Whew. Where to begin.
You may or may not know that the Maxwell and the Seven Seas cruise, originally conceived by BTW Concerts, LLC. is now canceled.
And I’ll be frank: we saw this coming. Those of us who have been on charter cruises before, those of us who know the basic considerations involved in putting this cruise together, saw this coming.
I will not be too harsh on the promoter in this case, but mind that I will definitely not be kind, especially considering that the missteps in the public relations aspect of this production have been appalling. However: said promoter has, prior to this, put on successful land-based events, and I will give benefit of the doubt that a successful land event may not always translate to a cruise event’s success as well. There is a lot more planning and a lot more money involved in a charter cruise, which BTW may not have been prepared to deal with, and likely didn’t realize until they dove into it.
But let me begin from the get-go, and you yourself judge best. This will get long, so brace yourselves. As I said: I will not be harsh, but I can’t be kind either.
Disclaimer: most of this is my own research, observation, and opinion. Take it as you see fit, but I’m protected by the 1st Amendment in expressing opinion, either way.
So. From the top. What have I seen and am sounding off on here?
As I’ve said once before: if something’s not priced to sell, it won’t. Doubly so this goes for cruises, and triply for cruise charters. When Maxwell at Sea got announced, I quickly looked up one major thing: how much does it cost? The price was at $2,895 per person, inside cabin. Cheapest rate.
Except that’s what I paid for my single inside cabin, in full, with port taxes and all, with the Capital Jazz Cruise.
This shouldn’t be a surprise, the per-person pricing. Cruises like couples. Nearly all cruises are billed and priced at double occupancy first, and singles are at a disadvantage. So this price per person is to be paid double for someone going alone. This translates to roughly $5,700 for a single inside cabin on Maxwell at Sea.
How about no. That is entirely too expensive. The lineup for Maxwell at Sea was great, especially the jazz segment, but no matter how great the lineup, if I can get a similar experience for half the price with Capital Jazz, I’ll let my wallet do the talking where I get the bang for half the buck.
This begs the question of why, exactly, the promoter was pricing this cruise at that rate? Everything has a reason. Cruise charters are not cheap to put on, and the cabin bookings go to recoup the cost of renting the ship, insuring the event, and paying the artists. That? is a VERY hefty counterbalance, especially the ship.
Bringing me to…
Choice of ship
The choice for this endeavor was the Freedom of the Seas, by Royal Caribbean. See this link from Royal about their charter costs. Royal Caribbean is not cheap. If you look up the Freedom of the Seas, it costs $5.6M to rent it for a week’s sailing.
Five point six million dollars. If that sum doesn’t give you a gray hair, I envy you.
So, let’s look at the terms. 10% due at signing, then paid in chunks of 30%. With a letter of guaranteed credit, which will ensure that in the event of a cancellation, the cruise line can draw on it to square up their side of the contract. Which, mind you, leaves whoever is chartering the ship on the hook for the costs, one way or the other.
Think about what that implies. For Royal, a charter cruise is pure profit, even if it fails. For the promoter, a failing charter is a financial nightmare. In the event of cancellation, Royal will draw on the letter of guaranteed credit. I’m sure that there’s a provision in their contract that designates the amount, and I’m confident that it’s a 7-figure sum.
The Freedom of the Seas is a beautiful ship. No doubt. But if you’re just starting out, unless you’re a multimillionaire or a lottery winner, this particular choice is biting off more than you can chew. What about anything of the Carnival fleet? Celebrity? A smaller ship, like the Celebrity Century, would cost a lot less than anything in the Royal fleet. Carnival is likely the cheapest of the ‘big lines’ for charters, depending on the class of ship. If you’re just starting out, the smaller, compact Seabourn line may well be better. Or the Silversea.
Short version: the ship is the biggest expense. For an inaugural event, it’s prudent, if not common sense, to always choose a small ship; this way, even if you have the money to back up a bigger one, you will have a Rainy Day fund, and you will lose that much less. People come to a music charter for the music; bells and whistles can come later.
