Seabourn Sophistication: Crafting Meaningful and Authentic Experiences

Rick Meadows, president of Seabourn, is an ardent supporter of loyal Seabourn guests, who are passionate about the luxury cruise line.//Photo: William Hereford

It’s a big year for Seabourn. The luxury cruise line turns 30 and it’s just launched the Seabourn Ovation, an “all-suite,” “all-verandah” vessel. The new ship touts all of the highlights of its recently launched sister ship, the Encore, and amenities such as The Grill by Thomas Keller; Spa and Wellness with Dr. Andrew Weil, which provides a mindful living program; and the high-end entertainment program, “An Evening With Tim Rice.” A nice touch: Star interior designer Adam Tihany created the look of the ship, which has more than 1,600 pieces of art, by nearly 120 artists.

Guiding the launch of Seabourn Ovation has been the line’s president, Rick Meadows, who has also launched Seabourn Quest and Seabourn Encore during his Seabourn tenure. 

We caught up with Meadows, a 33-year veteran with Carnival Corporation, Seabourn’s parent company, to get a pulse on today’s affluent traveler and what it takes to keep them happy.

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The New Traveler

Seabourn has a global clientele, drawing from markets all over the world. It also has a loyal following; more than 50 percent of its guests have sailed the line before. It even has a strong following from those who have cruised previously, just on other cruise lines.

What’s good? The line reports a surge in those who are completely new to cruising, who claim to be seeking a smaller ship experience and “an authentic” shoreside experience. “They may have had some misnomers about what cruising is and we’ve been able to bust that out a little for them to consider us as a vacation alternative,” says Meadows.  

Regardless of where they’re from or how often they’ve sailed, there’s a common trait to all guests.

“We know they want experiences over things. They crave and want unique and powerful experiences,” says Meadows. “We’ve all heard a lot about the new experience economy; that is real and it’s going to last. For us, it’s about how we craft experiences that are meaningful and authentic. That’s something that we’re really focused in on.”

That’s why a cornerstone of the cruise line is based on service, which executives call “Seabourn Moments.” 

“Sometimes they’re big, sometimes they’re as small as remembering a favorite cocktail, or a name, or doing something for a guest or a colleague that is smaller in nature. We’re really focusing on how we create more of those Seabourn Moments for our guests,” Meadows tells Luxury Travel Advisor.

That type of intuitive service comes more naturally to some than to others, but Seabourn hammers it home to all of its crew with an intense on-board training program. It lasts for weeks and new team members move only gradually to the frontlines and on to their full responsibilities.

Meadows says the intensive training gives Seabourn the space to articulate what it truly means by service; it also gives them the tools to know why Seabourn is different.

One of the basics they learn is simple enough, and that’s working extremely hard to memorize guests’ names and preferences. 

“That’s important to us,” says Meadows. “We want to address a guest by their name. We want to know enough about them so we can give them that personalized level of service, and so train them (the crew) on tips and tricks to be able to do that.” Training managers constantly flow on and off the ships to ensure the training is continuous, he adds.

Keeping Seabourn’s loyal guests happy is not always an easy task; some are quite vocal about what they like about the line and tend to express concern if something changes. It’s been a balancing act for Seabourn, whose initial fleet comprised three small ships, which each held just 208 passengers. (Those ships have since been sold to Windstar.)

When Seabourn announced it was building the Odyssey (which debuted in 2009), a vessel that could hold up to 458 passengers, there was a bit of hemming and hawing over whether the intimate vibe that defined the line would survive. After Odyssey, came Soujourn and Quest, which were equally large (the trio comprises Seabourn’s Odyssey Class). The move toward larger vessels continued with the Encore and Ovation, which can hold 600.

Meadows says the move to a larger-ship experience was done with extreme care; he also admits that it’s vital the line pays attention to those who are passionate about the Seabourn experience.

“First off, you have to accept that [this passion and concern] is real. And it may not be based around ship size, it might be based on any kind of change,” says Meadows. “We want to make sure that we understand what the pressure points are for all of our guests, whether they’re our Seabourn Club members (guests are automatically enrolled after they’ve completed one sailing), or whether they’re new to Seabourn. Then, we want to move in a way that’s careful, that’s not too extraordinary, that relates to going from our original fleet, to the fleet we have today. We have absolutely kept those loyal Club members who have moved all up the way from those early years, to today, even as their experiences have changed over time. We’ve seen it as guests now are sailing on the Encore. They’re coming off saying, ‘We love this. This is incredible. We’ve got a larger spa, we’ve got two additional new restaurants.’ All of the things that we’ve done around that ship have been really widely accepted.”

