Inside Azamara

A new cruise line requires a tremendous amount of time spent testing the concept before the public ever hears about it.

By: By Marilyn Green

Shore Excursions

This summer and fall, the 694-passenger Azamara Journey and Azamara Quest, are sailing the Baltic and Mediterranean, respectively, for the first time. The line is offering food- and wine-related Europe shore excursions from Italian “slow food” and Slovenian salt to the French vineyards of Sauternes and Graves.

“Slow food” tours in Livorno, Civitavecchia, and Venice are designed for those who appreciate traditional ways of preparing and savoring meals, these tours feature wine tastings, olive oil tastings and cooking demonstrations.

A sampling of Koper, Slovenia’s wine, olives and salt is available during a tour that begins with a drive through the Slovenian coast to the salt plants that date back more than 700 years. From the salt houses the tour goes to a farmhouse known for its olive-oil production and its faithfulness to the traditions of Istrian farm life, and to a Slovenian wine cellar for a tasting.

A “Vineyards of Sauternes and Graves” tour in Bordeaux includes a visit to the underground winery at Chateau Smith Haut Lafitte, known for its red wines; in Sauternes guests visit Chateaux Y’Quem and Suduiraut.

An exclusive cooking workshop is held in Amsterdam at the Michelin two-star Ron Blaauw restaurant, where guests have the opportunity to learn from a culinary master before enjoying a gastronomic four-course lunch paired with select wines.

A “pasta party” at Country Relais due Laghi in Civitavecchia features a visit to the medieval village of Anguillara by the lake of Bracciano before a trip to Tuscia, where local chefs teach guests the traditional art of pasta-making with three different sets of ingredients. A five-course gourmet meal follows.

In Kusadasi guests can visit to Sirince, known for its apricots and peaches. A look at Turkish culture includes a trip to the mountainous area of Kirazl Koy, where guests can visit the local primary school, nap under a tree, or sip Turkish coffee and there is a freshly prepared special lunch of gozleme, keskek and manti and a chance to help the locals pick seasonal fruits.

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View a photo tour of the Journey, the first ship launched by Azamara Cruises

It takes years for almost anything to mature: wines, children, careers, plans for the future. But a cruise line must arrive at its full identity very quickly to affirm its brand distinction and deliver on its promises. And at just a little over a year old, the newest line in the North American market, Azamara Cruises, has grown up.

Azamara CEO Dan Hanrahan // © Len KaufmanA new cruise line is a very serious project. Not for the faint of heart it, requires a tremendous amount of time spent testing the name and concept before the public and the distribution system ever hears about it.

Azamara is the exception. The cruise line was born very suddenly as a distinct brand last year. The original idea was that the two former Renaissance ships, acquired by parent company Royal Caribbean Cruises with the acquisition of Pullmantur, would extend Celebrity Cruises’ Xpeditions offshoot. The plan was to expand Xpeditions from a highly successful 100-passenger ship in the Galapagos Islands to a fleet of small ships, cruising to destinations off the beaten path while maintaining a very high level of onboard experience. But, just two months before Xpeditions was set to debut, the decision was made to create a separate brand.

“As we developed the [Xpeditions] concept, we saw it could be very special and we had an epiphany,” said Dan Hanrahan, president and CEO of Azamara. “I wish we’d had it sooner, but I would do exactly the same thing now if I were to make the decision again.”

The work to establish a separate brand had to be accomplished at dizzying speed.

“I used to work for Nestle,” Hanrahan said, “and we wouldn’t have launched a candy bar in two months, let alone something as complex as a cruise line.”

The reason behind the choice?

“The brand was so different from Celebrity that we would have had to spend as much money clarifying the distinction as it would cost to bring out a new brand,” said Hanrahan.

Azamara is a created name combining the Spanish roots for blue (aza) and sea (mar), and it was cleared through the legal department only days before the company brought Azamara Journey to New York for the brand’s debut.

“We had already put the name on the hull,” Hanrahan said. “I don’t know what we would have done if it hadn’t cleared.”

