Costa Changes Course

The cruise line focuses on Europe, Asia and beyond

By: By Marilyn Green

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When his family emigrated to America from Italy, 13-year-old Maurice Zarmati, who had been seasick during the entire crossing, told his mother he would never set foot on a ship again. The statement was not exactly prophetic.

Costa Romantica sails to Northern Europe. // (c) 2010 Costa Cruises

Costa Romantica sails to Northern Europe. // (c) 2010 Costa Cruises

It is almost as though Zarmati was fated to be Costa Cruises’ North American president; his history and Costa’s story weave together seamlessly. Born in Egypt to French and Italian parents, Zarmati lived in Alexandria until the Suez Canal crisis took place and his Jewish family was forced to leave. They moved to Genoa, Italy, home of cruise line Costa Crociere. Three years later, the family moved to America, settling in South Florida. Upon graduation from college, Zarmati, who had been bitten by the travel bug through his father’s work with the airlines and his own free flights to Europe, interviewed with 34 companies in the industry. The last one was with Ted Arison, founder of Carnival, where Zarmati took a job and has remained from then on. Fast forward to 2008 when Lynn Torrent went from her position as president of Costa North America to Carnival’s corporate offices, and Zarmati was tapped to take the Costa position. The move was more than a return to his Italian roots; it was a return to his world root, bringing together North America, Italy and Egypt, where the company currently has two ships.

Changing Course in 2010
Almost exactly two years from his start as Costa’s president, Zarmati now finds the cruise line changing course. In March, Costa announced that it was “right-sizing” its Florida office from 120 employees to 40 as the line shifted its strategy toward selling Americans cruises abroad rather than in the Caribbean. Although Costa plans to keep the Costa Atlantica in the Caribbean and in the Canada/New England region, the primary focus for these cruises will be an international clientele, with Caribbean cruises following a single itinerary and visiting mostly Western Caribbean destinations.

Costa concluded that it could get a better return on its investment by selling the Caribbean to Europeans, while the goal for North American sales will be to promote Costa’s extensive European and exotic cruises.

“You can’t stay in the Caribbean just a few months and be a leader,” said Gianni Onorato, president of Costa Crociere. “What we are offering Americans is a very affordable way to cruise in Asia, the Middle East, Northern Europe and in the Mediterranean year-round.”

With very reasonable pricing plus 13 stylish new ships launched over a 12-year period and two more on order, Zarmati sees a natural North American customer segment ripe for the new Costa: the millions of Americans who visit Italy every year to go on land-based vacations, not to mention those who head for Spain, Northern Europe and other European nations. These potential customers are already geared toward seeing Europe among Europeans and Costa has ships homeported in many of the most popular destinations that they visit.

“We can do this,” Zarmati said. “We did it before when we were selling the Caribbean in the early days. Nassau and Paradise Island were the number-one destinations for New York/Boston vacationers, and we got them to switch to cruising. These people already have chosen a European experience. When they get a taste of combining a visit to Venice with visits to places like Dubrovnik and Istanbul, all without giving up their rooms or having to drive, and with the accommodations, travel, dining and entertainment included at a price they couldn’t match on land for a comparable vacation, we will convert them.”

Costa’s Attraction
One of the features that is likely to be a factor in the conversion is Costa’s unique charm — a special madness that breaks out routinely, both cultivated and spontaneous, infecting even the most dignified passengers. Although Atlantica is the Costa ship themed for filmmaker Federico Fellini, all of Costa’s vessels seem to have a dash of Fellini’s “La Dolce Vita” onboard. For instance, on an evening when passengers had a few minutes’ wait outside the dining room for a regular seating, a violinist appeared, playing gypsy music. The entire group — all ages, all nationalities — started dancing together and waltzed their way into the dining room.

“The violinist was no accident,” Zarmati said.

But what else made everyone simultaneously throw themselves into the spirit?

Part of it is the stage Costa sets, with artwork — paintings, sculpture, glass, graphics — worthy of the most elegant contemporary museum or gallery. Costa’s ships are the only ones where people invite you into their staterooms to see the art in the bathroom, and guests have been known to walk into columns while looking up at the wood mosaics on the ceilings. The doors are often works of art in themselves and the Murano glass in staterooms and suites, as well as public spaces, is magic.

That magic extends to the staff, who bring a joie de vivre and panache to the ships that were notable in the old days. There is a lot of laughter onboard, as well, and the discos bulge at the seams at 2 a.m. when the energy level, spurred on by a chocolate fountain, reaches its peak.

In addition, Costa has ship features that range from 4D movies to Formula One race-car simulators. It was the first line to introduce spa staterooms, with special access to its 20,500-square-foot Samsara spas. Colorful suspended Foo Dog statues guard the huge Thlassotherapy pools, and guests can dine at the dedicated spa restaurant with private tables at breakfast, lunch and dinner. Introduced first on the Concordia in 2006, the spa stateroom complexes have been added to every subsequent ship and refitted on several of its predecessors.

