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An overnight stay in tents with a Bedouin community in Oman is no ordinary shore excursion. And that’s only one of 1,000-plus such local experiences that Azamara Club Cruises will be offering its guests in its new Cruise Global, Connect Local program, which has the mission to connect travelers with the people and cultures of the destinations they visit. Azamara has made “destination immersion” its buzzword, but president and CEO Larry Pimentel says the line is going much further now.
“You can’t go and find these experiences on Google,” he said. “We are creating them. While we stay with the Bedouins, we are hearing about their culture, eating their food, seeing their artwork and listening to their music.
“Azamara is the mother of invention,” Pimentel added. “We have spent more than 18 months developing these bespoke, curated land experiences, and we have more than 1,000 in 68 countries and 203 ports.”
The program has several facets, including Taste Local, which features a guide who takes guests to places such as a local bakery or a community pub.
“We don’t want Michelin-star restaurants,” Pimentel said. “We want the best places where locals go, where there may only be a few seats but the lines go around the block.”
Immersive excursions range from Walk Local and Eco Local to Golf Local and Bike Local, the last of which includes choices such biking to a bed-and-breakfast for an overnight stay and meeting the ship at the next port. Cruise Global, Connect Local also involves pre- and post-cruise tours under the category of Stay Local, and guests who want to create their own experiences can take advantage of the Customize Local program.
In line with the slogan “Stay Longer. Experience More.” Azamara also is offering single-nation Country Intensive Voyages with in-depth, 14-day explorations of single countries including Japan, New Zealand and Australia. Pimentel says that in the next two years, Azamara will offer 20 one-country cruises, to destinations such as Norway and Italy. Due to cabotage laws, the ships may have to depart from another country but will immediately sail to the target nation. Pimentel says the ability to provide in-depth itineraries is made possible by the company’s small ships, adding that 50 percent of Azamara’s ports of call are inaccessible to mass-market vessels.
In addition, Azamara is spending a lot of time at world events, such as the Grand Prix, Cannes Film Festival and British Open. Cruise fares include the cost of tickets to the events.
Pimentel says Azamara’s positioning has resulted in constantly rising rates and yields for the past seven years, unusual for two small, older ships, and the line is now seeing the best bookings in the company’s history. He adds that 21 to 22 percent of passengers have never cruised before; they are there for the direct contact with the destination.
He says the passion for immersion is international, coming from all guests, 49 percent of whom are from the U.S.
And travel agents aren’t going away. He points out what he terms “the shocker”: Millennials, the biggest market of all, are going to agents for their travel plans.