New Ships Sail Into The Luxury Market

Upscale cruise lines are building in the features that luxury cruisers want on new and refurbished ships By: Marilyn Green
All staterooms on Regent Seven Seas’ newer ships are suites with balconies. // (c) Regent Seven Seas
All staterooms on Regent Seven Seas’ newer ships are suites with balconies. // (c) Regent Seven Seas

After years with very little in the way of newbuilds for the luxury market, a new breed of luxury ships has recently emerged. These vessels are not only changing the face of the luxury cruise sector with their increased size and additional features — they are creating a domino effect, both in terms of deployment for the cruise lines that now have much more capacity and in their impact on the older ships in the luxury fleet.

Luxury brands with new ships are working hard to bring as many of these new aspects to their earlier ships as possible, and those without new vessels are incorporating the decor and features that are now prized on the newbuilds into their vessels.

Crystal Cruises and Regent Seven Seas Cruises are two luxury lines that continue to invest heavily in their existing ships. Interestingly, both of the cruise lines were ahead of the trend toward larger luxury vessels, with Crystal’s smallest vessel pushing 1,000 passengers and Regent moving from 490 passengers to 700 on each of its newer, all-balcony suite ships.

In October, the Crystal Symphony emerged from a $25 million drydock with redesigned penthouses, a Lido cafe and pool area and a renewed Prego Italian restaurant. The line plans a $12-$14 million fall refurbishment for Crystal Serenity this year, concentrating on the casino, the Crystal Cove piano bar and additional penthouse categories.

Meanwhile, Regent partnered with Canyon Ranch on its spas and fitness centers and brought in new soft goods and decor in its public rooms. Last year, the line invested $20 million into the refurbishment of the Seven Seas Mariner, adding features such as the new Prime 7 steakhouse and a pizzeria placed in La Veranda’s casual dining area.

Windstar Cruises, which is distinguished by its ability to offer the romance of luxury under sail, recently finished implementing its latest Degrees of Difference initiative, which enhanced dining, accommodations, entertainment options, its spas, fitness centers and shore excursions. For instance, television star chef David Shalleck created a new menu for Wind Surf’s alternative Degrees restaurant, rotating 70 new regional recipes. The ship also has new spa suites, while all three Windstar vessels have poolside spa treatments and personalized iPod-guided tours on shore.

The rebranded Azamara Club Cruises has augmented its strong showing in onboard cuisine and expanded its focus on wine, giving guests complimentary boutique vintages that may be unobtainable at home because quantities are limited and the wines are only distributed regionally. The new menu lists varied world cuisines with a strong Mediterranean focus, and there are wine-pairing menus at Aqualina (its Mediterranean alternative restaurant) and the connoisseurs’ dinners at the Prime C steakhouse.

The renovated Paul Gauguin, which has become synonymous with the lure of the South Seas, has garnered very high ratings from guests under the auspices of Pacific Beachcomber, which is emphasizing a connection with the culture and ecology of the islands.

The issue of defining the size limitations of the luxury ship category has been a bone of contention through the years, with lines such as Cunard Line, Crystal and Regent successfully pioneering larger vessels; the emerging new luxury ships are, generally, quite a bit larger than their predecessors. Doubts about whether the exclusivity and level of service could be maintained have largely faded, and there has been a positive response to the added dining options, relaxation areas, entertainment offerings, etc., particularly from the younger luxury client demographic.

For instance, Seabourn’s three newbuilds — the Odyssey last year, the Sojourn this year and the Quest, scheduled for 2011 — are all 450-passenger ships, more than twice the size of its original three yachts. Silversea’s ship growth has been more gradual, with the 296-passenger Silver Wind and Silver Cloud followed by the 396-passenger Silver Whisper and Silver Shadow. Last year, the line launched the new Silver Spirit which can carry 540 passengers. And, Oceania Cruises, which has been very successful with its three 684-passenger ships, will bring the 1,252-passenger Marina into the fleet in January.

Brad Ball, director of media relations for Silversea Cruises, sees two types of groups sailing on Silversea.

