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“Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently.”
In 1997, Apple aired this television commercial, narrated by actor Richard Dreyfuss, which celebrated those who, like the computer company itself, went against the grain: iconic personalities such as Albert Einstein, John Lennon, Martin Luther King Jr., Alfred Hitchcock and Jim Henson.
Some two decades later, after years of reinvention and innumerable iterations, the cruise industry now has more in common with these revolutionaries than anyone may have ever imagined. It used to be that cruise lines distinguished themselves simply by building bigger ships. And although that’s still a common phenomenon, cruise industry innovation now comes in myriad forms, as existing players up their game and newcomers introduce novel developments.
Just five years ago, no one expected brands such as Ritz-Carlton and Virgin to enter the cruise industry; now, they are poised to launch potentially game-changing products over the next couple years. And once-niche players such as MSC Cruises and Viking are dramatically diversifying with massive expansions.
“We’re seeing more options and more bells and whistles,” said Adam Martindale, a luxury food and wine group specialist for Cruise Planners. “Just when you think you have the perfect cruise and cruise line for your client, here comes Virgin Voyages or MSC Seaview — one of MSC’s many new ships — to shake things up.”
And these are only a few of the disrupters making waves in travel; there are changes happening across the entire cruise industry.
Just look to ship interior design, for example. The wild aesthetic of Joe Farcus was once the industry standard, adorning Carnival Cruise Line ships with garish colors and elaborate fixtures ad infinitum. Today, Adam D. Tihany is the new Farcus. The designer of choice for Carnival Corporation & Plc’s Costa Cruises, Cunard Line, Holland America Line and Seabourn Cruise Line brands, Tihany has a harmoniously applied style that invokes tasteful and timeless balance.
In much the same way, Celebrity Cruises — which features onboard Apple-authorized iLounges — mixed things up by employing the likes of interior designers Nate Berkus and Kelly Hoppen to oversee the development and launch of its new Celebrity Edge. The result is a truly stunning vessel, from its bold blunt bow to the Eden dining and performance space suspended over the shapely stern. Architecturally, the biggest change is the multipurpose Magic Carpet, which is cantilevered off various decks of the ship’s starboard side. It transforms into an inviting scenic bar, a specialty restaurant or a tender launch platform like no other.
Rethinking the ExperienceThe saying “go big or go home” can be more about attitude than size. Virgin Voyages is certainly not attempting to compete with a mega-ship — the line’s first vessel, Scarlet Lady, will measure in at 110,000 tons, not even half the size of the current largest cruise ship in the world. But Virgin is setting out to impress in other ways.
“Inspired by sister brands such as Virgin Atlantic, which helps guests depart the everyday, and Virgin Galactic, which shows that not even the sky is the limit, we’ve set our sights on the seven seas and reimagining the cruise experience from the hull up,” said Tom McAlpin, CEO of Virgin Voyages. “As a boutique brand, Virgin Voyages has a style and attitude that is elevated, delightfully surprising and completely irresistible. We think boldly, act bravely and never accept the status quo.”
According to McAlpin, Virgin customers challenged the company to be different. Clients said they want a place that is adult by design, offers alluring and intimate experiences, features rock-star service and taps into private yacht glamour.
Beginning in 2020, Virgin Voyages hopes to delight those who have never cruised before and who are therefore not tethered to tradition. For starters, Scarlet Lady will have the first-ever tattoo parlor at sea, which will also offer body piercing. The line also reports that it will have no buffet, no main dining room, no forced formal wear, no assigned seating and no assigned dining times. Additionally, all restaurants will be included in the fare; these will range from Korean barbecue and Mexican cuisine to custom pizza, some of which will be served from food carts. Every offering will be in line with the brand’s “Rebellious Luxe” lifestyle.
Although Scarlet Lady will be adults-only, it’s still to be seen if future ships in the fleet will target a broader demographic.
Meanwhile, Viking is hoping to prove that software and programming — in addition to hardware — are important brand differentiators. Viking has also committed to excluding children on sailings to ensure a certain vibe, although it goes by the guiding principle of offering “a thinking person’s sailing versus a drinking passenger’s cruise.”
But it’s Viking’s value that is most disruptive. Offering coveted all-inclusive perks such as a free shore excursion at every port and complimentary shipboard Wi-Fi access, the brand is turning up the heat on most of its competitors. With five sister ships available and another 11 coming online by 2027, Viking is forcing other lines to consider evolving their pricing or inclusions.
