The Pride Is Back

The launch of NCL's Pride of America marks a fresh start for the company in Hawaii

By: Ana Figueroa

A band played “New York, New York” as I arrived at the New York City passenger-ship terminal for the christening and inaugural sailing of NCL America’s new Pride of America last month. As the song’s memorable refrain set me to singing, “If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere,” I certainly hoped those words would prove prophetic for Pride of America.

New York gave the ship a rousing welcome, fireboats churned the harbor and fireworks lit up the Statue of Liberty. The ship’s arrival after a transatlantic crossing from the LLoyd Werft shipyard in Bremerhaven, Germany, was worth celebrating. At 81,000 tons, Pride of America is the largest U.S.-flagged passenger ship ever built, and the first to be built in nearly half a century. She’s also unique. Her “best of America” theme highlights the nation’s diversity, beauty and history. Wandering from a Napa Valley wine bar to a Gold Rush-era saloon or a stately Capital Atrium, I almost found myself wondering, “What time does this theme park close?”

Pride of America is an amusement park and life-size dollhouse rolled into one. In fact, the ship has so much going on, that Hawaii may just have to take a back seat. Hawaii, of course, is her destination. She’s the second in NCL America’s U.S.-flagged and U.S.-crewed ships offering year-round interisland cruises.

Pride of America and her predecessor, Pride of Aloha, launched in July 2004, have created a unique way to see the islands. Not only do the cruises provide 100 hours of port time, they offer experiences that even many Hawaiian residents have never enjoyed a scenic passage along the velvety green Na Pali coastline of Kauai, for example. Another highlight is an evening cruise beside the Big Island’s Kilauea volcano, giving passengers an unforgettable experience. From the comfort of a deck chair or a balcony, they can watch molten lava cascading down the slopes of the volcano, into the sea.

Though the mood in New York at Pride of America’s christening ceremony was ebullient, not so long ago NCL America had more than its share of bad press. Indeed, many wondered whether the Pride of America would ever see this day. The ship, as anyone who follows the cruise industry knows, has had more ups and downs than a yo-yo in an elevator. To paraphrase Lemony Snicket: the Pride of America and NCL by extension has endured “a series of unfortunate events.”

A Change of Plans

The ship now known as Pride of America began as a twinkle in the eye of American Classic Voyages. Doing business as American Hawaii Cruises, it used two small U.S.-flagged cruise ships to provide interisland passenger service. In 2000, ACV announced plans to build two ships at a shipyard in Mississippi. Dubbed “Project America,” the ships would be the first large (72,000 ton) passenger ships built in the U.S. in 50 years. But, that plan never came to fruition.

ACV filed for bankruptcy shortly after Sept. 11. That’s when NCL saw an opportunity and seized it. With help from Hawaii’s senior senator, Daniel Inouye, Congress passed a law that would enable NCL to complete the unfinished Project America ships in a foreign shipyard, and still operate them as U.S.-flagged vessels, so long as they had a certain percentage of U.S. citizens working on their crews.

As U.S.-flagged vessels, the ships would be exempt from maritime laws that prevent foreign-flagged ships from calling on U.S. ports without calling also at a foreign port. In Hawaii, the right to sail interisland without making a three-day side trip to the foreign port on remote Fanning Island (as NCL’s foreign-flagged Norwegian Wind still does) is a major coup.

Had everything gone according to plan, the Pride of America would have been the first of the ACV Project America ships to be finished. It would have then begun interisland service in July 2004. But in January 2004, a violent storm sank the ship in its berth in Bremerhaven. That forced NCL to quickly change course, and inaugurate its interisland program with another ship, the Norwegian Sky.

Transformed into the Pride of Aloha, that was the ship that launched NCL’s new U.S.-flagged operation, NCL America, in July 2004.

Learning the Hard Way

Despite the fanfare and splashy marketing touting the unique “Island Hop” experience, service problems soon muted the accolades that NCL America should have been receiving. The Pride of Aloha’s U.S. crew members were, for the most part, young Americans with no concept, much less experience, of what it takes to work on a ship. Some of them had not yet mastered all their duties. Others suffered from attitude problems and homesickness, so that initially, service was sub-par in many respects.