But, it’s Royal Caribbean… And this brings me to the grist of the entire situation, and one that I really cannot be nice about, all considered.
The Flow of Information/Public Relations.
Few things are more important in a music event than keeping the public informed. And that was botched rather badly. I will not mince words in this section at all. Sorry in advance if you get offended, there is really no nice way of saying it, but BTW fucked up, and fucked up big time.
When the cruise started to go under people got their information from everyone but the promoter. And that, really and verily, is not okay.
Buckle in, folks, because this is going to get LONG.
I originally began monitoring this cruise when someone brought it up as a possibility, and also expressed a concern that it may not take place. This was back in maybe July last year. The prices were, as I mentioned before, obscenely high. I could see no reason why I should pay $5,700 or thereabout for a bought-out inside cabin when that’s more than what I’ll ever need to go on the Capital Jazz Cruise. But, again, there’s people I know and adore on the lineup. So maybe the prices would drop, yes? I was hoping for that; if I could score a last-second booking discount, then you best believe I would’ve been on that boat.
Instead what I saw was the rollout of an onboard credit.
Example: Tim Bowman’s onboard credit here.
That’s when I knew there was going to be trouble.
Let me explain one bit: no cruise company ever offers onboard credits unless they really, really want those cabins filled. $525 is basically one person’s drinking budget for the entire cruise, if you ballpark at 3 drinks a day for 7 days, $10 each, including buying other people drinks too. For a lot of people, that onboard credit is ALL their cruise spending. That’s a lot of credit for one sailing!
That’s what told me it wasn’t selling at all. At those prices, it wasn’t really unexpected, but the onboard credit was confirmation. I’d expect $100 onboard credit. Or a spa credit. You don’t give someone a credit of this magnitude unless you want them to come flocking to you. This is more than enough for two people’s spending on board.
So how bad were the sales, really, if it takes that sort of an incentive to try and generate them?
November 2014: Royal Caribbean puts cabins back on sale.
That’s what got my other alarm bells ringing. Because in a full ship charter, it’s an impossibility. A full-ship charter means cabins can be booked only through the charter, maybe through travel agents, but never through the cruise line. The cruise company doesn’t take bookings, and there is no cruise-line booking number until the charter promoter or admin uploads the manifest, or hands over the passenger list, whichever is applicable. Bottom line: can’t get a charter cruise cabin through anyone but the charter.
Immediately, I thought something was wrong. Coupled with the onboard credit, I had a suspicion this thing was going under.
On the Facebook page for the event, now defunct, the promoter claimed that it’s an error on Royal Caribbean’s side, and they’re still taking bookings. This becomes relevant later, and unfortunately, I couldn’t get a screencap of that particular statement before the page got taken down.
December 2014: My first phone call to RC.
Yes, I went there. I wasn’t about to pay over $5K for a single, but if there was an alternative, I would’ve taken it. However, again: why the hell would Royal Caribbean begin taking bookings independently for something advertised as a full charter? Easy answer: it’s not a full charter. So I called up Royal to inquire about access to the gigs, as well as charter status, and they told me that nope, it’s not a full charter, but here’s a nice cabin for you at $1500 and change, all to yourself, if you still want to go.
(I didn’t book, but it was tempting)
Then cue a couple of Facebook posts from people on the event’s now-defunct FB page, saying that the Maxwell at Sea promoter was lying about it being a full-ship charter, and at that point, I agreed with the poster. If it were a full-ship charter, it would not have been sold via Royal, plain and simple. Maxwell at Sea earned its strike two.
CruiseCritic.com – never underestimate people’s determination.
For those unfamiliar with CruiseCritic, it’s a pretty handy resource for all things cruise-related, and it also has a pretty active forum.
In early January of this year, I was sharing my thoughts on the Maxwell at Sea cruise with a friend of mine, and he told me, “You really want to see the thread on CruiseCritic.”
