Polar Expedition Cruise Expert Steve Wellmeier
Quirky’s Ted Scull has an e-chat with with polar expedition cruise expert Steve Wellmeier, managing director for Poseidon Expeditions USA.
QuirkyCruise.com: Where were you born and how big was your family?
Steve W: I was the fifth of six children in a Catholic family in Dayton, OH; strong German heritage and work ethic, as most of my grandparents migrated down in the late 19th century from farm country in central Ohio. In those days, all Catholic families were big!
We all had chores and responsibilities from an early age, helping out around the house, expected to share just about everything, encouraged to get summer jobs, and to learn the value of work and money.
QuirkyCruise.com: That’s pretty far from the sea, so when did you see your first ship, and any reaction?
Steve W: It was a similar size paddle wheeler to the Delta Queen in Cincinnati that was used for daily and evening excursions, dinner parties, celebrations, etc. Can’t remember the name, but I do remember that the front deck near the waterline was the site of my first kiss ever with a girl, so it was memorable. The romance of the water!
QuirkyCruise.com: What was your educational background and how did it lead to you to a first job?
Steve W: I loved reading — my siblings and I almost did it competitively (“how many books did you read this week?”) — so I’m not surprised I graduated from Saint Louis University with an undergraduate degree in English Literature. I liked it enough to apply to grad school, and was lucky enough to get a scholarship at the University of Cincinnati, where I was also a teaching assistant for a year. So, critical reading, the ability to synthesize and summarize, and writing were strengths that I was able to take into the job market.
For the first five years after grad school, I was a junior communications assistant and then manager with a publicly traded, diversified industrial corporation in St. Louis. The big thing that I came away from there with was an ability and interest in tackling just about any writing job that presented itself, and there was always something: annual report to shareholders, speeches for financial analysts, advertising copy, press releases, employee newsletters, brochure and direct mail copy for four different company divisions.
That ability to write in different voices to different audiences served me well, and still does.
QuirkyCruise.com: How did working for your first cruise line come about?
Steve W: In 1983, I was caught up in some layoffs resulting from a merger with a larger industrial company, but managed to walk away with a few months of severance pay. A graphic designer I worked with told me there was a new start-up cruise operation, and that it was looking for a PR person. “Cruise operator in St. Louis?,” I asked. Sure enough, it was Clipper Cruise Line (CCL), which was being financed by Barney Ebsworth, the owner of the well-known and successful affinity tour operator, INTRAV.
He admired the business model created by Luther Blount, who along with Lars-Eric Lindblad, can probably be considered the two “fathers” of small ship cruising. Clipper’s shallow-draft vessels were designed to cruise the scenic Intracoastal Waterway, Chesapeake Bay, waters of New England and, in the winter months, the Virgin Islands.
I was the sixth employee hired, and was immediately in the thick of it not only with public relations, but advertising, direct mail — virtually anything that needed to be written.
My success with Clipper came to some degree with my familiarity with direct mail in an earlier job, where we used SIC (Standard Industrial Classification) codes to target potential buyers of steel pipe and tubing. I used the same principles, but using travel magazine subscriber lists and other direct mail lists from SRDS that were widely available at the time, some of which included demographic and psychographic information about those on the lists.
While all this is child’s play in today’s digital marketing world, it was pretty cutting-edge stuff at the time. INTRAV had always done direct mail to affinity organizations like university alumni associations, but I was able to convince Paul Duynhouwer, my boss at the time, to take it in a different direction — direct mail to consumer lists; i.e. individual households with no affinity connection except that they had similar lifestyle interests, demographics, educational levels and so forth. I don’t believe anyone else in the cruise industry was doing this at the time.
QuirkyCruise.com: What did you like about working for a cruise line and especially for CCL?
Steve W: The cruise industry was going through a big transformation in the mid-1980s. The traditional lines like Royal Viking, Cunard, Chandris, Sitmar, Sun Line and others were either going out of business or merging into conglomerates, and the rise of the mass-market operators like Carnival and RCCL was well underway.
Clipper was definitely a boutique operator in a niche segment of the industry, and I always liked “playing on the edges” of the industry as well as appreciating the diminutive size of Clipper and other operators of that ilk. We focused on our differences from the big boys, working hard to appeal to educated travelers more interested in the destination than the cruise ship as a floating entertainment palace.
Barney Ebsworth also had high standards, and the Clipper vessels were the finest small ships in the business, well, until Sea Goddess came along! But they didn’t last long, did they? Another thing I liked about Clipper was that we all built it from the ground up; we managed the operational side of the ships ourselves — catering, hotel, technical, engineering, bridge team, etc. Quite amazing when I think back on it.
We realized that one of the big draws was the young American crew — mostly college-age kids — with whom the guests really bonded. And the relaxed, unpretentious aspect of this type of cruising.
QuirkyCruise.com: This is where I first encountered you when I came asking for a press trip, and what do you remember about that?