Dancing on Costa — ballroom, disco and more — is extremely popular, and gorgeously dressed guests throng the dance floor and the disco. There is music everywhere, and the shows tend to be sophisticated, visually beautiful and geared toward an international audience of exuberant vacationing Europeans, Americans and Asians.

Children’s programs are similarly international. Parents proudly hear their young children picking up a few words of Italian, Spanish or Chinese in

the Costa Kids Club, while the children’s dinner menu offers a wider variety with pasta, soup, fish, chicken, hot dogs as well as burgers, pizza, sandwiches and desserts.

Adult cuisine relies heavily on authentic Italian influences, with extensive pasta offerings. International selections have the benefit of Italian flair and the lighter menu in Samsara tastes rich and sinful. And Costa has kept the tradition of lavish midnight buffets, which help fuel guests for dancing into the morning.

Affordable Exotic Cruises
Another strong aspect of selling Costa outside North America is affordable exotic cruising. In recent years, the line has broken the barrier that made exotic cruises on mainstream ships the prerogative of luxury and premium lines. Costa launched affordable Asian cruising and was the first international company to open the cruise market in China when it homeported the 820-passenger Costa Allegra in July 2006. The line doubled its presence in Asia last year with the arrival of the 1,308-passenger Costa Classica and, this year, the success of its Far East cruising prompted the replacement of Allegra with the Costa Romantica, sister ship to the Classica. The two ships are sailing from Shanghai to Tiajin, Hong Kong and Singapore on cruises of four to 14 nights. The longer 14- and 15-night itineraries, preferred by international guests, include calls to Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, Thailand, China and Vietnam.

Before moving to Asia, Costa Classica sailed seven-day Arabian Gulf cruises out of Dubai, another destination that Costa pioneered. The company began there in winter 2006-2007 with the Classica and has increased its deployment in the region every year, moving from 44,000 passengers in winter 2006-2007 to an estimated 140,000 in winter 2009-2010, with three ships operating this year — the Costa Luminosa, Costa Deliziosa and Costa Europa.

Underlining the company’s commitment to the region, the new 2,200-passenger Deliziosa was the first cruise ship named in an Arabic country when she debuted from Dubai this year. Like her sistership, Luminosa, her seven-day Arabian Gulf cruises include two nights to explore Dubai and one-day stopovers in the ports of Muscat (Oman), Fujairah and Abu Dhabi (United Arab Emirates) and Bahrain. Deliziosa sails on Sundays and Luminosa departs Saturdays. The program will continue through winter 2010-2011. In January, the Luminosa will offer a special 21-day cruise from Dubai to India and the Maldives.

In addition, Costa has seven-day Red Sea cruises combining beaches with archeology. Two Costa ships will homeport in the Egyptian resort of Sharm El Sheik next winter to offer seven-night cruises: the 820-passenger Costa Allegra and the 776-passenger Costa Marina, departing every Monday and Thursday and calling in Adabiyah and Safaga in Egypt, Aqaba (Jordan) and Eilat (Israel) before returning to Sharm El Sheik. From Safaga, passengers can visit Luxor and the Valley of the Kings and, out of Aqaba, cruisers can visit the ruins of Petra while three days are spent in Sharm El Sheik, with its spectacular diving and snorkeling and its international crowd on the beaches.

Besides year-round Mediterranean cruises, the line has scheduled very attractive itineraries in the Baltic that can be combined with a Norwegian fjord cruise.

Finally, Costa has announced a Dec. 28, 2011, world cruise onboard the new 2,200-passenger Costa Deliziosa, completing its offerings of what used to be exclusively luxury and premium cruise territory. While the company originally planned to offer the 100-day cruise in three segments as well as the full cruise, the response to the full voyage has been overwhelming. As of March, the ship was already two thirds sold out, and the line has decided not to open bookings on any segments, since there is such huge demand for the full cruise, with its minimum price for 100 days at $13,570.

“We stopped doing this 15 years ago,” said Onorato, “but now we have so many Costa Club loyalty members and that creates a very strong base.”

With its ships in every corner of the world, Costa saw approximately 1.3 million passengers drawn from all parts of the globe during the economic crisis of 2009, and the company is looking forward to a very dynamic 2010. The company’s $3.3 billion fleet expansion program covers five new vessels entering service between 2009 and 2012, including Deliziosa’s sisterships: Costa Favolosa, due for delivery in summer 2011, and the Costa Fascinosa, debuting in spring 2012. The five ships will represent a 50 percent increase in capacity for the Costa fleet which, by 2012, will have 17 vessels with accommodations for approximately 45,400 guests in total.

The company expects North American cruisers, guided by a concentrated group of agents who understands the special offerings of the line, to cruise all over the world on Costa ships, reversing a trend that has lasted for centuries. Italian ships from Christopher Columbus onward have brought Europeans to the New World; now, Costa is planning to take them back.

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