Listening to these clients is imperative, he adds. “It’s a journey and I think it’s our responsibility to understand and acknowledge, again, what the Club members are looking for. If we give them a Seabourn level of service and care, if we give them authentic experiences in an environment that is the best, then we’re going to deliver on our promise. I’m confident that a ship like the Encore, and the Ovation, as well as the Odyssey, Sojourn and Quest, that those five ships really can do that beautifully.”

Living Like a Local

It’s not just about the onboard experience; what happens on land is also important to the sophisticated traveler and Meadows says Seabourn has been aligning shore experiences with what people are looking for today.

“They want that authentic experience, and whether they want that through enjoying culture, or enjoying food and wine, or through a more active kind of experience, we want that thread that runs through,” he says, noting that Seabourn is constantly striving to secure guides who are very well informed. “It means we’re going to have really small groups where you have some of the very best guides taking care of you, perhaps on a kayak or a Zodiac or where you’re going to get information that frankly would be difficult to get any other way.”

He says that Seabourn’s formal partnership with UNESCO has given it a new lens to look through, particularly when it comes to providing historical and cultural tours. The partnership enables Seabourn to provide guests with guide-led, privileged-access tours at a number of UNESCO World Heritage Sites, such as Stonehenge in England or the Silk Exchange in Valencia, Spain.

“We’ve really worked hard on the land experience to make it rich, and meaningful, something that is absolutely at the level of what a guest would expect on the ship,” says Meadows.

Always a Traveler

If you follow the timeline all the way back to the beginning, it’s a natural that Rick Meadows would today be heading up the luxury line. Growing up in Kansas City, Missouri, Meadows was part of an “airline family.” His father worked for TWA and his mother was an educator. Both parents were keen that the family travel, and so the entire clan would take off on trips to Europe and other parts of the world several times a year. 

“I really caught the bug and saw the excitement and the power of travel, and fueled my personal passion for travel,” he tells Luxury Travel Advisor

When he was in his senior year of high school, Meadows worked at a travel agency, back when it was de facto to handwrite tickets and automation was in its infancy. He worked there through college, and following graduation and a move to St. Louis, Meadows became a travel agent full time.

Fate came knocking, however, when he took a job as a regional sales director for Carnival Cruise Lines. This was 33 years ago, when Carnival was still privately held and had just four ships. Meadows moved up to serve as a regional director for several years; he moved to Seattle in 1994 after Carnival had acquired Windstar Cruises (the line has since been sold) to become its vice president of sales and marketing. After a stint in Miami working as vice president of corporate marketing at Carnival Corporation, then senior vice president of sales and marketing for Seabourn, he moved over to the sister company, Holland America Line. Seven years ago, Carnival Corporation moved Seabourn to Seattle, and Meadows was named president, retaining additional responsibility for Cunard – North America from 2014-2016. The focus for the past year, however, has been on Seabourn, as the line’s growth required a lot of attention, time and energy.

Career Advice

With such a steady and focused career growth, we asked Meadows what advice he would give to someone who wanted to move ahead in a corporation.

“The biggest thing I’ve learned is the benefit of having a sense of loyalty and, at the same time, making it clear that you want the opportunity to grow and learn,” Meadows tells Luxury Travel Advisor. “I’ve been very lucky to be a part of Carnival Corp. in this period of time. It’s been a culture where we’ve gone from a family-owned company now to the leading travel and leisure company in the world; that’s quite a trajectory. It’s been important to have a willingness to learn, an ability to articulate clearly what you would like, and what you’re looking for. It’s also about feeling that passion; passion around anything you do is quite powerful.”

The Travel Advisor Market

Talk about evolution: As a former travel agent, Meadows says he is very proud of how the travel advisor role has changed over the years. “I know so many super successful and powerful business people who are travel professionals; it is just great to see how that evolution has happened. It’s also great to see the acknowledgement of the value they bring to the process now, as well,” he notes.

