Yacht-like ships, such as the Pegasus, are gaining popularity in the luxury market. // © 2011 Variety Cruises
While the pace of newbuilds in the luxury sector has slowed, the new ships coming into the market and the extensive refurbishments of Older ships reflect the desires of luxury cruisers, who respond to a personal take on magnificent dining, exceptional comfort, lots of open deck space, ample choices and warm, extraordinary service.
“The cruise lines have come up with a great fit for the current customer, raising the bar with more features and options, as well as more inclusions,” said Brad Anderson, co-president of San Diego-based Avoya Travel. “It’s reflected in the incredible satisfaction rates we’re seeing.”
Agents described Seabourn Cruise Line’s new ships as typifying what the current luxury customer prefers.
“The new Seabourn ships have created a new audience, with 25 percent of passengers under the age of 50,” said Tom Baker, president of Houston, Texas-based CruiseCenter and the 2010 Conde Nast Top Travel Specialist. “Now, we are seeing very active people onboard as well as a different mindset.”
John Delaney, senior vice president of marketing and sales at Seabourn, said that the overall age level has decreased by three to five years, with younger cruisers attracted to features such as outdoor dining and seven-day cruises. First-timers tend to be a full 10 years younger than Seabourn’s typical demographic.
Agents mentioned that Windstar Cruises, under its new ownership, had put in an unsuccessful bid for Seabourn’s smaller ships. Windstar believed that, if Seabourn sold the earlier ships, pressure to sell inventory would be taken off of the line, which has added three 450-passenger vessels in last three years, including this year’s Quest. However, Delaney said that there are no plans to pare down the fleet since the line is capitalizing on its expanded itinerary choices.
“New inventory always changes supply,” Anderson said. “We won’t be seeing more Seabourn-size ships for a few years, but yacht-like smaller ships are another story.”
French-owned Compagnie du Ponant has had so much success with its yacht-like ships, Le Boreal (2010) and L’Austral (2011) that, in September, the line announced a third 264-passenger sister ship to debut in June 2013. Terri Haas, chief commercial officer, said that customer satisfaction is at 97 to 98 percent. Haas feels that today’s cruisers are particularly attracted to the casual elegance, the unusual destinations and the authentic interaction with local culture. A third sister ship will allow Ponant to expand its reach.
Haas said that the staff works very hard to make the experience like that of a private yacht. The captain, for instance, can adjust itineraries to provide better wildlife viewing or more time in port. On all three of the new ships, 40 staterooms can become 20 suites, catering to families, and Ponant has free sailing for children under age 12.
Baker refers to the new Ponant ships as “the sexiest ships in the world,” with exquisite decor and warm, wonderful service.
“This is one of the most extraordinary products on the market, and it’s going to be a formidable force,” said Baker. “Agents who get in quickly will definitely benefit their businesses.”
He does caution agents that European food portions are substantially smaller than American ones, and clients should be prepared.
Tim Jacox, executive vice president of sales and marketing for American Safari Cruises — which is adding the 86-guest Safari Endeavour to its fleet of 12- to 36-passenger vessels — said that luxury is about the personalization of the experience. To make the passengers feel like owners, the company offers sessions with local speakers, knowledgeable crew members, access to the bridge and exceptional comfort and elegance when they return from up-close wilderness adventures.
“All four ships have step-out balconies in the upper categories,” Jacox said. “We have heated tile floors in the bathrooms and Jacuzzi tubs, and we offer massage onboard the two larger ships. Premium spirits are included throughout.”
Catering to the New Luxury Client
Ultra-luxury line, Hapag-Lloyd Cruises, is also making a change to accommodate the new luxury mentality with its upcoming 516-passenger Europa 2, which will enter service in 2013. According to managing director Sebastian Ahrens, Europa 2 will be positioned as “a lifestyle-oriented, informal sister ship on a five-star level” in contrast to the line’s more formal Europa. There will be seven restaurants and a substantial spa and wellness area, as well as accommodations that include family suites. Europa 2 is likely to draw a younger luxury client with seven-day cruises in the Mediterranean in the summer months and exotic destinations in the winter.
