New at the helm of Seabourn’s sales organization, cruise industry veteran Steve Smotrys talked this month to Luxury Travel Advisor about the ultra-luxury line’s sales approach, booking trends and new expedition product.
Cruise Industry Background
With 20 years experience in key sales and marketing positions for multiple Carnival Corporation brands, Smotrys brings a strong cruise industry “pedigree” to his new role as Seabourn’s vice president of global sales. He also has a solid history of working closely with luxury travel advisors. Joining Princess Cruises in 2000, over the past two decades, Smotrys has led cruise line teams in revenue management, market planning, shore excursions and sales. Most recently, he served as vice president of sales and trade marketing, Cunard North America.
In his new role, Smotrys will be responsible for Seabourn’s overall global sales efforts, leading the teams who support the travel advisor community not only within North America but also in the United Kingdom, other parts of Europe, Asia and Australia.
Currently, he’s based in Los Angeles while Seabourn’s headquarters is co-located with that of Holland America Line in Seattle. But because Seabourn is a global brand, “I feel that I’ll be the road quite a bit,” he says. So, for the present, he’ll continue to work from L.A. as he builds relationships with the line’s employee teams and trade partners.
Reuniting a Strong Duo
One interesting factoid? Smotrys isn’t working for a new boss. He’s working for the same boss, yet in a new position at a different Carnival brand. Josh Leibowitz, appointed Seabourn’s new president a few months ago, previously headed Cunard North America.
“Josh and I actually worked together for about two and a half years when he was chief strategy officer at Carnival Corporation and, at the same time, he was overseeing Cunard North America,” said Smotrys. “We really spent a lot of time together for strategy on the sales side.”
“I can already see—and I’m not surprised—the impact that Josh has had on the Seabourn team,” he notes. “He’s a great visionary leader, he’s very personable, he learns about the individuals….It’s a perfect fit and I’m thrilled to be part of the team.”
Taking A Thoughtful Approach
Will advisors see any changes in the sales force structure? Smotrys told Luxury Travel Advisor that initially “my approach was to come in and be an observer and listen and get to know the team,” he says.
Now, he’s also looking at the brand’s commercial terms, assuring that they make sense and allow the team to grow the business in tandem with travel partners. He says that the current “pause” in cruise operations has allowed Seabourn, as with other lines, to “take a couple of steps back and think about: ‘Are we doing business the best way we can?’ And structure is a big part of that.”
That said, he acknowledges that “we’re a shared sales team.” Within the Carnival Corporation family, Cunard North America has some shared operations with Princess Cruises, while Seabourn similarly has employees and a lot of shared services with Holland America Line.
That shared services structuring has “pros and cons both ways,” he says, but from the Seabourn side, “that’s something that we’re taking a very thoughtful approach to [reviewing].” At press time, there was nothing yet to report on that front.
Expedition on the Horizon
A rendering of the expeditionary Seabourn Venture. // Photo by Seabourn
In December 2021, Seabourn will launch its first expedition ship, Seabourn Venture, and a second, yet-unnamed expedition ship will set sail in 2022.
What’s different about the Seabourn effort versus others who’ve built expedition ships? While some lines have first designed and built a new expedition ship and then “backed into” into the expedition programming, Seabourn already operates (and has for some time) the adventurous Ventures by Seabourn program. That brings Zodiac and kayak outings, enrichment lectures and a robust onboard expedition team to some of its ultra-luxury ships.
“It’s not like we’re just jumping into the expedition space,” says Smotrys. So, the process is a bit different. Seabourn is building a purpose-built ship, specifically designed to fit Seabourn’s already established expedition-style program experience.
That said, “the ships are really going to be cutting-edge,” he says. So, while the line has operated in Antarctica over the years, the expedition ships will have a strengthened hull that can navigate through six feet of ice and into more remote areas across the globe.
Two submarines carried onboard the ship will deliver a totally new experience—each taking six people at a time beneath the surface to a depth of 1,000 feet. Doing that in Antarctica will “take expedition and evolve it to a new and exciting level,” Smotrys tells us.
He also stresses that the ship itself is being designed “so all guests feel as though they’re on a shared adventure together.” In addition, Seabourn Venture will have nearly 30,000 square feet of outdoor deck space—more than many expedition ships.
