Mark Conroy is bringing to Silversea his expertise garnered from decades in the business.
The luxury travel advisor community was delighted when Mark Conroy was named managing director of the Americas for Silversea Cruises in early February; that’s because Conroy, who was most recently the head of Regent Seven Seas Cruises, a line where he’d spent more than two decades, is one of the most affable and trusted executives in the industry. He knows the luxury cruise business inside and out; he’s just as comfortable surveying the operations on board a cruise ship as he is managing a corporate office. He’s adept at speaking publicly on industry panels and he’s especially sharp on the front lines, gaining and maintaining the trust of the vital luxury travel agent market.
With several months already under his belt at Silversea, Conroy is hard at work filling up the line’s fleet of ultra-luxury ships: Silver Cloud, Silver Wind, Silver Shadow, Silver Whisper, Silver Spirit — and launching in 2017, Silver Muse, as well as three expedition vessels: Silver Explorer, Silver Galapagos and Silver Discoverer.
The Silver Muse launches next Spring. Shown left is a rendering of a Veranda Suite.
When we visited with Conroy at the cruise line’s Miami offices, he was deep into what he does best, analyzing sales data so he could help travel advisors sell more of Silversea and putting incentives in the marketplace to encourage them to sell it. He’s already been traveling across the country, about a week-and-a-half every month, visiting with travel agents, which, in a way, has been a homecoming for him.
“We went to visit Strong Travel [in Dallas]; Jim Strong actually invited us to his home for brunch and brought his team over. Nancy Strong said to me, ‘Mark, what did you miss the most about not being actively involved in the business?’ and I said, ‘The people.’”
Conroy had a two-year non-compete after leaving Regent in 2013; he then worked on a project for CLIA for almost a year, which kept him close to the cruise industry, but didn’t deliver exactly the same vibe as running a cruise line day to day.
“It’s interesting that over the 40 years that I’ve been doing this that the majority of my friends are in the business,” Conroy tells Luxury Travel Advisor. “But everybody who is in the business is so busy, it’s hard to get to see them, if you’re not in it.”
He got back in it after meeting up with the Monaco-based chairman of Silversea, Manfredi Lefebvre, a year ago at Virtuoso Travel Week, where Conroy was speaking. Lefebvre asked Conroy, whom he’d known since the mid-90s, to have a cup of coffee. That coffee turned into a request for Conroy to consult with key advisors to get their take on the business; when Conroy reported back with his findings, the conversation turned to the bigger picture and he was brought in to head up the Americas for the luxury line. “It’s been really good,” says Conroy of the move thus far.
In turn, travel advisors have been equally glad to see Conroy again.
“We are great fans of Mark,” says Nancy Strong, CEO of Strong Travel Services. “When you have known someone a long time and have a good business history with them, it becomes a remarkable relationship built on trust and professionalism.”
Advisors are also excited to see what moves he will make at Silversea, which has seen several changes in leadership in its North American operations over the past few years.
Says Tom Baker, president of CruiseCenter in Houston, TX: “I think Mark Conroy’s addition at Silversea is finally a game-changer for this brand, which has seen its fair share of shift in executives. This might be the needed revival to keep this brand and its equity intact, since Mark is truly loved in the world of luxury travel.”
Ruth Turpin, owner of Cruises, Etc., in Fort Worth, TX has already seen a change at the line, thanks to Conroy’s arrival.
“I believe the biggest thing that Mark has been able to do is to restore travel advisors’ confidence in Silversea,” says Turpin. “Mark is such an icon and he is so highly thought of. Travel advisors trust him and they know they can trust a product he represents.”
Turpin also feels that Conroy makes himself readily available to luxury travel advisors. “Those of us who have known him for 30 years know that we can call him personally and discuss any issues that we have.”
No pressure, right? Indeed, with expectations as high as these, some might feel overwhelmed, but Conroy is ready to navigate all of the moving parts at the luxury cruise line.
“In this business, particularly at this end of the business, it’s highly personal,” says Conroy. “There’s a lot of trust involved. We’ve executed well and the ships run very well, but we just weren’t as visible as we could have been,” he says of the recent past. “There’s so much coming at the agency community today that you need to be there, explaining to them what the sales proposition is at all levels.”
Conroy says his role is to “tell the big story of Silversea. And then we have the people on board the ships that have to deliver the story; we also have our regional people and our directors and our reservations people, all telling the same story. When you take a piece out like the leadership from the top, it affects their ability to perform.”
Despite a series of changes in leadership at the cruise line, Conroy says he was very impressed with the Silversea sales organization when he came on board. “It was a bright light,” he says. “Most of the big agencies have told me, ‘The reason that we’re still doing as much business as we are [with Silversea] is because of the salesperson.’”
