Wednesday, December 19, 2012

SS Coachella -- A REVIEW of the Maiden Voyage to Bahamas

The inaugural SS Coachella is in the books.  The first run from Ft Lauderdale to Bahamas (and back again) is docked.  The hipsters have walked the plank (off the ship). 

My wife, Luisa, and I were two of those passengers.  Not saying we are hipsters (we have no tattoos or asymmetric haircuts after all).  But, we were two of those on this epic maiden journey.

I write this on my flight back from Miami to San Diego just a few hours after we left the ship.  My head is still groggy and a bit foggy from the continuous near 24-7 music and Red Bull-fueled concoctions on the ship.  But, my head is absolutely clear about one thing – i.e., that SS Coachella was one for the ages.  And, I want to get my thoughts down right now while the memories are still fresh in the head.  So, forgive the lack of organization in presenting them.

So, what was SS Coachella?  It was a music festival and life-time “experience” in every sense of the word.  Every best sense of the word.  Yes, SS Coachella is a business (more on that later), but the real fuel powering this maiden voyage was passion for music and passion for bringing the music to life in a never-before-seen package.  A new experience on the high seas.   Here’s my one word summary of the experience – EPIC!

I have attended several Coachellas.  Luisa hadn’t.  I love the crowds and energy.  Luisa doesn’t.  I love music (scratch that, am possessed by it).  Luisa isn’t (possessed).  So, when the good folks at Coachella announced its bold new SS Coachella experience (experiment), they had me at “hello” – I booked the cruise at moment one.   Luisa had no choice -- she knows my passion for music.  Nevermind the fact that neither of us had ever been on a cruise.  In fact, we don’t consider ourselves to be “cruise people."  But, we were in.

And, we have become cruise people -- at least, an SS Coachella cruise.

Here’s the thing – EVERYthing about SS Coachella was high end and epic.  That goes for the ship (the stunningly beautiful Celebrity Silhouette).  That goes for the food (I counted at least 15 restaurants, and I am sure I am missing some).  That goes for the libations (all top shelf).  That goes for the staging and special events (including a behind-the-scenes “making of” panel with the top brass that makes Coachella happen).  And, of course, that goes for the music.  If you like indie music (which I do) – and if you like world-class DJs (which I do) – then the music and the scene are about as good as it gets. 

Let’s start with the music.  I confess.  I didn’t “get” some of the choices (Pulp, as the headliner?).  But, it worked.  So, while I didn’t check out Pulp, most others did.   And, they raved.  My “must see” bands were Yeasayer and Warpaint.   Yeasayer played once (on the first night).  Warpaint played twice (on nights 2 and 3).  Those were great shows.  Yeasayer played the main stage.  Killed it.  Warpaint played the Sky Lounge – I was right in front for both shows.  Who knew the four female band members were so young.  Or, such great live musicians.  But, they were.  Warpaint impressed, hoodies and all.

Who else?  Grimes.  Predictably compelling and mysterious.  Good show.  Great environment.  How can you not love dancers in the fog.  Then there was Hot Chip on the last night (last night).  Great energy.  Great fun.  They turned the main stage into a dance party.  Sleigh Bells.  Wall of blistering sound.  Even if you aren't the biggest fan (which I'm not), was a good show with amped up energy.

There were the DJs, of course.  All throughout the ship.  Pool-side all day and night (Luisa and I didn’t even get off the ship in the Bahamas – why leave when we had the party right there on the ship?).  The DJs were on the top of the ship in the grass-y area – think of it as the mini polo fields of Coachella (yes, real grass up there -- real hanging out, but without the blistering desert heat).  In nooks and crannies all over the ship (even spinning as we first entered the ship on day 1 – classic).  As Luisa and I explored the pre-sunrise hours at 6:15 am this morning less than 2 hours before disembarking, we heard thumping beats emanating from the micro-encapsulated Neptune lounge – where DJ Alf Alpha was still spinning with one guy gyrating on the dance floor, one guy passed out on a couch, and a group of die-hard SS Coachella’ns (led by our personal favorite, Jared from Australia and his Go Pro-toting side-kick) just leaving for a pre-disembarkation post-party in “Room 7 double 2 7”) – yes, he asked us to join them in that room for the party (but by that point we were utterly exhausted -- that’s a compliment to the event)! 