And this is what I found. If you want to read it, go ahead; it’s long, though. VERY long.
The people of CruiseCritic were amazingly diligent and thorough in their discussion of this particular sailing. Hell, I learned a lot about cruises and groups aboard cruises just from that thread.
Cancellation – not via the promoter, mind.
Again, back to CruiseCritic.
After some time, I see this post right here. Trust me. Click on it and read it.
Remember how I said RC put the cabins back on sale in around November? That was why.
So then why was BTW Concerts still advertising this cruise as a full charter, until about…last week? Again, you won’t see it now, because they took their pages down.
Taking the above in mind, you’d imagine that if the cruise company is putting the cabins back on sale – at severely discounted prices to boot – and someone takes the time and effort to call the corporate offices and get the confirmation that it’s canceled, wouldn’t that be the time for the promoter to maybe, just possibly, come out and say it?
Believe me, I understand the old adage of “The show must go on”. But go on on what? The cruise company pulled the plug. Likely for nonpayment, because see price in the link above – I can’t imagine that money was easy to come by.
Instead, what happened was that every time someone would post something about Maxwell and the Seven Seas that wasn’t enthusiastic praise, it quickly got deleted. People were asking, “Is this still happening?” and were told “Yes it is!” – when the opposite was true.
After the above post on CruiseCritic, though, I had enough. I called them out on them chronically deleting their posts, and included a screencap of a prior post that called them out on cancellation (which they removed) before. It’s enclosed here, click to enlarge.
Look, folks, y’all know me by now. I may be a cast-iron bitch on a good day, but when I criticize someone, it is always with improvement in mind. If I tell someone they messed up, I expect them not to repeat the error a second time. That is my goodwill in what I do. My goodwill walked out the door with that deletion.
But if you ban me for calling you out – especially when I’m right, and especially when there’s evidence, even if it’s circumstantial, to back me up, that’s when I get pissed off.
It’s very, very bad PR, and it shows that the promoter really has no damn idea about the court of public opinion, nor the public perception – and especially not social media. You may say, “Well, I don’t give a shit what the public thinks! Social media is crap anyway!” – WRONG. This is an industry wholly and completely powered by public opinion, and social media is what makes it go round, especially seeing as – hello, good morning – we don’t have jazz radio. What do people think if they see posts vanishing for the sake of image control? What do people think if they see multiple people calling you out repeatedly for something you know has happened, that they figured out independently, and instead of answering questions, you’re claiming that your system is down (screencap of that available as well) or just delete them and ban them altogether?
What this tactic does is it confirms that the people whom they are deleting are in the right.
When BTW began their tactic of sanitizing Facebook and covering up the cancellation, they as good as confirmed that this event has gone under, before they said it themselves. It’s the complete and direct opposite effect of what they intended, and it’s the same thing as Dolores Umbridge attempting to ban the Quibbler in the fifth Harry Potter book – instead of making the problem go away as she wanted to, she ensured that everyone would read it. Same effect with the sanitizing.
If you really want to prove your naysayers wrong, ignore their posts and let it go on as planned. If they’re wrong, they’ll see it rather than hear it, and the proof will be in the pudding, and out in public. But if you’re deleting them left and right, especially if they have a marked consistency in what they’re saying, then you just basically ensured that more people will pay attention to their posts, and ask, “Why are you deleting them? What are you so afraid of?”
This is an industry where transparency is paramount. People talk. Artists always talk amongst themselves. People behind the scenes – managers, booking agents, photographers, friends, roadies, sound guys – they will all talk. The last thing you want is the wrong kind of grist to fall into the mill.
When some of the people who did book the Maxwell cruise reached out to me, I was not surprised. Best I could do was direct them to the CruiseCritic thread.
That’s when I got pissed off but good.
That was earlier this week.
I originally began monitoring this cruise because I had a distinct feeling that this was going to happen, and also because it reminded me way, way too much of the fiasco known as the Oasis Jazz Awards. Do you remember that, back in March 2011? It was not going to take place, and no one found out about it until two days to go time. Two days, on a land event, is one thing, and that was fraud at its finest. No one at the Oasis offices took phone calls. And the promoters then had the balls to blame the fans for the cancellation.