“Agents are really going after the baby boomers now,” he said. “The older demographic tends to gravitate toward the two smaller vessels, Cloud and Wind, and the younger guests are more likely to choose the other four.”

Prince Albert, the line’s luxury expedition vessel, attracts a younger demographic as does the Silver Spirit, because this group wants all the latest bells and whistles, Ball said.

While the new ships are very successful, a whole segment of the luxury market still prefers smaller vessels.

“A segment of luxury cruising will always exist, even as the share of small-ship luxury cruises has shrunk and will continue to shrink,” said luxury cruise veteran Larry Pimentel, president and CEO of Azamara Club Cruises. “As luxury elements, such as grander suites and fine-dining restaurants, are being incorporated more and more onboard larger ships, small-ship cruising is becoming more about the destination and the onboard experience.”

Still, smaller ships are getting their share of attention. Yachts of Seabourn vice president of sales, Doug Seagle, said that agents should be aware that Seabourn’s three original ships have been receiving serious makeovers, with Spirit completed in 2009 and Pride and Legend receiving their upgrades this year. The updated ships are now getting rave reviews, especially for their cuisine.

Overall, Seagle said Seabourn is seeing 70 percent new guests who are attracted by the new and refurbished ships and by the itineraries, particularly for the Pride, now sailing year-round in Asia, with Japan and Korea new to the line.

To serve its broader client base, Seabourn is offering itineraries of varied lengths, with the first newbuild, Odyssey, sailing shorter cruises with back-to-back capability (on average, 25 percent of the guests take advantage of this) and the second one, Seabourn Sojourn, offering longer sailings.

Divine Design
The new generation of luxury ships has taken different paths in terms of ambience and decor. Seabourn initially startled its guests with a very new look — a tremendous amount of light and white from the soft, curtained spaces in the dining room to the transparent framework of the central spiraling staircase. Silversea, on the other hand, brought a number of new features onboard the new Silver Spirit, while staying with the essential feel of past Silversea ships.

The new Marina, launching in January, has taken Oceania’s central focus of cuisine and designed a ship around it, with the interactive, hands-on Bon Appetit Culinary Center and six restaurants, including two new gourmet venues — Jacques and Red Ginger. The ship’s new Yacht Club will host wine and food pairings and Biscottos Coffee Bar will provide snacks and specialty coffees. In addition, accommodations are larger and bathrooms are very luxurious.

Cunard’s fleet has expanded for the third time in six years, with the debut of the 2,068-passenger Queen Elizabeth, sister ship to the 2007 Queen Victoria. Maintaining the line’s long traditions and harkening back to the glamour of the 1930s and 40s seems to resonate very well with the market, since Queen Elizabeth’s maiden voyage sold out in 29 minutes.  

“It’s a very exciting time for Cunard — moving to three ships will considerably increase our consideration both to travel agents and potential guests,” said Peter Shanks, Cunard president and managing director.

He said Cunard will now offer a wider range of itineraries, building on the strength of its Trans-atlantic Crossings and World Cruises and, now that the Queen Elizabeth has launched, the line now has deployments designed specifically for the North American market, including the Caribbean, the Panama Canal, the West Coast and Hawaii, in addition to fly-cruising in the Mediterranean. For the first time, Cunard will deploy Queen Victoria on four cruises out of Los Angeles in February and March.

“This a great opportunity for West Coast agents,” Shanks said. “In particular, there is the short, four-night cruise on Feb. 13 — what better way to celebrate Valentine’s Day than a special voyage with Cunard?”

A newer entry into the North American FIT market is Compagnie du Ponant, which previously marketed its French luxury ships through companies such as Abercrombie & Kent and Tauck. With the new 264-passenger Le Boreal, a sister ship to next year’s L’Austral, Ponant has opened offices in Miami and has announced a 100 percent commitment to the trade in its FIT sales. 

With three more ships coming into the luxury market in 2011 from Seabourn, Oceania and Compagnie du Ponant, the expansion of the market and its itineraries is far from finished, and there have been rumors of new ship orders from Crystal and Regent. As long as the value message gets through, and the quality of the luxury experience continues to please the upscale customer, this segment of the industry should be an even stronger support to agents. 

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