#118 Blog Post – Wednesday, January 21, 2021
Posted by Denny Hatch
VICTORY AT SEA!
Quick Personal Note: I
took a two-week break from the blog during the Christmas-New Year
holidays. Whereupon the news of the country and the world was far wilder
and more compelling than anything I could ever produce. So I stayed
dark until things calmed down. One thing we seriously missed this past
year is travel. So I decided to celebrate a wonderful trip we took 12
years ago in the hands of a world-class direct marketer.
Annemarie Victory: Wizardess of
CRM: Customer Relationship Magic
One day in September, 2008 I cracked the New York Times Book Review. My eye landed on a quarter-page ad announcing a seven-day Mediterranean cruise from Barcelona, Spain, to Nice, France sponsored by The Annemarie Victory Organization (of whom I had never heard). It was scheduled to depart the following April.
The theme of the cruise: a celebration of the life and work of Patrick O'Brian (1914-2000), legendary author of 20 novels about the British Navy in the Napoleonic Era. (The Russell Crowe film, MASTER & COMMANDER: The Far Side of the world, was based on the O’Brian series.)
For four years I had lived and breathed the adventures Lucky Jack Aubrey and his ship’s surgeon Steven Maturin. I not only owned the entire series, but also a ton of ancillary goodies—a cookbook, a biography of O’Brian, a dictionary of nautical terms, a world atlas of the journeys they had taken plus two CDs of music Aubrey and Maturin played on their fiddle and cello. Plus a signed, remarqued lithograph of Aubrey’s favorite ship, HMS Surprise, by Geoff Hunt, the artist famous for the Aubrey-Maturin book jackets that helped resurrect the series and helped turn it into a cult publishing phenom that made millions for O’Brian.
Way Out of Our
Just for kicks I did a quick bit of research on the Internet. Included in the price was the hotel in Barcelona and welcome reception the first night, all meals aboard, all wine with dinner, all shore excursions. Not included: bar bills, laundry, telephone and tips The cost of this caper on Sea Cloud appealed to the very rich and out of sight for us. But I wandered downstairs to show the ad to Peggy, who knew I was an O'Brian nut. I assumed she'd look at it as an amusing curiosity.
To my utter astonishment, Peggy said, “Why of course we have to go!”
“Absolutely. No question. We’re going!”
We wrote a check for the down payment in mid-September. Soon afterward, when sub-prime mortgage crisis hit and the market tanked, we thought seriously about canceling and losing the up-front money. We went ahead and booked the thing. This was a once-in-a-lifetime deal. Hell, if we had cancelled, the money we would have saved would have been lost in the tanking stock market.
• Two days in Barcelona prior to boarding the ship.
• A tour of Port Mahon, Minorca—the major British deep water port in the Mediterranean 150 miles southeast of Barcelona—where O’Brian’s two main characters first met and to which they periodically returned.
• Overnight at Port Vendres, port nearest O’Brian’s house in the adjoining town.
• A reception at the reclusive author’s modest house in Collioure in the South of France, which very few outsiders have ever seen.
Left: The O'Brians' tiny house. Although he hit the financial jackpot with his 20-volume series, he never upgraded. At right: the dingy basement office where he wrote his novels by hand on lined yellow pads. Note the plain plastic chair—the kind you see stacked up in front of Lowe’s or Home Depot.
• Overnights at Aix-en-Provence, Toulon (where the French fleet hid out from the British blockade) and Corsica (birthplace of Napoleon).
• Invited lecturers scheduled for the tour were Count Nikolai Tolstoy—O'Brian's stepson, who had published the first of a two-volume biography of the author—and Brian Lavery, author of 17 books on naval history and consultant to director Peter Weir during the pre-production and filming of Master and Commander. (Tolstoy—no relation to the War and Peace Tolstoy—needed a heart procedure and canceled our cruise.)
