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Navigating Celebrity ChicJuly 14, 2010 By: Susan Young Travel Agent
Dan Hanrahan leads the cruise line’s brand revitalization
Like all of the line’s suites, a spacious Sky Suite aboard Celebrity Solstice comes with butler service
When Dennis Nienkerk of Strong Travel Services in Dallas convinced a discerning luxury travel client to book a 12-day Celebrity Eclipse voyage around the British Isles recently, he ended up with a very happy customer. The client reported that he was extremely pleased with his experience in the ship’s junior suite; in fact, he felt the experiences surpassed accommodations he’d enjoyed on some of his favorite luxury cruise lines.
“He called me to say the Eclipse blew him away with its stunning decor and multiple activities,” says Nienkerk.
That’s positive news for Celebrity as it invests at least $200 million to significantly revitalize its product with new multilevel “Designed for You” branding and other product updates. While still firmly rooted in the premium cruise segment, Celebrity says it’s also attracting a more diverse customer mix these days. Among its new customers are luxury clients like Nienkerk’s as well as younger guests new to cruising who seek a chic, sophisticated experience and personalized options.
“With this brand evolution comes a guest experience that I’d call ‘cool’ or ‘modern’ rather than traditional as in the past with Celebrity,” says Jack Mannix, president and CEO, Ensemble Travel Group. From another trade perspective, “travelers can have a modern, first-class experience onboard at an affordable price point with the Solstice-class ships,” notes Brad Anderson, co-president, America’s Vacation Center/Avoya Travel.
Designed for You
President and CEO Dan Hanrahan, tasked with revitalizing the Celebrity brand, has accomplished that through ship enhancements and brand messaging
Founded in 1988 by the Chandris Group of Greece, Celebrity has been an integral part of the Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. (RCCL) portfolio of brands since 1997. Celebrity’s fleet comprises nine ships ranging in capacity from approximately 1,800 to 2,850 passengers and a 90-passenger soft adventure ship, Celebrity Xpedition. The line sails itineraries in Alaska, Bermuda, California, Canada/New England, Europe, the Pacific Coast, the Panama Canal, South America, as well as year-round in the Caribbean and Galapagos Islands.
In 2005, RCCL tapped Dan Hanrahan, who developed Royal Caribbean International’s successful “Get Out There” brand persona after joining the company in 1999, as Celebrity’s new president and CEO. He was tasked with revitalizing the brand. Since arriving at Celebrity, agents say Hanrahan has both clarified the brand’s attributes and enhanced its features; Anderson describes Hanrahan’s management style as “creative and forward-thinking.”
“Designed for You” appears to be just what the line needed to rev up interest. After the new branding was unveiled in January, Celebrity’s web traffic soared with online searches up 80 percent in the first quarter. The line’s Facebook (www.facebook.com/celebritycruises) fan base doubled in the first quarter. “It just tells me we’re connecting with the travel agent community,” says Hanrahan. “I love the fact that travel agents are saying ‘Designed for You’ back to me.”
Describing Celebrity’s onboard product as sophisticated, stylish and cosmopolitan, yet not stuffy, Hanrahan told Travel Agent, “It’s Celebrity chic, well-designed, with great service and great food.”
Amber Blecker—a CruiseOne franchise owner based in Aurora, CO—concurs, noting “a good analogy to a hotel style would be Renaissance or Kimpton—both have personality, are upscale, but are service-oriented and not snooty.”
Mannix says guests are attracted to the line’s expanded Celebrity Life onboard experiences, including the Renew health and wellness options. Hanrahan cites Oceans Ahead environmental presentations, another new aspect of Celebrity Life, as incredibly popular with guests, which he admits came as a bit of a surprise. All those activity choices, including Rosetta Stone language lessons, dance classes, Smithsonian lectures and cooking classes comprise Celebrity’s “constant quest to deliver the perfect cruise,” according to Hanrahan.
Travel executives also say Celebrity’s renewed focus on world-class cuisine is another attraction for clients. Jacques Van Staden, a former restaurateur and renowned master chef, oversees the brand’s culinary offerings. This year, the line is launching “Savor Your Destination” culinary and wine cruises, again appealing to guests seeking touches of sophistication in the onboard experience.
