Exec Outlook: What's Next for Azamara at Pursuit's Christening

Azamara Pursuit Captain Carl Smith and Azamara Club Cruises President and CEO Larry Pimentel. // Photo by Susan J. Young

Fares for Azamara Club Cruises are 50 percent higher than they were in 2010 when Larry Pimentel, the line’s president and CEO, took the brand’s helm.  

Speaking to VIPs, media and trade partners onboard the brand’s third ship, the 30,277-grt Azamara Pursuit on Tuesday, Pimentel couldn’t contain his excitement at how well the luxury boutique brand is doing and what’s resonating with consumers and agents alike.

Acquired earlier this year from P&O (where it sailed as Adonia), the 702-passenger ship, with slightly more capacity than the line’s other two similarly sized vessels, Azamara Quest and Azamara Journey, was renovated and updated during a recent drydock at Harland & Wolff in Belfast, Northern Ireland. It received new spaces (see more on that below) plus soft goods refurbishment.

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The third ship increases the brand’s capacity by 50 percent. In addition, today, there are 22 percent more travel agents selling the product than there were just a year ago, said Pimentel. That’s because they have more product to sell – more berths and more unusual itineraries to far-flung places.

Pimentel spoke Tuesday at a press conference onboard the revitalized ship, while it was docked in Southampton, U.K., awaiting its late Tuesday christening.

Other press conference participants included Richard Fain, chairman and CEO, Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd.; Azamara Pursuit’s Captain Carl Smith; Carol Cabezas, Azamara’s chief operating officer; and Michael Pawlus, the line’s director of deployment and destinations. Here are some gleanings from that event.  

"An Amazing Moment"

Calling the launch of Azamara Pursuit, “an amazing moment in our history,” Pimentel spoke about what created the impetus for the acquisition of a third ship – the success of Destination Immersion, a term/concept for which Azamara has received a U.S. government trademark as it relates to the concept of cruising.

Today, Azamara’s voyages feature late nights in port, AzAmazing Evenings, and overnights in port, in addition to a growing number of country intensive voyages. The line has gained new customers as “we just stayed longer and did night touring, when lines were not doing night touring,” Pimentel told the reporters.

“The whole point was connecting the guests to the local culture,” he said. “And that’s how this brand really got a distinguishing factor that allowed the agency community to fill her up and to do exceptionally well.”

Pimentel also found it intriguing that Azamara is now seeing 21-to-23 percent of its guests as first-timers – new to cruise. “They’re really coming to us… because of the country intensive [programming],” he stressed. “We’re getting a lot of land based clients because we’re circumnavigating Japan or we’re doing the same in New Zealand.”

Pimentel noted that Pawlus handles “a pretty complex deployment,” for the next couple of years to more than 100 countries. The new ship has allowed an expansion of deployment by 40 percent.

This year, the ship will sail in Europe and then head to South America, a maiden region for Azamara. The vessel will sail along both the eastern and western coasts of that continent.

Trend? Pimentel said “we will be connecting with various operators for land extensions.” For example, in 2020, Azamara Pursuit will sail to South Africa and offer extensions with Micato Safaris. “There will be five days where our guests will go inland and actually go on safaris,” Pimentel said.

“Once you go to Africa it doesn’t leave you,” he continued. “It’s a very special place. And our notion is [to] expose guests to cultures, expose guests to travel that allows people to connect. It is the harmony between people that makes travel special. And I feel like we have created a brand with a purpose.”

Pawlus said the line will offer 10-day roundtrips out of Cape Town, going to such ports as East London, Durban, Richards Bay and Port Elizabeth. Guests will see the coast in different ways, plus they can enjoy a safari.

Pimentel said the 2020 Africa voyages are almost 50 percent sold out, and he believes they absolutely will sell out and so will the Micato safaris offered pre- and post-cruise.

“In 2020, we’re going to have about 40 country intensive voyages,” Pawlus stressed. Among the new options? The line plans a Circle Ireland as well as a Scotland intensive voyage, and Azamara Journey will sail to French Polynesia and Hawaii.

The brands within the RCCL portfolio go to 300 ports a year. That said, 200 of those are not ports used by either Royal Caribbean International or Celebrity Cruises. “So it just shows the breadth of the destinations we go to,” Pawlus said.

Pimentel chimed in to say that next year about 66 percent of Azamara’s deployments will be to destinations that its sister brands don’t visit.

Drydock Update

Executives said that the Azamara Pursuit drydock was a passion for everyone involved in that project, and that it shows in the ship’s look. “I think as you walk around and look at the fittings, they are very, very well done,” Pimentel emphasized. “The staterooms look extraordinary.”

Azamara added a number of staterooms and suites, so the ship now has 351 staterooms/suites. “We’ve added a lot more suites because that category is what sells first,” he said. These include new Continental Suites and more Spa Suites than on the other ships.

As for décor, Cabezas says that “we tried to maintain some amount of consistency with the sister ships, Azamara Journey and Azamara Quest. There is a similar look and feel.” That said, she said “we always try to be better,” perhaps shifting the color or design of a particular fabric, for example.  

It’s a new life for a ship that’s carried guests under many brand banners. In addition to sailing as P&O’s AdoniaAzamara Pursuit also previously sailed for Fathom, for Swan-Hellenic as Minerva II and for the former Renaissance Cruises as R-Eight. It was also laid up at a Marseille shipyard for a few years in the early 2000's, after Renaissance ceased operations.

“I have to say that if you walk into it you have no clue you are in a ship that was constructed in 2000,” said Pimentel. “It looks as though it’s brand new and the reason is that it feels brand new, it smells brand new and many of the units are indeed [new].”

The line took its time for the refit, because “we received the ship so fast that what I didn’t want to do in the marketplace was put an empty ship there and have to discount it,” Pimentel said. “We have very excellent rates on the ship and I actually wanted to hold that.”

