The Art of Piracy

On the high seas, it may be best to resist the urge to buy a masterpiece.

Say your industry's biggest image problem used to be the notion that all of your customers were newlyweds and nearly deads hoping to find themselves in a buffet line with Kathie Lee Gifford.

Today, you wish you still had those kinds of PR headaches. The news lately has you on rougher waters than a leaky dory in a midnight squall. If some panicky helmsman isn't making a hard turn that sends passengers tumbling, some honeymooner has gone over the side and his family won't stop talking to the media about it, or the entire ship's population is working a norovirus through its entrails.

Throw in the kind of post 9/11 trepidation that keeps frightened Americans from leaving home, as well as the PR disaster of making serious cabbage by parking a cruise liner in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina (new industry image: the FEMA of luxury travel) and you can see what travel agents are up against selling a slow boat to the tropics.

Alvaro Diaz-Rubio
Alvaro Diaz-Rubio

Still, you don't panic. You are clever. You have business smarts. There are still plenty of ripe retirees for whom gambling, round-the-clock buffets, and the romance of the high seas equals a helluva better time than working the speed button on a slot machine at the Indian casino.

If you can't lure more new folks onto the boat for a spin around the Caribbean, you have to get creative. And how's this for an angle: Take more jack out of the pilgrims already onboard by turning a cruise ship into a money-sucking megamall.

But you don't stop at peddling the usual designer-name tchotchkes dressed up for snob appeal. Buying Lladro or Swarovski or Fossil duty-free has its appeal, but really, these folks get hit up all the time by up-market types trying to convince them that laying down serious money for a shiny keepsake will fulfill their bougie instincts.

No, there's a much better way to tap into the deep materialistic psyche of the ultimate narcissist, the boomer retiree: Show him fine art, and let him set his own price.

Like any good marketing maneuver, this transaction is as much about the set-up as it is the close. A Picasso on an easel here, a Chagall there, maybe a Miró thrown in for good measure, all get the blood pumping and the endorphins kicking in, but even the bottom-barrel stuff, the repros that are going to net you stupid money, take on the glow of buried treasure as you bait the trap with three essential elements:

The excitement of auction, free champagne, and, most important, the French language.

The tongue of the frogs is a godsend. Almost as if it were made for messing with the minds of smug Americans who figure their dim college memories of the differences between Baroque and Rococo make them plenty well-equipped for the task at hand. But tell them that the portrait they're looking at is a giclée and a bargain at 20 grand, and would they like a refill on that Dom Perignon?

Merde, it's game over.

Terrie Kifer and Joyce Sexton boarded a cruise ship for the first time at Fort Lauderdale in the spring of 2002. The two women are friends from Rehoboth Beach, Delaware; Sexton retired after a government career as an air traffic control manager, and Kifer retired after working in the telecom industry and dabbling in real estate. Lately, they'd thought of opening an art gallery together, so a notice in the Princess Cruise Lines ship's daily newsletter about an art auction caught their attention — not to mention the steady inundation of fliers and brochures about the auction in their cabin.

They didn't make a connection between the deeply discounted fare they'd paid (still only months after the ultimate travel industry nightmare, the attacks of 9/11) and the blizzard of art sale ads.

Once underway, Kifer and Sexton explored the onboard offerings — shopping malls, restaurants, and bowling alleys on a liner that seemed to rival the size of a city.

But it was the art auctions that kept them coming back. Wood-paneled and spacious, the Princess galleries showed off the paintings on the walls and on easels. At receptions, champagne flowed as collectors and wannabes engaged with art directors in edgy patter.

The setup was irresistible to Kifer and Sexton, who bit hard. That first trip, they dropped 86 large.

That amount got Princess' attention.

The California-based company invited them to become members of its exclusive Art Connoisseurs Program, which is run by the cruise line's in-house art division. Princess Fine Arts President Mark Bronson, a University of Virginia-educated art dealer, invited the women on several cruises, free of charge.

Kifer and Sexton accepted, initially choosing a ten-day excursion in the Mediterranean. They flew to Barcelona to meet the ship in the summer of 2003.

This time, the full-court press was on. The two women were feted at invitation-only champagne receptions and dinners in the most exclusive onboard restaurants, where they were introduced to some of the artists whose works were up for bid. The ship's captain took them on a VIP tour of the bridge.

They mingled with fellow collectors as well as Princess' art experts, appraisers, and auctioneers — all of whom chatted excitedly about how much less the art connoisseurs would pay at sea than they would on dry land. Princess promised free framing and shipping and said repeatedly that onboard prices were well below those at landbound galleries.

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If you've ever been to the Broken Shaker, you already know Orta and his team do not make ordinary cocktails. With an apothecary-style assortment of bitters, juices, and herbs, you never know what you might be served. As cocktail culture continues to spread across the country, it only makes sense cruise lines, hotels and resorts are striving to up their beverage game with programs like Norwegian's.