Steve W: Initially, we worked with a PR firm from Miami, but that didn’t last long as its experience was with larger, mass-market operators like Carnival, and they didn’t really grasp the Clipper small ship concept. So, I took over and started dealing directly with the press inquiries.
That’s when you and I met, I believe, on the phone. Unlike most travel writers, the first words out of your mouth were not “Do you offer press trips?” Instead, you asked a lot of questions and I got the impression very quickly that you knew what you were talking about and were very interested in off-beat and different type of cruise experiences. You “got it.”
Somehow, our relationship evolved to semi-regular Friday afternoon chats where you would call me and lead off with a tough question to which — as I’m told by you anyway — I would answer with a long sigh…
The trouble with you is that I always had to actually think about the answer I was giving you, because you knew your business! But we didn’t actually meet in person until I left Clipper (the first time) in 1988 and moved to New York, your home base.
I honestly don’t remember exactly when you first traveled with Clipper or whether I was even involved in putting you aboard. But I’m sure you remember EXACTLY.
QuirkyCruise.com: How long did you stay at Clipper and what led you to move on?
Steve W: Change of management of Clipper. Paul Duynhouwer, who was always my mentor in this business, left in 1987 to join Sven Lindblad as VP of marketing & sales at Special Expeditions in New York, precursor to Lindblad Expeditions. I left in 1988 to join TravLtips Cruise & Freighter Travel Association as director of marketing.
TravLtips was also in New York, but not on Fifth Avenue like Special Expeditions. I commuted out to Flushing, Queens every day on the LIRR. That was also an interesting 10 years, again “playing the edges” and marketing via segmented, targeted direct mail; not only freighter travel, but tall ships, barges, expedition ships and — in a big way — positioning cruises by the larger cruise operators.
In some ways, we were a remnant marketer, selling long cruises at a heavy discount to older travelers who had the discretionary income and time for such voyages.
QuirkyCruise.com: TravLtips concentrated on what types of cruises, ships and what did you like about that job.
Steve W: Freighter travel was our specialty and our marketing “hook” to attract travelers into joining our “association” for $15 per year or $25 for two years. What a bargain! It wasn’t really an organization or association per se, but we would mail them a magazine every other month featuring articles written by fellow travelers about their freighter trips.
This first-hand point of view, providing details about freighter travel by the actual travelers gave TravLtips an “insider’s” reputation. The magazine was a gritty, two-color job with half-tone photographs provided by the travelers — Conde Nast Traveler it wasn’t! But people loved it.
We found that lots of our members — we generally had about 30,000 followers at the time — loved the idea of freighter travel, but it wasn’t quite right for many of them. So, we would book them on something else, like a positioning voyage at rates usually starting under $100 per day, the average freighter per diem back in the early ‘90s.
The fun with that job was turning around a direct mail promotional piece in a few hours, getting it in the mail and getting our share of the business before anyone else. We had our 30,000 followers all figured out in the database according to what they liked, who they had traveled with, could they go on short notice and so forth.
So, we could promise cruise operators that we could exactly target the segment that was right for them. It worked well enough that we could usually convince them to pay for the mailing. We weren’t greedy with the commission and would typically pass along some of it to the customer in the form of extra savings.
Again, this sort of segmented marketing is a given today with digital marketing tools, but these were early, exciting times with that sort of travel marketing in the cruise segment.
QuirkyCruise.com: Did you get to travel on any ships TravLtips booked such as Amazing Grace, Aranui or a windjammer and what did you think any about them?
Steve W: Yes, although I should have taken advantage of more opportunities during those years. The Amazing Grace was the supply vessel that provisioned the Windjammer fleet of tall ships, departing from the Bahamas once a month and traveling two weeks down to Jamaica. Then two weeks back, meeting their sailing vessels along the way in both directions.
The Amazing Grace typically carried between 75-100 and it was a fantastic value. I was able to travel aboard her for 3-4 days and get a first-hand feel for the classically styled combination passenger and cargo ship. I also spent a week aboard one of Windjammer’s schooners.
Perhaps the most memorable inspection trip while working at TravLtips was a week in the Canary Islands and Coast of Morocco aboard a ship called the Orient Express. It was a converted ferry vessel that was being marketed at the time by Bermuda Star Line.
The Canaries are not a big US destination during the winter months, although they’re popular with Europeans and definitely a place worth visiting. So, the ship was mostly filled with Germans, Spaniards and Scandinavians.
The night before disembarkation, the ship caught fire and we spent the rest of the night in our muster stations. The fire was contained to an upper deck restaurant area, but that didn’t do much to keep many of the guests from getting overly excited. I never felt like we were in danger.
Insofar as actually spending time on a freighter, that wasn’t so easy because the trips were so long and the ports relatively far between. But, we’d check them out when they came into the New York port area.
I was able to spend a few days aboard Ivaran Lines’ Americana between New Orleans and Houston and one of Blue Star Line’s 12-passenger freighters on a stretch between Halifax and Philadelphia.
READ Part 2 here…. soon.
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