Azamara Leadership Shift: Chairman Talks New CEO, Ritzenthaler

Back in 2022, Dondra Ritzenthaler —wearing an aviator's flight suit à la “Top Gun: Maverick”—energetically took to Celebrity Apex’s theater stage to address travel advisors attending the Dream Vacations and CruiseOne national conference. At the time, she was Celebrity’s senior vice president of sales, trade support and service, and delivered a razzle-dazzle, motivational talk designed to keep the advisors flying high in business and life. Bottom line? "Don’t be normal, be 'Top Gun.'"  

Appointed this month as Azamara’s new CEO, starting in May 2024, Ritzenthaler will likely ratchet up Azamara’s public persona, say advisors. Their hope is that she can both lead the already-strong Azamara team and enhance the brand's presence from the very top.

So, Travel Agent recently spoke to Dan Hanrahan, Azamara’s chair, who will manage Azamara's day-to-day operations and support the internal team until Ritzenthaler starts work next spring. Why so many months before she starts? Ritzenthaler retired from Celebrity Cruises in April 2023, and she has a non-compete clause that expires next spring. 

Hanrahan believes that Azamara has a strong product, delivers solid destination immersion for guests and also has a very good internal management team, which includes Scott Daniels, the experienced head of hotel operations. Now, with a fleet of four intimate sister ships, it also has the "reach" to create diverse global itineraries. 

But the brand is at a crossroads. Carol Cabezas, who’d worked at Azamara since 2017, most recently as its president, has left the company. So, with the leadership change, we asked both Hanrahan and a few advisors what they'd like to see from Ritzenthaler and what she can bring to the brand. 

Advisor Perspective

From one Dream Vacations' franchise owner's perspective, "Dondra moving over to Azamara will bring attention to a unique brand that we love that many advisors might have not sold before or haven't sold recently," says Shane Smartt of Trapper Martin, Shane Smartt & Associates. "Her energy and passion for travel advisors is palpable, and we're looking forward to seeing how she elevates an already great brand."

Another advisor confidentially told us that he can't quite put his hands around the Azamara brand and where it fits within the cruise industry’s diverse mix of vacation options. So, can Ritzenthaler enhance that differentiation? Certainly, she brings strong travel industry experience to her new role, including 20 years with American Airlines and 20 years with Celebrity Cruises.

While believing strongly in the product, Hanrahan, the former president and CEO of Celebrity, acknowledges that, at times, it can “fly under the radar.” Ritzenthaler’s arrival will likely help in that regard. Hanrahan describes her as “super smart” and a “force of nature.” 

Michelle Fee, CEO and founder, Cruise Planners, tells Travel Agent this: "When Dondra assumes her role as CEO at Azamara, her impact will definitely be felt, because when Dondra walks into a room everyone knows it!" 

Dondra Ritzenthaler at the 2022 Dream Vacations and CruiseOne conference told advisors that "Everything we share will help you BE THE MAVERICK!"
In 2022, Dondra Ritzenthaler energetically mimicked the aura of "Top Gun: Maverick" to motivate and energize the crowd at the Dream Vacations and CruiseOne national conference. (Photo by Reeves Watson Photography, courtesy of Dream Vacations and CruiseOne)

New Product Offerings

The past few years, Azamara has been expanding and adding new product features. Recently it's unveiled a new, creative Work and Wander” program for people who can work remotely. Hanrahan calls it “an opportunity to work and see the world.” The line also has developed a series of country-immersive itineraries that appeal to consumers seeking a “deeper dive” into a culture. New this week, the brand announced a partnership with National Geographic for some new destination day tours.

In terms of itinerary development, one Azamara highlight is the recently announced 155-night “2026 World Cruise” on Azamara Onward. That itinerary will visit 35 countries, offer 60 late nights and overnight in ports, and treat guests to 10 "AzAmazing" events.

Product and Presence

So, are any significant product changes coming or needed? “I don’t see the product changing" in a major way, Hanrahan tells us, adding that Daniels does "an amazing job" and "I think Scott and Dondra will be terrific partners. We’re really happy with the product.” The priority is for Ritzenthaler to dig into her new role next spring, spend time getting to know the team, listen to their input, talk with advisors and guests, and then, ultimately, to make tweaks and be what he calls "impactful." 

Many advisors love Ritzenthaler's talent, energy, enthusiasm and creativity. “Dondra will bring it all to life in a very big way,” Hanrahan agrees, noting that he can’t wait to see her take a good brand and ratchet it up even further to make it great. “There is no better person to put Azamara on the map."

Currently, the upscale line's fleet includes four sister ships, with its most recent acquisition, Azamara Onward, arriving in 2022. Does the upmarket line see any fleet growth in its future? “Yes, we’d love to be able to grow the business,” says Hanrahan, but he indicates that the priority right now is focused on getting Ritzenthaler in the door in May 2024. 

As for the months yet before she arrives at Azamara, Hanrahan will handle the day-to-day leadership and team support. Given his background, he’s certainly up to the task. But he also quips: “May can’t come soon enough.”

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