Most recently, Celebrity introduced a new “Personalized Concierge Service,” to be offered fleetwide by September 1 (except on Celebrity Xpedition). Concierges will assist guests in arranging private shore excursions; booking spa and specialty dining experiences; and creating celebratory events—all free of cost. Guests are only charged for such arrangements as a limo rental for a special event.
“They’ve positioned themselves as the cruise line that puts the guests at the center of attention, which I think has successfully tapped into what travelers want—personalized experiences,” says Anderson.
“Solsticizing” the Fleet
When it comes to revitalizing Celebrity’s brand, Hanrahan acknowledges that the new Solstice-class ships are real game changers. “I can’t say Solstice is top of its class, because it’s in a class all its own,” says John Lovell, vice president of sales and industry relations, Vacation.com. “It has set the bar incredibly high, forcing other cruise lines to rethink their position going forward.”
The pool area of the Solstice-class Celebrity Equinox
Launched in 2008, Celebrity Solstice, the first in the new post-Panamax class, instantly wowed guests and agents with such features as a live-grass Lawn Club; an exclusive affiliation with the Corning Museum of Glass; cool features like the ice-topped Martini Bar; and new alternative dining options, including the Tuscan Grille steakhouse, a family-style Asian restaurant and Blu, an intimate dining venue popular among AquaClass and suite guests.
Sister ships Celebrity Equinox and Celebrity Eclipse launched in 2009 and 2010, respectively. CelebritySilhouette , the fourth Solstice-class ship debuts in July 2011. A fifth, yet-unnamed vessel will follow in 2012. With its plans for new ship launches, Celebrity will have one of the most modern fleets afloat, says Dwain Wall, senior vice president and general manager, CruiseOne and Cruises Inc., FortLauderdale . “Celebrity has evolved quite nicely over the past couple of years,” he adds.
Frankly, Travel Agent didn’t encounter anyone among its many sources interviewed for this story who didn’t rave about the new ships. As a frontline agent, Nienkerk points out that Berlitz’s Complete Guide to Cruising and Cruise Ships 2010 awarded both Celebrity Solstice and Celebrity Equinox a 4.5-star rating on a scale of five. “They are the highest-rated ‘mainstream’ cruise ships and offer a level of sophistication above that offered by any other except the luxury cruise lines,” he notes.
“Celebrity’s Solstice-class has really become the face of the brand in the last couple of years,” says Mannix, adding that guests are blown away by the attention to detail, particularly with the ship hardware. So, not surprisingly, earlier this year, Celebrity embarked on a program to “Solsticize” its 2,030-
passenger Millennium-class ships, originally launched between 2000 and 2002.
Essentially, the line is replicating many Solstice features and styling onboard Celebrity Millennium, Celebrity Summit, Celebrity Constellation and Celebrity Infinity. Emerging from its extensive drydock makeover in May, Celebrity Constellation now boasts new Grand Foyer and public area decor; new cabin bedding, decor and flat-screen TVs; and new dining and bar venues, including the Tuscan Grille, Cellar Masters, Martini Bar and Bistro on Five.
Celebrity Infinity and Celebrity Summit will be similarly updated in 2011, followed by Celebrity Millennium in 2012. Wall believes it’s a smart investment, saying “that move has helped Celebrity manage and deliver on consumers’ expectations of [its] product.”
Beyond the Solstice and Millennium-class ships, which all launched in 2000 or later, Celebrity is also phasing out several Century-class vessels built in the mid-1990s. Celebrity Galaxy left the fleet last year and now sails for TUI Cruises, which serves the German market. Celebrity Mercury will leave Celebrity’s fleet in 2011, also to join TUI.
Another Century-class ship, Celebrity Century, received a pricey $55 million renovation in 2006. Public decor and cabins were updated, but most importantly, the line added 314 new balcony staterooms. Today, Celebrity Century has more suites than any other ship in the fleet. It operates short cruises—enticing many new cruisers to Celebrity. Those guests then often opt for one of the newer, larger vessels on a longer voyage.
Will Celebrity eventually send Celebrity Century to TUI? “Who knows?” says Hanrahan, suggesting that’s a conversation between TUI and Celebrity for a later date. “At this point, TUI Cruises has a lot to digest and we did make that big investment [to update the ship], so it’s more in line with the modern Celebrity than Galaxy and Mercury. So it fits a lot better, and there’s not a sense of urgency [for a change].”
