Celestyal Extends Aegean Season, Hopes to Go Year-Round in the Med

Celestyal Crystal has returned to the Aegean Sea and eastern Mediterranean, after several years of operating Cuba cruises.

While agents may think of Celestyal Cruises as a small-ship Greek cruise company, and it is, the reality is that 40 percent of its business in the Aegean is North American sourced. “We have very strong global sourcing,” stresses Leslie Peden, Celestyal's president for North America, who joined the Greek line a few months ago and is based in Celestyal’s new Miami office.

Peden, with more than 30 years of experience in cruising, tour operations, air and rail travel, has served in senior management and executive roles for such companies as Royal Caribbean International, Celebrity Cruises, Virgin Holidays Cruises, and Island Cruises (now TUI).

Travel Agent chatted with both Peden and Gordon Dirker, Celestyal's vice president, business development, North America, also arriving at the small ship line earlier this year, about what’s new and what’s ahead for Celestyal.

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Extending Aegean Seasonality: Peden says the company’s ultimate objective is to “extend seasonality in the Aegean Sea: and to move toward year-round service in the Mediterranean." The line previously extended its 2018 Aegean cruise season by adding more three- and four-day short cruises in late October and November.

The late fall/early winter/early spring – when temperatures are more moderate – is a good time, the executives say, for customers interested in culture and heritage to explore the sites. So look for Celestyal to “push overall to become year-round,” Peden stressed, with the addition of more seven-day cruises as a good first step toward that goal.

While Mykonos and Santorini are essentially not conducive to winter visitation (with many shops and other businesses closed during an off-peak period), Peden said the line is evaluating the best other ports for visitors at that time of the year -- particularly archaeological sites that may be open.

Look for New Land Products:  Historically, Celestyal has created a popular niche for itself with the three- and four-night Aegean itineraries. Those appeal to consumers who wish to combine a land-based resort stay with a short cruise – creating a week-long vacation over two weekends, with travel time to the U.S. included.

On those short cruises, Celestyal typically visits two ports a day. “We’re port intensive and destination rich,” says Peden, noting that guests explore in the morning, then come back onboard for lunch and to enjoy the Aegean vistas.

Then they're recharged to get off the ship once again in a new destination for an afternoon or evening of exploring.

“That’s still going to be an important part of the business,” says Peden (shown in the photo above), noting that Celestyal is also planning on “introducing land products that will support three- and four-day sailings” to create an even more seamless seven-day vacation.

For the Aegean and eastern Mediterranean cruises, “we are the experts there, and we see a big opportunity in the U.S. market,” he emphasizes. 

More Seven-Day Cruise Itineraries: Celestyal is also expanding its seven-day cruise products, and agents can expect more of that, said the executives. The 960-passenger Celestyal Crystal, operating Cuba cruises the past few years (with 55 percent North American sourcing), has returned to the eastern Mediterranean to operate seven-night “Idyllic Aegean” itineraries roundtrip from Piraeus.

The itinerary includes overnight stays in both Mykonos and Santorini and every day in port, immersing guests in the islands visited, and their nightlife, too. “Guests get into it,” noted Peden. “Santorini is known for its sunsets.”

One interesting facet of this itinerary is that the voyage calls at Kusadasi for Ephesus, but while the line feels it’s safe and secure for guests to go ashore, it also offers a creative option for Americans who might prefer to stay on Greek soil.The ship calls at both the Greek isle of Samos and Kusadasi on the same day, so guests can simply choose which they prefer to visit. 

A Return to Istanbul: Celestyal hasn’t called at Istanbul since 2016, but “we feel so confident [about the situation in Turkey] that we will be relaunching another seven-night itinerary with an overnight stay in Istanbul,” said Peden.

That’s the line’s new “Eclectic Aegean” itinerary, with departures between October 21, 2019, and November 25, 2019, and in 2020, with departures between April 6 and May 11, and again from September 7 through late October. The ship will dock in Istanbul at 2:30 p.m. one day and leave at 8 p.m. the following day.

Sailing roundtrip from Athens, “Eclectic Aegean” also will call at another Turkish port, Canakkale, giving guests a chance to take excursions to Troy or Gallipoli.

During a Volos port call, also included on this itinerary, cruisers can head out on an excursion to mountains of Meteora. Other calls will be Santorini, Heraklion and Mykonos, where the vessel will stay until 2 a.m. so guests can enjoy the nightlife.

Cruising to Three Continents: With growing demand for seven-day eclectic itineraries, Celestyal also will begin another seven-day itinerary, “Three Continents,” with five sailings roundtrip from Piraeus (Athens) in late 2019 to the shores of Europe, Asia and Africa.

It also will be offered in 2020 with departures from March 2 through March 30 and November 2 through December 28. The vessel will sail to Ashdod, Israel (for both Jerusalem and Bethlehem), North Africa (both Alexandria and Port Said, Egypt) and will overnight in Istanbul.

Plus, there are additional calls at Limassol, Cyprus and Rhodes. 

One interesting hook? Peden and Dirker report that Celestyal gets a fair number of clients from multiple faiths who come for the region’s religious connections. More narrowly, some are interested in a “footsteps of St. Paul” approach to seeing the region. 

Suite Concierge Services Continues: One new onboard service that was added for suite guests sailing to Cuba was suite concierge services. After being tested in Cuba and proven successful via guest feedback, the concept is being introduced in the Aegean as well.

Peden said this new service will be available to all suite guests on all vessels starting with the Majesty's three- and four-night itineraries on March 30.  

A Broadening Demographic: Celestyal's offerings are increasingly attracting Millennials, but also appeal to more experienced, sophisticated travelers eager to broaden their horizons, the executives noted. In peak season, many families sail, while in the shoulder season, the line welcomes many students onboard.

One commonality? All tend to focus on “the destinations,” their history and culture, and the guests typically like to attend onboard lectures about the destinations.

Cuba in the Aegean: While the crew for Celestyal hails from 120 different nationalities, the officers are Greek. Interestingly, the line was so pleased with many crew members who worked the former Cuba sailings that many have stayed on, with Peden noting, “we have Cuban musicians that play in the Aegean.”

New Sales & Marketing Push: In addition to Peden and Dirker coming onboard at the executive level, Maria Moreau also recently joined the team as brand marketing and social media executive, based in Miami,

New sales team members? Roger Poulard has just joined Celestyal as business development manager based in the New York City area, while Kelly Predmesky is Celestyal's new business development manager, Southeast USA and the Caribbean.

It’s all part of a big push to expand Celestyal's reach with the U.S. trade. “We are honing in on the travel agent,” stresses Dirker, who arrived at Celestyal earlier this year after several years at Hurtigruten, and is continuing to recruit business development managers.

In addition, a travel agent booking portal on Celestyalcruises.com is designed to “make it easy to do business with us, with a seamless booking experience,” he noted. Most agents receive a base commission of 12 percent on gross fares, or have the opportunity to earn even more if there is a partner agreement in place. "They have easy access to our inventory using the system," said Dirker. 

Celestyal also has its own reservations contact center in North America, so “agents can speak to a reservations agent in their own time zone,” Dirker said. Agents can learn more about the new trade support tools and the line’s plans at a new series of road shows to be launched in fourth quarter 2018. .

Focusing on the Destination and Value: “For us, we want to remain true to what we are, a Greek destination specialist,” says Peden, who considers the product “a premium experience at a great value.” Fares include a drink package, excursions, port and service charges, gratuities and more.

Celestyal's approach is different than that of many other lines, says Peden: “For many other lines, the ship is the destination. For Celestyal, the destination is the hero… and we weave the DNA of each of the destinations through the onboard product.”

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