In 2023, one emerging luxury trend is that new luxury yachting/cruise entrants from the hotel side of the travel industry are starting to broaden the customer base—bringing in many new-to-cruise guests. That’s highly positive for the luxury cruise marketplace as a whole, believes Natalya Leahy, the new president of ultra-luxury Seabourn.
Assuming her new role in March 2023 after a seven-year stint with Holland America Group, Leahy explains that while 22 million people in North America have a net worth of $1 million or more, fewer than 100,000 guests annually sail on her line. So, she sees great opportunities ahead. But how can an established brand best snag those new-to-cruise guests and also continue to exceed expectations for loyal past guests?
New Initiatives and "The Culture"
In terms of her vision and leadership approach at Seabourn, "there are a lot of initiatives and we’re moving very, very fast,” Leahy stresses. “One thing I think that my team knows about me is that I get things done quickly.” She also certainly knows how to support iconic brands and new products. “I have had the privilege to support Seabourn in various different capacities over the past seven years on the job as CFO and COO” of Holland America Group,” she says. Plus, she's also served in past leadership roles with Procter & Gamble and Coca Cola.
In just a few months, Leahy is already moving to fine-tune Seabourn’s ultra-luxury product, add enhancements and create a vision for the employee team of how to further differentiate itself in an increasingly competitive marketplace. While she's definitely not "starting from scratch” in knowing the brand, Leahy also acknowledges that in her short time as president of the brand, “I’ve developed a new appreciation of Seabourn." She's accomplished that by personally visiting many of the line’s ships—seeing the product close-up and soliciting feedback from luxury travel advisors, crew members and guests.
Now, “I have a very clear definition of it all. It’s not just about what and where, it’s also about how” the brand operates, she explains. The top differentiator for Seabourn, believes Leahy, is “the label of very authentic, very genuine, highly engaging and curated, one-of-a-kind stories that we provide.” For example, when she asks guests why they love and continue to book Seabourn, she hears this: “It’s a great ship, amazing food, great entertainment but it’s your service, it’s your crew that makes it happen."
What's most important to accomplish in 2023? What's her vision? First, “we have to make sure the basics are right” achieving that top-label, high standard” for service culinary, hardware and entertainment, she tells Luxury Travel Advisor. But she’s also adamant about this: “We absolutely must make sure that our level of service and crew training is not just technical skills. There is a Seabourn way to do things.”
Leahy has already restarted the Seabourn Shipboard Academy, which provides new crew members with a couple of weeks of intense onboard training. She stresses that most of those newly hired crew members already possess technical skills from past positions with hotels, resorts or other cruise lines. So, “we instead spend time on what the Seabourn culture is and what it means to deliver that level of service,” Leahy stresses. "So, that will continue to be a huge focus area—to bring that diverse, unique passionate team on board, and then train them to make sure that they all share that common passion in a very authentic, genuine way.”
From Leahy’s perspective, her brand's differentiator really comes down to those “Seabourn moments, our way to describe the very unique—almost unexpected—connections,” not only because the brand “brings like-minded travelers together, but we really bring like-minded guests and crew together. That’s what makes people say, ‘well this is home away from home,’” she notes.
Giving an example, Leahy says Seabourn was sailing in the Baltic when one male guest learned that his dad had passed away. Immediately, he was surrounded by the whole Seabourn team supporting him with an outpouring of emotions from onboard crew, and within 24 hours, Seabourn got him home to his family. “It was very emotional, something the crew felt even months later.”
Then, about a month after the funeral, the guest received a package in the mail. He opened it to discover a large book of Hermitage Museum photographs. Leahy says those were accompanied by personal notes from all the Seabourn crew members the man met on that cruise, saying: “We know you missed the Hermitage, and we hope this little thing will be a reminder that we are looking forward to having you on board Seabourn once again.”
While the guest couldn't personally visit the Hermitage, given his need to return home after his father’s death, Leahy says “he could go there” in many ways via the personal connections with those like-minded crew members. It also solidified the guest’s desire to only sail on Seabourn in the future, she adds.
Leahy is also focusing on how Seabourn involves the destinations and develops shore-side experiences. Currently, Seabourn sails to 400 port destinations on seven continents, so another role she takes seriously is “how we deliver that and give guests a chance to see the world.”
She believes that while Seabourn will continue to seek out new port destinations and develop new itineraries, wherever it goes and for how long guests travel—whether a seven-night cruise or a full World Cruise—that what’s important is “delighting guests” and “allowing them to experience the world in a deeper, closer, more engaging way.” That, she says, is going to continue to be a strong focus.
For example, the line recently announced that a “dedicated destination team” will focus on Seabourn-like destination experiences for pre- and post-cruise, in port visits and during overnight stays. Also, “expedition obviously plays a great role because it’s one of our most innovative ways to experience some of the destinations,” says Leahy. As for the debut of any new, “much more bespoke” destination offerings, she says it won’t happen overnight, but guests will begin to see, one by one, new unique shore options.
“It does not matter what we think," though, Leahy imparts to her internal team. "It matters what our guests think and what they want.” She says the line feels the same about travel partners, too. Her recent ship fact-finding visits have included Q&A talks and small hosted group dinners. “There is so much desire [for guests and advisors] to speak up and share and it’s because they care. They are so passionate” about the brand.
What’s emerged from those discussions? One is the need for some guest-facing shoreside team members to receive the same Seabourn Academy training as onboard crew members. “Eventually, we’ll be rolling that out,” says Leahy. As Seabourn’s guest team ashore is no longer a shared service with Holland America Line, restructuring was completed in January. Now the line is focusing on that new structure and departmental training.
