Princess’ Opulent Chef’s Table
Now being expanded fleetwide, Princess’ Chef’s Table, an experience worth the four weeks of fasting you need to do beforehand, is an ecstatic culinary experience right down to the dessert dishes that appear to be Murano glass and are actually hand molded sugar.
Introduced last year and now expanding throughout the fleet, the 10-person Chef’s Table is $75 per person and demand well exceeds supply, which is easy to understand once you have experienced it. Since it is only offered once or twice on a typical sailing, your clients would be well advised to reserve before they unpack their suitcases.
The $75 per person tab is ludicrous; such food and drink would easily run more than $300 in New York, $200 in the Midwest.
The maitre d’ escorted us to the galley, where we scrubbed up and dressed in the required whites. However, that was the only workaday side to the experience; the next step was French champagne and a selection of appetizers so exquisite that they would easily have satisfied us for the evening.
The executive chef then previews the meal he created and it is crucial to pay close attention, because the almost impossible watchword we gave one another all evening at our private table was, "Restrain yourself, restrain yourself; there’s so much more to come."
Any one course would have been magnificent alone, in taste, texture and presentation. As each was served, we were told about its special qualities and how it was prepared, while red and white wines chosen by the maitre d’ complemented the flavors.
All Princess chefs are also members of the International Chaine des Rotisseurs gastronomic society, founded in Paris in 1950 and based on the traditions and practices of the ancient French royal guild of goose roasters. Our chef, who joined us at dessert, shared secrets of preparation and offered autographed copies of Princess’ cookbook, A Culinary Journey.
I’m still working on those molded sugar "Venetian glass" plates.
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Agents sailing on the fall Princess/Cunard Presidential Summit cruise aboard the Caribbean Princess expressed intense loyalty to both lines. To qualify for the summit, an agency must have sold at least $1.4 million for Princess or $200,000 for Cunard. Two hundred agents attended, representing 120 agencies; in total 150 qualified, which was approximately the same number as last year.
Both lines’ education programs have clearly been successful, with the majority of agencies in attendance reporting at least one Commodore in the office. Recent Webinars maxed out at 1,000 participants.
Cunard is seeing increased interest in double trans-Atlantic crossings.
"This is really helping to drive results in a way that has surpassed our wildest imaginings," said Jan Swartz, senior vice president of customer service and sales for both Princess and Cunard.
The new Princess Alliance, which makes the skills of Princess analysts who research effective direct mail available to agents, also garnered considerable interest with those who were particularly appreciative of the availability of the service for any size order. The enhanced agency sales reporting tool has already launched, showing major metrics, including FIT versus group bookings and last year’s sales versus this year’s, and Princess is working on a reporting component for co-op funding.
Focus and Strategies
Princess president Alan Buckelew emphasized the line’s focus on the experienced cruiser and called the current practice of bringing 90 percent of sales through agents an "efficient system."
"Commission thresholds are not changing," he added.
Swartz said that responsiveness to travel agents is a hallmark of operation.
"When the economy is tough, small- and medium-size businesses have told us cash is king — they asked Princess if it paid a bulk deposit to refund at finalization rather than at sailing, and the line is doing it to accelerate cash flow."
Princess is also dealing with what Buckelew called "the perilous business of air."
"It’s now September 2008, and we have been given no fares past March 2009," he explained. "The whole paradigm has fallen apart."
Buckelew said the company is looking at the traditional travel agency model where they give quotes and have the customer pay on the spot.
Rai Caluori, executive vice president of fleet operations, said Princess is entering a unique period. He pointed out that, in 2004, Princess set an industry record, launching three ships in 90 days; now the emphasis is not on newbuilds, but on raising the bar among existing vessels.
He said that now, Princess is taking the most successful elements from the Crown and Emerald and adding them to other ships. This involves major changes, including the addition of an adults-only Sanctuary on every ship. Among a number of changes, the signature Sterling Steakhouse will move a deck down to become the larger, more diverse Crown Grill and the casinos will move up.
The Ultimate Ship’s Tour, a new onboard shore excursion, is priced at $125 per person. It includes gifts like a chef’s jacket, a robe and an 8x10 photo, plus a backstage look inside the funnel, the print shop and the laundry.
Cunard’s Civilized Adventure
On the Cunard side, president and managing director Carol Marlow characterized the line’s appeal as civilized adventure. The passenger mix remains 40 percent British, 40 percent North American and 20 percent other.
Marlow announced that some Cunard departments are returning to Southampton, England; however, sales, marketing and customer service will remain in California.
"[Cunard and Princess] will definitely be continuing a successful combined relationship," Marlow said. "And the fact that [we] have different strategies is a healthy thing. We don’t want to become commoditized; that would also be a disaster for agents."
Marlow said many Americans don’t want to fly trans-Atlantic and the line is seeing considerable sales of double crossings.
"People go over, do their own thing exploring Europe and then sail back," she said.
Among other developments, Cunard has added a Diamond Tier to its loyalty program to reward top members with perks from a complimentary lunch at the Todd English restaurant to free Internet access, and Marlow said past guests are already asking for a loyalty tier above this one.
Cunard’s Insights enrichment program has expanded from its Oxford series, and the line has partnered with the Royal Astronomical Society, bringing telescopes onboard. In April 2009, the QM2 will host two winners of the Jose Iturbi Classical Music Competition, which awards the largest cash prizes in the world ($50,000 each) for first-place winners in the categories of solo piano and voice.