When Azamara Club Cruises (www.cruisingpower.com) debuted a few years ago, it termed its product as "up-market" but increasingly customers are seeing included features for the brand that, in the past, have been typically considered perks of a luxury product.
In the latest evolutionary step, Azamara today introduced two major product enhancements - one focused on further developing the night-time destination experience, another targeted at broadening the number of complimentary onboard libations.
Starting with Azamara Quest and Azamara Journey’s next European season, which begins March 27 and May 15, 2013 for the two ships, respectively, the line will add a new “AzAmazing Evening,” a complimentary immersive destination shore event – one such event per voyage.
Those types of private shore events have long been included in luxury line World Cruise itineraries, for example, although not always at night.
Based on a process that began earlier this year in discussions with tour operators and local tourism entities, the line will offer more than 52 such exclusive night-time events during 2013.
"It's all about getting the right deployments, getting right venues, getting operators to think differently - to think off the shelf," stresses Larry Pimentel, president and CEO of Azamara Club Cruises, who tells event planners and tour operators interested in participating that if the product is already standard fare in a destination, the line just isn't interested.
He also stresses that the new evening programs are not anything that one can purchase from an online Web site.
These new night-time events will unfold when the line's two ships call at such cities as Livorno, Italy; Kusadasi, Turkey; St. Petersburg, Russia; Sorrento, Italy; Haifa, Israel; Gibraltor and dozens of other ports across the globe.
For 2013, all of the upper premium line’s cruise itineraries will feature late-night departures and overnight port stays, some as long as two or three days. The concept slows the ships down to allow guests to experience a city’s night life.
Experiential and Exclusive
During the new events, all interested guests will be transported via private motorcoaches to a special destination experience. Guests sailing a Baltic voyage, for example, might enjoy a private ballet performance in St. Petersburg, Russia, while walking the red carpet and sipping champagne.
Or, those on a Mediterranean voyage may find themselves sampling Jerez, Spain’s, famous sherry wine at and later enjoying a private equestrian ballet at the Royal Andalusian School of Equestrian Art.
The process to create the various events began in April, when an internal team led by Emilio Freeman, Azamara's destination and land discovery architect, as well as Peter Cox and Carol Goodman, looked for extreme creativity and lots of fun in planning programs that are, in Freeman's words, entirely an "EDE" (exclusive destination event).
The AzAmazing events are designed to provide an authentic local experience and, most importantly, all at night, according to Pimentel and Edie Bornstein, the line's senior vice president. "We are one of the few brands globally that does night touring," Pimentel says.
Officials say they will offer the exclusive events near the beginning of each voyage as that creates a halo effect for other touring opportunities. The line will continue to offer its normal line-up of daytime and evening shore trips. The exclusive event is in addition to those choices.
Field Testing of Events
Azamara trialed the night-time event concept in September 2012 on one Seville, Spain port call, and then also in Livorno. On the Livorno option, the line suggested guests sleep in the day of the event, enjoy a leisurely brunch on the ship and then head out for the program in early afternoon.
At about 2 p.m., motorcoaches headed out for two Verrazano castles in the Tuscan region. Along the way, the coach stopped to allow guests to visit a leather factory, where guests who so desired could be measured for leather shoes, choosing their tanning and color options. Because the ship was in port for two days, the unique personalized souvenir they purchased could be delivered later to the ship prior to its departure.
In addition, the coaches stopped at a handbag factory and a basalmic vinegar factory, before dropping guests at their castle destination around sunset. Half the guests went to one castle, half the other.
Normally, the castles are not open after dark. Azamara guests had the castles to themselves, as a historian talked about how Michelangelo carved his famous "David" sculpture in one room.
The evening's festivities also featured a performance by The Three Tenors from the Florence Opera House. "It was a spectacular with guests on their feet," says Pimentel, noting that it was "a very unique experience that they couldn't purchase anywhere else in the world."
