Crossing Lines

Finding value in luxury

By: By Ralph Grizzle

Finding Even More Value on Luxury Lines

Even passengers who cruise on upscale lines can find ways to make the experience more cost-effective.

Regent Seven Seas Cruises (RSSC), for example, will include free shore excursions on all its 2010 cruises and on 35 cruises this year with what it calls "ultra-inclusive" cruise pricing. Luxury lines often bill themselves as all-inclusive by having most alcoholic beverages, soft drinks, coffee drinks and alternative dining and gratuities included in their prices, but it is rare to include shore excursions. RSSC will offer passengers on those cruises at least one free excursion in every port, worth up to several hundred dollars per person, per cruise.

"We sat down and asked: What can we do to distinguish ourselves? What message can we own? We decided that what we wanted to own was to be the cruise line offering the most inclusive product in the world," said Andrew Poulton, director, corporate communications for RSSC. "Up until now, we have not included shore excursions, and we have always charged separately for government fees and taxes, so we said ‘Let’s make a splash for 2010 and include these things.’

"By doing this we achieve two things: Our customers now pay one price upfront, which pretty much covers their entire RSSC vacation," he said. "And for the travel agents, who still produce more than 90 percent of our business, it sends the message that we are strongly supporting our travel agent partners and we are now paying commission on some items that were previously non-commissionable."

Luxury Cruising

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While true connoisseurs of luxury cruising may not accept a substitute for sailing on an upscale line, there are now pockets of luxury on almost every premium and contemporary cruise ship afloat.

Recognizing that there are many cruisers with a taste for luxury but who appreciate big-ship amenities or who may be traveling with families or in groups for whom bigger ships make more sense, most cruise lines now offer exclusive experiences to passengers willing to pay a premium.

Norwegian Cruise Line’s Dawn features a full-scale living room in the Garden Villa. // (c) NCL
Norwegian Cruise Line’s Dawn features a full-scale living room in the Garden Villa.

On some ships, it may be concierge service or a special lounge, a pool deck cabana or exclusive access to the spa or certain restaurants. On others, entire areas are blocked off for people in some of the ship’s best staterooms to have a private pool and deck area.

"I have many luxury clients who book families on the larger cruise ships because of the activities for their adult children and for their grandchildren," said Bonnie Childs, a cruise consultant with Seattle-based Cruise Specialists. "This way, they can show their families what cruise ships have to offer."

For the cruise lines the logic is simple — these programs and amenities keep passengers who can afford to buy luxury from straying to luxury lines.

"A large percentage of our guests simply stay with Celebrity Cruises because they appreciate all that we have to offer and find no reason to select another brand," said Dan Hanrahan, president and CEO, Celebrity Cruises and Azamara Cruises. "And, rather than our guests trading up, we’re actually attracting many luxury cruisers"

Hanrahan said many luxury cruisers have selected the new Celebrity Solstice for its widely acclaimed attributes, from innovative dining options and attentive service to plush accommodations — including AquaClass, ConciergeClass and several categories of suites with 24-hour butler service — and for its incredible value, particularly when compared with other luxury products. He added that many luxury cruisers also select Azamara Cruises for similar attributes.

The Ship-Within-a-Ship
Perhaps the most upscale way to cruise on a downscale ship is to book a room or suite in a private area that houses some of the ship’s best cabins, private butlers and exclusive pools and sun decks.

Ship-within-a-ship accommodations, an elevator ride away from the myriad restaurants, casinos and other big-ship draws, were started by Cunard Line, but have been replicated by contemporary players Norwegian Cruise Line (NCL) and, more recently, MSC Cruises.

On Cunard, Grill-level passengers have exclusive access to Grill-level restaurants, as well as the use of the concierge-staffed private Grills Lounge and the Grills Courtyard for outdoor dining and afternoon tea.

NCL likened its complex of villas and owners suites akin to being on a private cruise ship.

Located on a private deck on the top of the ship, these cabins have their own sundeck, pool, exercise area and a dedicated butler.

Another amenity a lover of luxury can only find on a contemporary ship is size. NCL’s Garden Villas, of which it only has two, are nearly 5,000 square feet in size, with room for 10 passengers in three bedrooms, a living room, a dining room with a grand piano, a private sundeck, a sauna and a hot tub. Such a cabin is simply an impossibility on any traditionally smaller luxury vessel.

Taking a page from NCL, the recently launched MSC Fantasia is home to the MSC Yacht Club, a VIP area with 99 suites, a private bar, a solarium, two hydro-massage pools, a swimming pool and an observation lounge.

Spa Cabins
Costa Cruises started the spa cabin trend on its Costa Concordia with the introduction of Samsara Spa cabins in 2006. Now, it seems as though every ship that has debuted since then has some version of it.

Most lines have followed Costa’s lead by offering some variety of complimentary fitness classes, spa treatments and unlimited access to the spa’s saunas and special mineral pools. The staterooms are also close enough to the spa for guests to walk to it in their bathrobes via a staircase or private elevator.

For the cruise lines, it is another way to attract not just luxury cruisers, but also land-based spa-goers. Celebrity’s Hanrahan said the new AquaClass accommodations on Celebrity Solstice are indeed attracting certain luxury cruisers, as well as land-based spa enthusiasts.

Costa introduced the first spa-friendly cuisine in a special restaurant for spa cabin guests, which has also been followed by the other lines. Carnival was the first to copy its sister line’s idea, and Holland America Line (HAL) recently followed suit on the Eurodam.

