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SeaDream Yacht Club marked its 20th anniversary on Sept. 1, a milestone worth celebrating, considering the upscale line was officially launched just 10 days before the horrific 9/11 attacks and the travel shutdown that followed. TravelPulse caught up with Bob Lepisto, president of the two-ship boutique line, to ask about his memories of the launch, how the fledgling company survived, and what was learned then that could be applied to today's pandemic shutdowns.
TravelPulse (TP): What is your memory of the official launch of SeaDream on Sept. 1, 2001?
Bob Lepisto (BL): When 9/11 happened, I was SeaDream's vice president of global sales and marketing. Previously, I headed up sales at Seabourn, where Seabourn Goddess I and II were part of the fleet. Under Seabourn, those two small yachts got very little focus, due to the fact we had far bigger ships to deal with. In fact, those two were at the bottom of every spreadsheet. Once becoming SeaDream I and II, they get 100 percent focus.
My SeaDream memory goes back to pre-start up, in July and August 2001, when were in the planning phase. We had no interest in just being another luxury cruise line, as there were plenty of others doing that. We were passionate about creating a uniquely different yachting experience. That is the reason we came up with the name SeaDream Yacht Club, and the slogan "It's Yachting, Not Cruising."
Our goal was to create a casually elegant yachting opportunity where every guest would feel like they were on their own private yacht. Focused on incredible service and cuisine, and the enjoyment of traveling with like-minded guests. For our full 20-year history we have stayed true to that mission. It is what has driven our exceptional success over the years and continues to drive our success today.
For all the wrong reasons (COVID pandemic), it rings better today than it did when we launched SeaDream some 20 years ago. In this current environment, travelers love the idea of no more than 112 guests, outdoor dining, an opportunity to sleep outdoors under the stars, and great watersports activities.
TP: What happened after 9/11? Did your business come to an immediate halt?
BL: Yes, after 9/11 we had to stop operating for a period when the airlines were not flying, and no one felt safe traveling. We thought, at the time, that would be the most devastating event possible for the travel industry. In retrospect, as devastating as 9/11 was, the rebound in travel from 9/11 was far quicker and more predictive than the current pandemic. The airlines reinstated service and routes far quicker after 9/11 than we have experienced with the COVID pandemic. It was easier to forecast business rebounding. We weathered 9/11 as a new company and we will weather this current pandemic as well.
TP: What did SeaDream do to stay in business during the travel downturn after 9/11?
BL: We kept our crews on, waiting and ready for travel to rebound. They worked on both yachts as we monitored the situation and waited for the time the public would be ready to fly and travel again. We stayed in contact with travel advisors, educating them on what this new yachting company - SeaDream Yacht Club - was all about. We continued our focus on delivering a yachting experience for our guests. It is critical during challenging times to remain positive and optimistic about what we can control, and plan accordingly.
We did that during 9/11 and we are doing that today as we move forward in the world of COVID-19. We know there is currently greater demand than ever for our loyal guests to sail again and for our loyal travel advisors to confidently promote and sell future voyages. Our entire industry will be stronger and safer in the future as a result of the lessons learned and protocols put in place due to the current reality we live in. Bookings for 2022 are very strong.
TP: Obviously, SeaDream survived and thrived over the past 20 years. How does this pandemic differ from the 9/11 aftermath?
BL: Even during that time, being a new boutique company with minimal brand awareness played into our success as travel rebounded. With COVID, in many ways, it is "onward through the unknown." We all thought and hoped that after the initial COVID surge it would be smooth sailing again. Unfortunately, with the new variants, higher infection rates and lower level of vaccination than expected, that was not the case. Fortunately, with the greater focus on the requirement of vaccine for travel and booster shots becoming available to enhance protection, we are now moving in the right direction.
TP: SeaDream began operating comparatively quickly last summer, correct?
BL: Many may not realize that during the 2020 summer season we operated 21 COVID-free voyages in Norway, exclusively for Norwegian guests. I believe we were the only cruise line operating at that time. As a small, privately owned company with limited capacity, we were able quickly adjust itinerary plans to the current restrictive environment. Our Norwegian guests loved having SeaDream available at a time they were unable to travel beyond their borders.
Fortunately, SeaDream is having a successful 2021 summer season. This year we started to operate June 26 in the Mediterranean. We have now operated 17 exceptional voyages ranging from the Norwegian Fjords and Bordeaux on SeaDream I, to the Greek Isles, Croatia and Italy on SeaDream 2.
TP: Which protocols are you operating under now?
BL: The safety and good health of our guests and crew will always be our No. 1 priority. SeaDream is requiring all crew and guests to be vaccinated. It is now clear that COVID is not going away anytime soon, and we all need to operate with the reality that it may just be the new norm - requiring strict protocols and policies to help ensure guest safety, now and for the future.
TP: What advice would you give travel advisors now?
BL: My recommendation to all travel advisors is to call their clients and encourage them to book now for 2022 and 2023. Things will continue to get better and better in the weeks and months ahead. Given the great pent-up demand to get away, those that do not book early will find limited availability during the times they want to travel.
Theresa Norton, editor in chief of AGENTatHOME Magazine, covers the cruise industry for TravelPulse.com.
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