘stretch’ the Silver Spirit with the same type of configuration that we have on the Silver Muse – and to be able to offer the same type of dining,” Martinoli told Luxury Travel Advisor.  

So we asked Lefebvre directly about that. His response? "I'm actively considering it," he said. “We are of the school that you announce things which will be done." 

The current 36,000-grt Silver Spirit, which launched in 2009, carries 540 passengers. Stretching typically involves cutting a ship’s superstructure, pulling sections of it apart vertically and inserting an entirely new mid-section comprised of multiple decks. 

The stretching process has been completed successfully by other lines in the past including Royal Caribbean International and MSC Cruises, which recently stretched four of its ships. For Silversea, it would mean having a fairly new vessel, the largest built by the line pre-Muse, but with additional dining venues and other features of the new ship.

While there’s no word yet on timing, it would clearly give Silversea another larger ship beyond any new builds. Currently, Silversea has eight ships in its fleet.

The five “classic cruising” ships are Silver Wind, Silver Cloud, Silver Shadow, Silver Whisper and Silver Spirit, while the three smaller expedition vessels are Silver Discoverer, Silver Galapagos and Silver Explorer.

The line previously announced that Silver Cloud will leave the classic fleet and, after a refit/update, join the expedition fleet in November 2017.

The line is updating its existing fleet in a $170 million refurbishment program. For example, Silver Whisper is set to emerge from a major drydock update in December, and will begin its 2017 World Cruise with refreshed spaces and new features, like upgraded communications and Internet.

U.S. Market Dynamics

Luxury travel advisors can expect to see Martinoli spending a great deal of time in Miami. That's because, “of course, the U.S. is the most important market,”he said.

Right now, he's educating himself as to what’s happening at every level of the business so Silversea is primed to take advantage of opportunities. That said, “a number of initiatives have already been taken at the board level so there is not going to be a revolution,” he emphasized.  

Bookings? Currently, Silversea is experiencing “strong bookings, which give us a lot of hope for the future,” Martinoli said. “The last few months the business has been doing very well, but of course, there is never a limit to what you can do.” 

In addition, Martinoli said: “We are certainly dedicating a lot of time to the travel agents, where we have now been introducing new training for our field sales people.”

Martinoli and Conroy, former president of Regent Seven Seas Cruises, have worked well together in the past. “He’s a very close friend for a long time,” noted Martinoli. 

Agents were thrilled at Conroy’s arrival as “my job was to kind of fix the plumbing – that day-to-day blocking and tackling of the business that was disrupted when we moved to Miami,” Conroy acknowledged. He believes much progress has been made. 

Attribution/Copyrights
Photo by Silversea Cruises
Mark Conroy, managing director, the Americas, Silversea Cruises

First, Silversea has just increased its reservations team by 20 percent. The final new reservations agents’ class is just going on the phones now. “I hope the advisors are finding now that we’re easier to do business with,” he said.

With adding more people, “the wait times are better – still not perfect – but within acceptable ranges,” he said. One challenge are the promotions that conclude at month's or quarter's end, and customers wait until the last minute to book.

“Then we get slammed,” he said, adding he's not sure how to fix that except to try to encourage travel advisors and their clients to book a bit earlier.  

Perhaps most welcome to agents? Silversea is adding new air concierges, who will speak directly with luxury advisors. Previously, retailers couldn’t talk directly with the air desk and if they needed an air deviation, they had to sign up and e-mail a request, and then go back and forth. 

Now, if the advisor tells the reservations agent that their client prefers one airline over another typically used by the line, they’ll be transferred to the air concierge, who can make the deviation, provide a price and handle the customized arrangements.

“I think the air concierge will provide the kind of service [advisors need] and get the answers back more quickly," Conroy stressed. "It’s about saving people’s time." Silversea has already trained five air concierges and has two more to train yet.

The line is also restructuring the inside sales team, which historically had primarily been targeted as problem solvers – solving the back-ups in reservations and air. But with those challenges being tackled, “we want to turn them back to more what they used to do,” Conroy said.

That means proactively supporting the sales efforts and those agents who hope to become bigger sellers. “Half their role will be supporting smaller accounts and half their role will be supporting the area sales directors,” Conroy added.

Also, look for Silversea to add an additional area sales director to the field, and additional support for national accounts.

Bullish on 2017 sales, Conroy believes “the free air to the Med and Europe is working quite well right now. And I think the business class upgrade is really working well; we have free air and then you can upgrade to business class for $499 each way.” He also said the “Caribbean is also chugging along.” 

The Big Picture

When he came into his CEO role, Martinoli looked to what he had done elsewhere that could help Silversea, “and there are always things we can do better such as better practices and new stuff…and Silversea is a great brand. I think this is a huge potential.”