Challenges and Enhancements
On another front, cruise companies are still facing challenges with the global supply chain. For example, “the amount of Champagne air-freighted across the world is unbelievable,” she stresses. Post-pandemic, nearly all businesses report increased costs with goods transport. “But we can’t just be victims of these challenges,” she emphasizes. Instead, Seabourn has adjusted its supply chain business model, sought out new vendors and targeted more local sourcing. “We can be more agile and still get the right things,” Leahy explains.
On the dining side, Leahy told us Seabourn was in the process of deploying “a new, very much improved room service menu, and we’re working on a few other culinary initiatives that hopefully our guests will be very happy with.” This week, the line publicly announced the new, elevated, in-suite dining menus, available 24 hours a day. Those will offer more choices for gourmet dishes curated by the line's chef team.
In fact, the menus will debut in a few days on Seabourn Venture’s June 18, 2023, voyage and appear fleet-wide by October 2023. Coincidentally, Luxury Travel Advisor will be aboard during that upcoming cruise and will provide an update from the ship.
Product-wise, Leahy also reports, “we’re doing a lot of little things, too,” such as bringing back complimentary Alaska jackets for guests. Plus, the line is bringing back Molton Brown farewell spray mists and a selection of bath soaps. Seabourn’s new perks are a mix of new initiatives and those returning “lost little touches” that guests loved in the past.
One new brand enhancement is the recent launch of SpaceX’s Starlink on Seabourn Venture, the line’s first expedition vessel. Sister Seabourn Pursuit will also debut Starlink when it begins sailing. Adopted by many cruise lines over the past few months, Starlink typically delivers faster, more reliable Internet/Wi-Fi. Leahy tells us that Starlink has been approved for deployment across the entire Seabourn fleet.
Also, operationally, major drydocks are scheduled for Seabourn Sojourn in 2024 and Seabourn Quest and Seabourn Ovation in 2025. “While our fleet is one of the youngest and most modern, we can always benefit from a little more updates,” Leahy says.
Expedition Cruising—Cool and Warm
As polar explorers, Seabourn Venture and Seabourn Pursuit operate expedition cruises to Antarctica and the Arctic region. Asked about the growth of the expedition cruise segment the past year or so and whether there are too many polar ships, Leahy says this: “I’m not concerned about capacity in Antarctica,” as the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators (IAATO) monitors schedules and ship visits are very well-controlled.
Plus, she says every ship provides a one-of-a-kind experience, differing sizably. For instance, “our expedition is not just expedition," she says. "It's a Seabourn ultra-luxury experience that allows people to experience some destinations in a more immersive Seabourn way.” Also, while polar expeditions are the obvious choice for many guests, “we just launched warm water expeditions,” she adds. "There are people who have the Arctic or Antarctica on their bucket list, but there are people who want to have those more immersive destination experiences but in a warm climate.”
To appeal to those people, Seabourn recently launched expedition voyages within The Kimberley, a remote, rugged Australian region with natural wonders and unique indigenous Aboriginal cultures. Leahy explains that “you literally can’t get to those places anywhere except by an expedition ship.”
Trade Value and Support
Moving forward, “in ultra-luxury, travel partners will continue to play an incredibly important role because our guests are highly accomplished, quite extraordinary people really looking for out-of-the-ordinary experiences,” stresses Leahy, “and they have very little time…so they really count on a trusted travel advisor to plan it for them—to recommend it for them.” She says Seabourn’s travel partners “carry that knowledge and insight about what guests are looking for like no one else.”
On the reservations and call center front, yes, she acknowledges that post-pandemic there was an uptick in issues given post-COVID guest bookings and other factors taking more time and needing resolution. Newly hired staff also needed training. But now, “our call times are very comparable to what we had pre-pandemic,” says Leahy. Staffing numbers have nearly doubled. Recently, “wait times have not been a problem.”
Currently, Seabourn is also working on developing new technology platforms that enable some helpful callback features. That could make it easier for both consumers and advisors in terms of hold times, and also more appropriately direct calls to the right support staff. “It should help us significantly enhance service,” she says.
New Onboard Programming
In terms of new onboard programming, Leahy recently sailed aboard Seabourn Sojourn and watched its “Silverscreen” production show. That's essentially a combination of scenes and well-known songs and dances from famous musical films. “It was so well-received,” she says. “We’re going to roll that out by the end of the year across the fleet.”
The line is also known for its famous classical/opera-type serenades in outdoor deck spaces during sail-aways from ports. Now, the line is entering into the next generation of that. It will introduce something new for a sail-away serenade first on Seabourn Quest and Seabourn Sojourn, and it's thinking about that for other ships too. In addition, the line is working on other bigger things to be announced in a few months, she says.
As for emerging luxury trends, Leahy points to those new-to-cruise entrants coming from the hotel side of the business. She also says that “more pronounced than ever, guests in ultra-luxury want to have choices,” she says. “They don’t want one option.” Leahy’s view is that they’re also not just seeking “what and where—as there’s always shopping and caviar—but also, how do we connect?”
For that, Seabourn offers top-of-the-line cuisine, but also shopping with a chef, wine pairing classes, and other experiences that connect food with destination experiences. It’s also adding more unique boutique options.
Another trend is that some guests still desire a very elegant aura, but others seek a more relaxed luxury versus just having more stuff. So “our guests still appreciate formal nights and elegant dressing, and we’ll still provide those opportunities," she says, "but more often now, they have a genuine laugh, conversation goes from table to table, and guests are looking for more relaxed elegance, yet they still understand luxury.”
“I have an amazing team, and we have an amazing plan,” says Leahy. “Seabourn will see things and give things to our guests that they haven’t seen so much” in the past. So, stay tuned for more as Leahy settles into her new role.