If BTW was going to turn to the tack of blaming the fans, trust me, I wouldn’t be anywhere near as nice as I’ve been in this post so far.
The booking system for Maxwell at Sea didn’t go offline until after I put up the prior post on their page. I put that post up mid-January. So between November 13th, which is when Royal Caribbean pulled the charter, and the time their booking system went offline, they were 1. advertising and 2. potentially taking payments. Two months’ worth of time.
For that alone, they could have gotten into, and could likely still get into, quite a heap of legal trouble. Point 1 comes out to false advertising, and 2 can count as fraud. It’s been a while since I delved into these sorts of particulars, so bear with me. Also bear in mind I’m not an attorney, and having been some years since I read a law textbook, I may have gotten rusty…
Now, I won’t delve into the fraud possibilities here. However, correct me if I’m wrong, but if an event gets canceled by the venue, the promoter legally cannot take any more money for said event, and cannot have any public medium representing that the event is still happening, because that would be misrepresenting the venue/vendor, never mind the promoter himself. Misappropriation of trademark at best, copyright infringement at worst in relation to the venue. I severely doubt that Royal Caribbean is the sort of a company that’s willing to let their image be attached to something that is, altogether, not taking place.
This will explain why, right now, after this screencap, the Facebook pages for MaxwellAtSea and BTWAtSea have summarily disappeared. You will find an identical message on what was once the cruise website.
Note the language they’re using: “unforeseen events and circumstances between the cruise line and the promoter. ”
That’s where I call bullshit. None of this was ‘unforeseen’, and of all the people involved in this, the last people to claim ‘unforeseen’ should be BTW Concerts.
BTW Concerts knew how much this ship was going to cost to rent. $5.6M is not a sum of money one quotes lightly. If they were hoping to roll the cabin bookings and the chartering payments – make a certain amount from cabin bookings, put that towards the payment to RC – then they should have definitely thought about how to get the cabins to sell first. How could they have possibly expected people to pay $2895 per person when other cruise charters can charge you just a hair over half of that for a similar lineup? Did BTW Concerts owners really think that what they were offering justified that price? Because honestly, no. It did not. What, exactly, made them believe that this price was justifiable to charge? The artist fees? Okay, potentially, but no one asked them to book Joe and Erykah Badu, and Chrisette Michelle, and Anthony Hamilton. They could have very, very easily taken different R&B/soul headliners at a lesser price. The ship? That’s their own fault; they knew the cost was astronomical, and booked it anyway. Did they not have the sponsors backing them to make this cruise happen? Seeing as I’m not their bookkeeper, I don’t know, but my guess is that they didn’t.
They knew exactly how much this all was going to cost. Their inability to meet their expenses is their poor planning. What’s that old saying again? Failure to plan on your part is not an emergency on anyone else’s part. And this is about as far from ‘unforeseen’ as you can possibly imagine it to be.
Educated guess is that they made the initial payment, which was enough to book the boat at signing, but couldn’t scrape together the next payment, which was well over $1.5M. They had three such payments to make.
So really, to claim that this was unforeseen is pure bullshit. It’s not like Royal called them up the day it’s due and said, “Oh hey, you owe us a mil and change.” The costs were known from. the. start. To claim that any of this is unforeseen is laughable.
So where is the blame due? Let me first tell you where it’s not due.
If we have to point fingers, then let’s first see where they shouldn’t be pointed. Already, there has been some kerfuffling about it being Royal’s fault.
Royal Caribbean is not at fault here. They had a contract. They had an agreement. They had terms of service in place for this exact thing happening, and they did their part of it. If this means cancellation, then that’s what it is. Either way, remember that Letter of Credit? RC is drawing on that, of that I’m confident.
