At The Helm: Seabourn's Pamela Conover

 
 
Aboard Odyssey, Pamela Conover stresses repeatedly that it is Seabourn’s onboard crew that makes the difference in the cruise experience.
 
 

If given the option, Pamela Conover, president and CEO of The Yachts of Seabourn prefers being part of a company’s operating culture to that of corporate life. “I really enjoy the interaction with guests and travel agents and the employees,” she tells Luxury Travel Advisor from Seabourn’s Miami office.

 

That Conover is a hands-on manager is a good thing for Seabourn. The luxury cruise line is in the middle of robust growth: Last June, it launched Seabourn Odyssey; in five months’ time it will add Seabourn Sojourn; and in June 2011, it welcomes Seabourn Quest. Meanwhile, its original trio of ships is going through multimillion-dollar dry-dock renovations (Spirit and Pride have completed theirs; Legend is slated for the fall).

 

The addition of the three ships represents a capacity increase of over 200 percent for the line in a three-year period; at 32,000 gross tons and 450-guest capacity each, the new ships are the smallest cruising vessels being built by any major cruise company. However, they’re a dramatic increase in size over Spirit, Pride and Legend, which carry 208 apiece.


Conover, whose earlier days in banking exposed her to ship financing, joined Carnival Corporation in 1994 when she headed Epirotiki in Greece. Once that operation shut down, she moved back to Miami and was at Carnival Corporation at the time it purchased Cunard Line and merged it with Seabourn.

 

She was ultimately named president and COO of the combined company (Cunard Line Limited) and hired Deborah Natansohn as vice president of marketing. She remained as president until the two brands were de-merged, after the launch of the Queen Mary II. When Cunard moved to California, Natansohn became president of Seabourn and Conover moved back to Carnival Corporation to head up the Corporate Synergy department. She also, among other projects, worked with Natansohn to plan the fleet expansion for Seabourn. When Natansohn died suddenly in 2006, Conover was called in to act as interim president, and later was named president and CEO.


Conover filled the post, but with a heavy heart. “I had hired Debbie in 2000 and we went through the whole launch of the Queen Mary II together,” she says. “When she moved to Seabourn, I was still working very closely with her and working on the plan for the new ships. It’s a tribute to her that the brand is where it is today and I often think about her. She was so excited about potentially bringing new ships out for Seabourn.”


Potential turned to certainty. Two ships had already been announced; by 2007, a third new ship was in the works. “It was a challenge I wanted to take on,” Conover recalls. And a challenge it has been. Conover traveled constantly last year to herald Odyssey, and this was on top of the travel she was doing to oversee existing fleet standards.


This year will be no different. This month, Conover is off to New Zealand to catch up with Odyssey, which is on its inaugural World Cruise. She’ll use the opportunity to help build awareness of Seabourn there. When she reaches Sydney, she’ll host a cocktail party for Odyssey guests who are sailing the full world cruise. “They will have been on the cruise since January 5, so it will give me a chance to really get some feedback from them as to how their voyage has gone,” she says. “That’s really the idea behind my sailing, to really experience the cruise from their eyes as opposed to experiencing it from the back office.”


Once she returns to Miami, she’s off a week later to the T. Mariotti shipyard in Genoa, Italy, to check up on Sojourn, which is set to debut on May 28 in Greenwich, UK.


Conover hopes Sojourn’s delivery will go a bit smoother than Odyssey’s. “That really was a difficult time for us,” she says, candidly. “Not only was it the first new ship that we had built in 20 years, it’s also not a secret that the ship was delivered late and unfinished.” That meant the crew didn’t enjoy a typical shakedown phase to test it out; instead, it immediately hosted a two-night event for luxury travel advisors in Venice.
Conover seriously considered canceling the event. Instead, Seabourn went on with the show.


“We decided in the end that we would be better off not canceling it but explaining the situation to people,” Conover says. “So we alerted everybody, begged for advance forgiveness and said, ‘please, pardon our dust.’”


Conover has always been very aware of crew operations, but she got a firsthand look at their dedication while launching Odyssey. “I am still amazed at how they pulled that off,” she says. “It was truly humbling to see how hard they worked. It gave me a renewed sense of appreciation.”


Sojourn’s launch is going decidedly smoother, Conover says. “The second ship is always much easier than the first. We know what to do and the yard knows what to do. We’re all feeling much better about it.”


Aside from ensuring Seabourn’s new ships are in perfect shape and on time, Conover is equally concerned with making certain Seabourn’s high service standards remain in place. Luxury Travel Advisor asked her to explain the cruise line’s service culture, which, when we experienced it, was seamless, unpretentious and intuitive. “A lot of it is in the hiring,”
says Conover. Members of frontline service crew are interviewed by recruiters who have worked on the ships, “so they know absolutely the sort of person we look to hire. Then it’s a question of their absorbing the culture on board.”