Lefebvre and Martonoli have just finished the budget process and have 2017 and 2018 budgets completed. Luxury Travel Advisor asked Martinoli and Lefebvre if Silversea had any desire to “spread out” as Crystal Cruises has done with new air, yacht and river cruise products?. 

“Today’s vision is that we want to expand, we want to optimize the product, the distribution and the satisfaction of our guests before we think about other things,” said Lefebvre. He said he'd looked at river cruising but felt it wasn’t optimum for Silversea at the time. 

But down the road, if he’s proven wrong, he’s willing to relook at it. His take?: “Somebody’s doing an experiment for us [a veiled reference to Crystal]. The same thing concerns air. I think it’s a very thin market…in terms of air-cruises. But again, our brand can position us wherever the other luxury brands are” if those supplementary businesses show sizable merit.

“In all fairness, this is already quite a complicated business,” noted Martinoli, explaining that the line does both classic and expedition cruises – two decidedly different types of offerings. 

Attribution/Copyrights
Photo by Silversea Cruises
Roberto Martinoli, the new CEO, Silversea Cruises

Beyond the ship updates and new tonnage, the management team is now focused on optimizing and improving those core ultra-luxury classic and expedition products. Plus, it's paying a great deal of attention to CRM and brand strategy.

From Lefebvre's perspective: “I constantly work on that – how to better fine tune the brand, how to evolve it, how to make it most attractive for the clients, the guests, that we believe we can attract."

Also constant? “We have to also find ways to communicate the values of our brand more strongly,” Lefebvre said noting that in the past, the brand was a bit of a Sleeping Beauty. 

Describing the ultra-luxury service and welcoming environment on its ships as "a big competitive advantage," Martinoli believes Silversea also has a competitive advantage because it takes guests to 850 ports worldwide, many of them very remote places via the expedition ships, and yet guests "still have that excellent level of service."

Luxury customer trends? "As a starting point, guests are much more active,” said Lefebvre. “They’re much more conscious of their health and how much and what they eat, so a lot of things are a part of their habits. So you need a better spa, a better gym, a lot of things which have to be enhanced."

When Silversea was formed, it needed to have a spa and gym, but those things were less essential, Lefebvre said. “Now, a lot of other things have become less essential.” 

Yet, with younger clients coming onboard and loyal past guests living longer, it’s always a bit of a balancing act to satisfy both audiences, says Martinoli. 

“Familia” and Talent

Martinoli's journey to Silversea has been in the works for some time. “I wanted to have Roberto with me before, but he had taken another obligation with another owner,” Lefebvre said. That obligation resulted in “a complete turnaround of the company, adding to his credentials.” But this year, the timing worked for Silversea. 

“Roberto is one of the persons most qualified in the industry with very rounded experience,” Lefebvre stressed. “He’s been handling a lot of aspects of the cruise industry and of the shipping industry also, so it starts with a very strong technical background being a naval architect and engineer.”

Lefebvre stressed that a CEO also must have a very strong operational grasp, revenue generation expertise and “new build” experience, particularly since “we have a strong plan for new builds and refits.” 

From an operational standpoint, Martinoli also had previously run his own firm, worked for Carnival Cruise Line as vice president of fleet operations, and had multi-faceted experience with another family's business and at a private equity firm. Martinoli had also taken over his own father’s business at a young age when his father died. 

Whatever steps the line takes moving forward, “most definitely, the fact that Manfredi and I are so close…it’s a big advantage, because it makes the communication much easier,” Martinoli acknowledged.   

In fact, both he and Lefebvre say their new business relationship really isn’t just business, it comes with a strong sense of family (or “familia” in Italian). Martinoli’s wife, Barbara Muckermann, previously worked in executive capacities with Lefebvre.  

In fact, the Martinoli and Lefebvre families often vacation together. From Dec. 27 to Jan. 4, they’ll be vacationing together on Silver Shadow in Asia, off the coast of Indochina and Hong Kong.

And there is sometimes a throw-back to the two executives' teenage years in naval school in Venice. Before the Silver Shadow cruise, "we’re also taking a private cruise on a sailboat in the very remote Andaman Islands, just to prove that we are ‘voyager people,’”Lefebvre quipped.

Seriously, though, he adds that to work with family-owned companies, as Martinoli has done previously, takes a different skill set from what the average executive might have: "It's a talent. It brings in a faster decision making process, but it also brings in a constant presence [of the family]. It’s good to know the person you’re going to be working with has been working successfully and with mutual desire within this framework.”

Plus, Lefebvre said Silversea has put together a strong board with top-level maritime, hospitality, operational, consulting and financial experts, so Martinoli, who came from that same board with that knowledge, can “switch into the driver’s seat without having to stop the car,” Lefebvre said. 

Lefebvre put it this way: “He started with a Ferrari that was going 100 miles per hour, and immediately could put the foot on the accelerator, and push it to 150 miles per hour without having to stop.”