MSC Meraviglia, shown here under construction, is part of the cruise line’s major expansion.Credit: 2019 Jason Leppert
The Ritz-Carlton Yacht Collection takes the well-known luxury brand to sea.Credit: 2019 The Ritz-Carlton Yacht Collection
The manor stage on Virgin’s Scarlet Lady.Credit: 2019 Virgin Voyages
The stylish, yet comfortable, setting of the Marina Lounge will give passengers on The Ritz-Carlton Yacht Collection a place to socialize.Credit: 2019 The Ritz-Carlton Yacht Collection
An Athletic Club Cabana onboard Virgin’s Scarlet Lady.Credit: 2019 Virgin Voyages
The Ritz-Carlton Yacht Collection will bring something unique to the market.Credit: 2019 The Ritz-Carlton Yacht Collection
A Quieter RevolutionLess likely to be called a rebel — but sure to make a splash — is The Ritz-Carlton Yacht Collection. The luxury Ritz-Carlton hotel brand is planning to launch its first vessel, Azora, in 2020. Rather than go the mega-ship route, the brand will offer a trio of ships carrying just 298 guests in 149 suites. Few specific features have been announced yet, but there will be a Ritz-Carlton Spa, as well as a restaurant from Sven Elverfeld of three-Michelin-starred restaurant Aqua. Plus, all-inclusive perks will extend to complimentary gratuities and Wi-Fi access.
“As the first hotel company to enter the cruise industry, The Ritz-Carlton will bring its unique experience and legendary service to sea through The Ritz-Carlton Yacht Collection,” said Douglas Prothero, CEO of The Ritz-Carlton Yacht Collection. “In addition to exceptional accommodations, onboard service from The Ladies and Gentlemen of The Ritz-Carlton and unmatched itineraries, our voyages will offer experiences at luxury hotels and resorts around the world, and promise a seamless transition from land to sea unlike any other cruise line.”
Prothero also says the ships will have one of the highest guest-to-staff ratios in the industry, and each yacht will feature timely programming to ensure passengers enjoy a “highly localized perspective of each destination.”
Additionally, since the Ritz-Carlton brand is under the Marriott International umbrella, clients will most likely see some connection with Marriott Rewards, Ritz-Carlton Rewards and Starwood Preferred Guest benefits.
Meanwhile, for a line that has been on the scene for some time, MSC is behaving like an upstart. Like Viking, the company is in the process of significantly building up its fleet. Not only does it have plans to add new Meraviglia- and Seaside-class ships, it also intends to introduce two more classes, for a total of 14 extra vessels, on order through 2027. Four dedicated ships are set to enter the luxury segment following the mainstream line’s success with its palatial MSC Yacht Club ship-within-a-ship concept.
And MSC isn’t the only existing line to venture outside its niche. Crystal Cruises and Seabourn Cruise Line are doubling down on their adventure travels by constructing purpose-built expedition ships, with Scenic expanding from rivers to remote seas with its own expedition ships. And while Viking has not explicitly designated a pair of newbuilds as expedition-focused, it will be assembling the vessels at a yard specializing in these types of ships.
Keeping CurrentWith so much disruption in the market, it’s an exciting time for travel advisors.
“I’m very much looking forward to seeing the pricing strategy for Virgin Voyages,” said Martindale of Cruise Planners. “I believe they will take some market share from Celebrity and possibly Oceania Cruises. Scenic Eclipse should be a game-changer in the small-ship luxury market with its helicopter, submarine and stunning suites. I think Ritz-Carlton could shift some cruisers over from Seabourn, as its ship is a similar size and should appeal to this market.”
Of course, some pillars of the cruise experience will remain. Increasingly elaborate onboard attractions — from free-fall waterslides (onboard Carnival, Norwegian Cruise Line and Disney Cruise Line) to soaring ziplines (on MSC and Royal Caribbean) — continue to impress. Ponant Explorers ships, meanwhile, are taking the enhancements beneath the waves for the first time ever with large underwater porthole views dubbed the Blue Eye.
New technology brings even more changes to the industry as solutions designed to streamline nearly every passenger-facing interaction are rolling out across fleets, including digitized drink delivery, geolocation assistance and more. And new eco-friendly advancements include hybrid engines and the use of Liquefied Natural Gas.
“The plethora of options makes it necessary to constantly educate yourself about these new ships and cruise lines,” Martindale said. “Otherwise, don’t be surprised if your client books with someone else.”
The cruise industry is broadening its scope to cast a larger net and capture more customers. It’s time to listen to “the crazy ones” — especially those who are rewriting the rules of cruise travel.