The naysayers are not at fault here. This includes me, and everyone else who had suspicions about this cruise; I assure you that I was not alone in thinking from the beginning that it was going to fail. There was no need whatsoever to delete their posts, but the first thing it did was make BTW Concerts look worse than it needed to for dragging out admitting that this thing has gone under.
I take no pleasure in being right about this, for reasons I’ll come to in a minute.
The fans are not at fault, and never will be.
If an event is not priced to sell, it won’t.
If you can’t motivate purchases, it’s not their fault for not buying.
If this was priced similarly to other charters, then believe me, the results would’ve been different. If the promoter had a different ship, it would’ve also produced a different result. In the music world, and especially in jazz, people vote with their wallets. That’s the way it’s always been for any public undertaking.
It is not the artists’ fault for not letting their fans know earlier.
Simple reason: they didn’t know either. Most of them have just found out today.
The people answering the phones at BTW are not completely at fault – and I’ll explain why.
Bear with me and let me explain why I say that. Even if staff was well and firmly aware of the situation, they can’t say anything unless they’re authorized to from higher up – otherwise, it’s their job and their professional rep on the line. They are bound by a nondisclosure agreement to the nitty-gritty of these events. I would know; I signed a couple, and input a NDA clause into most of my photography contracts. There’s a limit to what they can admit to from behind the scenes without authorization, and considering that all of us have to keep lights on, the people who are hired to answer phones and take bookings are basically taking on the extremely unenviable role of a shield between the promoter and the public as their livelihood. They do not control the promoter, and they do not control the outcome – and the most they can do is stave off until they get authorization to discuss it.
Despite the above paragraph, let me be clear: I am not absolving the staff of BTW of their responsibilities. By no means at ALL. If they knew that this was going under, they should have found a discreet way of letting people know. If they would have put up a post along the lines of, “Hey, guys, I know you’re excited, but we have a situation with Royal Caribbean right now; we’re trying to iron it out, we will let you know what comes of this” – note the verbiage I’m using; there’s nowhere a claim of cancellation, but this does let people know something is up – then it would’ve saved the entire production’s public image.
However: in my experience, people who don’t operate honestly – and face it, sanitizing social media is dishonest, like it as not – rarely makes for a good environment behind the scenes. I can’t speak for BTW as a workplace, since I am not an employee and safe to say never will be, but I cannot imagine that the past two months were easy on the staff in any iteration. Having worked for a very stressful workplace before, I can only sympathize with the staff, because I know very well the pressure they were under. I won’t absolve them of their responsibility in this, but I will think of them and, frankly put, hope that they will find a better place of employment than BTW.
The blame is very squarely with the owner(s) of BTW Concerts, LLC and none other.
Plain, simple, and to the point. No ifs, ands, or buts on the matter.
Regardless of whether or not BTW put on successful land events before – which they have, I will give credit where it’s due – a successful land event does not equal a successful cruising charter. This was poorly planned and poorly executed. The social media handling of this event was straight-up ridiculous, and that is wholly and completely BTW’s fault, and they are the ones who look worse for it. In deleting people’s posts and in banning them for posting things they don’t like or disagree with, BTW showed that they cannot handle criticism, and they do not get their information out in a timely manner, if people from outside forums take it upon themselves to reach third parties – Royal Caribbean in this case – to get the information they need. BTW showed that they don’t respect the fans, nor do they give a shit about the ticket holders who booked with them, seeing as they refused to respond to phone calls or emails (more screencaps to this effect available) and bearing in mind that they also deleted all demands for answers from Facebook.
All of this is a recipe for disaster for any business reputation that BTW Concerts has built up over the years. I really cannot imagine that the people who have been burned by this experience will book tickets with them for other events. I can’t think that Royal Caribbean won’t draw on the Letter of Credit that’s required at signing (linking the FAQ again for reference), which in turn makes me wonder about their future events as a whole. I can’t think that the sponsors and investors in productions such as these don’t have their own brand of conversations at the bar, either.