Kabuki will be a Japanese restaurant on the ship, which will have eight dining venues.
Conroy has already added his own touch to that part of the organization, bringing back Christian Sierralta as the line’s new head of national accounts and Latin America sales. He’s based in Miami, alongside Conroy. Sierralta was most recently at Regent Seven Seas Cruises (where he worked with Conroy) and Oceania Cruises, but prior to that, he was Silversea’s regional sales director for Latin America and the Caribbean for six years, following a four-year stint as its senior business analyst, working on inventory control and pricing and planning.
“It’s great to have somebody who knows how I think and also, who could hit the ground running from Silversea’s perspective,” says Conroy of Sierralta’s appointment.
Besides telling the Silversea story (of note is that the line is launching a new ship next April, the Silver Muse), Conroy knows that it’s imperative to listen to what others are saying about the line.
“That’s the key element, people understand that it’s a conversation. It’s not a monologue. It’s a dialogue. It’s about getting out and meeting and finding out what’s working with people and what’s not working and not just assuming that you’re right.”
Listening has been important in 2016, a year that has delivered a variety of challenges to the travel front.
When Conroy and Lefebvre had their initial conversation a year ago, the luxury travel industry was on steroids, zooming along in a recovered economy, filled with affluent travelers anxious to take multiple trips a year, whether to tick off destinations on their bucket list, or to simply enjoy some rest and relaxation.
2016, however, started out with a January blip in the stock market, giving consumers some qualms; combine that with terrorist attacks in Europe and the Zika virus in the tropics and suddenly jetsetters and family travelers were thinking twice about their favorite destinations.
Along those lines, Conroy says Silversea is seeing a dip in the Mediterranean this summer.
“This year has been great except for the Med,” says Conroy. “Our World Cruise was the best we’ve ever had and the Caribbean did very well. I’m comfortable that the Baltic is going to sell out. Alaska is selling out. The expedition products in most cases are doing very well.”
He notes that because of Silversea’s size and because it is European-based, it likely had the largest percentage of any line of its total capacity in the Med, “and a ton of it in the Eastern Med. The Western Med has held up okay, but the Eastern Med has been a struggle.”
The line altered some of its routes to assuage worried cruisers, but that’s no easy task. “It’s interesting because some people were mad that we took some of the Turkish ports out, and other people were thrilled. Then, others were unhappy that we didn’t take the Turkish ports out of other itineraries,” he says.
To make Med cruises more enticing, Conroy followed the advice of those travel advisors he spoke with and organized several familiarization trips for the trade. A “Sell 3 and Sail Free” program was also put in place for fall Mediterranean cruises, which agents are able to promote as a “come-along cruise.”
“An agent is able to say to the consumer, ‘Hey, listen, the Med this fall is good value. I’m going to go, and I think you should join me,’” says Conroy.
The cruise executive has also been crunching the numbers, going through Silversea’s robust database to target past guests. Those clients are good prospects since they already understand Silversea, Conroy says. “They trust us. They know us. They know the value.”
With that intel, Conroy had his team go out to every agent that’s produced for Silversea. “We reminded them that of the 1,000 past guests they provided over the last six years, only 200 or 300 are booked right now, and they’re not booked in the Med. We sent them the names, the last time the person sailed, the agent within the agency that sold that customer and suggesting they contact these folks with the Med offer and with the idea in mind that if they can sell three cruises, they’ll go free,” he says.
Working with these existing clients is easier than going through the process of finding new ones, says Conroy.
“Those are the easiest people to get to because the conversation is much shorter,” he tells Luxury Travel Advisor. “It’s not talking about our differentiation and our value. It’s talking about that you’ve been on Silversea — 98 percent of our customers say they’re going to come back — it’s just about encouraging them and giving them the right offer to get them to come back.”
Silversea is also sending a “dashboard” to travel advisors on a monthly basis to show them where they were with sales a year before. It also shows what their forward-looking bookings are and it talks about what products they’re selling.
Conroy has also put one of his “best practices” that he’s used in the past to play at Silversea, which is to mention the last agency of record in the call to action to the consumer.
“It makes sense. Why not send them back to the person who sent them to us in the first place?” says Conroy. “Then the sales process becomes a much simpler one.”
We asked Conroy about why consumers aren’t always 100 percent loyal to their travel advisors.
“It’s not a matter of loyalty, because the customer doesn’t even think about it that way,” says Conroy. “It’s about who happens to be talking to them at the time when they make their purchase decision.” Such a scenario, he says, could involve two couples having cocktails together. One says they’re going on an Eastern Med cruise with a great deal on business class air and suggests the other couple join them. That other couple might have a travel agent, but instead tags along with the other couple's agent, perceiving it to be easier.
