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
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
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
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
“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
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,
“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
“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
Turpin noted that the luxury end of the cruise market was
“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.”