Travel Agent recently toured the new downtown Fort Lauderdale, FL, headquarters of Atlas Ocean Voyages, a new U.S.-based, small-ship, oceangoing cruise brand targeted at North American consumers. The brand is expected to release inaugural season schedules and details later this week.
Here’s a look at what’s planned from our interview with Alberto Aliberti, Atlas’ new president, and Brandon Townsley, vice president of sales and trade relations.
This new cruise brand, a subsidiary of Mystic Invest Holdings, will launch its first ship, the new 196-passenger (98-cabin) World Navigator in mid-2021. The vessel is under construction at Portugal’s WestSea Viana shipyard, and a second vessel for the North American market is also planned.
Mystic recently received a significant investment by Certares; while the company hasn't officially stated the amount, it’s estimated to be in the $250 million-plus range, according to multiple trade sources.
In addition to its new U.S. subsidiary, Atlas, Mystic also has a Germany-based cruise subsidiary, Nikko, and is building ships for that brand for German-speaking travelers. World Explorer just launched and World Voyager will set sail in 2020.
Mystic Invest Holdings has significant maritime, hospitality and travel operations and cruise experience within the European market. Mystic currently owns and operates the third-largest global river cruise fleet (with vessels that sail under the branding of major global river cruise lines).
When the line’s 2021 inaugural summer season schedules are released on New Year’s Day, agents can expect itineraries focused on the Black Sea, eastern Mediterranean, Greek Isles and the Holy Land. After that season, World Navigator will sail to Brazil and Antarctica.
Because World Navigator is only 9,300 tons and ice class-rated, Townsley says it will venture into highly remote spots, those nooks and crannies of the globe that the big ships can’t visit -- and even many places other small ship lines can’t.
Townsley's perspective? “They say, ‘we go where the larger ships can’t.’ Well, we say 'we go where those ships can’t.'” Each Atlas vessel will carry a fleet of 18 Zodiacs (60 hp), which have expanded gas tanks for greater range.
In summer 2021, though, World Navigator will spend its inaugural season in a warmer region, the Mediterranean, with a hefty emphasis on the eastern area. The 11-night inaugural voyage is July 17, 2021, from Valletta, Malta, to Athens (Piraeus), Greece.
Inaugural sailing guests will visit such ports as Zakynthos, Olympia (Katakolon), Elafonisos, Chania, Sitia, Lindos (Rhodes) and Mykonos/Delos, Greece, as well as Noto (Syracuse), Italy; and Ephesus (Kusadasi), Turkey.
The vessel will then sail to Istanbul for Black Sea exploration, calling at Turkish and Bulgarian ports and spending a double overnight in Odessa, Ukraine. From Odessa, guests can opt for an overnight Moscow program.
Alternatively, those with a real sense of adventure can head out on a tour to Chernobyl, site of the 1986 nuclear accident; thousands of residents in surrounding areas were permanently evacuated and today the area is deserted with an eerie ghost-town feel.
After the Black Sea, agents can expect World Navigator to head back down the Bosphorus Strait to several Turkish ports in the Mediterranean and on to the Middle East, including Haifa and Ashdod, Israel.
When visiting Israel, the line expects many guests will want to see the highlights of the country, but the line will also offer a quick overnight to Petra, Jordan, “glamping” in the Israeli desert and a stay in a traditional kibbutz.
Some Holy Land regional voyages will also include Alexandria, Egypt, but those that don't will offer guests the option of a land trip to Cairo, Egypt, so they can visit the Pyramids of Giza or other sites.
Then the World Navigator will sail across the Atlantic Ocean from Lisbon to Rio de Janeiro and on to Montevideo, Uruguay.
Shown L to R above are Brandon Townsley, vice president, sales and trade relations, and Alberto Aliberti, president, Atlas Ocean Voyages, at the line's headquarters in Fort Lauderdale, FL.
Building a Brand
As Atlas’ new president, Aliberti has much experience. He previously headed up Mystic Invest’s strategic development and commercial operations and its subsidiary river cruise company DouroAzul. A graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, he also brings management experience from posts at Seabourn and Cunard.
The affable Aliberti also understands the guest services component of cruise brand delivery. He worked for many years on ships at sea, and 27 years ago, he began his career as a receptionist on the former Sun Lines' Stella Solaris.
While Atlas’ first two ships will be luxurious and destination-focused, Aliberti says the brand must “find an edge that no one else has…because there’s no point to coming here and trying to go head to head with Silversea or SeaDream or go head to head with Scenic or Ponant -- because ‘why slice the pie?’”
