Pamela Conover spent 18 years working for the world’s largest cruise ship company, Carnival Corp., before starting her new job as CEO of tiny SeaDream Yacht Club at the beginning of January.
Previously, Conover served as president and CEO of Carnival’s luxury Seabourn Cruise Line from 2006 until 2011, when the brand’s headquarters moved from Miami to Seattle to allow the smaller Seabourn to merge behind-the-scenes operations with larger Holland America Line.
Conover stayed on as brand ambassador for Seabourn, “a pretty good job actually” that allowed her to go on a couple of cruises a year and stay in communication with guests during the transition.
But the move to SeaDream returned the veteran executive to a CEO post in in the industry she first got to know while working in the ship finance division at Citibank, where Carnival Cruise Lines was a major client.
Atle Brynestad, SeaDream’s chairman and owner, had been filling the CEO job since 2009. He also founded Seabourn, in 1987; both of SeaDream’s 112-passenger ships were once in Seabourn’s fleet.
In her Brickell Key office, Conover spoke about her priorities for the company, her history in the industry and what she was looking forward to on her first SeaDream cruise, which was scheduled to sail Sunday from San Juan.Q. How did you get into the cruise industry to begin with?
It was in 1994 that Micky Arison and Howard Frank, who I was dealing with on a joint venture — we were helping them set up in Greece — and they asked whether I would consider joining to go and be president of that joint venture [Epirotiki Line.] So I moved to Athens. I left banking, moved to Athens and never looked back.
It was an industry that I really loved when I was with ship finance. It was so fascinating and it was growing so dramatically that it was certainly something I was very interested in and it was just a great opportunity when I was able to work in it directly.Q. What had been your experience with cruising before that?
Just only sailing on cruise ships. So I really came to it from the financial aspects. Though it’s interesting how life comes full circle because back in 1992, when I was working for Citicorp, one of my clients at the time was Atle Brynestad, who was then the owner of Seabourn. And I helped advise him on the transaction where he sold an interest in Seabourn to Carnival Corp. And then when I was subsequently with Carnival Corp. back in 1998, then I was vice president of strategic planning, I worked on the transaction where Carnival acquired the remaining portion of Seabourn that they didn’t already own. So I’ve had an association with Atle for over 20 years.Q. You’ve now made a transition from the biggest cruise ship company in the world to a niche player. What are the differences and how are you liking this new role?
Oh, I love the new role. I think it is different because we are such a small company and a small brand and I think one of the challenges is we have a fantastic product — that isn’t the challenge. The challenge, as a small brand, is to get the recognition for that without large advertising and public relations budgets, to really build the awareness. Because once people go on a SeaDream Yacht, they tend to come back. The trick is for people to know that it’s an option in the first place. Q. What are your top priorities moving forward with SeaDream?
It’s certainly to increase the awareness of the product amongst people, to increase the profile so that people know that it’s a fantastic vacation alternative. Q. Where are the biggest growth opportunities for SeaDream?
I think there are huge growth opportunities just because we are so small. And I think that it is such a fantastic experience and if you look at the demographics and the psychographics, people are more active today and we’re quite an active product. We appeal to a profile of people who want to go on a smaller ship but want to have the ability to do water sports. Nobody else has ships like ours. They’re 112 passengers per vessel, so you can really deliver a unique experience onboard. You can personalize the experience so that everybody has the holiday that they want...and that, I think, is the true definition of luxury, is to really be able to customize it to the need of the consumer or the guest. So our size allows us to do that and it allows our staff to very quickly get to know what each guest wants and how they want it. Q. It seems like the growth opportunity is the market you already have, but raising awareness within that market.
Yes, it’s ensuring that people who don’t know about this option of SeaDream become aware of it. Because there are a lot of people who don’t want to go on a ship that’s 3,000 passengers but aren’t aware that there’s this size of all-inclusive, casual yet elegant option out there. We’re not for people who are looking to put on a tuxedo and dress up every night, but if you want to have really high quality food in an environment where you don’t have to take a tie with you, then we’re the people for you.Q. You’ve had lots of experience bringing in new ships in your previous roles. With two small ships for SeaDream, is there new capacity on the horizon?
Like all ship owners, everybody’s always looking at possible new ships and what’s the next step for the brand. So just like everybody else, we’re always talking about new ships and shipyards are always anxious to try and show what they could be doing, but there’s nothing specific. Q. Do you remember your first cruise?
It was out of Miami on some introductory cruise. It was when I was at Citicorp, an introduction for travel agents and investors and analysts on one of the Carnival ships.Q. Did you like it?
Loved it.Q. Are there any cruises that stand out as the most memorable?
I think the introduction of the new ships is always very memorable and introducing the Queen Mary 2 in England, being christened by the Queen [of England], for me as a British person was clearly something that stands out. And then introducing the new Seabourn ships was also a highlight.Q. Have you spent much time on SeaDream ships?
Not yet. But they were formerly part of the Seabourn fleet, so I do know the ships before they were updated and rebranded and the changes were made to make them the SeaDream Yacht Club. I [was] on them when that first happened.Q. So when do you get to go?
Jan. 27.Q. Is there anything you have heard about that you’re really looking forward to?
I mean, I’m looking forward to all of it. I’m really looking forward to seeing the marina in action. I’m really looking forward to participating in some of the shore excursions, particularly that involve hiking or mountain biking. And I’m just looking forward to trying the various elements of the cuisine, including the raw menu we have on board. Q. What’s your favorite vacation activity?
Cruising.Q. How are you getting the word out that you’re here and people should feel free to let you know what they think?
They do. Part of it is to reach out to our existing guests, because they are our most loyal clientele and generally I’ve already had emails from past guests welcoming me to the SeaDream family, which is so nice, and giving me their input. So it’s really reaching out to them and through them trying to reach out to their friends and social circle. And again, reaching out to people like them so we have the profile of what our typical guest is. And also reaching out to the travel agent community; they’re a critical distribution channel for us.Q. Is there anything that you want SeaDream to be doing a lot more of or any direction that you’d like to be emphasizing more?
I think that one of the things that is increasing in popularity is people chartering the whole yacht. And the reason, I think, that that’s increasing is because there’s a lot more focus on generational travel and family and milestones. So we see more individuals chartering a ship for sometimes weddings, sometimes what we call milestone birthdays, anniversaries....It’s just an emotional experience that you can’t really beat or replicate and I think people are realizing that to do something like that really creates the lasting memories that people are sort of yearning for today.
So we do see that increasing and I would like to see a lot more of that because I think there are people out there who don’t realize that, I mean, 56 suites is not a very big group and it’s an ideal intimate group, and so I think that’s a great opportunity for people.