Exacerbated by a higher than expected turnover rate, the service problems on Pride of Aloha became grist for the Internet. Disappointed passengers vented in Internet chat rooms and on cruise reviewers’ Web sites. The trade press picked up on some of these rants, and then the mainstream press published stories under a somewhat distorted lens.

“The newspapers and television stations in Honolulu tended to interview the same complainers, and that may have exaggerated the problem,” said Danny Ching, president of Non-Stop Travel in Honolulu. “But, still, there’s no getting around the fact that the upkeep on the ship was not what a normal cruise ship should be.”

A year after its launch, NCL feels the Pride of Aloha’s service problems are behind her.

“We’ve learned from our mistakes,” said NCL’s president and CEO, Colin Veitch.

The line is clearly not taking any chances, however. They have instituted a one-of-its kind “crew preparation program” at the Paul Hall Center for Maritime Training and Education in Piney Point, Md. The three-week program provides an intensive course in onboard life. Students sleep in dorms (so they can get used to cramped quarters), and train with actual replicas of the ship’s staterooms. They receive behavioral training learning how to recognize their own personality type and improve their interpersonal skills. Students also learn key safety preparedness, such as how to handle fire extinguishers and lifeboats.

Michael Laundry, Pride of America’s assistant hotel director, says his fellow crew members realize how much is at stake.

“They’ve made it very clear that failure is not an option,” Laundry said.

Veitch insists that service problems on the Pride of Aloha have been solved. In fact, he says passengers are now giving the ship favorable ratings of 90 to 92 percent. The line has nonetheless suspended the mandatory service charge on Pride of Aloha until further notice.

Big and Still Growing

As the two ships prepare to leapfrog each other around the islands, NCL America is anticipating yet another addition to its fleet. The third NCL America ship, Pride of Hawaii, is under construction at the Meyer Werft shipyard in Papenburg, Germany. When she enters service in 2006, NCL will be serving upward of 500,000 passengers per year in Hawaii (including the 10- and 11-day Norwegian Wind cruises). That’s a lot of Aloha spirit for a Norwegian line.

Though three ships in three years might seem a bit ambitious, Veitch says that he has no doubts about the strength of the market.

“People asked us how we could grow that fast, and I point to two things. First, Hawaii is the second most popular resort destination in America. And, second, there are 10 million people taking cruises,” Veitch said.

Those two factors, he added, make for an “enormous latent pool” of passengers for a cruise product that’s never been available.

There’s more to Veitch’s Hawaii vision than adding new ships. He points to the Alaska cruisetour model, so profitably operated by lines such as Holland America and Princess.

“Our ambition with Hawaii was to develop it not just as an island-hopping experience, but a complete immersive experience,” he said. “Clearly, we can take it further. But, first we have to make sure we have control of some critical assets on land.”

To that end, the line purchased Polynesian Adventure Tours, a local tour bus company licensed to operate both large and small buses in Hawaii.

Can we expect to see an “NCL America Adventure Lodge” somewhere on the islands anytime soon?

“Why, are you selling one cheap?” Veitch responded, with a laugh.

NCL’s parent corporation, Star Cruises, Ltd., seems to be firmly behind Veitch’s vision. At the New York christening ceremonies, Star Cruises’ chairman, Tan Sri Lim Kok Thay, noted that his company had invested $1.2 billion in the three NCL America ships.

“We’re in it for the long haul,” Tan Sri said.

Though it has already been a long haul, Veitch clearly thinks the rewards have been worth the risk. Dignitaries at the Pride of America christening lauded NCL for reviving the U.S.-flagged cruise ship industry. Senator Inouye’s remarks, which Veitch read to the audience, noted that by the time Pride of Hawaii debuts, NCL will be the largest single employer of U.S. seamen.

To Veitch’s credit, he’s not only secured a place in history for his company, he’s effectively precluded competitors from crowding in on NCL America’s turf in Hawaii. As a business move, NCL’s U.S.-flagged venture was bold arguably brilliant.