He was recently speaking to some guests at a party about cruising and he asked them if they worked with a good travel professional for their trips. The conversation went in a few directions, but Meadows brought it home with this insight: “I said, ‘I don’t know if you do your own taxes, but my guess is you may not, and the value that a tax professional can add in the process is extraordinary.’”

He’s observed that travel advisors over the past few years have learned how to articulate their story in a much better way, and they’ve learned how to better reach people with that message.

“I’m seeing it, whether it’s through social media or whether it’s through deep relationships with the various consortia that provide support at a level that’s much more robust than it ever has been in the past,” says Meadows.

It’s for that reason that Chris Austin was hired as the senior vice president of global sales and marketing last year. Austin had spent 29 years at Starwood Hotels & Resorts, working with travel advisors.

“I was excited about Chris’ commitment and real passion for supporting our travel partners,” says Meadows. “He is, at his core, as completely committed as I am in making sure that we do everything that is supportive and that helps them grow their business. And we’re really seeing that come back to us, that recognition of that understanding.”

The Evolution Continues

Seabourn will continue to invest in understanding what luxury travelers, and travel advisors, are looking for today, says Meadows. That will come largely from listening. He says that he gets letters from guests who simply say how much they loved or appreciated something that happened on a cruise.

“That does make it really rewarding,” says Meadows. “But sometimes they may also have a genuine suggestion and that’s coming from their investment in the brand, as opposed to being upset by something. It’s a very different access point. That engagement and passion that our guests have for who we are is rewarding for all of us.”

In retrospect, Meadows’ early roots in travel and now the ability to navigate Seabourn through such significant growth are likely what drives him forward.

“It goes back to the bigger picture of our place in the world,” he tells Luxury Travel Advisor. “This industry gives you a perspective that is one of the best educational tools anybody can have. Understanding the breadth of culture, the different ways of thinking, the different ways of looking at things, for me, has been super powerful,” says Meadows. “I grew up in a town in the Midwest and it was a wonderful place to grow up, but to be able to have a different, broader perspective of the world around me is something that I’ve valued throughout my time here.”

Advisor Advocates: Chris Austin, on the right, is shown here with Lynn Narraway, managing director, UK for Seabourn (center) and Eric Goldring, owner of Goldring Travel (left). 

Meet Chris Austin, Seabourn’s Senior Vice President of Global Sales and Marketing

Seabourn reinforced its commitment to the luxury travel advisor community when it hired Chris Austin as its senior vice president of global sales and marketing in late 2016. Austin has long been an icon in the industry, notably for his work at Starwood Hotels & Resorts, where he spent 29 years in key roles, always keeping the travel advisor top of mind for the hotel conglomerate.

He sees a huge upside for luxury travel advisors to introduce their luxury land-loving clients to Seabourn. 

“I have been an ardent supporter of theirs for years and they have a true opportunity with Seabourn as we have an unwavering commitment to support their business,” he says. He has been working with top advisors to educate them on the benefits of using a luxury cruise to transport their luxury hotel clients from one destination to another.

When he officially started at Seabourn in January of 2017, Austin got to work finessing the North American sales organization. The fact was, Seabourn, which is owned by Carnival Corporation, was sold and represented by a joint sales organization selling other brands under the corporate umbrella.

Austin built a new structure to cater to its larger accounts that focus on luxury and on the affluent market. Within three months he had a new organization with Doug Seagle as vice president of sales, reporting to Austin for North America. Tanya Barnette is the director of strategic key accounts, charters & incentives; Jeannie McGinnis is the national accounts sales manager, handling the luxury consortia. Five strategic key account managers have their territories divided by region. Austin also added to the inside support structure to ensure the strategic key accounts team can be “very nimble and agile.” Seabourn also gained a global trade marketing manager to produce educational materials for seminars, webinars and print advertising.

“There really shouldn’t be a travel professional in North America that doesn’t feel like they’ve got a connection to Seabourn,” says Austin. “It’s about how many connections can we make with a travel professional that are meaningful, of quality and of value to them, to really help them grow their own business and their top line?” says Austin, who has also moved Seabourn back onto Sabre, which he felt was critical for North America travel professionals.

Coming from the hotel industry, Austin admits he still has “a love of the land.” For that reason, he’s excited about the onshore experiences available through Seabourn’s formal partnership with UNESCO, which provides guests with privileged access to top historic sites and experiences. Seabourn also worked with a “trusted tour operator” to create 10 Seabourn Journeys, expanding its pre- and post-cruise offerings that are indigenous to their locations.  

