If You Can’t Afford It, Do You Want It Out of Sight?

Cruise ships disagree on whether to show us what we’re missing

An article in the Times on Sunday about our “Velvet Rope economy” points out that we’re living in a new gilded age (we know) and that businesses are falling all over themselves to service the 1%, often at the expense of the rest of us (we know that too). Something we perhaps didn’t know, though, is the fact that different companies are trying out very different approaches. Competitors disagree over whether to be transparent or tactful about giving the extremely rich extremely cushy treatment.

Norwegian Cruise Lines, for example, assumes that the plebes don’t want to see the elites and vice versa, so they keep the special amenities for the elites under wraps. The ship even gives the special amenities areas names like “the Escape” and “the Haven,” presumably because real life — in which an elite individual may glimpse a homeless person now and again — is so exhausting for the ultra-privileged that they need a break.

“It was always the intention to make the Haven somewhat obscure so it wasn’t in the face of the masses,” said Kevin Sheehan, Norwegian’s former chief executive, who helped design the Escape with the hope of attracting a richer clientele. “That segment of the population wants to be surrounded by people with similar characteristics.”

Do you suppose “similar characteristics” means only heavy wallets, or something more insidious?

In any event, the Haven wasn’t picky enough at first and too many of the wrong kind of folks were getting through. So the ship worked harder to restrict access to “the right people.”

At its debut in 2006, the Haven was swamped by tourists from regular quarters who paid $200 to upgrade to one of its 40 or so rooms, Mr. Sheehan recalled. So he ordered an immediate halt to the upgrades, which undercut profit margins and undermined the Haven’s main selling point, exclusivity.

“We needed to fill the Haven by getting the right people on the ship,” said Mr. Sheehan, who stepped down as chief executive last year. “When the masses overwhelmed the group in the Haven, they didn’t have the experience they were looking for.”

Mr. Sheehan’s focus on wealthier travelers proved prescient. Norwegian’s stock has surged. And as the company designed new vessels in recent years, the Haven became more defined — with its own pool, lounge, bar and restaurant — and more isolated from the rest of the ship.

Did you manage to read that without gagging? I couldn’t!

Anyway, not everyone thinks that tucking away these enclaves for the rich and fabulous, as Norwegian does, is an A+ strategy. It means that the elites get to interact only with those who share their “similar characteristics,” and it means that the plebes don’t collect to drool jealously at what they can’t have. But, Royal Caribbean figures, what’s wrong with a little drool?

While the Haven is hidden, or at least camouflaged, on Norwegian’s cruise ships, its archrival Royal Caribbean, by contrast, makes no secret of what is available to passengers who pay the most. Its Royal Suite class isn’t a ship within a ship, but it serves much the same function with one significant difference: Regular passengers can push their noses up against the glass, literally.

On Royal Caribbean’s new ship Anthem, diners must first walk past the frosted glass windows of Coastal Kitchen, reserved for suite occupants, before they can crowd around the buffet tables of the open-to-everyone Windjammer Café. …

While Norwegian executives decided to mostly hide the Haven from view, Royal Caribbean went with transparency. “It’s the American way,” said Michael Bayley, president of Royal Caribbean. “I think society is prepared to accept that if you pay more for certain elements, then you deserve them.”

Bayley also acknowledges, “The idea of segregating people into a class system is un-American.” But that doesn’t seem to stop him.

Then there’s this hilarious tidbit:

In May, the company will roll out its Royal Genie program — essentially a personal servant for the highest spenders on board. Royal Genies will research their guests’ preferences even before they come aboard and come up with surprises like in-room drinks with their favorite vodka or Scotch.

Yeah. It’s officially 1912 all over again, only instead of career servants we have Task Rabbits and Royal Genies. Enjoy your Haven while you can, my rich friends. I hear Heaven is even harder to get into, though possibly it’s not as nice.

The real question is for the plebes. Do you want to know what you’re missing? Does gawking at first class eye candy not bother you? Does it perhaps even leave you inspired? Or does it make you #FeelTheBern? When it comes to the separation of the classes, do you place a premium on tact, or on transparency?

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