The Epic Expansion of Crystal Cruises

The Epic Expansion of Crystal Cruises

As the luxury cruise line reshapes its brand offerings, the future looks bright for travel agents booking clients on the best of the best By: Marilyn Green
<p>Edie Rodriguez, president and CEO of Crystal Cruises // © 2015 Crystal Dimond</p><p>Feature image (above): A rendering of a suite onboard Crystal...

Edie Rodriguez, president and CEO of Crystal Cruises // © 2015 Crystal Dimond

Feature image (above): A rendering of a suite onboard Crystal Esprit // © 2015 Crystal Cruises

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The Details

Crystal Cruises

When Crystal Cruises debuted in 1990, it immediately established itself as a pioneer in the luxury sector. Critics doubted that true luxury could be delivered on vessels carrying 1,000 passengers, but Crystal has proven them wrong by becoming the most highly awarded luxury cruise line in the industry.

The company earned the title of World’s Best Cruise Ship in Conde Nast Traveler’s Readers’ Choice Awards 21 times and received top placement on Travel+Leisure’s list of World’s Best Large Ship Cruise Lines for 20 consecutive years.

Crystal was also the first luxury line to successfully attract families, using its ships’ size to offer more extensive children’s activities and dedicated space. The company was a trailblazer in the cyber cafe concept and continues to provide cutting-edge classes with its Computer University @ Sea. The line became an early advocate of social responsibility and environmental sensitivity, using sustainable and fair trade sources for food and providing free shore excursions that allow guests to participate in volunteer programs. 

With Crystal Harmony’s sale in 2005, the company became a two-ship line, and its one flaw was considered to be a lack of growth. Despite superb renovations of its existing ships, Crystal was constricted — a brand with enormous clout but insufficient product.

Fast-forward, and the line has done a complete 180. Crystal celebrated its silver anniversary with an expansion described as “giving new meaning to maximizing the value of a brand” by Leslie Fambrini, a travel advisor and small-ship cruising specialist with Personalized Travel Consultants in Los Altos, Calif. 

In July, onboard the two Crystal vessels, Tan Sri Lim-Kok Thay, the new chairman from cruise line owners Genting Hong Kong, and Edie Rodriguez, president and CEO of Crystal Cruises, simultaneously announced their intention to make Crystal the core of what will become the world’s premier luxury hospitality and lifestyle brand portfolio, not only for the immediate future but for years to come. The joint announcement reflects the meeting of the minds that has driven Crystal’s explosion, and Rodriguez says both believe that their work together at this time is fate.

“He is a brilliant man, an unbelievable visionary and a man of his word,” Rodriguez said. “He sat across the conference table at J.P. Morgan, and he told me he had listened to every word I said. ‘Edie, I want to give you everything you want for Crystal and more,’ he said. And what we have announced is about 50 percent of what is in the works.”

A Look Ahead
That 50 percent includes three seagoing ships to join Crystal Serenity and Crystal Symphony, two private jets to offer 14- and 28-day voyages, a yacht and two river cruise ships in Europe. And then the company announced that it was buying the Lloyd Werft shipyard, which dates back to 1857 and is contracted to build Crystal’s seagoing and river vessels. 

Fresh from Crystal’s 24th Annual Sales Achievement Awards Gala, Paul Largay, co-owner and president of Largay Travel in Waterbury, Conn., likened the purchase of the yard to someone who goes into a bakery, doesn’t like the ticket number he or she is given and buys the bakery. 

“We needed a new ocean vessel by 2018 at the latest,” Rodriguez said. “The chairman and I don’t take no for an answer. So he bought the yard.” 

Rodriguez describes this as a great move. For instance, she pointed out that making changes during the construction process costs a small fortune, and this way, Crystal will be investing back into its own company.

The first of the three all-suite, all-balcony Crystal Exclusive Class ships, each carrying 1,000 passengers, will launch in late 2018. The ships will all be polar class and combine the Crystal level of luxury with serious expedition capability. Accommodations start at 400 square feet — designed with 8-foot ceilings — and Michelin-starred and celebrity chefs will create the cuisine.

In addition, each ship will have 48 residences ranging from 600 to 4,000 square feet that can be combined by owners. Rodriguez says the worldwide response for residences on the first vessel has been so strong that these are now invitation-only, although the company will wait-list requests for residences on later ships. The residences are not commissionable, but Rodriguez says that agents are encouraged to send information on possible buyers to be checked, and invitations will be issued to those who qualify. 

“We’re very bullish on agents, who sell 96 percent of our product,” she said. “We’ll figure out a finder’s fee.”