It’s during the onboard training that the crew develops the ability to anticipate what guests want, to deliver luxury the way they want it to be delivered. “They are trained to pay attention to detail and to respond on a one-to-one basis,” says Conover. Consider a simple bowl of nuts. “If a guest leaves all the cashews, it means the next time they’re served a bowl of nuts, cashews won’t be in it.”


Guest interaction is also encouraged. “They get a very good sense of who wants to be joked with and who wants to be treated in a certain way. Everybody wants it slightly differently,” she says.


Another factor leading to the relaxed ambiance onboard is the inclusive pricing plan, which includes gratuities. “That results in people realizing that whatever is done for them is done in a genuine way,” she explains.


To maintain this service philosophy, Seabourn makes it imperative that crew on the new ships have spent time with the existing fleet. For example, last January, to prepare for Odyssey, the line took several suites out of service on existing ships and used them to run training programs for the new recruits. (Training will be a lot easier now, since Odyssey has a facility with a set number of crew-training suites.)

 

Strong front-line communication is also a necessity. “With a brand like Seabourn, the front-line people are such a crucial element of what we are delivering because they are the face of what we do,” Conover says.


In-house communication is also key. A good deal of communication happens via Conover’s participation in Seabourn’s Quality Control Committee, a team of four that also includes the head of operations and hotel and amenity. They visit each of the ships at least once a year for two to three days at a time, inspect them from aft to bow and speak to management and crew for feedback. “It’s really important for employees to know where you are trying to go and what you expect of them,” she says. “If everybody knows the direction we are trying to head, then it’s a lot easier to get there.”


Another part of Conover’s management mantra is to “never ask of people what I wouldn’t ask of myself.” She says she has learned that the key to success is “to surround yourself with a really great team of people because you can’t do it all yourself. I realize I am a lot more effective by having people who are a lot better and know a lot more about the jobs they are doing than I do,” she adds.


So, who is the Seabourn customer? When Luxury Travel Advisor sailed last summer in the Mediterranean, we saw relaxed, affluent people. However, it took us a few days to realize how wealthy they were, because they avoid ostentation and are extremely friendly.


While it might be difficult to create an exact profile of the Seabourn passenger, it is possible to define their mindset. “They, in general, are very well traveled and tend to be very social, in the sense that they like to meet and mix and interact with other people,” says Conover. “Our ships promote that and that’s again part of the all-inclusive nature. But the number one reason they come back is for the crew and the service. The second reason is because of the people they meet.”


More specifically, Seabourn has found that 70 percent of its guests come from North America. The rest come from the UK, Europe, Australia and New Zealand. They tend to be affluent international travelers, with the average age in the high 50s. Age demographic depends on the itinerary.


Seven-day Mediterranean trips tend to attract younger guests. “With Odyssey, we have seen the age of our guests come down,” says Conover. “On that ship, we have a lot of new guests and a lot of new travel agents who haven’t sold us before—which is great. We are seeing guests in their 40s, some with kids.” Many also come with friends from home or whom they’ve met on past Seabourn cruises.


Seabourn has been happy to introduce a new group of travel agents to its products. According to Conover, the economic downturn, together with the addition of Odyssey, has created a value environment that has allowed the cruise line’s sales force to reach out to agents who, in the past, may have felt they couldn’t sell the line. “They were able to say, ‘Listen, you do have clients out there who are potential customers for us.’ They’ve been developing relationships with people who haven’t sold this before,” she says.


 
A Penthouse Suite aboard Seabourn Odyssey. The ship has 22 of this category of suite, each 534 square feet and located on the uppermost decks.
 
 

Seabourn, like others in its competitive set, has created a value-priced environment in the downturn. A recent promotion includes complimentary roundtrip business and economy airfare from select North American gateways to 52 European voyages for this summer’s sailings. At the same time, promotional fares, which discount 50 percent off brochure fares, start at
$3,799 per person.


Conover says the cruise line’s lead pricing still attracts an affluent clientele. “I think that there is an opportunity for agents to take advantage of the value available today to introduce people to ultra-luxury cruising with Seabourn, because there is no question that pricing ultimately will go up, it’s just a matter of when. Once these people experience it, they are going to understand the value. And once people find something they like, they find a way to pay for it,” she says.