Anderson noted that cruise lines don’t need a new ship to be successful in the luxury market; ships need to feel new to respond to today’s luxury customer.
“The Symphony has the look and feel of a new ship,” said Anderson.
Jack Anderson, senior vice president of marketing and sales at Crystal agreed.
“There are new ships and new-again ships,” Anderson said. “Even in the recent economic climate, Crystal has invested more than $60 million into its two ships in the past two years, and the response — from both new and repeat guests — has been overwhelmingly positive.”
Similarly, Regent Seven Seas Cruises has invested in its multimillion-dollar, fleetwide Seven Seas Signature initiative, which involves a $100 million investment in the line’s three vessels. More updates and enhancements will be announced in 2012.
Sometimes, a newbuild leads the way for a fleetwide renewal. Steve Tucker, vice president of field sales for Silversea Cruises, saw the change in the line’s ships following the introduction of Silver Spirit last year. To offer a comparable experience on all of its vessels, Silversea added additional features such as the Hot Rock Grill and mattresses that are firm on one side and soft on the other. Next year, the series will be complete with Silver Cloud’s renovation. Similarly, shore excursions are now being offered at four levels, from the conventional choice to small groups, private car and driver tours and expedition adventures.
“It’s all about choice,” said Tucker, echoing the opinions of other executives.
Windstar Cruises is following Crystal and Regent’s lead, with the announcement of an upcoming $18 million investment as part of the Full Sail Ahead initiative. Both accommodations and public rooms will be transformed in the process, with the two smaller ships, the Star and the Spirit, being completely renewed in one session in April and Wind Surf in two stages: accommodations and corridors this fall and public rooms in the fall of next year.
“We will have a new seating layout in the restaurants, Compass Rose will open to the outdoor deck and there will be new carpeting, lighting, furnishings, new leather headboards, new linens and wall coverings,” said Vanessa Bloy, director of public relations.
Peter Shanks, president and managing director of Cunard Line said that, with Queen Elizabeth’s debut last year, the line now has three newer ships, and Cunard is positioned to attract all levels of client. Shanks said that Cunard is putting a great deal of time and money into a very diverse onboard experience — a choice of many regional cuisines and choice of entertainment from its partnership with Juilliard to 3-D movies such as “Toy Story 3” and a full production of “Carmen.”
Shanks suggested that agents take a fresh look at Cunard, not only when considering luxury clients, but premium clients as well. Cunard finds a high percentage of its cruisers may normally choose other lines — from contemporary to luxury — but are attracted by the trans-Atlantic adventure.
Constantine Venetopoulos, director of sales and marketing for Variety Cruises, said that Variety also merits a fresh look. He said that the cruise line is currently being reborn and should no longer be thought of as only Greek specialists. In addition to its new 73-passenger Variety Voyager, which is scheduled to debut in April of next year, Variety has completely renovated soft goods on the Pegasus and the Panorama. Venetopoulos said visibility has grown much stronger for Variety in North America, with agents acting as the voice of the cruise line.
Variety’s new Voyager offers the line more itinerary flexibility since it is faster than its previous vessels. In the winter, she will sail the Arabian Gulf and, in the summer, it will sail Greece, as well as itineraries combining Italy and France. In addition, Voyager is almost double the size of the line’s previous vessels and has larger staterooms — up to 324 square feet — with amenities such as bathtubs and Jacuzzis in some.
With all the new and renewed ships responding to consumer desires, agents should do the same. Tucker noted that many agents assume that luxury cruise customers will come up through the cruise line levels when, in fact, some of the best luxury customers have never cruised before.
“Agents need to see luxury ships as floating boutique hotels, with great potential among high-end land customers,” said Baker of CruiseCenter. “The big challenge in this business is to train people to understand the lifestyle of the very wealthy. You can’t just sell from the pocketbook.”