What is the difference between value and price? Is quality and luxury the same thing? How do you engender such a level of trust from your customer base, that they will willingly pay premium prices in a vicious global recession? These were just a few of the business development questions and challenges I discussed with Graham Sadler, UK, Europe and Middle East Managing Director of Regent Seven Seas Cruises, arguably the world’s most luxurious ‘all inclusive’ cruise line.

Having listened for more than 30 years, to an endless stream of senior business people telling me great things about their company, I have been well and truly vaccinated against marketing clichés and I am pretty well immune to them. However, having chatted with Graham for almost two hours about his notion of excellence in customer service and how the Regent Seven Seas focus is on “how the passenger is made to feel”, nothing he said sounded like promotional hype. His comments took on the status of simple fact. With this level of commitment and approach, it is not difficult to understand how his company has prospered and become the benchmark in luxury cruising.

How have they managed to do this? What is the strategic thinking that sets them apart and what lessons and inspiration can other businesses learn from their mindset and successful business model? First a bit about the man himself:

About Graham Sadler

Graham laughs when he tells me how long he has worked in travel … 40 years. Why is that funny? Because he is 53! Yes even I, with my limited mathematical skills can work out that he was 13 when he went into travel. When other kids were getting part time jobs delivering newspapers and washing cars, somehow or other, schoolboy Graham managed to work weekend part time jobs in the travel industry. Over those 40 years he has done it all. He has worked in retail travel, for tour operators, set up specialist travel businesses and was then asked to set up Radisson Seven Seas Cruises in 2001, which has now morphed into Regent Seven Seas Cruises following various corporate transactions and re-branding exercises.

The bottom line, is that Graham knows a thing or two about travel and the cruise world. What really struck me as unusual as we chatted over coffee, was that in interviews of this type, most of my subjects talk first and foremost about their products and services. Graham didn’t. His main and almost philosophical focus was on the customer experience and feelings and concepts of passenger trust. It was only as the conversation neared its end that I remembered to ask him about the Regent ships.

Here then in his own words are the answers to the business development questions I put to him with a little about the ships and cruises at the end: 

What is the profile and target market of Regent Seven Seas Cruises?

Graham – “Successful people who want informal unpretentious luxury and to experience the finest things. Our passengers are generally people who don’t want to take second best and to settle for anything less in terms of comfort, than they would have at home. They will have high expectations in terms of standards and that is what we deliver. Unlike many cruise lines, our average passenger age is generally lower, with many of our passengers still working in business or the professions. They are prepared to pay premium prices but still demand very high value.”

How have you adapted and coped in the recession?

Graham – “In answering that question, let me say that there is a huge difference between price and value. Whilst many cruise lines have struggled in recent years and have been discounting heavily to get customers, we have grown, had full ships and been able to charge appropriately. We made a very definite strategic decision at the outset that we wouldn’t discount. Our view was that cutting prices simply leads to financial loss, a reduction of standards, damage to the brand and disloyal customers. We decided to charge what was needed, continue to improve our standards of excellence and add value by becoming the most ‘all inclusive’ cruise line.

Our response to the challenges of the economic climate, has been to give passengers ‘pricing certainty’. They can book a Regent Seven Seas cruise and know that there will be ‘no pricing surprises’, because we include many things that are charged as extras on other cruise lines.”

What is it that differentiates Regent Seven Seas Cruises from other cruise lines?

Graham – On luxury – “Luxury is viewed by many in cruising, as simply providing very high standards of quality. As far as we are concerned, it is a little more sophisticated. In the context of what we do, luxury is an ‘emotion’. We want our passengers to feel special by our attention to the little things and by having their expectations exceeded.”

Our pre-cruise night  – “Because we fly our guests to the destination port the day before the ship departs and put them up in a great hotel, they begin their cruise with us with an air of calm and peace of mind. Everything is geared to making people feel relaxed. We go out of our way to help them avoid the occasional uncertainties of travel. Our guests get on board in a totally relaxed state and in the right frame of mind.”

All inclusive – “We are simply the most ‘all inclusive’ luxury cruise line. We include more into the overall price than anyone else. In practice this means our passengers get the benefit of all suite accommodation with ocean views and most with balconies, flights, pre-cruise night hotel, unlimited excursions, transfers, beverages, open bar and fine wines, gourmet dining including speciality dining, mini bars, 24 hour room service and gratuities.”

Attention to little service issues the customer didn’t expect – “We have hundreds of examples of comments and feedback from customers, who have been amazed by certain little unexpected thoughtful personal service gestures. For example, one lady casually commented to a waiter how much she had enjoyed one of our wines. The following day, without asking, she was given a slip of paper with the details of the wine on it so she could get it herself when she got home. Only a small thing, but an example of a tiny noticeable act that our customers remember and tell others about.”

How do you maintain and develop your standards?

Graham – “It is all down of course to recruitment and training. From the moment people contact us, to the time they get off the ship and beyond, we want passengers to experience something special. We have a 15 seconds waiting target on our call centre and all our reservations staff have ongoing detailed product knowledge training. They need to be able to give answers to any question, without having to guess and then provide extra information as well. A smile on their face as well is compulsory, even on the phone!

When we recruit at all levels, we look for people, who understand that our objective is to convey that ‘special feeling emotion’ to passengers.”

What is the biggest business development challenge you face and what is your best business development method?

Graham –  “One of our biggest challenges is simply to educate people about our unusual value proposition, in terms of just how much they will get. Without question, our number one business development tool is word of mouth, which is absolutely vital. A very significant percentage of passengers on any cruise are returning guests and they tell others about us.

Our passengers need to trust us and we want them to feel like stakeholders and of course to know that they will be travelling with like-minded people who appreciate high standards and impeccable luxury. With this in mind we regularly keep in touch with them through informational e mails, newsletters and a loyalty magazine about things that are going on.”

Tell me something about your ships and cruises?

Graham – “We have three ships: Seven Seas Mariner and Voyager, both which can accommodate no more than 700 guests with all ocean view suites and private balcony accommodation and the Seven Seas Navigator which carries just under 500 passengers in ocean view suites and most with a private balcony. Passengers on all ships can expect an unusual level of luxury on board and the highest space and service ratios.

We have cruises to Africa / India, Asia / Pacific, Alaska, South America, Canada / New England, Caribbean, Mediterranean, Northern Europe and various Grand Crossings. We are very port intensive with most people off the ship during the days and this is made possible of course because all our excursions are included in their initial price. Regardless of the ship however, all passengers will experience luxurious fine dining and sophisticated entertainment.” 

Conclusion 

Ian CooperHaving a conversation with Graham Sadler was like having a ‘masterclass’ in how to design a product around the feelings and expectations of a specific target customer base. Regent Seven Seas total focus on unparalleled standards and ‘unpretentious luxury’ and its use as a business development platform is the reason why this cruise line lead the way when it comes to the luxury cruise market.

©Ian Cooper 2013