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To garner passenger input for its first new build ship order in eight years, Regent Seven Seas Cruises went beyond the typical comment card.
The luxury cruise line offered customers a 10-night, Caribbean cruise on the Seven Seas Mariner. With its Build Your Ship theme, the cruise included a town hall session with Regent’s top executive team and 16 subsequent one-hour brainstorming sessions during which guests were asked what they would and would not like to see on a new Regent ship.
Regent president Mark Conroy presided over the panel, held on the first Sunday morning of the trip in the ship’s main theater. Conroy promised additional alternative restaurants, more spacious staterooms and better spa and fitness facilities.
Improved bathrooms, however, were what most guests were concerned with, telling the panel that the bathtubs on Mariner were difficult to get into and out of and that the showers were too short. And while some passengers said they liked the tubs in the rooms, others felt they’d rather just have shower stalls.
The town hall meeting showed just how opinionated and connected a line’s most loyal customers can be. Almost 200 passengers signed up for the mid-March cruise specifically to be part of the new ship’s design process. One hundred guests participated in focus groups throughout the week and 173 submitted written newbuild surveys that Regent distributed. An additional 73 surveys were submitted online; 62 on the Seven Seas Voyager.
Many guests said they didn’t want to see Regent change much at all — and they came onboard to ensure it wouldn’t.
“We like the all-inclusive nature,” said Rob from Island Beach, Fla., who has spent more than 500 nights on Regent ships. “They don’t nickel and dime us.”
Conroy, who was born in Iowa and didn’t see the ocean until he was 16, got his industry break in the mailroom at Norwegian Cruise Line. He then worked at Royal Viking Line and Commodore Cruise Lines and was later on the team that launched Renaissance Cruises. Those three lines, he noted, are no longer in business. Conroy reminded Regent passengers that although he understands and appreciates how much they like the line as it is, the lesson is obvious: Cruise lines that don’t evolve, don’t survive.
Regent hopes to order the new vessel by September and introduce it by 2011 or 2012. The line already has a general idea of what that ship will be like. Most notably, it will be larger than the four ships in its current fleet by about 100-150 passengers. While some passengers winced at the notion of a larger vessel in the luxury category, Conroy said that it would be larger but also more spacious than its other vessels by 30 percent.
But some Regent fans worried that they would never see the new ship.
“Are those of us whose budgets today are in [the least expensive categories] ever going to afford to get on your new ship?” asked Dick Burrage, who was traveling with his wife, Sue. “We hope we are not going to be priced out of this market.”
The new ship will be more expensive, Conroy said during the meeting, due to the weakness of the U.S. dollar. Regent has no choice but to recoup that additional cost with more expensive tickets.
“It’s pure economics,” Conroy said. “The ship will cost more and we will have to charge more … so we have to add the additional benefits and features for guests. The premium lines are getting bigger and better. Everybody is raising the bar so we have to raise the bar.”
Conroy showed guests at the town hall session a proposal from Italy’s Fincantieri shipyard, one of four shipyards vying for the newbuild contract. Fincantieri’s proposal for a 66,000-ton ship would cost about $450 million, Conroy said, compared to the $207 million it paid for its last vessel, the Seven Seas Voyager, which debuted in 2003. And cruise lines don’t have many choices when it comes to finding a shipbuilder; the yards with the needed expertise to build cruise ships are all in Europe, and they all charge in euros. All cruise lines that are building ships now are contending with costs far higher than those in the past.
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Conroy led the panel along with Ken Watson, executive vice president of marketing and sales; Christian Sauleau, former executive vice president of operations; Peter Yran, partner and president of Yran & Storbraaten Architecture & Design, the ship’s designer; and the ship’s captain, Philippe Fichet-Delavault.
The panel explained that the larger ship would likely have four specialty restaurants instead of the two that
Regent ships have now and that they would go back to a propeller system rather than the more recently used pods.
Besides Regent executives, the top brass from Oceania Cruises — now Regent’s sister company under Prestige Cruise Holdings — was also in attendance. Frank Del Rio, Prestige CEO, and Bob Binder, Oceania president, were both on their first Regent cruise. The two executives ordered two new ships for Oceania last year and were no doubt taking in some of the customers’ suggestions.
The lines are clearly learning from each other. When a passenger from the town hall meeting audience suggested the line add an all-day restaurant — something that would be open between lunch and dinner — Conroy pointed to the successful sandwich corner and ice-cream bar that Oceania has on its ships.
But when passengers asked if Oceania and Regent could have a point-sharing system for guests who travel on both lines, Conroy said those things have yet to be worked out. Off the panel, the executives were quick to point out that while they are sister companies, they are competitors as well, and very different from each other. Regent is a luxury line and is more expensive than Oceania. Oceania’s passenger base is older than Regent’s and caters less to families.
“We and Oceania have something in common,” Conroy said. “We both have great business momentum. We’re running full and we need additional capital investment. That’s why Apollo sees us together. We are complementary brands in a certain segment of the market that with the fuel of capital could grow into bigger brands.”
Fincantieri’s proposal is to use the same hull on which it is building Oceania’s two new ships. This move would save Regent money on fees associated with the engineering tests for a brand-new hull.
Aside from bathroom discussions, guests suggested a retractable roof over the pool, a watersports marina off the back of the ship, an old-fashioned promenade deck, pools with easier accessibility and dedicated hobby spaces on the ship. With all the excitement of designing and ordering a new ship, Conroy said that Regent has to continue to focus on its current product and passengers.
“The danger for small companies,” Conroy said, “is getting so engrossed in shipbuilding that you forget about our product and the business you need to run now.”
Regent Seven Seas Cruises’ proposed new ship will be larger than the four vessels in its current fleet. That should come as no surprise: Bigger, better, new and improved mirrors an industrywide trend.
No stranger to ships large or small, Petter Yran, president of Oslo-based Yran & Storb-raaten (Y&S), has had a hand in planning more than 100 vessels, beginning with the Sea Goddess ships in the early 1980s. Heading up Regent’s design efforts, he and his team also are currently at work on new ships for Disney Cruise Line, Yachts of Seabourn and Oceania Cruises. Holland America Line’s newly delivered Eurodam also features elements of Y&S design. All of these ships are larger than their predecessors, and Yran said that’s okay.
“The good thing with big ships is that there are more activities to choose from,” he said.
Yran and his team have contributed to the design of some of the world’s largest ships, including Royal Caribbean’s Voyager-class series. His company also consulted to the line’s Genesis-class vessels, which will carry more than 6,000 passengers when cruising at full capacity.
How large can ships go?
“I don’t see a big difference between 6,000 passengers and 10,000 passengers,” Yran said.
But he added that some things will have to change. Two-seating dining will be replaced with smaller dining venues, he predicted, and the main show lounge may become a thing of the past too, being replaced with multiple entertainment outlets throughout the ship.