Back to that travel advisor dashboard that agents get once a month. It’s showing that Galapagos expedition cruises are doing extremely well; in fact, at press time, Silversea had just added on two new itineraries in the region for next March for the Silver Galapagos. The new cruises will sail Saturday to Saturday, with San Cristóbal as a new arrival or departure port. For the first time, Silver Galapagos will circumnavigate Kicker Rock and Daphne Major, both known for great settings for spotting exotic birds. Las Bachas Beach is also a new destination for the ship; that’s where you can see flamingos and sea turtles.
Being in the expedition business is all about creating life experiences for your customers, says Conroy. Before Silversea got into the expedition cruise business, loyal guests who wanted to go to the Galapagos or the Antarctic or the Arctic, or even the Amazon would have had to sail with another line.
And, adding expedition cruising has given the luxury line exposure to travelers, who simply would not have considered regular ocean cruising as an option. “There are a lot of people, particularly those who are well-educated, who are into expedition cruising but tend to blow off regular cruises as not being relevant to their lifestyle,” says Conroy. But once they do expedition cruising with Silversea and experience the personal service, he says, there’s strong chance they’ll try out the line’s classic fleet of ships, stepping up to the Silver Wind or Silver Cloud, which carry only a few hundred more people.
Watch for Silversea’s expedition cruising capacity to grow in November 2017; the ocean-going Silver Cloud will be souped up with a hull and propellers worthy of dealing with polar climates; she’ll also be stocked with 19 Zodiacs. Best part? She’ll retain luxe on-board offerings, such as The Dining Room, the Relais & Chateaux restaurant (Le Champagne), La Terrazza, The Grill and in-room dining.
Silver Cloud, which will join the fleet that includes Explorer, Silver Discoverer and Silver Galapagos, will be deployed where the Silver Explorer is currently sailing. Explorer will then take on even deeper expedition itineraries, sailing in the Pacific and circumnavigating the South Pole, for example.
Conroy says he believes there is a spot for a ship like Silver Cloud in expedition cruising because it has balconies, suites, and multiple dining venues, “which no expedition ships, including ours, have right now.”
Despite the blips the entire industry is seeing in 2016, luxury cruising remains a prime pick for consumers. Baby Boomers are traveling in full stride right now. And whereas members of the “Great Generation” who lived through the Depression, fought in WW2, made a living and created a fortune, were sometimes a bit slow to spend money, their Baby Boomer kids are somewhat more free wheeling. Now that they’re hitting their 60s, many are well off and have probably been left an inheritance to boot.
“Their kids are pretty well set, and they’ve still got a lot of money in the bank,” says Conroy. “They start thinking about spending a little bit more liberally.”
That’s good news, especially since Silversea is launching a new ocean-cruising ship next April. The Silver Muse will have a capacity of 596 guests with spacious suites, most with verandahs. During its inaugural year, the ship will visit 34 countries and over 130 ports, offering a chance to visit 52 UNESCO World Heritage Sites, from ancient Greek temples to historic Caribbean fortresses.
Conroy says Silver Muse, which joins the “classic” fleet of Silver Cloud, Silver Wind, Silver Shadow, Silver Whisper and Silver Spirit, is an evolution of the relationship Silversea has with Relais and Chateaux, from dining concepts to color palettes. Silver Muse will have eight dining venues with 16 different food concepts that will change during the day (the existing classic ships have four dining venues).
The on-board amenities are dazzling but Conroy is also intrigued by the land opportunities all Silversea ships have now have, thanks to research conducted by professors at the University of Rome. “They took all the data from all the experiences we’ve had since 1994 and loaded it into the system,” says Conroy. “The data includes how guests rated ports of call, notes on how the cruise line’s technical team talked about the distance to get into each city, the service it received, the ease of doing business with that port and the actual cost of using each port.”
Maximizing Land Options
With all of that data in the Magellan system, Silversea can now analyze a myriad of options for itineraries. If it’s looking at sailing between Athens and Barcelona, Magellan will deliver port suggestions that have scored the highest guest satisfaction as well as those that are the most fuel efficient. The system also provides logistical information that allows ships to stay longer in ports.
“It lets us look at what we did over several years and see what worked," says Conroy, who says it's important with Silversea customers to add on unique elements in ports because they’ve traveled so much. The trick, he says, is if you make an itinerary too unusual, people won’t go for it.
“It’s always important to add new touches to an itinerary, but if you have too many of those, it’s not going to sell,” says Conroy, who believes analyzing itineraries can be a full time job. “The more experienced cruisers you deal with, the more challenging it is, because they’ll say, ‘I’ve been there already.’”