“The 13-night trip is the ‘bucket list’ trip; it’s to the South Pole, which has to be connected to an Antarctica voyage. The next departure is in 2019,” he says. The 10 new programs also have a guaranteed departure with just two guests with the exception of Denali and the South Pole, and travel advisors are paid a 14 percent commission on them.

Austin says that Seabourn’s presence of international offices delivers a very global guest mix as well. “I remember getting an e-mail last year from a guest I’d met on Seabourn Encore, and she wrote to me saying, ‘Chris, I’ve just boarded again. I’m so excited. I just had lunch with a German, an Australian, a Brit, a Canadian, an American and a Brazilian. You can’t get more global than that!”

We asked Austin what it was like, moving from Starwood to Seabourn. He said the response he received from the luxury travel advisor community was very gratifying. As for those who book strictly land vacations, and have never ever booked a cruise, he says he has plans for them.

“Those travel professionals who are big luxury resort bookers, can now become nice, big luxury cruise bookers, or as we prefer now to say, ‘We can open their eyes to the opportunity of booking the world’s finest ultra-luxury resort that just happens to be at sea,’” he says.

He is discouraging this very land-focused group of advisors, through seminars, webinars and in-person meetings, from asking their clients, simply if they want to go on a cruise. He suggests they approach it from the perspective that they know of a terrific spa led by Doctor Andrew Weil, that has a team of wellness coaches, that happens to be on Seabourn. This may draw an inquisitive response that leads to more questions, and possibly, a successful booking.

“I’ve got some great testimonials that have come in from some travel professionals who said, ‘Chris, I’ve done exactly what you told me to do, and I’ve got a booking.’ And they’re so proud, which is a special feeling,” says Austin.

How does Seabourn differentiate itself from other lines? He says it’s in those “Seabourn Moments,” that come about when a team member makes something happen for a guest in the simplest way.

“They’re not just doing it because they’ve been told to,” says Austin. “They do it because they have an inner passion. We’ve heard our service being described as ‘almost clairvoyant.’”

He says if four people were on the same cruise, after the first day they would each have a different moment. Perhaps one guest was delighted to already have been greeted by name by a staff member; another would have been tickled that a bartender remembered her favorite drink. Over the duration of the voyage, there would be several such moments, such as after learning that you could have caviar every single night in a specific lounge before dinner, to then be asked if you’d instead like to have it on your private veranda overlooking the Mediterranean. 

Other Seabourn selling points? All the ships in the fleet are consistent, says Austin, with the same silhouettes and layouts. The partnerships with Chef Thomas Keller for culinary and Dr. Andrew Weil for spa and wellness, and entertainment in alliance with Sir Tim Rice are also standouts, he says.

A recent accomplishment was a four-week global partner appreciation program that ran in March. It required creating events, sending out invitations, and getting the right materials and messaging out to travel advisors.

“The hard work was fun and very rewarding,” says Austin. “That’s key, isn’t it? That we have the backs of our travel professionals. We compensate them very well, but they work hard as well. It’s a great collaborative effort.”

ADVISOR INSIGHT: A Hotel Expert Tries Cruising

Victoria Boomgarden, president of Direct Travel Luxe, is known as the “hotel guru” because of her expertise on five-star hotels and because her average daily rates when selling these hotels are among the highest in the industry. Her team comprises hotel and FIT specialists and her clients prefer to book hotels over cruises, she tells Luxury Travel Advisor.

She was asked to sail on a shake-down cruise for the Seabourn Ovation for six days and to observe the experience through the eyes of a luxury hotel expert.

Here are her takeaways:

“Dining is a must, with the Thomas Keller Grill element. Keller is not somebody who puts his name on a million restaurants, so the French Laundry experience is truly there on the ship at the Grill, from every linen to the music that is played and the artwork that is displayed. Everyone has trained at French Laundry and Keller has an ambassador in that kitchen every single night. The wines have been chosen exactly from Thomas Keller’s perspective. In fact, that is the one place on the ship that caviar is not served, even though a Seabourn standard is to provide unlimited caviar and champagne. But caviar is not a Thomas Keller signature so it’s not served in the Grill. 