The result? Look for Atlas to focus heavily on luxury onboard and the destination ashore, but that will also be coupled with a bit edgier vision of adventure. “We’re going to get a little more intense on our land experiences,” says Aliberti.
Yes, he stresses, “there will be experiences ashore for all, bread-and-butter-type experiences and marquee experiences. But, from north Italy, for example, yes, people may go to Rome, but we’re also offering body surfing on a water board in a gorge. Imagine a water park -- but imagine it ‘naturally through a gorge.’”
The best way to describe it, Aliberti says, is that “it gets people who are comfortable in their skin and comfortable in their lifestyle to kind of take a step to get their heart racing a little bit.” The Chernobyl excursion is another example of that edgy approach.
Aliberti stresses: “Is that all that’s going to be offered? No. But we are going to go for a person who wants to step out just a little bit.”
So, the new brand is targeting both travelers eager for the adventure and others who’ve “been there, done that” but still love to explore new places and have new experiences. Agents will learn about the brand from experienced trade sales executives.
A Cruise Throwback
Both Aliberti and Townsley told Travel Agent that also setting the line apart will be a "sense of onboard community."
“We took an educated look around, we took an anecdotal look around, we went with our ‘gut’ [perspective] and we realized that the market that’s not being serviced is the throwback to when we were onboard … when people went on a ship for the other people and the destinations,” notes Aliberti.
As for today’s big ships with all their bells and whistles, “God bless them, I love all the big ships,” he says, thanking that segment of the market for bringing new folks into cruising.
But he equates his line to that silk shirt that people had in their closet hoping it would come back in style one day. “Well, we’re that silk shirt,” he says. The big ships have paved the way, he believes, for people to seek out that more in-depth, more personal experience.
Now, he says Atlas will seek out that suite guest who wants to be on a ship with only 100 cabins or so -- people who like having their own cocktail party with fellow guests. “It’s the same people who could spend all night in a café, chatting and solving the world’s problems,” Aliberti says,
The onboard aura, he says, is going to be akin to going to a school reunion, getting together with old friends, having a night of fun and so on – a very convivial aura with like-minded people who love to converse, trade tales and socialize.
“The next day when you walk away from a reunion, you say, ‘yeah, that felt really good," Aliberti stresses. "I felt young again. I felt happier.”
That’s how he hopes guests will feel on his cruise line – "energized and feeling as though the other people onboard have really pumped up the experience."
Townsley also adds that crew members will provide highly engaging service. So when serving a drink, they might ask guests “How was your day?” or “Where are you dining tonight?" and then make a recommendation on a particular dish to order.
“It has a lot to do with the crew we hire and how we train them to offer engaging service rather than formal service,” says Townsley. That also helps build that sense of onboard community and camaraderie, he believes.
One other differentiator? While the line is seeking edge-focused adventurers, it also is looking to build a guest base of armchair adventurers, the voyeurs, too.
“We want the people who like the idea of the adventure and they like to watch,” so those travelers might not have actually done the activity but can’t wait to hear all about it from those who did …”and they feel they were a part of it,” says Aliberti.
Townsley, who previously worked at Virgin Voyages, Norwegian Cruise Line, MSC Cruises and Royal Caribbean International, believes a population within the current cruise marketplace is underserved.
“They like to cruise, they’ve done a great job [in that vacation style] and now they’re experienced cruisers but now they’re looking to narrow down their experiences and they’re being a little more particular and fussy about what they want,” says Townsley.
He sees these people as explorers, destination-lovers and active adventurers, and not so much concerned with buffets and gambling and formal nights and drink packages. “They’re looking for those Instagrammable moments and experiences to check off a bucket list."
And the line is also looking at attracting new-to-cruise guests, too, perhaps those who think today’s ships are too big with too many people, and that those big-ship itineraries go to the same old destinations.
So, moving forward, Atlas will focus on the destination experience and the ship as the means to do that. What can guests expect onboard? While Travel Agent will get into more detail on that in a second story later this week, in general, Townsley says “they’re still going to have a really nice stateroom, an upmarket experience, great food, and most importantly, that sense of community.”
Giving a personal example, Aliberti lives close to the beach, but he’s only been on the beach twice in the last year. Similarly, a cruiser might not want to go out and sleep in the desert tonight but likes being around those who do that, hearing about it once the adventurers return and feeling a part of that experience.
For more on the new Atlas cruise line and its approach to the marketplace, stay tuned for Part 2 this week. For more information, visit www.atlasoceanvoyages.com