Celebrity’s Solstice was the most recent ship to introduce its own version with AquaClass cabins. The line has added sound, light and aroma elements to the rooms to give them a spa feeling, as well as a five-head Hansgrohe shower head in its bathroom. Guests who book any of the 130 AquaClass staterooms on Solstice also have exclusive access to Blu, Celebrity’s Mediterranean-themed specialty restaurant and complimentary use of the Persian Garden and AquaSpa relaxation room.

There are also ways to add luxury to a cruise experience without splurging on the best staterooms. Oceania Cruises was the first line to offer private cabanas, which it has done quietly for years. For a daily fee, passengers can rent the cabanas, with Balinese Day Beds on its top deck, which look out to sea. The cabanas have a personal valet who serves fruit skewers, ice cream and chilled towels. Customers can also order from a special cabana menu.

HAL began offering private cabanas last summer on the Eurodam, making them a signature element of its new Signature-Class ships. The line upped the cabana ante by offering a group of them in The Retreat, an exclusive, open-deck area looking over the main pool. The private cabanas are outfitted with loungers, and also provide guests with fresh fruit, lunch delivery, an iPod with pre-loaded music, a glass of champagne and chocolate-covered strawberries. Cabana guests also get discounts on certain spa services during port days. HAL also offers the cabanas and their amenities right on the pool deck, for a lesser fee.

Beyond cabanas, every large cruise ship now offers alternative restaurants, too. These steakhouses, sushi bars, rustic Italian places and more offer intimate dining experiences and superior food.

On the Solstice, Celebrity used celebrity chefs and designers to offer culinary experiences that could rival top restaurants in New York and Las Vegas.

Adam Tihany, the creative mind behind New York’s famous Per Se and Jean Georges restaurants, designed the Celebrity Solstice’s Tuscan Grille.

"The premium brands have elevated products and services to a new high with hardware, cultural experience and cuisine that comes close to the luxury seekers needs," said Tom Baker, president and partner of Houston-based Cruise Center.

Concierge Classes
Making a big-ship cruise experience feel more upscale is not only about offering private areas, added amenities or top cuisine. Many upscale cruisers come onboard because they enjoy the amenities that only the largest vessels can offer — a variety of restaurants, watersports and rock-climbing walls, a golf simulator and a lively nightlife.

For them, the cornerstone of offering a luxury experience on a contemporary or premium ship is getting expedited check-in, finding smoother ways to book shore excursions, indulging in spa treatments and getting their restaurant reservations.

As Cruise Specialists’ Childs noted, one of the most important things is to keep luxury clients away from the negatives associated with big-ship cruising.

"I would positively book them in a suite. I would arrange for them to have limousine transfers and private shore excursions," Childs said. "Keeping them out of the long lines and crowded motorcoaches is important."

Celebrity Cruises came out with its Concierge Class in its largest balcony cabins, which offers amenities like fresh flowers, canapes, champagne and better bedding than in its other cabins.

But what is most special about this cabin class is its priority check-in, expedited luggage delivery, more elaborate room service menu and dining and shore excursion preferences.

The same is true for HAL’s Neptune-class cabins on its Navigation deck. The exclusive Neptune Lounge, which has free espresso drinks and pastries, has a concierge to help with booking tours and restaurants. Neptune passengers get priority embarkation and debarkation, even when the ship has to tender; in other words, Neptuners can go whenever they want. A big perk includes free laundry and pressing.

"HAL guests have always enjoyed a premium cruise experience and have been able to choose from many additional luxury options," said Richard D. Meadows, CTC, HAL executive vice president, marketing, sales and guest programs. "While everyone aboard the ship receives our
Signature Mariner stateroom experience, fine dining, entertainment, ports and intimate environment, some guests choose to do this in a most luxurious and personal manner."

Meadows said that, in addition to booking suites and Neptune-class cabins, luxury seekers also reserve HAL’s exclusive shore-excursion options, called Signature Collection and featuring private transportation and a guide.

"When you look at everything together, this personalized luxury allows our suite guests to enjoy the best stateroom categories with our renowned service and choose the experience that is important to them, whether it be a spa or shore excursion focus," Meadows said.

However, not everyone thinks that the butlers, large suites and private spa access are enough to sate the upscale palette.

Baker, despite giving the premium lines credit for having improved their product so much, is one of them.

"There is no real alternative to luxury products and services for the true luxury seeker," said Baker. "The level of product, capacity, service and cuisine can not be replicated by contemporary or premium brands."

He pointed to the passenger-to-crew ratio on upscale ships, which cannot be replicated by larger ones.

But the key challenge, he pointed out, is that luxury cruisers often want to cruise with other members of the upper echelon, which is not guaranteed, even in the best cabins, on premium lines.

"The suites and penthouses will be priced more in the luxury sector but the quality of guest due to price points will be all over the map," said
Baker. "This type of traveler is not appealing to the lifestyle of the true luxury seeking client. They want to travel with like-minded travelers who have an appreciation and respect for the same type of lifestyle experience and financial demographics. It is snobby but a reality of being able to afford ‘being in the club,’ so to speak."

However, he noted that given the current economic crises, some members of the club are willing to mingle with the hoi polloi, at least temporarily.

"There are two reasons for this newfound behavior. One is that it is not fashionable to splurge while many are suffering and the second is that many wealthy people have taken huge financial hits," Baker explained. "While they are more than willing to travel, they want to be conservative in their overall spending and are indeed cutting back on luxury expenses to preserve their remaining cash and fortunes."