“We launched NCL America for pragmatic, commercial reasons that had to do mainly with increasing our market share in a very competitive industry,” Veitch said. “We needed to do something different. It wasn’t for any great patriotic reason.

“Initially, we thought of calling the ships, Spirit of Aloha, Spirit of America and so forth, but for trademark reasons, we didn’t do that,” he said. “I’m glad we named them Pride of Aloha, Pride of America and Pride of Hawaii. This is all about pride. We’re not just pleased about the success of the business. We’re proud of what we’ve done. And how many businesses can say that?”

An Exclusive Interview With Colin Veitch

It’s not often that Colin Veitch is at a loss for words. The Harvard-educated MBA who runs Norwegian Cruise Lines and its U.S.-flagged brand, NCL America, did pause for a moment when TravelAge West asked what seemed like a perfectly reasonable question: What do you know now that you didn’t know when you launched Pride of Aloha a year ago?

“No one has ever asked me that, so I’ll have to think,” Veitch answered, and then proceeded, without skipping a beat, to answer the query.

“The big issue, of course, was recruitment and training,” Veitch said. “We learned a lot from Pride of Aloha and it caused us to change in a significant way the type of person we recruit and the training we do.”

The line also had to change the way it managed the crew, and change certain aspects of what life is like on the ship for a U.S. crew.

“Another thing we’ve learned, or become more sensitive to, is that a U.S. crew has lots of other opportunities that are easily available, as far as employment is concerned,” Veitch said. “The jobs we’re offering on the ship, while good, aren’t remarkable. In contrast, our international crews seek out these jobs, which are in great demand.”

Another difference with U.S. crews on NCL America ships is the camaraderie that develops between passengers and crew members.

“There’s another thing that we’ve learned, and that has to do with the interaction between American passengers and the American crew. The crew is giving good service, of course, but the atmosphere on these ships is different than on the international ships. It’s not better or worse, but different. The cultural closeness between the American passengers and the American crew makes it a very pleasant and comfortable experience. Passengers can sit in the sports bar and can talk about sports with the bartender. That doesn’t happen on an international ship,” Veitch said.

Something else that surprised Veitch has been the passenger reaction to Hawaii.

“Passengers are telling us that this is the best itinerary in the cruise industry. They say Hawaii is without a doubt the best. It gets even higher ratings than Alaska,” Veitch said.

Veitch says over the past year he’s also become more aware of the significance of the new U.S.-flagged ships.

“I had no idea just how important this is to people working on the ship, outside the ship, to customers, suppliers, politicians. It’s a very great project, with a capital ‘G,’” Veitch said.

Just before we concluded the interview, Veitch asked if he can revise his original response to our question: “I’ve thought of the number one thing I know now that I didn’t know then,” he said. “When we started out, we heard quite a lot that Americans won’t work hard, and they can’t provide good service. We’ve shown that to be untrue. On our international ships, we see the cream of the cream. In the U.S., we had to work much harder. We had to go out and get the right people. Now, we have a crew who has been with us almost two years, because they started on the international ships getting ready for Pride of Aloha. They’re delightful. They love their jobs, and the level of service they’re giving is great. It’s not a nationality thing, it’s an individual thing.

“The most pleasing thing we’ve learned,” he added, “is that we can provide good service from an American crew.”


Company: NCL America

Ship: Pride of America

Size: 81,000 tons

Capacity: 2,138

Year Entered Service: 2005

Plugging In: Staterooms have 110-volt outlets, so you don’t need an adapter. There’s an Internet cafe, and Wi-Fi access is available throughout much of the ship.

Hits: New “Family Suite” accommodations are a great idea for multi-generational travel; Conference facilities and U.S. tax advantages make the ship a natural for the meetings and incentives market.

Misses: Small cabin size.

Itinerary: Seven-day departures from Honolulu begin July 23. The itinerary includes a day in Hilo, Hawaii, two days in Kahului, Maui, a day in Kona, Hawaii, and two days in Nawiliwili, Kauai.

Price: Rack rates run approximately $1,049, inside; $1,299, outside; and $1,699, balcony.

Commission: Base commission starts at 10 percent