And, that’s what the spirit of this entire voyage was like --  camaraderie forged by love of music.  Love of experiences.  Love of life.  Jared was classic.  So was the Go Pro guy.  You are on a ship after all, so you run into the same people again and again.  And that was a lot of the fun.  And, for every Jared, there were the two lifelong friends from Mexico who were inspired by the experience and vowed to devote their careers to passion projects (not just finance).  And, there was that couple who too happened to be from San Diego and just loved the music.  He left his job of 15 years just recently and is inspired to pursue music in some form.  We all sat in bars together – talking to each other – and to those around us (be it nice-guy DJ Juice, be it a Coachella (all the top execs were there), be it anyone else).  On this ship – on this voyage – we all just “were” together.   And all of us felt fortunate to be together.  THAT was the coolest part of the whole thing.  Each of us was an actor in this grand production.  Some more colorful than others (literally – tattoos and dyed hair everywhere).  But, all fans.   The water surrounded us on the ship.  But, we were immersed in the music!  Everywhere we went – every hour of the day – indie/dance music was playing.  For a guy like me, that’s what heaven sounds like.

SS Coachella also marked a grand social experiment for this ship full of twenty and thirty-something hipsters (I was on the upper end of the full spectrum).  For three nights and two full days, we essentially had no contact with the outside world.  No cell coverage.  No wi-fi (unless you paid through the nose for it in the “i-Lounge”, which virtually no one did).  Remember, we were in open waters – no cell towers out there.  There was no looking down on your smart phone at all during this voyage. 

Instead, we engaged actually … not virtually.  We looked heads up at each other … not with our heads down.  We talked.  We met.  We shared our favorite bands.  We shared anecdotes.  We lived in the moment.  We lived the experience.  It was beautiful.  I can’t even recall ever doing this before in the past 15 years – is it even possible to truly tune out anymore?   This was almost tribal.  One tribe of connected people sharing a love for the music.  I hope that part of SS Coachella never changes.   You don’t need an app for that!

Back to the ship.  Celebrity Cruises, you shocked the hell out of me.  The Silhouette is a stunning ship.  Slick.  Cool.  Clean.  Spotless.  Meticulous attention to detail.  Think of it as a “W” Hotel on the high seas.  It was that good.  I can’t imagine a cruise ship besting this one.  And, I certainly can’t imagine a better setting for taking Coachella on a cruise in the middle of the Caribbean.   Well done SS Coachella team!  I could go on and on – but just check out some of the pics I will add to this post later – that is the best way to get an idea.  But, even these pics don’t do the boat justice.  You must experience it.

Back to the food and drink.  Endless.  And, here’s shocker #2 – as I mentioned above, the food and drink were all high end.  For many on this cruise (well, virtually everyone), booze was a priority.  All top shelf.  And plentiful.  Bars were located everywhere on this ship – literally everywhere. 

But, at a certain point, even the most rail-thin hipster must eat,.  Music feeds the soul, but the stomach also craves.  So, eat we did.  Again, I cannot even begin to do the food justice by trying to describe it here.  For me, the gastro-highlights were these – endless varieties of food.  Essentially whatever you wanted, whenever you wanted it.  Highlight 2 -- I am a steak guy.  So, on night 1 Luisa and I tried the steak house on the upper deck adjacent to the mini Coachella grass polo field.  I know, a dangerous move to order steak on a ship.  What are the odds that it could be good?  Odds were, but the execution wasn’t.  One of the best steaks I have had for a long long time.  And to dispel the notion that this was an aberration, Luisa and I made a return engagement on night 3 where I had not 1, not 2 but … somewhat disgustingly … 3 filets.  All perfect.  All that matched the quality of the first I experienced on night 1.