The line launched in May 2007 with the Journey, followed in October by Azamara Quest.

In addition to announcing the new brand, Hanrahan placed it in a newly coined deluxe category, between premium and luxury, a similar positioning to that of Oceania Cruises. Azamara lavished nearly $40 million on its two ships to bring them to its new deluxe standard.

With contemporary ships raising the bar dramatically and premium brands nipping at the heels of the luxury sector, where does deluxe fit in? The elements added to Azamara’s ships to bring them to the new standard address the most important areas noted by past cruisers. The transformed 694-guest ships each received a complete renovation of the dining area to include two specialty restaurants: Mediterranean-influenced Aqualina and steak and seafood Prime C. Both originally had surcharges for reservations made after the complimentary ones allocated to guests. All
surcharges have been removed except one for Aqualina’s special wine pairing menu, which includes a different wine selection expressly chosen for each course. This menu is available for $50 per person, and an entire table must participate together.

The main dining room, aptly named Discoveries, has open seating and offers very sophisticated dining, with such delicacies as sacher torte with apricot coulis. In addition, casual dining is available in Breezes and the Windows Cafe, and the sushi bar drew praise from agents, who said it matched the taste of their upscale clients. The signature Cova Cafe Coffee Shop underlines the urbane atmosphere with specialty coffees, teas, liquors and other beverages as well as cakes, cookies and pastries.

Blau and Associates, often credited with helping transform Las Vegas into a top-tier culinary destination, was tapped a few months ago to work with the culinary staff, and the guest and agent reviews on dining — a key factor in the line’s deluxe placement — have indicated that Azamara hit the mark they were aiming for.

For example, Deborah McFarlane, outside sales agent for Cruise Holidays of Woodinville, Wash., brought a group of 14 wine aficionados onboard Azamara for a European cruise. McFarlane’s group was very pleased with the whole experience, describing the ship as beautiful and the food in the main dining room as excellent. She said the specialty restaurants were so good that some members of the group who received two complimentary visits as suite guests went back four or more times, paying the additional fee in force at that time. One group member, a skilled cook herself, became friends with the French chef and rated the food as “spectacular.” The group also liked the fact that there was no formal dress onboard, with guests adhering to resort elegance.

Azamara also upgraded accommodations to meet deluxe standards. Forty-eight of the original cabins were converted to 32 suites on each ship, and all accommodations received new plush European bedding, new drapes and carpeting. Azamara quickly announced butler service in every stateroom or suite, fresh flowers, fruit, Elemis toiletries, Frette cotton robes, personalized stationery and silk hangers and drawer liners on request.

In the public rooms, new carpeting and flooring were laid throughout both ships, a new art collection was added and a Sunset Bar was placed aft. New paint colors and walls changed the ambience substantially, freshening the public rooms from the casino to the upscale boutiques that offer everything from jewelry to golfing supplies. The emphasis onboard is clearly on sophistication and casual elegance, with special attention going to the martini bar and to the Drawing Room jazz/piano bar. Past guests have posted whole entries on cruise message boards to rave about Michael’s Club, which has the air of an English country manor retreat, complete with a fireplace where afternoon tea, library selections and sometimes jazz piano are offered.

Of the public rooms, McFarlane was particularly pleased with the casino.

“It’s just the right size and it has all the standard tables and slot machines, and I really loved that people can’t smoke there,” she said.

Another essential ingredient of the deluxe designation is the spa area, which was expanded to include an element beyond premium: an aesthetics suite offering acupuncture, laser hair removal and microdermabrasion. A fitness facility and classes, from Pilates to yoga at sunset, complete the offerings.

The pool area, with two Jacuzzis, also has been mentioned very positively by guests, who appreciate the wooden recliners and thick cushions. The upper level is circled by a jogging track.

Azamara’s view of deluxe entertainment continues in the vein of a private experience for a discriminating audience. The main showroom, the Cabaret Show Lounge, is designed with a stage area surrounded by tables and chairs rather than stadium-style seating. Small, polished musical presentations replace large production numbers and solo acts, and intimate ensembles suit the scale of both ships.