He’s seeing two trends, those who are exploring more on shore, say, stopping at Monte Carlo but then spending the day in Èze, and then there are others who simply prefer to stay on the ship.
It’s clear that tracking luxury cruise trends intrigues this beloved cruise executive. He says Silversea management has long spoken about having a total of 12 ships, and we’d say Conroy is up for it all, while facing the immediate challenges in front of him.
For now: “We’re trying to create many different ways [to encourage sailing to the Med], other than lowering the price. We had the business class offer. We have a ‘welcome-back’ offer. We’re working with agents to get them to proactively focus on their past Silversea guests because they’re easier to find. We’re doing all these things to communicate that if you’ve ever been interested in value, this is a great time to go to Europe, the Western and Eastern Med particularly,” says Conroy.
It’s early days but the programs are already reaping results. And, always with the advisor in mind, Conroy says at the very least it will be good for agents to have the data on past Silversea guests at their fingertips; it's all useful information on where and when their clients have sailed.
Looking ahead, Conroy says the cruise line plans to work even more closely with travel advisors to support their needs and to help them further understand its products. The plan is also to continue providing opportunities for agents to experience Silversea.
“I’m excited,” Conroy tells Luxury Travel Advisor. “We’re in a good spot. It's great to be back. And it's nice to be here at Silversea."
Sidebar: New for Silversea
Launching in April 2017, Silver Muse will have a capacity of 596 guests. During its inaugural year, the ship will visit 34 countries and over 130 ports, offering a chance to visit 52 UNESCO World Heritage Sites, from ancient Greek temples to historic Caribbean fortresses.
Departing January 6, Silver Whisper’s 116-day World Cruise will sail from San Francisco Bay for Hawaii and cross the International Date Line to the South Pacific, New Zealand, and Australia. Then, weaving its way through Bali and Sandakan, the ship will arrive at Shanghai, Hong Kong and Singapore, before setting a course for India, the Middle East and the Mediterranean.
During 2017, Silversea guests can also explore South America while sailing roundtrip from Fort Lauderdale on one of two Grand Voyages: a 63-day Silver Spirit cruise departing on January 16, and a 66-day cruise aboard the line’s newest ship, Silver Muse, departing on October 13.
The line is also offering sailings that take in famous events during 2017. Silver Spirit will overnight in Monte Carlo on May 27, during the city’s Formula One Grand Prix. Silver Spirit will also overnight in Venice, July 15 and 16, during the celebrations of the Festa del Redentore, known for its display of fireworks and other festivities. Finally, two Silver Wind voyages in September will overnight in Hamburg during the historic port’s annual Cruise Days event, when the city welcomes the world of cruises with special attractions and entertainment.
On its smaller ships, the line will offer nine cruises on Silver Cloud and Silver Wind up the Thames River to dock near (or depart from) Tower Bridge in the heart of London, as well as three voyages on Silver Cloud and Silver Wind transiting the Mediterranean’s narrow Corinth Canal. In Alaska, Silver Shadow will offer 16 seven-day voyages between Seward and Vancouver.
Pictured: Silver Explorer, shown sailing off the coast of Greenland, will take on even more exotic itineraries next year.
Silversea’s luxury expedition fleet will expand to four ships in November 2017, when Silver Cloud joins Silver Explorer, Silver Discoverer and Silver Galapagos. Fresh from an extensive refurbishment and conversion to an ice-class expedition ship, Silver Cloud launches a series of Antarctica voyages in November and December, offering itineraries from 10 to 19 days, and sailing mostly roundtrip from Ushuaia.
Silver Discoverer’s new 16-day, Colombo-to-Kolkata cruise departs February 11 to explore the Andaman Islands and make the first-ever cruise ship visit to Bangladesh, with explorations of Chittagong, Maheshkhali Island and the Sundarbans, one of the world’s largest mangrove forests and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Castries St. Lucia was a featured port stop for Silver Spirit, which is part of Silversea’s classicocean-faring fleet.
A rare visit to Canada’s remote Torngat Mountains National Park highlights an August 31 Silver Explorer expedition focused on Greenland and the Canadian Arctic, sailing 15 days from Kangerlussuaq to St. John’s.
Silver Galapagos will continue to offer two alternating seven-day itineraries exploring the north central and western isles.
Chairman: Manfredi Lefebvre d’Ovidio
CEO: Enzo Visone
Managing Director, the Americas: Mark Conroy
Vessels: Silver Cloud, Silver Wind, Silver Shadow, Silver Whisper, Silver Spirit — and launching in 2017, Silver Muse
Expedition ships: Silver Explorer, Silver Galapagos and Silver Discoverer