Agents: New Cruise Entrant a Curious Endeavor

Former Renaissance exec teams with ex-Crystal chief to create ‘upper premium’ line

By: Theresa Norton Masek

It’s surprising enough that a cruise line is starting up in these troubled times, but what’s even more startling is the team behind the new Oceana Cruises.

Former Crystal Cruises President Joseph Watters, a respected and loyal friend of travel agents, is teaming up with ex-Renaissance Cruises honcho Frank Del Rio, possibly the least trusted executive in the cruise industry.

“I was really stunned when I heard about this combination,” said Ruth Turpin of Cruises Etc. Travel in Fort Worth, Texas.

The team is forming an “upper premium” line with up to three former Renaissance vessels. Watters and Del Rio were in Marseille, France, last week to sign long-term charters and purchase options for the 690-passenger R1, R2 and R6, according to an industry report from Europe. Those ships are now owned by a company called Cruiseinvest.

The U.K.-based Seatrade Organisation reported that the first ship will be renamed Oceana Regatta and make its maiden voyage from Barcelona on May 7, 2003.

While the two men were unavailable for comment last week, a press statement said Watters is chairman of Oceana, while Del Rio is president and CEO. The headquarters is in Miami, where Del Rio is based: Watters will remain in Los Angeles.

“We will be a line that will work closely and well with the travel agent community,” Watters said in the statement.

It’s not surprising for Watters to say that. “Nobody was more pro-agent than Joe Watters,” said Kathy Bissinger, owner of Bissinger & Associates in San Francisco.

Agents are leery of Del Rio, however. He was executive vice president of Renaissance Cruises when it capped commissions at $500 per cabin in May 1998, launched aggressive direct-mail campaigns at consumers and used its Web site to urge travelers to “Book Direct!”

Renaissance made a massive turnaround in 2000, apologizing and trying to win back agent support. But it was too little, too late. Renaissance couldn’t survive in the post-Sept. 11 crisis and declared bankruptcy on Sept. 25, 2001.

Del Rio left Renaissance in May 2001, when he held the title of co-CEO, “to pursue other interests,” according to a Renaissance statement. His resignation was announced three weeks after Manfred Ursprunger was named president and CEO by the line’s new majority shareholder.

Some agents said Del Rio was smart to link up with Watters to resurrect his cruise industry career.

“For Frank Del Rio to align himself with somebody as well thought of as Joe Watters is certainly a great way for him to get some credibility back,” Turpin said. “I always felt like the people at Renaissance were not real agent-friendly. And that kind of bothers me. It actually bothers me a lot.”

Still, some agents seem willing to give Del Rio the benefit of the doubt, perhaps due in part to the respect they accord Watters.

“Frank Del Rio has not at all times been supportive of the travel agent community,” Bissinger said. “When Renaissance made its about-face, he was very much trying to mend fences with agents. Perhaps the decision to be antiagent was never his. He may have had to live with board members and (former chairman Ed) Rudner to do things he was not supportive of.”

In fact, Del Rio said just that in a June 26, 2000 interview with TravelAge West. He said the antiagent policies came at Rudner’s direction and that he “absolutely did not” agree with them.

Turpin said she’d like to hear Watters explain the new cruise line and its policies.

“I do have tremendous respect for Joe,” she said.

Leslie Fambrini of Personalized Travel Consultants in Los Altos, Calif., agreed.

“Having Joe Watters associated with this product will be a plus for the agency community, as he has been quite agent supportive during his tenures with former cruise companies,” she said.

Agents also wondered how a new cruise product would be received.

“This is an interesting time to bring on more ships,” Fambrini said. “But judging from the sold-out product on Princess Cruises’ (recently acquired) former Renaissance ships, we might be looking at a most interesting niche smaller ships, very attractive per diems, emphasis on fine cuisine and aimed at the upper end of the premium market.”

Turpin noted that the luxury end of the cruise market was Watters’ strength.

“I frankly think the luxury segment doesn’t need another entrant right now,” Turpin said. “But if it’s going to be more in line with Princess or Holland America Line, it’s more of a possibility. It’s going to be interesting.”