“At the tiny Japanese sushi restaurant called ‘Sushi,’ everyone is so Japanese that some of them came literally within a couple of weeks from Japan. It’s just a phenomenal experience. And, the food in the Dining Room is really high caliber. 

“Another element is The Retreat, where you can pre-reserve your cabana before you get on, which is what my clients would do. That’s what a luxury hotel client does. It’s not pool-side, it’s a retreat where you can have a massage in your own private cabana, you’ve got a big-screen TV and butler service. It’s fabulous. 

“The spa is not your typical over-priced at-sea experience where you pay $250 for a mediocre massage. This is Dr. Andrew Weil, who has developed wellness programs. They customize a complete care routine for you while you’re on board, whatever you need to get yourself whole. So that’s a big concept.

“Seabourn has the UNESCO World Heritage partnership, so they have access to UNESCO sites and experiences. They design their shore excursions with an on-board anthropologist so they’re coming at it from a more cultural perspective,” she notes.

Boomgarden says that following her experience on Seabourn she’ll introduce it, say, if a land client wants to go to certain destinations and a specific cruise is going into those ports.

“If Seabourn is the most convenient way to get there, we’re going to introduce it,” she says.

As for the accommodations on Seabourn? “The bathroom was well-appointed and I loved the soap presentation when you arrive; you get to choose your own. They also have double sinks with a separate tub and shower, and the water pressure is so great that you don’t want to get out of the shower. That’s unique on a ship. You just don’t get that,” she tells Luxury Travel Advisor.

As for those Seabourn Moments, Boomgarden had hers in Seabourn Square where she got her coffee each morning. “Not only do they have baristas, they’ve got the best Italian coffee roasting machine and highly trained individuals who roast it every single day. They would have my coffee ready when I came down in the morning. They would know what time I was coming. That type of thing means a lot.” Then there was the gelato, also served all day at Seabourn Square. “The gelato maker on board trained with a master gelato maker. Who knew? I had gelato three different times. I had it in Venice, I had it in Genoa and I had it in Montenegro and none compared to the quality of gelato onboard the ship,” she says.

Meet Robin West, Director of Ventures by Seabourn

We spoke with Robin West, director of expedition operations and planning for Ventures by Seabourn, which was launched in 2015 on select sailings. The program provides access to a team of scientists, scholars and naturalists; guests may also end up sailing on Zodiacs or kayaks through fjords, waterways and islands to see icebergs or wildlife up close.

“The Ventures by Seabourn idea is to give our guests the opportunity to enhance and extend the way they see a destination,” says West. “Many of the team are experts in their field, in terms of glaciology, geology, archeologists, ornithologists or marine biologists. They contribute to the onboard academic program through our Seabourn Conversations.”

The program consists of Zodiac tours, kayak tours and hiking. “We cater to various degrees of the market in terms of ability,” says West. “In Alaska, many of the areas we go to have an easy hike and a difficult hike, so that we accommodate as many guests as possible. The kayaking is more physically challenging than sitting in a Zodiac. But the Ventures program is an educational program. We’re not doing high-speed kayaking for the sake of covering distance.” 

To optimize the experience, the Ventures team will first take the kayaks to an area away from all the vessels in a port. They’ll then collect the guests and bring them to the kayaks. The guests then paddle one to three miles, depending on what’s there to see. They’re then put on the Zodiacs and are transported back to the ship, says West.

“The Zodiac tours pretty much anyone can do. With maybe two steps you’re getting into the Zodiac, you’re sitting down, and you’re heading off for a 90-minute tour to look at wildlife or icebergs or glaciers.”

West points out that age isn’t always the factor as to whether someone will do well on the more strenuous activities. 

“We sometimes have younger guests who don’t perform so well and we sometimes have older guests who are fantastic,” he tells Luxury Travel Advisor.

Sushi on Seabourn Ovation

Marni Becker, senior director of cruise sales at Protravel International and Tzell Travel, sailed on the initial preview cruise of the Seabourn Ovation

“While this may have been the first time guests were on board, service was seamless,” she tells Luxury Travel Advisor. “I ate sushi for lunch and dinner. The bento box lunch was just right and delicious. Dinner was varied with an assortment of sushi and, when we told the waiters to surprise us with an assortment of sushi and sashimi and to take some allergies into account, they did a wonderful job.” 

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