Owners will have their own butlers, concierge and a dedicated dining venue; they can also dine in their residences. When they want to join the action, they can take their private elevator into the rest of the ship, where the casino, specialty restaurants, entertainment and features — including helicopters, Zodiacs and two-passenger submarines — beckon.

“They make their own decisions about when to be private and when to mingle,” Rodriguez said. “This is really no different from the Baccarat hotel in New York, where it has $50 million residences.”

The public’s first look at a new Crystal vessel will be the 62-passenger all-suite Crystal Esprit, formerly the chairman’s private yacht, which makes its debut in December with 77 crew members, a two-passenger submarine and Zodiacs. The yacht will launch in the Seychelles, followed by seven-night cruises between Venice, Italy, and Dubrovnik, Croatia, visiting different ports in each direction — guests have the option of booking a 14-night cruise that begins and ends in either city. 

Wendy Hathorn, director of sales and marketing for Bon Voyage Travel in Tucson, Ariz., is impressed by the research Crystal has done for its itineraries, including meetings to be sure the ships won’t disrupt wildlife habitats or negatively impact local culture.

Fambrini is most excited about the level of luxury that Crystal will bring to European river cruising in March 2017.

“It will reset everything,” she said. 

Although Crystal has discussed cruises on French rivers and the Danube and the Rhine, the exact itineraries for the two 140-guest river cruise ships will not be published until mid-November. The company plans to offer slightly longer cruises than its competitors, slowing down the pace with more time in port and more overnights. A Michelin-starred chef will create the cuisine and, like the rest of the cruise line’s products, Crystal will maintain all-inclusive pricing, including beverages and gratuities. 

As far as air travel goes — often the Achilles’ heel of luxury cruise experiences — agents hope the company expands its Crystal Luxury Air plans, scheduled to start in 2017, to make luxury air available for cruising beyond charters. Announcements so far focus on 28-day itineraries on a Boeing 787 Dreamliner and 14-day voyages on a second, smaller aircraft. The Dreamliner, designed to seat 300, will be adapted to accommodate 60 travelers in flat-bed seats on 28-day itineraries to 10 to 12 destinations that cannot normally be reached by nonstop flights. Some trips have themes such as golfing, with alternative arrangements available for those whose interests lie elsewhere. The smaller jet will offer 14-day trips. 

The most luxurious available transport will take guests to top hotels, private castles and resorts, according to Rodriguez. To ensure a real brand experience, the company will have Crystal butlers trained as flight attendants. Cuisine will be inspired by the destinations and prepared by celebrity chefs. Corporate executive pilots will be in the cockpits, and Crystal will have alternative aircraft ready if needed. 

Fambrini has sold around-the-world journeys on private jets and is looking to Crystal for new creative ideas.

“The world of air travel needs a boost,” she said. 

The luxury air trips are likely to bring down the age of Crystal customers, Hathorn said, adding more younger travelers who are time-constrained. 

“Crystal’s customer demographics are already getting younger, and this will take it down further,” she said. 

Selling Perfection
To help maintain Crystal’s level of service for all these products, the company is bringing back former employees. In the last 25 years, many incredible crewmembers left because they didn’t see an opportunity for growth, Rodriguez says. Now, many past employees want to come back. 

The company will continue to hire new people for personality and train for skills. 

As far as sales are concerned, Rodriguez says that BDMs will not be separated; they will be responsible for all things Crystal. In marketing, the structure will be set up with a corporate leader and then heads for each brand — for example, Helen Panagos is vice president of marketing and sales for Crystal’s yacht cruises. Ads will focus on the whole product range. 

Crystal expects a myriad of global guests comfortable with English as their first or second language, Rodriguez says. 

“Look at the 10 wealthiest countries, and you’ll find everything from the Middle East to China to Brazil, in addition to North America,” she said. 

Crystal already has Japanese hostesses to help with the language and will add Mandarin-speaking hostesses soon.

Some agents have voiced concerns that there will be a change in Crystal’s product because of a larger number of Chinese passengers under the new ownership. But Tom Baker, co-owner of Houston-based Cruise Center, describes himself as “very bullish” about Crystal’s plans. 

“The Chinese are everywhere now — in Germany, St. Petersburg, Venice,” he said. “This is the way it is going to be as the affluent Chinese travel, and it’s not just a change for Crystal, it’s a change for everyone.” 

The other issue raised by agents is how, with such dramatic growth, Crystal can maintain the perfection that has distinguished its ships. 

“They must have fiery patience — keeping their vision and making sure they make good on the brand promise,” Largay said. “It’s not easy, but if anyone can deliver the goods, it’s Crystal.”