Conover adds confidently how statistics show two-thirds of those who have sailed with Seabourn cruise again with the line within 18 months. “From an agent’s perspective, it’s sort of creating an annuity,” she says. And it’s an annuity that grows, because when customers return home they relay their great experience to their country club and families. “They say, ‘I just had the best time I ever had and I am going again, why don’t you come with me?’” she explains.


She’s also quick to point out that Seabourn’s inclusive policy, which also includes drinks, adds to the relaxed environment onboard. “When the guest doesn’t have to sign for drinks, there is no sense that they’re being sold something. I think that creates a different sort of atmosphere,” she notes, while recalling the cruise line once departed from the all-inclusive policy before realizing it was a mistake. “We moved back; it’s a fundamental part of the product.”


Adding to the luxury mix are Seabourn’s increasing customized shore programs for guests. “We find we are doing a lot more private arrangements that people want, whether it is for a few friends or just a couple or a family group—they want to go off and do something themselves,” Conover says. While some of those plans are made onboard, she is happy to see customers contacting the line in advance for a truly customized experience. To accommodate that, Seabourn has tripled its shore-side concierge staff.


Itineraries are of major importance to Seabourn, whose new ships are allowing it to expand both its land and port options. It recently shifted Pride to Asia for year-round cruising. Spirit, last summer, was able to go off the beaten path, sailing out of Venice to Croatia and then on to some of the smaller ports of Italy. The ability to expand itinerary options has not only been an incentive for repeat guests seeking something new, it’s also helped Seabourn cater to clients seeking more exotic options.


On land, Conover says, Seabourn has always sought to provide more active programs that bring a location to life. That could include going to the market to buy ingredients and attending a cooking class at the home of a local. “People want to do things as the locals do it, they don’t just want to look at it from the outside,” she says. “We are generally trying to keep them in smaller groups and give them access to areas that you can’t readily get to otherwise.”


Conover says she has been incredibly lucky to have landed in an industry that she enjoys working in so much. “The travel business is fantastic to be in because it’s about creating experiences for people,” she says. “That’s really where I am coming from and that’s what motivates me. Our inspiration, too, is, of course, the people on the ships because they are such perfectionists. One of the things I always marvel at is when we talk to crew members onboard and discuss with them why they like working for Seabourn. Invariably, they say, ‘I am in this to practice at the highest level; I like the bar to be high. Why would I want to fool around doing less than my best?’”

 

 
 
Seabourn Spirit has enjoyed a dry-dock renovation; shown here is its revamped Horizon Lounge.
 
 

SEABOURN AND CARNIVAL CORPORATION: THE BEST OF BOTH WORLDS

 

Seabourn and Carnival Corporation: The Best of Both Worlds Seabourn is a fairly independent enterprise, reacting easily and quickly to market conditions, but it’s also part of a much larger entity, Carnival Corporation, which owns a stable of cruise brands, ranging from Cunard Line, Princess and Holland America to Costa and Carnival Cruise Lines.


It’s easy to forget this, chiefly because Carnival’s presence doesn’t really manifest itself during the Seabourn sailing experience. Conover says that’s because Carnival’s philosophy is one of decentralized management, as well as decentralized brand management. At the same time, Seabourn is able to benefit from the strong financial backing of Carnival Corporation, whose revenues for 2009 were $13.2 billion.

“Clearly we would not have been able to make the sort of capital investments we have made with the three new ships—which, when you combine, is close to $1 billion over three years—without Carnival’s support and commitment,” Conover says. “There’s also the reassurance that you have their financial backing when you are going through the sort of period that we have had over the last year. We also take advantage of the economies of scale, like joint purchasing of fuel. We have the opportunity to leverage the buying power, and we do.


“To me, it’s the best of both worlds. You have the benefit of a group of executives who really understand the business, who have been in it a long time; you can leverage that knowledge.”

 

THE NEW GENERATION

 

Seabourn Odyssey heralded a new era for Seabourn. It’s the first of three new vessels the line is building; Seabourn Sojourn launches in June 2010 and the Seabourn Quest in 2011. What’s different about these ships from Seabourn’s existing fleet? While still intimate in size, they have twice as many suites and most have verandas, a new amenity for Seabourn.


There’s also a large spa with a hydropool, steam room and two spa villas. There are also more restaurants, four in all. Then, there’s the Grand Wintergarden Suite, the largest of any Seabourn suite, with 1,182 square feet of indoor space plus two verandas. The two-bedroom, two-bathroom suite has a glass-enclosed solarium with tub and daybed (shown below), a whirlpool, dining for six, two bars and three flat-screen TVs.


Another new feature of Odyssey is Seabourn Square, a “concierge lounge” with a library, upscale shops, an outdoor terrace and coffee bar, as well as concierges in a relaxed, club-like atmosphere.

 

 

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