How about the ship’s crew?  Always professional.  Always courteous.  Always helpful.  Always wanting to give more.  Hard working people.  Not an easy life, but they did it well.  Again, kudos to Celebrity Cruises – and thanks to the largely Eastern European staff (which was especially endearing to me, since I am Eastern European).  It was clear that most of the staff were in a persistent state of bemusement throughout the voyage, understandably.  This was not quite the usual crowd for them.  The music was louder (much).  The drinking was plentiful (apparently the per capita consumption broke records).  The average age was younger (significantly).  And the hipster quotient was off the charts.  This was not your father’s cruise experience.  This was rock and roll after all baby – and the crew clearly loved it.

Finally, a shout-out to the Coachella folks.  Those whom I met followed the same themes already mentioned.  They love music.  They love to create experiences.  And, they loved to create an entirely new kind of experience that pleased all of us.  That really does matter to them.  Of course they need to run a business.  AEG is behind it after all.  Expectations are high.  But, the good folks behind Coachella (and now SS Coachella) know that the experience first must be unlike no other and at the highest levels.  All else flows from that.  If they invest to do it right now (which they did), it will pay dividends.

But, these things also take time.  And, these folks know that better than anyone else.  Coachella itself took years to turn a profit – but look at it now.  It is a juggernaut.  SS Coachella is clearly starting in the same way its established cousin did.  High ambition and execution not yet matched by the attendance it deserves.  The word I heard is that the ship was about 50-60% of capacity.  For those of us attending, it was the perfect storm – all of the benefits discussed above and in setting in which we had plenty of room to breath.  We all loved it.  But, the bean counters at AEG may not … unless, again, they take a breath and understand what this is and the need to invest in it to make it truly lasting.

This thing – this SS Coachella – is a different animal than Coachella itself.  Coachella is massive, sweaty endurance test of music that is accessible (price-wise) to many.  It is an amazing experience itself, it is jus plain different.  SS Coachella, on the other hand, is of course significantly pricier – and, accordingly, it is more exclusive.  SS Coachella will build and succeed via word of mouth.  If given the chance to grow, SS Coachella will grow and succeed not only experientially, but also as a business. 

And, I can tell you this.  This writer – and his wife – will rave about this experience to everyone we know.  We already have as soon as we got off the ship.  We are already planning to go next year if SS Coachella will have us – and we will bring friends.  Most likely we will be joined by several.  And, that’s because the experience was unlike no other.  It was unforgettable.  It was something I will never forget.  For a music fan, it was like being in heaven … seriously.

So, AEG – the powerful word of mouth is there.  We are already talking up next year’s cruise.  Give SS Coachella the patience to grow, and it will.  And, it will become an operational success and highly profitable endeavor.  It will also further propagate the Coachella brand.  Take it into new waters, if you will.

Were there some mis-steps on this first SS Coachella?  Of course there were.   Any ambitious new project is a learning experience.  For me, the only real disappointment was that there was absolutely no official SS Coachella merchandise on the ship.  No SS Coachella t-shirts, hats, tote bags that we could bring home for ourselves or as gifts to friends and our kids.  Not only would those have been lifelong mementos of this classic slice of time, but they also would have amplified the buzz about SS Coachella.  After all, wearing a tshirt or hat is great and powerful advertising.

And, a couple more things -- first, several people (including me) felt that some of the band sets should have been outdoors (all were indoors).  It would have been great to hear some sets during the day either on the pool deck or on the top of the ship on the lawn.  I also would have liked to have seen a few "afternoon"/up-tempo vibe-y bands -- here are some ideas -- AWOLNATION, Givers, Vampire Weekend, Matisyahu.  I would have even liked to have seen a band like Beach House play because -- well -- the name fits.

But, the missteps were few and far between.  In fact, the whole ship operated like a well-oiled machine (at least, from what we could see).

SS Coachella – amazing time.  Amazing experience.  Was very very cool to be part of the very first one.  For those of us on it, we all felt that way – you could really tell.

I envy those now on the second leg to Jamaica.  They are on the top deck now sitting in the oversized Adirondack Chairs listening to killer beats.

Count us in for next year.  We are already spreading the word.

This is a voyage that most certainly deserves to sail again