• The fillip was Sea Cloud, the 360-foot, four-masted square-rigger—that was the largest private yacht of its era. Built in 1931 by General Foods heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post and her dashing, skirt-chasing husband, E.F. Hutton (founder of the brokerage firm that bore his name). She carries a maximum of 64 passengers and a crew of 60. Mrs. Post—mother of actress Dina Merrill—is also remembered for building a little getaway palace in Palm Beach known the world over as Mar-a-Lago.
Joining the Tour
For the first night in Barcelona, we were booked into the ultramodern Arts Hotel, a glass and steel high-rise operated by Ritz-Carlton overlooking the harbor area. When we went into the lobby to register, the elegantly attired young man at the desk greeted us with, “Welcome to Barcelona and the Arts Hotel, Mr. and Mrs. Hatch.” How did he know our name? Presumably the luggage handler alerted this check-in guy.
When the elevator door opened to our floor, a young woman awaited us. “Mr. and Mrs. Hatch, this way, please.”
Our spacious room, with its expanse of glass and steel overlooking the harbor and Mediterranean, was out of a James Bond movie—Bang & Olufsen sound system and flat-screen TV, a series of switches that controlled the myriad lights, and the remote-controlled metal blinds that lowered to completely obliterate the outdoors.
That evening we attended the champagne welcome reception and dinner. As we entered the room and took a glass of champagne from a waiter’s tray, Annemarie Victory stepped forward and greeted us effusively by name. She immediately asked about my stepmother (who had done some PR work for the owners in return for free cruise years earlier). Victory is a tiny blonde. She wore a stunning yellow outfit and sported a million-dollar smile. From her website:
Austrian born, Victory began her career in the travel industry while in college, working as a tour guide to various European cities and at a resort in Lugano, Switzerland. Professionally trained as a translator in Zurich, her schooling also included studies in London and at the Sorbonne. She is fluent in French, German, Italian and English and conversant in Spanish.
Whether it’s to Vienna for the famed New Year's Eve Ball, experiencing culinary creations by such legends as Alain Ducasse and Paul Bocuse, or cruising the Mediterranean aboard the legendary Sea Cloud, Victory has developed a special niche creating one-of-a-kind vacation experiences for the discriminating, upscale traveler. Inspired by a passion for travel, food and wine, she has spent her career touring the world, personally selecting those unique elements which become hallmarks of tours offered by the Annemarie Victory Organization.
Patrick O'Brian and Annemarie Victory
On Sea Cloud Cruise Several Years Prior.
We took a bus tour of Barcelona with a world-class guide, followed by late lunch at a five-star restaurant on a high hill with spectacular views overlooking the entire city. Mid-afternoon we boarded Sea Cloud and were taken to our comfortable little cabin—twin beds, desk, and bathroom.
What awaited us in the cabin? Ice in the ice bucket; bottled water; bottle of champagne; bowl of fresh fruit; all of our luggage; and a welcome brochure that introduced the crew, meal times and the departure schedule. One of the many goodies: “Chilled Champagne! See our barmen at any time to exchange the champagne bottle you will find in your room for a chilled bottle.”
We cruised the Mediterranean three times, and without fail the first night was heavy weather with rough seas. About half the passengers—ourselves included—didn't make it through dinner and retired to cabins early for the night. The affable German ship’s doctor had a pocket full of pills (presumably Dramamine) that he happily dispensed, and pretty much everyone was fine thereafter, especially since the seas calmed for the rest of the voyage.
Days Two Through Eight—Sheer Heaven!
Over the next seven days, Peggy and I were on the receiving end of a crash course in Customer Relationship Magic. I discovered that Annemarie Victory is truly remarkable on three counts: She makes the rich feel coddled, makes us ordinary folk feel rich and she makes dullards believe they're the most scintillating companions on the tour.
What follows are some random memories of customer relationship magic.
Tom Hook: Cruise Director.
Whenever Annemarie hostrd a Sea Cloud charter, you were guaranteed that at her right hand will be the smooth, brilliant Renaissance man Tom Hook, out of Destin, Fla. Tom is multilingual, plays terrific cocktail piano, writes wonderfully literate narratives for the daily bulletin of events, delivers a fascinating slide show on the history of Sea Cloud, and is liaison with the crew.