Eye to the Future
Celebrity’s capacity will increase 43 percent between 2008 and 2013. Where will new clients come from?
Currently, a little over a third of Celebrity’s guests are repeaters. More than a third—in the high 30 percentile, says Hanrahan—are experienced cruisers but new to the Celebrity brand. And, about 25 percent are first-time cruisers. Celebrity is now focusing on analyzing what makes that first-time cruiser tick, what motivates these guests to book, and how Celebrity can uncover what Hanrahan calls “the secret sauce” to share with agents.
Celebrity’s average guest age is in the mid-50s, and boomers constitute a large chunk. Wall, though, sees opportunity for clientele expansion as Solstice’s design “appeals to a much more sophisticated and possibly a younger, more affluent passenger,” and he even sees the brand possibly capturing a new market of discerning contemporary cruisers.
Ensemble Travel Group members sell a lot of Celebrity voyages, mostly to seasoned cruisers who appreciate and can afford the finer things in life. Most are professionals or retired professionals. Mannix characterizes his group’s Celebrity clients as youthful, confident, accomplished, discerning—and not quite as sensitive to price as cruisers on some other lines.
Several years back, Princess Cruises, Holland America Line and Celebrity Cruises ruled the premium cruise segment, but now two major upper premium lines—Oceania Cruises and Celebrity’s sister line, Azamara Club Cruises—are also part of the premium mix, as are other lines. So what must Celebrity do to fend off competitive challenges moving forward?
According to Vacation.com’s Lovell, there are many amenity-laden ships out there, so Celebrity must continue to differentiate itself from the other premium players. “The best way to achieve that is to educate travel agents and encourage them to champion the product,” he says. “This is something Celebrity does very well.”
Because cruising is evolving so fast with groundbreaking “firsts,” cutting-edge ship designs and more inclusive itineraries, Anderson explains, “Celebrity, just as all cruise lines, is tasked with the challenge of staying at the forefront of ‘what’s new, what’s next’.”
Looking at 2010, “we’ve been very satisfied with the way this year has gone,” Hanrahan says. “We love what’s going on in Europe, we’re happier with what’s going on in Alaska” and he thanks agents for the line’s positive results in South America.
But also, he believes the line must continue to hammer away at the message that Celebrity is big in the Caribbean. “A high-end premium product offering in the Caribbean is different than [a sailing] on a mass market brand,” he says, noting that in winter 2011-12, Celebrity Silhouette will sail Caribbean voyages from New York.
Helping Agents Sell
To assist travel agents and customers understand the revitalized Celebrity Cruises, a 10-city “Designed for You” tour began in June. Fifty travel agents in each city as well as their best customers who are new to Celebrity have participated or will participate in brand essence and Celebrity Life training sessions.
Upcoming sessions are planned for August 11 in Los Angeles; August 18 in Chicago; August 25 in Toronto; and September 15 in Miami. Sessions have been completed in Charlotte, NC; Dallas; Los Angeles; northern California; and Vancouver.
In addition, Dondra Ritzenthaler, Celebrity’s senior vice president of sales, and her team have developed many other trade tools and training options. Celebrity’s Five Star Academy, an online travel certification program, offers rewards, recognition and an opportunity for agents to participate in Five Star Seminars at Sea.
More than 1,000 agents attended a Virtual Expo online earlier this year; while dates weren’t yet available at press time, Celebrity will conduct two more such expos this year—one each in the third and fourth quarters.
For its trade support, Celebrity was recently named Vacation.com’s “2010 Premium Cruise Partner of the Year.” Vacation.com’s Lovell says the line is one of its most engaged partners, using many Vacation.com services and programs—such as sponsoring regional trade meetings and offering generous co-op marketing dollars—to reach out to members.
CruiseOne franchise owner Blecker points to www.cruisingpower.com, the line’s dedicated trade site, as “an amazing tool with incredible depth,” allowing her to quickly send a quality eBrochure or eFlyer to a client with just the right tone and details. She says it’s also productive for such tasks as changing client dining times, cross-referencing bookings, redeeming coupons and managing groups.
Today, fresh from its new “Designed for You” branding and an infusion of new ship hardware, the mood at the line seems breezily confident. Celebrity’s consumer website beckons with this enticement: “Now Awaiting Your Every Desire Onboard.” For Nienkerk’s client, that was a promise kept.