Indoor spaces will also have floor-to-ceiling windows, and when guests return to the ship from an expedition ashore, they’ll be able to visit multiple public spaces at which to enjoy a “collective experience” with fellow explorers—sharing tales of glacier exploration or polar bear spotting.
But, are there too many expedition players coming into the marketplace? While agreeing that “it’s a rapidly growing segment,” Smotrys cites many differences in the expedition products and their price points. One plus? Multiple players also will generate greater exposure to the expedition space and help build consumer demand, he tells Luxury Travel Advisor.
Safe Return to Service
“Obviously, a lot of the return to service [for the cruise industry] is about consumer confidence,” Smotrys says, adding that it’s about building up that confidence that cruising is safe. “Cruising has always gotten a little bit of a bad rap,” he believes.
“In reality, it’s probably one of the safest vacation options there are in the world,” he says, citing a controlled population, extensive protocols and pre-boarding screening with everyone being screened at once—unlike a hotel with people coming and going.
Seabourn Sojourn is shown above in Alaska. // Photo by Seabourn
In fact, he emphasizes that many health and safety protocols like onboard cleaning/disinfecting have already been in place for some time. Yet, that will “expand to a new level” and he encourages luxury advisor partners to talk about that narrative.
Now that there is news on the vaccine front, the pent-up demand Seabourn is seeing is also “a great opportunity for advisors and I think it bodes well for a really strong Wave Season, as well,” he says.
In terms of what regions are “hot” for consumer bookings, “Europe is doing extremely well,” according to Smotrys. “We’ve seen some really good demand, especially over that Black Friday sale,” which posted stronger bookings versus the same time a year ago and they were split between 2021 and 2022.
Expedition sales also have been strong. Plus, “we’ve seen really great demand for the World Cruise in 2022, so that tells me that people are willing to go on these large [and long] trips,” he added. “I think that’s a great indicator of confidence as well.”
Health of the Distribution System
Most advisors aren’t paid commission from the cruise line until the ship departs and the guest sails, creating hardship for many agencies in this pandemic year with a lack of sailings. “We completely understand that advisors are in need of commissions sooner rather than later,” Smotrys emphasizes.
Seabourn recently initiated “Early Bonus Savings,” a 10 percent discount to the guest if they book now and pay in full. That helps the advisor as Seabourn’s policy has always been that once the guest pays in full, it triggers the commission payment to the advisor.
The “Early Bonus Savings” program began in September, expired in early November, but has been started back up. Guests now must pay in full by February 1, 2021. It’s a benefit to the guest “because we don’t discount a lot,” notes Smotrys. Instead, Seabourn typically offers upgrades and other value-added perks. “So, a 10 percent discount on a Seabourn cruise is pretty substantial.”
Is Seabourn concerned about attrition for skilled luxury advisors in a challenging economic era? “I think it’s definitely a concern” he says, but, when asked about a massive advisor loss within the distribution system, “I don’t think it’s going to happen.”
Yes, he says that there will always be some attrition with negative events such as the pandemic. But bottom line? Smotrys doesn’t see a substantive loss of advisors. In addition, he’s encouraged by the cruise industry banding together, adding policies across many brands for protecting advisor commission on cancelled sailings and “trying to get flexible with booking terms.”
On all fronts, he has seen both resilience and passion for the industry.
Smotrys says one “silver lining” is that “everyone has had to embrace technology” for discussions with employee team members, travel partners and conferences. While meetings aren’t in person, he believes they’re still quite interactive. The frequency of discussions with trade accounts has also increased.
For advisors too, the technology has perks. “It’s definitely a new way to connect with their clients,” Smotrys emphasizes. “We’ve all found creative ways to interact with each other.”
This year, Seabourn worked to create new tools, so the advisors could have a cruise night, invite clients, do a presentation and have fun at the same time, all in an interactive environment.
Moving forward, Smotrys says he believes sales messaging for consumers will continue to focus on Seabourn’s ultra-luxury experience and in maintaining price integrity.
“The feeling and philosophy is that we don’t want to be cutting prices to drive demand,” he says. “Instead of doing that we’re doing a lot of things like onboard credits and upgrades,”
Overall, though, “this ultra-luxury product is all about the exceptional service experience onboard,” Smotrys tells Luxury Travel Advisor. With that in mind, advisors can expect continuing sales messaging that focuses on high-touch, personalized, friendly, impeccable and surprising service… and in many different ways.