First, the line accepted delivery in the Bahamas, where it changed the registry, handled statutory requirements and, according to Smith, painted the outside. Then the ship headed to Belfast for the major interior work.

Typically it takes six days to sail transatlantic when guests are onboard, but to save fuel, the voyage took two weeks. Then the serious work began. Certain finishings had to be shipped in, Smith said, noting that they were “being built on location in the north of Ireland.”

Typically with sister brands Royal Caribbean International and Celebrity Cruises, dedicated employee groups go from drydock to drydock, but Azamara doesn’t have that. But by pulling people who don’t normally do drydocks “that gave an extra sense of ownership, because this crew now owns delivering the experience of the ship that they helped bring together,” Cabezas said.

Crews handled protection of flooring (even though all carpets throughout the ship were replaced), as well as fire protection, safety training and so on. “We opened the specialty restaurants for the crew, which was a nice way to [train the galley staff], Smith noted. “It was a wonderful morale building experience.”

Fain stressed that the shipbuilding personnel from Belfast really took pride in their work, and “to have the level of cooperation [received] was really remarkable. I think it shows as you go around the vessel.”

New Spaces, No Casino

Yes, the line added more accommodations. In fact the Continental Suites did not exist with the previous ship owner. “So we literally took X number of staterooms and turned them into these suites,” said Pimentel.

It also repurposed part of the guest relations area, which previously had both shore excursions and future cruise sales. “We created a new area called The Den,” said Pimentel, acknowledging that for a few folks, it was a bit controversial.

Why? “We removed the casino,” he said, but added that with a small ship that’s in port all the time, it’s a casino that simply can’t be open as often. Plus, it required 12  crew members. But the main reason was to free up space, “so this ship does indeed have more cabins and staterooms and suites [than the other ships],” he said.

The line also put a piano in The Den, and now offers light music there. “Actually the guest response to it is fantastic,” Pimentel noted. He said that, while a few people would have preferred a slot machine or two, it’s not the essence of the brand.

Looking Ahead

Executives were asked about Azamara being part of the same portfolio now as ultra-luxury Silversea Cruises, which RCCL announced it was acquiring a majority stake in earlier in this year. Both Manfredi Lefebvre, Silversea’s chairman, and Roberto Martinoli, the line’s president and CEO, attended the naming ceremony at Southampton.

“We have a new sister in Silversea Cruises joining the company, which we’re delighted about,” said Pimentel. “They obviously have smaller ships and wonderful ice-class ships, so I think the portfolio is quite fantastic.” Executives stressed that the two brands are different, with their own personalities.

“What has really made us great is a great industry,” Pimentel stressed, citing fantastic competitors and cruise lines working hard to differentiate themselves in the marketplace: “We’ve just tried to differentiate ourselves. We’ve tried to look at what could our claim be? How could we be unique? What position could we fill?"

Pimentel’s philosophy?: “That’s what we’re constantly focusing on. Richard kids me but I keep talking about Destination Immersion. I’m emphatic with our staff. Are we doing that? Let’s own that thing as much we can as we have strong tough competitors. The good news is that there is enough business for all of us."

While the Azamara ships have been heavily waitlisted, where is the growth -- with a third ship now in the portfolio -- coming from? “In the U.K., when I walked into the business [joining the line in 2007], we were about 11 or 12 percent of Azamara’s business," said Pimentel. "We’re now at 25 percent. So it’s a huge growth in this very local market.”

Travel Agent then asked about the overall mix internationally. How big a role does North America play, for example? Cabezas responded that historically Azamara has been a predominantly North American market – typically around 60 percent or so.

The U.K. market comprises about 25 percent, and the Australian market 10 percent to 15 percent, and the balance is coming from elsewhere in the world.

“One thing that I would call out as unique is that with the launch of Azamara Pursuit, the mix is skewed a bit more toward UK guests,” she said. “At one point during the booking cycle, they represented about half of the guests just because there was such sentiment that Pursuit is [in its past life, at least sailing for P&O and Swan Hellenic], essentially a British ship.”

“We’re happy to welcome them and we’ll see how the trends continue to move,” she said. 

Azamara is also seeking to bring in new destination-focused guests by adding a new Rail & Sail program – putting trains together with ships. So, the line will use Belmond’s Orient Express, Rocky Mountaineer or other trains. It is also connecting with Cox & Kings to put together pre- and post-cruise programming, said Pimentel.

In addition, there will be specialty programming, such as with Perry Golf. The golfers coming onboard typically come for the golf, have never been on a cruise ship and book only suites. But once they get onboard, Pimentel says they love it and “they’re repeaters almost instantly.”  

A New Chapter

Of the original eight R-class ships, Azamara now has three, while Oceania Cruises sails with four. Princess Cruises operates one R ship, which sails as Pacific Princess.

One reporter asked Pimentel about that one ship? Will Azamara get it at some point? “There has to be a seller to begin with,” responded Pimentel. “I’m not sure they are interested in selling the ship. It’s a very interesting and successful class of ship. They’re small. They can do intimate things around the world, and I see them having perhaps a lot longer life than people originally thought.”

Ships aside, both Pimentel and Fain gave shout-outs to the crew members. Pimentel said: “They’re the heartbeat. They deliver the brand. It’s where the rubber hits the road.”

Describing the Azamara brand story as “the little line that could,” similar to the 1930s book, “The Little Engine That Could,” he says that line is at a very healthy place right now as a brand, and that feels good.

“I can tell you our tariffs have doubled,” Pimentel said. “I can say that the guest satisfaction is high. I can tell you the ships are full. And as I said earlier, I believe it to be that, because we have a brand with purpose…So I think we’re at an interesting point.” 

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