Worst of all, the owners are the ones who control what the staff allows the public to see or know. Whether or not the staff knew is moot. The owners knew, because they were the ones who got the letter of cancellation. They were aware of that from the beginning, and they were the ones who fucked up on the social media angle. They are, unequivocally and without contradiction, the ones who bear the responsibility for this event collapsing.
What This Means for Jazz.
The biggest concern I have, though, is for the genre, and what this implies.
Let’s put it simply: we the jazz people – musicians, fans, artists, photogs, journalists – cannot afford another Jazz Fest West. Not if we want this genre to 1. survive, 2. thrive, and 3. be taken seriously.
Already, jazz isn’t being taken seriously. Don’t believe me, look up Jazz in the Gardens in Miami, featuring R. Kelly and Run DMC. I’ll wait while you pick your jaws up from the floor. Remember the October lineup for the Arizona Jazz Fest (also a BTW production) which featured Boyz II Men? If that’s not a sign to you that jazz is being pushed by the wayside, then I question where you’re looking. Capital Jazz is a sole exception to this, because they make sure to balance both sides of the genre divide that they work with. However, after seeing the New Orleans festival roll out Elton John as a headliner, as well as No Doubt, this makes me wonder about the future of jazz.
This cancellation, though, especially by a promoter that has put on other jazz events in AZ, CA, and Las Vegas, is going to reverberate, and definitely not in a good way. Just like when Oasis went down there was a particularly smarmy article calling on contemp-jazz artists to “play real music” – makes my blood boil even typing this – and promoters began to shy away from new jazz artists in favor of R&B as a misguided and long-term-ineffective “way to bring people in”, this is going to have a continued effect on the genre as a whole. Jazz in the Gardens is proof positive that there are some promoters out there who have no idea what jazz even is. I shudder to think about what this will mean for people who will use the Maxwell and the Seven Seas – which had a lineup that was more jazz than R&B, regardless of the prominent R&B headliners it featured – as an excuse to further push jazz by the wayside.
Note that I’m not differentiating between the subgenres of jazz. They’re all affected by this, regardless of how indirectly.
There is one good thing about it all: BTW Concerts’ massive screw-up with this cruise leaves the door wide open for a better-equipped and more astute promoter to step in and show ’em how it’s done. Every void that opens up in the jazz show world gets filled; it’s a matter of time, opportunity, effort, and money. I wholly expect to see another full-ship charter on the horizon, headed by someone new, that’s better priced and better assembled, that will have a great inaugural sailing – not soon, mind you, but I know it can be done. After all, even the Smooth Jazz Cruise had to start somewhere.
And for those of y’all wondering why I am even writing this? Why I am writing about those events, observing them, pointing out the mess-ups? That’s what I do. Unlike a lot of folks, I’m not going to sit around and stay quiet when I see that shit isn’t right. I am a photographer, and my primary niche is jazz; this is my world too. If something impacts the genre, it impacts my clients, regardless of what role those clients occupy, and by extension, it impacts me as well. When I first got into the music world, I swore that I’d look out for my people – and I am doing just that. After all, I’ve had a lot of people looking out for me over the years; least I can do is return the favor.
ETA: The promoter has a Ripoff Report complaint here, as I found. Breach of contract (surprise to no one, I’m certain).
If you were burned by BTW Concerts in any capacity, I strongly encourage filing a complaint with the Arizona Attorney General here: https://www.azag.gov/
Also put up a post on www.ripoffreport.com, please.
Remember: this is a very public industry, regardless of how ‘behind the scenes’ something is. Please speak up if you feel something is wrong. Don’t be afraid of retaliation. What you say may save another person – or thirty – from going through similar.
Another resource is Dave Cherry of CBS 5 Arizona: firstname.lastname@example.org
ETA 3: A story has run on NBC Los Angeles regarding this cruise cancellation. Pay close attention to the video; in it, you will hear Royal Caribbean’s side, which effectively confirms everything that has been surmised on CruiseCritic.com. Story at this link.