He described it as "more along the kind of incentive event that you would see with those types of groups...Guest response was fabulous."
Clients who have already booked for spring 2013 and beyond will be notified digitally about the experience, exactly which port the night-time event will be offered in, and what pre-booking steps are required.
It's a unique process, says Pimentel, and the line will require sign-up for all guests who wish to participate; the line needs those exact numbers to make arrangements for coaches and ensure the events go off as planned.
Pimentel, who previously served as an executive at both Seabourn Cruise Line and SeaDream Yacht Club, acknowledged there are "some similarities" between the new night-time destination event program and a program he created at Seabourn several decades ago but "the extensiveness of this program and its concentration on localization makes it uniquely different."
It's more a people-to-people type of approach.
There is one downside, possibly. As Azamara introduces the AzAmazing Evening program, it will, in turn, discontinue the 50-percent savings off Land Discovery shore excursions programs.
Guests sailing and pre-booking Land Discoveries before March 2, 2013 for Azamara Quest or before April 17, 2013 for Azamara Journey can still save 50 percent on most Land Discoveries when booking online at least four days prior to their sailing date.
But Freeman says guest feedback shows that eliminating Land Discoveries savings, which benefitted only certain guests, is more than outweighed by the addition of the new AzAmazing events, which are garnering top ratings by guests and will be beneficial to every guest on every cruise.
New Libations Policy
Also new for the start of the European season in 2013, Azamara plans to introduce a selection of complimentary standard spirits, wines and international beers during operating hours for the onboard bars and lounges.
Bornstein noted that essentially, it's more an open bar concept.
Today, the line serves boutique wines at lunch and dinner. The change will give guests more choices throughout the day.
Since Pimentel took over at the helm of Azamara several years ago, the product has evolved significantly. Major inclusions were added in 2010, and the destination immersion concept has been greatly strengthened over the years.
As a result, "we have begun to get some traction as a brand, not only in the United States and North America, but traction globally..." he says.
The line now attracts a sizable number of Australians, British, Brazilian and Nordic country cruisers. In fact, nearly 50 percent of Azamara's guests are internationally sourced with just a little over 50 percent of guests from the U.S.
As the product becomes more inclusive, Bornstein believes its value has even more appeal: "It's a key issue that we see resonating."
More inclusions in the fare could conceivably help bolster fares, Pimentel acknowledges. But he says that too is evolving. Across the industry, most fares for 2012 were still below what they were several years ago.
Both Azamara ships are set for dry-dock refurbishments and updates this winter - Azamara Quest in Spain during November, and Azamara Journey in Singapore during January.
As for the question about whether Azamara has become a luxury line, "I've gotten confused about what luxury means," Pimentel says, citing the example of a $20,000 a week Loft Suite on Royal Caribbean International. "The word 'luxury' has been overused and abused, so I prefer upmarket."
But he says that clearly the line's own research shows that, if customers come to Azamara from another cruise line, they come from Regent Seven Seas, Oceania Cruise, Silversea Cruises, Crystal Cruises and Seabourn Cruise Line.
"But the critical point is that most of our guests aren't coming from any of those," he says. "Most are coming from boutique hotels." Many have never been on a ship, and Pimentel says the overnights in port, the longer stays in port and night-time forays ashore are one reason these new types of guests are opting for a cruise.
Just recently, Pimentel has been tapped by Richard Fain, chairman and CEO, Royal Caribbean Cruises Inc., Azamara's parent company, to expand his involvement on the destination side.
He will take over the leadership responsibility globally for the destination-side and shore excursion planning for Celebrity Cruises and Royal Caribbean International, not just for Azamara.
While he will continue to serve as Azamara's president and CEO, he will become the chief destination experience officer for the corporation as a whole, in charge of what he describes as "a rather large workforce."
As for Azamara, Pimentel acknowledges he is "exceedingly satisfied" with everything going on at Azamara, and particularly with the new line-up of evening events planned. And "I'm very picky," he added.