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Few words can adequately describe the feelings that came over me when I stepped aboard ultra-luxury line Silversea’s elegant and beautiful Silver Spirit in December 2010. It was like seeing colours for the first time; smelling a field of lavender; or being the first man to stand on the moon. In short, it was like rediscovering cruising all over again. The entire Silversea experience – from the initial documentation that arrived in a maroon leather folder nestled inside a silver box to the final heartfelt goodbyes of disembarkation – was breathtaking.
I recently had the privilege and extremely good fortune to sit down with Ellen Bettridge, Silversea’s new President of the Americas, to talk about all things Silversea: what sets the company apart from its competitors; their acquisition of an expedition ship to serve the line in the Galapagos; destinations; social media, and more.
Most recently Vice President with the American Express Retail Travel Network in the United States, Bettridge spent the last two decades garnering both experience and accolades in her roles as a travel counsellor, account development executive, field performance manager, and director of account development services.
“I remember I was out in the sun and my butler came by and he said, ‘Ms. Ellen, I’m going to get your glasses.’ And he goes up and gets my glasses and he takes out [a lens cloth] and he cleans them right in front of me, and then he hands them to me. And it was so amazing,” said Bettridge of her last Silversea experience prior to starting with the line on April 9th.
I told her of a similar experience I had – having my shoes polished without even having to ask – and she concurred. After sailing with Silversea four times, my onboard experience has always been top-notch. But naturally, keeping that quality that sets Silversea apart requires a lot of hard work.
“I know our philosophy is all about choice,” Bettridge said. “True luxury is choice. You have the choices to do what you want to do, and when you want to do it, and if you don’t want to get on a bus with a bunch of people to go on your shore excursion, you don’t have to. If you want to have a private shore excursion in a certain destination because you’ve never been there, or because you want to do something very special, unique, you can do all those things. You pick how you want to do things. On Silversea, there are a million choices.”
That level of choice was something I could attest to. On my first-ever luxury voyage with Silversea, I worried briefly that I would be bored, or that I wouldn’t fit in. Neither could have been further from the truth. If I had designed a cruise line myself, it would look exactly like Silversea. They have taken everything I love – truly love – about cruising and removed all the little annoyances that I don’t like. I won’t say what they are, but suffice it to say that you won’t find them onboard a Silversea ship. And that’s a good thing.
Asked what set them apart from their other luxury competitors, Bettridge didn’t hesitate. “I think there are a couple things that differentiate us. There’s the size of our fleet, from 132 guests to 540 guests; that’s how you really can provide a luxury experience. It’s the staff ratio’s, it’s the choice of your pillows, the choice of the scent in your room, the choice of your mattress. I didn’t even know you could choose the type of mattress, but you can! You can choose the type of pillow, you can choose to dine in the different restaurants, whether you want to go casual or you want to eat in your stateroom – we make it easy for you, because it’s your vacation.”
That almost mind-boggling array of choice continues to impress me to this day. Every time I sail on Silversea, I tell myself I’m going to switch up the bath amenities and try the Ferragamo bath amenities instead of my favorite Bvlgari soaps, or select a different pillow type out of the nine different varieties available – but sadly, I am a creature of habit!
But I was eager to talk to her about an experience that absolutely changed my life: my 12 days onboard Silversea’s dedicated expedition vessel, the Silver Explorer. I never knew cruising could be so adventurous or enriching, and thinking of my time spent as a modern-day explorer still brings a tear to my eye. What’s more, Silver Explorer is so popular that Silversea recently acquired another ship – the Galapagos Explorer II, formerly Renaissance Cruises’ Renaissance Three - which it intends to heavily refit and deploy year-round in the Galapagos in September 2013.
When asked about this new venture in the Galapagos, Bettridge lights up. “It’s a small ship, and right now there’s really no one else in that market [the Galapagos] that does true luxury. Now, I think our competitors there do a fantastic job – and we’ve definitely checked them out very carefully – but we want to take it to the next level. We want to take it to that Silversea level.”
“What we know right now is that adventure [cruising] is really hot. About 20% of our customers to-date, our classic cruisers go on the Silver Explorer. So we have a core base of customers who would be interested in this, but then on top of it you’re going to get another set of people who will experience Silversea, who then may consider us for a cruise on our “classic” ships and our other expedition ship. So it’s a really nice way for us to be in this market.”
“The Galapagos is a bucket-list destination for most people,” she said. ” So there’s lots to think through when you think about this destination and how you do it. There’s a lot to consider. Is it from the moment you land to the moment you leave that it’s a Silversea experience? You’re in South America – this is not always an easy place to travel around in. So if there’s someone from our company standing there to take care of everything from the moment you land, that is one of the things we are considering to make it a very special experience. And we want that same special Silversea experience to come through on this vessel.”
“But we have to do it right, because if we don’t do it right we can hurt our brand. So that’s something we’re all spending a lot of time talking about, from the menus to the amenities onboard, and so on. Obviously, being a Silversea ship it will be all-inclusive – all the drinks, the meals, the excursions, all of that will be part of your package. But then we want to make sure we have the Silversea linens, the Silversea look, and the true Silversea feel.
