Sunday, April 29, 2012

Ever Been on a Cruise from Hell?

 Have you ever been on a cruise from Hell?  Sometimes a cruise "from Hell" is the result of mechanical problems or accidents at sea. These are really more than a cruise from Hell. They are a disaster and often are the result of the unexpected.

When I think of a cruise from Hell I am thinking more of that cruise you booked with the full expectation of having a fun filled family experience only to discover that the ship had a large group on board that dominated everything. Everywhere you turned, there they were. They were loud; they were pushy; they acted as if they were the only people present; and they had no consideration for passengers not in their group.  You just wanted to retreat to your cabin and hide.

Many people know that from time to time cruise lines charter their ships out to large groups. Some companies charter a ship as part of their incentive program for their employees. For example, State Farm has frequently chartered a Holland America Ship as a reward for top performing agents.  

 There are also certain life style groups that charter ships. For example, Royal Caribbean has chartered a ship in September to a "clothing is optional" group. Additionally, some religious groups charter a ship for their following. I remember when Charles Stanley used to do this for trips to Biblical lands.

Fortunately, "Charters" are not open to the general public so you don't have to worry about ending up taking your family cruise on a ship full of "Clothing optional" folks.  You just know that cruise is full and you will not be able to book it unless you meet the requirements of the chartering group.

However, not all groups are large enough to charter a whole ship. This is especially true in this era of "mega-ships."  So, instead of chartering the whole ship they form a group cruise on a ship which is open for booking to the general public. An example of this is a Drag Queen Group that will be sailing on the Freedom of the Seas in September (16-22). This means you could book your family cruise and discover that you are getting more than you planned.

I know I have personally booked myself on what I thought would be my best ever cruise vacation only to discover that I was sailing on cruise with a group made up of a particular group (600 plus people I learned later or about 1/3 the ships capacity) absolutely made the whole experience a nightmare. 
BTW - this was not a "clothing optional or a "Drag Queen" group. Just a large, loud omnipresent obnoxious group of people who had no consideration for anyone else on board. Had I known there was a group that large and of that nature on that sailing I would have selected a different sailing.

I only mention this because it is virtually impossible for a seasoned travel agent to know what kinds of group space is blocked on all the cruise ships let alone an individual booking through some online travel agency where there are few details given and no one to ask. Besides, if you were to ask someone the odds are they couldn't tell you either. The cruise line will not tell you because they don't want to hinder the sale of cabins not allocated to the group and the online booking engine will not know as it only checks for space availability.

More and more cruise lines are selling their ships as destinations in and of themselves. This is especially true of the mega-ships where just about everything you can do at a resort, carnival, fair, or amusement park can be found on board. The difference is, once on board you are captive to whatever you find there including the various cruise groups.

Now don't misunderstand, we agents make far more money from the cruise lines by booking groups than we do by booking FIT. The bigger the group the more we can make and the more amenities the cruise line will offer to the group. However, some groups become so large that they literally ruin the on board experience for other smaller groups and individual and/or family cruisers.

Here is what I think should happen:  I think the cruise lines should realize that it would be really helpful in servicing clients if they would publish either through direct e-mail or a PDF on their "agent only" websites all Affinity/Interest Groups consisting of 10% or more of the particular ship's passenger capacity based on double occupancy. That list should list the name of the group, the nature of the group, the ship and the sail date.

Another alternative would be to limited Affinity/Interest Groups size to no more than 10% of the cruise ships passenger capacity based on double occupancy. The cruise lines have a minimum group size and they should have a maximum as well. If State Farm, AARP, or some other special interest group wants more than that then let them negotiate a charter.

The advantages of this far outweigh any disadvantages that I can see. It allows the cruise lines to still fill their ships, it allows Travel Agents like myself to still work with Groups and confidently book Families and couples on cruises that will not become "the cruise from hell" because of the size and/or kind of Affinity Groups on board.

All travel agencies have clients whose vacation (and I might add attitude toward cruising) will be ruined if they book a family vacation on a particular sailing only to discover that an Affinity/Interest Group made up of half the passengers on board  dominate all the venues on board.

We understand that Spring Break is a great time for family cruises and apparently so do the cruise lines. I have never seen a "large" Affinity/ Interest Group on a major cruise line during Spring Break or Christmas Week. I also know that these dates sell out quickly and do so at a premium price. You may run into large crowds and obnoxious people during these sail dates but rarely would I worry about a "large" Group durng those dates. It is the other 50 weeks out of the year that hold the potential for disaster in this regard.

I understand that this does not happen often but it happens often enough for us to hear about it from clients. Why should the cruise lines loose even one future cruiser and an Agency loose a return client over something so easily preventable.

I strongly urge you, the potential cruise client, to find a Travel Agent you trust and let them do some research for you. Do your own research if you must but then let a seasoned professional confirm it for you. Most importantly, once you decide on a cruise let the agent who assisted you take care of all the booking details. It's the right thing to do!

Sunday, April 22, 2012

The Kemah Boardwalk . . . A Great Place To Go!

This past week we had the opportunity to meet my wife's sister and her husband at the Kemah Boardwalk in Kemah, Texas.  This is a local attraction that includes food, fun, and games for all ages.

As you can see from the photo on the left there is a rollercoaster for those who are thrill seekers. There are also a number of other carnival rides and attractions where fun can be held by all. There is even a carousel for the less adventurous.

In addition to the rides and activities there are a number of restaurants serving some of the area's finest sea food. You can get a Cajun style meal at Landry's or upscale dining at the Johnny Walker Room upstairs at Landry's. There is the Cadillac Bar and Grill as well as the Flying Dutchman. Not your style, then you can visit the Aquarium Restaurant for some terrific sea food.

You can even make it a weekend by reserving a room at the Boardwalk Inn. Located right on the heart of the Boardwalk and facing the water it is a great place to relax and watch the sailboats enter and leave the nearby marina from your private balcony.

An added bonus is the fact that there are all sorts of souvenir shops both on the Boardwalk itself and on an area just south of the Boardwalk and within easy walking distance. You're sure to find  something to help you remember you trip.

I personally enjoy the Boardwalk in May because the temperature is moderate and the crowds are minimal. On weekends, especially when school is out for the summer, you will find the Boardwalk hot and crowded. You really have to be a "stick in the mud" not to enjoy a day at the Kemah Boardwalk. I recommend it to couples and families alike. Like I said, there is something for everyone.

I know I mentioned a number of restaurants on the Boardwalk where you can find some great food. However, there is a restaurant just across Dickinson Bayou on Nasa Road One that offers some really great food.  Valdo's may be the best kept secret in the Clear Lake area.  I really like this place. They have their own unique twist on seafood. This isn't just another Landry's or Pappas seafood eatery. At Valdo's they actually use their spices!  Their Mountain Shrimp Remoulade is a favorite and their version of Pontchartrain is to die for.  The building has been around for many years but what you find inside is  really something different and unique. I don't think you'll be disappointed.   I know I'll be going back.