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At 5:55 a.m., captain Ricardo Pinzon was on an early morning watch onboard Windstar Cruises’ 212-passenger Star Pride, an all-suite luxury yacht en route from Panama City, Panama, to Puerto Caldera, Costa Rica.
With the aid of chief officer (and fellow Panamanian) Juan Maltez, Pinzon gently glided the vessel through the first lock of the Panama Canal.
His voice echoed over the onboard PA system, cutting through the early hours of the morning and rousing many guests from their beds before dawn, allowing them ample time to head up to Deck 8 for a photo op.
It was a momentous occasion, to be sure — guests learned that Star Pride was the first passenger cruise ship to cross the canal while manned by both a Panama-born captain and chief officer. And this sailing marked the company’s first-ever President’s Cruise, with many passengers passing through the canal for the first time, including newly appointed Windstar president John Delaney.
The cruise, which took place Feb. 25 to March 4, was attended by several Windstar executives, top-producing travel agents, consortia representatives and Yacht Club members (repeat Windstar cruisers), in addition to members of the media and first-time clients eager to learn more about improvements to the company.
The canal transit perfectly captured the direction of the small-ship cruise line, which is — literally and figuratively — heading into new waters.
Loyal to the BrandDelaney, now at the helm of a six-ship fleet (in addition to Star Pride, Windstar owns sister yachts Star Legend and Star Breeze, along with sailing ships Wind Surf, Wind Star and Wind Spirit), says he has spent his first few months as president learning more about this “magic brand” and how to nurture a company that he believes holds a sweet spot in the small-ship cruising market.
The first order of business, he says, included giving support to an already well-respected line by hiring a crop of new executives.
Among the executives onboard the President’s Cruise were Chris Prelog, vice president of fleet operations; Peter Tobler, director of marine hotel operations; Steve Simao, vice president of sales; Sander Groothuis, director of maritime operations; and others. Many of the executives have past experience working with Delaney, Windstar or the fleet when it was under previous ownership.
“We have folks on this management team who have a passion for true small-ship cruising,” Delaney said. “I can honestly say this is the most impressive team of cruise professionals for a small-ship cruise line. For us, it’s like a group of friends and family coming back together again to build the best cruise line we can.”
Delaney also wants to cultivate deeper relationships with cruisers and travel advisors. Part of this will include cleaning up Windstar’s client database and giving Yacht Club members added incentives for cruising.
A new passenger loyalty program may include benefits that get richer with each sailing, Delaney says, including complimentary Wi-Fi access, free laundry and discounts on shore excursions.
An agent incentive program will also be added to the mix and could include perks such as increased shipboard credits.
Customization and ExpansionAlthough Windstar features a friendly price point and a carefree cruising style — open seating during meals, a casual dress code and high-energy shore excursions are often cited as staples of the brand — new upscale offerings will soon be added.
Xanterra Parks & Resorts, which owns Windstar, will be investing $20 million into the fleet this year. Asia itineraries will be introduced in 2018, along with sailings in Canada and New England. Possible destinations down the line include South America, Australia/New Zealand and even Cuba.
In addition to new destinations, Delaney says that guests can expect longer and more overnight stops in port, new partnerships with local tour operators and restaurateurs and customizable shore excursion options.
A future itinerary, for example, could include docking in Sorrento, Italy, before flying via helicopter to Pompeii for a private tour, spending time visiting the Amalfi Coast and touring a family-owned lemon farm and limoncello factory — all in one day.
“I think our shore excursions program today is good, but we’re going to bring really custom, really unusual stuff that you can only offer on a small ship,” Delaney said. “We can do it when you have ships this size, but you can’t do that when you have 2,000 to 3,000 passengers.”
Improvements will be made onboard, too. The line has already partnered with the James Beard Foundation to offer top-notch culinary offerings for guests, but Delaney says more port-inspired culinary dishes will soon be gracing onboard menus.
And a wider array of speakers — such as park rangers, naturalists, geologists and wildlife experts — will add cultural enrichment to sailings.
Fleet expansion may be on the horizon. Although there are no immediate plans to grow the fleet, “newbuilds aren’t out of the question,” Delaney says.
But no matter the changes ahead, Delaney assures that the essence of Windstar’s “upscale, casual luxury experience” will remain the same.
“Our guests are super well-traveled and are all about experiences,” he said. “We don’t take ourselves too seriously — it’s part of who we are.”