Crystal, Conde Nast, and the Berkeley Effect

The Berkeley effect? At one point, in one ranking system, UC Berkeley was rated as the best university in (the world? the U.S.?). Not because all of its departments were best at what they do (they’re not). Indeed, it might have been ranked best even if none of the departments was rated #1 (which several are, depending on who’s doing the rating). The key: Berkeley has (had) so many departments in so many disciplines that are ranked within the top five or top ten: It’s a case of overall excellence and extreme breadth.

Which relates to cruising, Crystal and Conde Nast Traveler because Crystal once again scored highest of any cruise line in last year’s survey, as it has for years. I was reminded of that when we got a flyer from Silversea that, on the cover, claimed Conde Nast Traveler had rated it tops among cruise lines (false) and, inside, included the correct claim: Silversea ranks highest among small-ship cruise lines. (Silversea’s ships carry 296 or 382 passengers; Crystal’s ships carry 940 or 1080 passengers. While 1080 passengers counts as “small” as compared to the megaships that most mainstream cruise lines use, the typical dividing line is 500 passengers.)

In the January 2006 “Gold List” feature, each hotel, resort, and cruise line that qualifies is ranked by survey responses in several categories–six of them for cruise lines. Crystal certainly didn’t rank #1 across the board, but I think they might have come out on top even if they failed to be first in any of the categories (which isn’t the case):

  • Cabins: Crystal’s weak point compared to other luxury lines. Five of the eleven Gold List lines score higher, some of them substantially higher.
  • Food: While Crystal is excellent in this category, scoring better than most ultra-expensive hotels, two small-ship luxury lines (Seabourn and SeaDream) score even higher.
  • Service: Crystal scores 97.1 out of 100–but SeaDream scores 98.2! (SeaDream’s ships house 110 passengers. We have yet to meet anyone who cruises SeaDream; we may be too ordinary to ever meet such folks.)
  • Itineraries: Crystal is tops here at 94.7, but barely ahead of Silversea and Grand Circle.
  • Design: Crystal’s also #1, significantly ahead of the runner-up.
  • Activities: Again, Crystal’s #1 and well ahead of the runner-up

The overall result is that, despite relatively weak Room scores (88.0, when the top score is 96.6), Crystal comes out with an overall 94.1–while the four other luxury cruise lines are clustered closely together (Silversea 92.4, Seabourn 91.9, Radisson Seven Seas 91.3, SeaDream 90.2). (The sixth-rated line is back at 87.0.) Could Crystal have emerged on top if it was second in every category? Quite possibly.

We’ve only been on one other luxury line (Radisson Seven Seas, second among large-ship lines), but from everything I’ve heard, these ratings are right on the money. This year’s poll may be different: the Crystal Harmony is no longer part of Crystal, and while it’s our favorite ship, there’s no question that its rooms aren’t as good as on the other two Crystal ships (and not in the same league as Radisson Seven Seas’ all-suite ships). So room ratings might go up–but the Harmony was also the quintessentially-perfect ship design. (My sense is that the itineraries are also less adventurous with only two ships.)

Seeing those detailed ratings also explains why some reviewers who do walkthroughs have wondered why Crystal scores so high. It’s not the cabins; it’s everything else–and “everything else” really only sinks in during the course of a cruise. For that matter, the design isn’t flashy (quite the opposite) or grand; it’s just effective.

I wish this cruise post was a way of hinting that we’re on our way. It isn’t: indeed, for the first time in more than five years, we have no cruise booked. It really was triggered by the misleading Silversea brochure.

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