Right now, the question is “how do we add more experiences” onboard to ensure that it really is the best because going back to it, it is an expedition ship. So it all comes down to how it is going to make you feel going on that expedition; that experience with the wildlife and with being there and being a part of it for all of that.”
After having experienced firsthand the kind of luxurious adventure that Silversea offers aboard the Silver Explorer, I said I wouldn’t doubt that Silversea could turn the Galapagos from a bucket-list destination into a repeat-cruise destination.
“Exactly. And there will be different options. We also want to make it flexible; we want to have some 7 [day cruises], some 10 [day cruises], with different types of experiences. You may want to do a pre and a post-cruise stay or you might just want the cruise. So we’re really thinking through how to be most flexible, once again giving our customers the most choice,” replied Bettridge with a smile.
Choice is luxury, after all. But how important is the destination itself to Silversea?
“Destination is everything,” Bettridge continued. “You have port collectors out there. You have people out there who want to experience new things; they want to go new places. For 2013, we have 32 new ports of call [which include 21 just for Silver Explorer alone]. Now, for 2014, we have these meetings where we talk about where we want to go and why we want to go there, and it’s a room of six or seven brilliant experts in this company who know the different ports and what will work and what won’t, and why it will be a good experience when our guests get off the ship.”
She makes an excellent point; one that I only truly realized during my Mediterranean voyage aboard the Silver Spirit last year. In Taormina, Italy, we had a prime anchorage location right near the town and complimentary shuttle-bus transportation to the upper village. Passengers on a large mainstream ship had to dock in Palermo, on the other side of Sicily. Ditto when we anchored off of Sorrento for a day exploring Capri; mainstream cruisers had to make the long trek across the channel from Naples.
“It’s not just about going to that port. It’s about making sure the experience is good throughout. There are some places that sound like they might be cool to go to, but when you get off the ship, there’s just nothing to do, or it might be dangerous, or what have you. So all of those things go into the thought process,” said Bettridge.
So what are some of the trends Bettridge sees for Silversea and luxury cruising?
“I think we’re spending a lot more time thinking and re-thinking our land excursions on how to take them to another level, and how to make them even more special. And it’s all back to choice: giving guests more customized options on what they can do,” Bettridge remarked.
“We’ll get customers who will call and say, “I’m going to be onboard, with my family of 10, we’re going to be in this port, and we actually want to do this.” And we’ll put it together for them. We have a whole team that just does unique, creative things like that all day long. Larger, mass- market cruise lines…they just can’t do that; it just doesn’t work.But we do it really well.”
But since I run a digital blog, I can’t help but ask about how Silversea has embraced social media. With an ever-changing website, a Twitter channel with over 80,000 followers – the most of any cruise line; Facebook page, Pinterest presence, video library and even journals updated for each voyage aboard Silver Explorer, the line is continually seeking to engage and inspire both past and future guests.
“We have really embraced it [social media]. Of course, there’s the option to always improve, but we have really embraced it because we believe that our customers are there. And if our customers are there, we should be there.
By the way, they also might not be our customers yet, but we want them to be. Therefore, that’s how they’ll learn or they will hear about us, or they’ll see their friends cruised with us. With expeditions, some people don’t think of expeditions as being a cruise. But then they hear about it on one of our social media channels and you get that brand recognition. Then, they start to think about what else they could be doing.”
“You know, a stat that was thrown at me recently is that only 3% of Americans have actually ever cruised, which CLIA (Cruise Lines International Association) shared. So, there is a whole population of people out there who are missing out, in my opinion. They’re missing out. So it’s a huge opportunity, but we have to use these [social media] channels to talk to those people because they’re going to ignore our normal messages because they think, “I’m not a cruiser.” So how do we start talking to that customer who’s at a [luxury] hotel but would be a perfect Silversea customer? Or, the person who’s gone on safari – they’d be a perfect expedition customer.”
And as for Silver Explorer, the ship that kicked off Silversea’s successful expedition offerings back in 2008?
“I can’t tell you exactly where the Silver Explorer is going in 2014,” said Bettridge, “but we’ve got something very exciting that we’re doing with it. And it’s a bucket-list destination, and it’s somewhere different and it is somewhere the ship has never gone before. I think it will sell-out immediately.”
As we ended our interview, I realized there’s something that makes Ellen – I hope I can call her that – perfectly suited to her new role as President of the Americas. Her eyes light up when she talks about the company and its ships. Her gestures become broader, her smile wider. The line’s new 2013 Voyage Atlas adorns her desk, and she’s happy to chat with me about the fantastic photographs and glossy paper stock they’ve chosen, and about our mutual love of the little anti-static wipes the line leaves draped over your sunglasses or eyeglasses. Her excitement about leading Silversea and its dedicated team of employees is palpable; you can’t help but get swept up in it.
As I left the building and rode the elevator down to the ground floor, I realized this line I’ve come to truly love in every sense of the word wasn’t just in good hands.
It was in the best ones.
Discover what makes Silversea so special by reading our Live Voyage Reports from onboard the Silver Spirit from Athens to Barcelona; crossing the Atlantic Ocean from Barbados to Portugal; and experiencing the trip of a lifetime onboard the adventurous Silver Explorer on a British Isles Expedition to remember.
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