Bill Smith

For a guy with a modest upbringing in West Texas, sometimes Bill Smith, senior vice president of sales and marketing for Crystal Cruises, has to pinch himself. “Not many people from where I grew up have gotten to do what I’ve done,” he says, after more than a half century and a childhood spent in Wichita Falls, where he might be the most successful native son after Tommy Tune.

Now, in receiving this year’s Leader in Luxury award in the cruise category, it’s all come full circle. “I’m proud to get this award,” Smith says. “It means a lot to be recognized by people associated with luxury.”

Smith shows no signs of slowing down, either. “I asked my son, ‘How long am I going to continue?’ His answer: ‘As long as you enjoy it.’” After almost 40 years, he says he is still having as much fun and acting as crazy he ever has.

Smith has had a storied career in the cruise industry. He started with Sitmar, where the president, John Bland, whom he considers one of, if not the most important people in his career, offered him a job. From 1995 through 2001, he served as president and COO of Silversea Cruises and, in 2004, joined Crystal Cruises, a place he is happy to have ended up at.

Smith has seen a lot of shift over the years and has seen how luxury has changed. “What we thought was the best then, and to see it now, luxury today is not like what it was,” he says. “Product has a lot to do with it, but service is [the] underlying [factor]; it’s why customers come back and agents sell us.”

The one consistent, however, and the reason guests keep coming back, is relationships. “I don’t care if you are buying a Bentley or something at Costco, it’s all about the relationship,” he says. The challenge going forward, he believes, is to continue to listen to the marketplace. Like his father used to tell him, “Any time you doubt the consumer, ask the consumer.”

This is something Crystal had to do once the country slid into recession and travel spending dipped. “In 2009, we got behind the market and now we are buying the market back,” Smith says. Crystal, already out with there with 2010 offerings and with reservations on the books, stepped back and said, “Wait, we are out of step with the market.” They went back, researched and asked, “How are the cruise lines doing, what are they doing well, what is the perception and what is resonating with the consumer?”

What Crystal figured out was that people wanted a clear all-inclusive package. “We scrapped everything, refunded thousands of dollars,” Smith says. “It was the right thing to do.” The line has also reinvested, spending $68 million over the last three years on its two ships—Symphony and Serenity.

Smith believes luxury spending isn’t dead, but the paradigm has changed. “People are still cruising and paying thousands of dollars,” he says. “The affluent market has a conscience and better values what they are spending on. It better be good and they want more out of their dollar.”

The game has also changed for agents. “They should be taking advantage of this crisis,” Smith says. “There will be a shakeout and some aren’t going to be here. The ones who are still here will be much better.”

Maybe what Smith is most proud of are the relationships he has made. He has friends all over the world, not to mention all the staff at Crystal Cruises. He is also a doting father and proud that his kids live vicariously through him. He often cruises with his 11-year-old, who, he reports, loves the high seas.

When it’s all said and done, he would love his cruise epithet to read: “Bill enjoyed what he did, he lived it, he showed it.”

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