|At Silversea’s Florida Headquarters: Ellen Bettridge says she found her new colleagues to be very welcoming and “very agent-friendly.”|
When the news broke earlier this year that Ellen Bettridge had been named president of the Americas for Silversea Cruises, a virtual, unified cheer went up over the entire travel industry. Silversea was sending a clear message to the travel advisor community that it had their concerns in mind in selecting Bettridge, who just happened to be the beloved and respected leader of the American Express Retail Travel Network. An advisors’ advocate, indeed, Bettridge, who originally hails from Spokane, WA, was actually a frontline travel agent when she launched her career more than 20 years ago.
The new cruise line executive, who until quite recently was firmly entrenched in the northeast, living in New Canaan, CT, and commuting to American Express’ offices in lower Manhattan when she wasn’t traveling, now calls sunny Fort Lauderdale her home where she heads Silversea’s North American headquarters. Instead of overseeing an expansive network of travel agencies, she is running a luxury cruise line that comprises seven ships.
A dramatic shift indeed, considering Bettridge hadn’t even dreamed of such a role until it was presented to her last December.
It all went something like this. Bettridge was speaking on a panel at ILTM in Cannes. Afterward, she was approached by Enzo Visone, CEO of Silversea. He asked her to get together for coffee the following day. When she went to the meeting, she began chatting about American Express’ marketing programs.
“I don’t want to talk about American Express, I want to talk about you,” Bettridge remembers him saying. “He said he was making some changes in the business and that they wanted to grow and that ‘we want you.’ ”
Flattered, Bettridge’s initial reaction was, “How could I leave American Express after 20 years? I have a job I love, customers I love, employees I love. I have a husband who also has a job in New York and two children going to school. There is no way you can unwind all of that.”
When she returned to her hotel she phoned home. Her husband’s response was immediate.
“Go for it,” he told her.
As Bettridge did consider unwinding her life, she realized it wasn’t as tangled in permanence as she had feared. Her oldest daughter is heading to college, her younger daughter is going to sixth grade.
“They are both transitioning in schools so it just made sense,” she says, adding that her husband’s job as an editor would allow him to work from Fort Lauderdale.
Decision made, life changed right away. Bettridge began commuting to Fort Lauderdale and has been spending the spring and early summer getting graduations completed. She’s anxious to get a permanent residence in Florida soon (she is currently in a condo), since school there begins not in September as it does in the northeast, but in August.
“So it’s fun. Change is good,” she says with a smile.
Walking into Silversea’s headquarters the first day wasn’t as jarring as Bettridge had imagined it might be. “Silversea is a very friendly, warm company and it is very agent-friendly,” she says.
For that very reason, those who have been quizzing her on what she will change at Silversea have been told the following: “I wouldn’t dramatically change anything. What we can do is potentially look at how our field sales is set up, how we can support our agency partners better, and to be sure our inside sales is set up the right way. But it’s not about changing things dramatically. It’s just doing some tweaks.”
New Sales Executive
Indeed, one of the first measures Bettridge did take at Silversea was to hire a vice president of sales to replace Steve Tucker, who had just left prior to her arrival. The new appointee is Kristian Anderson, the former vice president of U.S. sales for Qatar Airways, who started June 11. (See sidebar.)
That Anderson is not from the cruise industry was a purposeful decision.
“I really wanted to get a different type of thinking and approach when we think about our business, and if you bring in someone with a strong cruise background you don’t always get that,” says Bettridge. “I wanted to figure out how we can mix things up a bit. I think we have to be competitive right now so I wanted a VP of sales who also might think differently.”
According to Bettridge, Anderson has strong travel agency and customer contacts. “He’s also a strong leader of employees so those were some of the qualities that I was looking for. And he is also a fantastic salesman.”
One of the reasons Bettridge is particularly excited about her new job is that she’s always been a fan of Silversea, having sailed with them three times over the years.
“It’s a great, great brand. The service is phenomenal; the food is great; they have incredible potential,” she says. Going forward, she says, it will be important to look at how the line can provide better service. “That means thinking of how the customers will be happy, therefore our [travel agency] partners are happy.”
In her new role as president of the Americas she has yet to sail, but she’s anxious to hit the seas, knowing she’ll now look at the experience differently. Most difficult to get onboard, she says, will be the Silver Explorer expedition ship, which sails remote areas, including the polar regions, and fills up quickly.
|The Silver Shadow is shown sailing in Alaska.|
That adventure market has proven lucrative for Silversea, so much so that at presstime it had announced the purchase of Canodros, an Ecuadorian tourism company that operates in the Galapagos Islands. With the purchase comes an upmarket expedition ship, Galapagos Explorer II.
The cruise line plans to add the Galapagos Explorer II to its fleet of six ships next year, after the 100-guest vessel undergoes a major refurbishment in September 2013 and is given a new name, to make it consistent with the rest of the Silversea fleet.