Stressing the exotic, unusual ports that are among the defining principles of the line, interior designers mounted binoculars on stands for guests in the top-deck Looking Glass Lounge, where floor-to-ceiling windows offer views of the sea.

One aspect that pleased guests from the beginning was the staff, whose warm thoughtfulness and exceptional service has been noted on cruise blogs and message boards since the brand launched.

“Service is simply crucial, and the higher the level of positioning, the more important it becomes,” said Hanrahan.

Although agents who toured the ships expressed strong interest from Azamara’s debut, there were some glitches that have since been corrected; Hanrahan is concerned that the agent community is not aware that the product has been refined.

“We got some of it wrong,” he said. “For example, we charged for the two alternative restaurants, and we have taken those charges off. It took some time to adjust to a new category and we have done it. We took care of those aspects of the experience that needed work, and we are very happy with the product now.”

Azamara’s senior vice president of sales Dondra Ritzenthaler agreed.

“The ships are now the way we designed them to be. We couldn’t be more pleased with the service and everyone is now really firing on all cylinders,” she said. “Azamara serves the much more experienced traveler who is interested in destinations off the beaten path in a more intimate, relaxed atmosphere for adults.”

She said many Azamara passengers are coming over from the luxury sector to take advantage of the value aspect, and there are also a number of passengers moving up from contemporary and premium cruising, along with a group of vacationers who haven’t cruised before but were drawn to the smaller ship experience.

Azamara keeps its commitment to unusual ports: In addition to the line’s popularity in Europe, Ritzenthaler said the Asia itineraries have been very successful, since they are destination oriented and call in 25 ports larger ships can’t access. Also, the ships typically stay longer in port and offer more overnights than other lines, evidenced by an itinerary where passengers enjoy two nights docked right by the Tower Bridge of London.

Hanrahan also reported “an amazing amount of interest in the exotic Caribbean sailings. With these longer cruises we can get to more than the usual islands, and it’s a way for people to have something fresh and close to home.”

Since the launch, there has been comparatively little consumer advertising for Azamara. Hanrahan says the company regards the deluxe line as “a trade product, to be sold through the knowledge of agents.”

“Everyone is an expert now,” he added. “We’re creating an environment where the agent is the expert, taking the role of travel adviser like a financial adviser or personal trainer, finding a hidden gem. With our budget, we’ve chosen to do much more in the trade than in the consumer press, and we’ve also done a fair amount of co-op marketing with agents.”

Hanrahan said he has been flooded with e-mails and letters from people who say Azamara is not only the best cruise experience they have ever had, but it is the best vacation experience of any kind.

“Those agents who really get it are doing just fine with the brand,” he added.

McFarlane agreed. Out of all the groups she has taken on cruises, the Azamara one was unique — there was not a single complaint.

“I would take another group with them in a heartbeat,” she added.

As for the future, Hanrahan said: “I’d love to be in the position to order new ships. We’re getting more positive e-mail from guests than I would have thought possible for a two-ship fleet. But we have to get our yields up — after all, we’re just a year from our launch — these are longer cruises and they should have very high yields. But I’d love to have more ships and add a season in Alaska, for instance.”

For now, both Azamara ships are in the Mediterranean on itineraries such as a 16-night Western Europe cruise featuring four destinations in Spain, the Channel Islands, a cruise through Germany’s Kiel Canal, and a two-night stay in London near the Tower Bridge. The Journey is also deployed in the Baltic with several overnight stays. In the fall, the Journey will offer two new 16-night Panama Canal sailings, followed by a series of the 12-night exotic Caribbean cruises through March 2009, when the ship will return to Europe.

Azamara Quest sails from her European season to Asia after a 24-night voyage from Athens (Lavrion) to Singapore departing Nov. 22. She is scheduled for an 18-night Southeast Asia voyage from Singapore to Hong Kong; two 14-night Southeast Asia cruises between Hong Kong and Singapore; and four 14-night Northeast Asia cruises between Hong Kong and Beijing. The Quest returns to Europe in April 2009.