Thursday, June 23, 2011

Product review: Star Cruises SuperStar Virgo

Summary: Very disappointing.  A lousy cruising experience on a badly-managed ship.


I love cruising, but I didn't always feel this way.  About 15 years ago, I took a cruise on a Star Cruises ship and did not like the experience at all.  I decided then that I didn't want to cruise ever again.  Many years later, I took a Holland America cruise to Alaska.  I liked that experience so much I decided I wanted every vacation from that point on to be a cruise!  The difference between the 2 cruising experiences was like night and day.  Since then, I've been on many Holland America cruises and enjoyed every single one of them.

A few days ago, I went on a cruise with Star Cruises again, mostly because we wanted to cruise from Singapore with the extended family and there wasn't much of a choice.  It was a ship called the SuperStar Virgo, supposedly the best ship in the Star Cruises fleet.  That, plus the fact that the company had the last 15+ years to figure out how to run a cruise line, I figured it can't be that bad.  I was quite wrong.

Some of the major problems I encountered, in no particular order:

- Management is a fail.  Embarkation was a noisy and chaotic mess.  Disembarkation was even worse.  On a Holland America ship, they ask you for your preferred disembarkation time and then assigns you a time to disembark.  You get to stay comfortably in your stateroom (with food) until disembarkation.  On the SuperStar Virgo, they ask you to leave the stateroom at 1pm (for a 3:30pm disembarkation), and then at 3:30pm, everybody disembarks all at once.  The result is highly predictable: thousands of annoyed people crowding the common areas for hours, and then a long, noisy chaotic mess as they all try to disembark at the same time.  After almost 20 years of running a cruise line, you'd think somebody in management would have figured out something as simple and obvious as orderly embarkation and disembarkation.  But noooo...

- There are environmental issues I cannot pinpoint.  My wife had an allergic reaction to our stateroom, she became physically ill everytime she was in it.  My daughter reported that part of her sofa-bed smelled like somebody puked on it.  Out of our party of 19, at least 3 suffered symptoms of bad food poisoning during the cruise.  A lot of it made sense when I learned after the cruise that 100 people suffered serious food-poisoning on the cruise just before ours (news link) on the same ship.  It smells like another management fail.

- Food is supposed to be one of the major attractions on a cruise, but here, there is another series of management fails.  The food is uninspiring, but it gets worse: You cannot bring food from a restaurant to your room, you cannot visit more than one restaurant per meal (eg, you cannot have Chinese food at the Pavilion and then go upstairs for coffee or ice-cream after that, and you have to pay for the coffee at the Pavilion), and room service costs extra (if you can find the room service menu in the first place).  The correct reaction of a frequent cruiser to all these silly food restrictions should be: WTF?  I get the impression that management doesn't care about customer happiness.

- The ships feels a lot more crowded than what I'm used to.  I think they pack many more people into the same space than Holland America does (but I can't tell for sure because, unlike on a Holland America cruise, Star Cruises did not provide us that information).

- The cruise itinerary was a fail.  When you think of Phuket, what comes to mind?  Sun, sand and sea, of course.  The ship arrived at Phuket at 7pm (just before sunset), and left at 3am, leaving no opportunity at all for sun, sand nor sea.  Fail.  Snorkeling was not available the entire cruise even though we were in a prime snorkeling region in warm waters.  Fail.

- On a Holland America ship, you take for granted that every staff member you meet will go out of their way to be friendly to you (eg, the cleaning staff took the time to teach my daughter to fold towel animals).  On the Virgo, I felt like the staff tried to be friendly but many disliked their jobs too much to do it well.  They remind me of the fight attendants on United First Class (domestic, the attendants on United international flights behave very differently).  When service staff visibly dislike being there, it's a severe management fail.

- More evidence that management doesn't care: They didn't even bother to send out a satisfaction survey.  In contrast, Holland America seems almost pathologically obsessed with satisfaction surveys. (In one of my early cruises, I complained about the lack of green tea on board, and then green tea was available on my next cruise!  Apparently, somebody in Holland America took my opinion seriously.)

The question I ask myself is:  How can a cruise line fail in so many ways and still appear to be so successful?  The first possible reason is that they are largely the only game in town.  Other cruise lines like Holland America and Royal Caribbean do ply these waters, but only infrequently.  If you want to cruise here in June, you're more or less stuck with Star Cruises.  The second possible and more likely reason is this ship is primarily a gambling ship.  I got the impression from talking to the frequent cruisers on board.  Their main entertainment on board is gambling.  Gambling is, for them, necessary and sufficient entertainment.  In fact, the entire cruise line started as a side venture of a gambling empire, so this makes a lot of sense.  The third and saddest reason is Asians in general are used to receiving a low quality of service.  One glaring exception is airlines, where for example, the service on economy class on Singapore Airlines is better even than United First Class (domestic).  But outside of those glaring exceptions, Asians generally receive much worse service than their Western counterparts and most of them are not aware that they can get much better.

I hope the CEO of Star Cruises Ltd (now called Genting Hong Kong), Tan Sri Lim Kok Thay, is reading this.  This is a cruise line with a lot of potential and I hate to see all that potential go to waste.  If the cruise line is financially successful even with all the above problems, it will surely be even more successful once all the problems are addressed.  Tan Sri Lim is obviously a highly capable businessman, I think he will be able to quickly improve everything once he is made aware of the problems.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Do the right thing, wait to get fired

New Google employees (we call "Nooglers") often ask me what makes me effective at what I do.  I tell them only half-jokingly that it's very simple: I do the Right Thing for Google and the world, and then I sit back and wait to get fired.  If I don't get fired, I've done the Right Thing for everyone.  If I do get fired, this is the wrong employer to work for in the first place.  So, either way, I win.  That is my career strategy.

I discovered where I got this rebel streak from only very recently.  I realized I inherited it from my dad, which was very strange to me because when I was growing up, I perceived my dad as an establishment figure, part of the very establishment I was rebelling against, so it was a severe cognitive dissonance for me to think of my dad as a rebel.  But rebel he was.

My dad started his career as a child laborer (yes, one of those millions of faceless children in developing countries you read about occasionally on National Geographic), but by mid-career, he rose up the ranks to become one of the most senior military officers in all of Singapore.  I recently learned that one reason he was so successful was because he was unafraid to speak the unpleasant truth to his superiors to their faces, including Defense Ministers and Prime Ministers.  Near the end of his military career, one of his superiors asked him what made him so effective.  My father replied, "It's very simple.  Everyday on my drive home, I would pass by HDB flats (public housing in Singapore) and I would always take an extra look at them.  Why?  Because after you fire me, that is where I'd live."

Some day, when you reach my old age, spend some time talking to your father about his career, you may be pleasantly horrified to discover how much you are like your father.