The addition of the Silver Explorer (formerly the Prince Albert II) in 2008, says Bettridge, has assisted in pulling in a younger demographic that can graduate on to the rest of the Silversea fleet. “It’s different, though it’s definitely Silversea. It’s luxury but it’s very adventurous, and everyday you are doing something fabulous.”
The rest of the fleet, however, which includes Silver Cloud, Silver Wind, Silver Shadow, Silver Whisper and Silver Spirit, competes heavily with other ships in the luxury arena, where several of the lines are going head to head on pricing and value-added offerings.
“Our consumers are smart, so they are looking everywhere at all of the options to get that best deal. That has got to be the biggest challenge for us right now. It’s easy for me to say [just a few months in] that we need to stop that because at the end of the day we still have to put people in the beds. I have to figure out how to do that and at the same time have price integrity, which I think our partners want as well,” says Bettridge, adding she actually wouldn’t mind if Silversea were known for being more costly than other lines. “If we really are the luxury provider, we can do that,” she asserts. “I don’t mind if we are known as being more expensive than the others as long as we provide value and as long as the product backs it up.”
She also recognizes that a few years ago Silversea was known for having some inconsistencies in its product.
“I believe that a lot of that has gone away, and that’s based on survey results from our customers, which are very high,” she says.
Indeed, the line was the winner in the 2011 Luxury Travel Advisor Awards of Excellence for Luxury Small Ships. Moreover, it recently updated its onboard entertainment and supplemented its dining options, including promoting the “Slow Food” movement in its La Terrazza restaurant.
“Slow Food has done very well for us,” says Bettridge. “It’s an opportunity for people to think about what they are eating and where they are eating when they are enjoying their food.” That goes along with the fact that Silversea has always been known for its culinary offerings. “So let’s go back and let’s own that space,” says Bettridge, adding that the luxury cruise line has a series of voyages that will have Relais & Châteaux chefs joining them onboard to host cooking classes and do wine pairings. “The cruise is designed around them. Because our ships are so small, we can do that.”
In fact, the size of the luxury fleet (ranging from 296 to 540 passengers) differentiates Silversea from several competitors.
“You are in an intimate environment, where you can get to know everyone and you have everything taken care of for you,” says Bettridge.
Aside from its strong culinary heritage and the dining options aboard, Bettridge aims to promote how many choices Silversea provides to guests, whether it’s what the welcome gift will be (champagne, white wine, or a simple snack for a weary traveler?). Pillow menus and bath amenities also come with choices, such as Neutrogena or Ferragamo; you can even select which scent you want in your room ahead of time by consulting with your travel advisor.
The ability to make those selections online ahead of time will come in the first half of 2013 when Silversea implements a new reservations system that will enable guests to list their preferences.
“I want clients to feel like they have come home. That when they walk into their cabin everything is there for them, especially if they are a frequent cruiser with us,” she says. Preferences could be saved in such a system, including whether a guest likes, or doesn’t like, a butler to unpack for them. (All guests on Silversea enjoy the services of a butler.)
As the newly named president settles into her new life, she’s wrapping her arms around the cruise business with the intent of determining how to differentiate the Silversea product even more.
“It’s not about the price; it’s got to be about the product and making sure that it really is consistent and that it really is the high quality that we say that it is,” she says.
That’s how she’ll spend her summer; in the fall, she foresees a heavy travel schedule that will deliver her to Silversea’s top customers to determine if there is anything else the line can be doing for them. That’s really nothing new for Bettridge, who did exactly that at her role with American Express.
|The Grand Suite on the Silver Spirit.|
“When I made the decision to join Silversea, I really thought about the fact that they [Silversea and American Express] are two brands that I absolutely love. American Express is huge but it’s known for quality, it’s known for taking care of you and people respect it. Silversea is a smaller brand; it’s a luxury brand but it’s known for the same attributes. So [the move] wasn’t a big stretch for me,” Bettridge tells Luxury Travel Advisor. “The job itself is all about working with my customers and my employees and with my travel partners—all things that I was doing in my former role at American Express.”
As she visits with the cruise line’s travel agent partners, she’ll seek to better understand their businesses and how they in turn work with Silversea. Everyone does it a little differently, she says, and her goal is to determine how to help them set up their marketing plans and how to train their agents.
|Silver Shadow’s luxurious Owner’s Suite.|
“I am asking a lot of the partners that I know well for their ideas. I want to gather as much input as possible to try to help make some decisions for 2013,” she says, the excitement palpable in her voice.
What will be inspiring Bettridge as her travel schedule heats up and her immersion within the cruise line’s inner workings become even more intense will likely be her first impression from her first cruise on Silversea, which had all the makings of a luxury trip.
“My first experience with Silversea was in June of 2004 on the Silver Whisper, an intimate ship that only holds 382 passengers,” she tells Luxury Travel Advisor. “We were in the Baltics and to this day it is my favorite cruise experience. I was wildly impressed with the service, food and how they brought St. Petersburg, Tallin and Copenhagen to life. I still remember sipping wine and laughing with friends very late evenings on the back deck wrapped in beautiful blankets. It doesn’t get much better than that!”