Every meal was simply outstanding, from the incredible breakfast and lunch buffets to the creative dinners that were so delicious you didn’t think about how healthy they were. Remember the Iron Chef America TV series, where top restaurateurs engage in a cook-off in state-of-the art kitchens, incorporating the episode's “secret ingredient” in every course?
Aboard Sea Cloud, Chef de Cuisine, Maik Albrecht, from Germany, outdid himself with two such dinners. One of the secret ingredients: vinegar.
Catering to Us Early Birds.
For those of us who were early risers that like to sit outside and watch the world go by, a table of fruit, hot coffee and pastries was set on the promenade deck by 6:30. In lousy weather, rain gear was always available.
A personal touch.
By the second day, the barmen knew our names and drink preferences.
During the day—except when entering or leaving port or hoisting the sails—passengers were welcome on the bridge to take pictures or watch the action.
For older passengers and those who had trouble walking, special transportation was always arranged for shore excursions. When the bus pulled in to Aix-en-Provence, Peggy and I opted to see Cézanne’s studio and catch up with the walking tour later. The guide said that it was a long hike up the hill (it wasn’t) and ordered the bus driver to drop us off there.
Tours of the ship.
When built as a private yacht in 1931, Sea Cloud had 10 deluxe cabins, all of which have been restored, complete with antique furnishings and fine art on the walls. The high rollers who reserved these sumptuous digs were asked if they would be kind enough to let the ship put on an open house. A champagne tour was arranged. It was eye-popping.
The original cabins had antique furniture
and the bathrooms featured gold fixtures.
Several of those passengers asked if they could see our little cabin, and Peggy gave them a tour of steerage (just kidding). Another tour was the engine room, so spotless you practically could eat off the floor. Off Corsica, the sea was very calm and the crew hoisted all the sails so we could go out on Zodiac boats and take photographs.
The Glories of Isolation
No TV, no radio, no Internet—a bit of an adjustment for a news junkie like me. Every night we found the next day’s schedule with an informative, literate backgrounder by Tom Hook. Every morning, the eight-page précis of top stories from The New York Times (including the crossword puzzle and answers to yesterday’s puzzle) were delivered to the cabins. BlackBerrys worked some of the time. International telephone and free e-mail were available.
A Shout-out for Annemarie’s Other Half
I would be remiss not to mention the graciousness of Annemarie’s investment banker husband, the elegant and very engaging Michael Victory, who was every bit as attentive to the guests as were Annemarie, Tom Hook and the crew. Etched in memory is a picture of Michael elegantly attired in blue blazer and tie, drink in hand making the rounds in the Lido Deck. “Welcome,” he muttered sotto voce, “to another shitty day in paradise.”
• When a customer is made to feel extra special by people that run a business, it's a pleasure to spend money with them again and again.
• Every sphincter-tight bean counter, accountant and CFO who believes it’s smart to save money by cutting back on services and cheapening product should be required to take a tour with the Annemarie Victory Organization. I believe the investment would pay for itself many, many times over—for as long as these turkeys are in your employ.
• For example, we dined one evening
with Annemarie who recounted the story of American Airlines going on strike two
days before the scheduled departure for a week sailing the Caribbean aboard Sea Cloud. Without missing a beat,
Annemarie chartered a jet and flew 40 stranded passengers to meet the ship at
the appointed island at the appointed time. “You do what you have to do,” she
Did she lose money on the deal?
“You do what you have to do,” she repeated.
• One way a business can create magic is to make customers believe they're part of an extended family. Over the years, the Victory Organization has chartered the Sea Cloud for many cruises in the Mediterranean and Caribbean.
• While about 30 of us had read the entire O’Brian oeuvre—some multiple times—a number of others considered themselves family, both of Annemarie and Sea Cloud. When Annemarie announces a trip, they sign up. For example, we met several people who'd traveled on Annemarie’s annual Christmas in Salzburg and New Year’s Eve Ball in the Imperial Palace in Vienna. “It’s pricey,” confided one Annemarie aficionado, “but it’s worth it.”
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