Inside Bahama Paradise's New Ship

Not all clients are eager to book a typical short cruise of three or four nights. Some are skeptical cruisers who'd only go "to try it out" if the cruise were a bit shorter. Others can't afford a typical three- or four-night cruise fare. Others would prefer to use a cruise as transport to reach a beach destination, and some clients are entrepreneurs eager for a cruise but unable to leave their business back home for long. Others simply want a short cruise getaway.

So what's new from Florida this week to pique the interest of these types of clients?

A Second Ship

Last Friday, Bahamas Paradise Cruise Line, which operates two-night cruises from the Port of Palm Beach, FL, to Grand Bahama Island on the 1,900-passenger Grand Celebration, introduced its second, larger ship, the 1,680-passenger Grand Classica, the former Costa neoClassica. 

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In a ceremony in the newly acquired ship's theater, cruise line officials, government leaders from the Bahamas and Palm Beach County, FL, and executives from the Port of Palm Beach celebrated the launch of the second, 52,926-grt vessel -- which now doubles the short cruise line's capacity. 

For consumers, the addition of the second vessel means more frequency in the line's sailing schedule, and thus more flexibility for consumers on their departure day. Together, the two ships provide "daily service' on alternating days. 

Ceremony Onboard

Describing the vessel as "our Italian beauty," Kevin Sheehan Jr., the line's president, said the occasion was "a magical moment for us." Melissa McKinlay, Palm Beach County's mayor, acknowledged she was on a cruise ship for the first time but was pleased to declare Friday, April 13, as "MV Grand Classica Day."

Among many other officials speaking during the program were J. Kwasi Thompson, minister of state for Grand Bahama, and Manuel Almira, executive director of the Port of Palm Beach.

A predecessor company had operated a similar type of short cruise line for a number of years from the port, but new ownership --  the family of Kevin Sheehan Sr., former president and CEO of Norwegian Cruise Line -- arrived in 2016, bringing both investment capital and new management.

The president of the line is Kevin Sheehan Jr., an experienced finance and investment banking executive, while Oneil Khosa, the line's CEO, who also spoke at the Friday ceremony, previously was at Blue Ocean Cruises and brings operational and maritime experience. 

David Sprechman, a former Norwegian executive, is the line's chief financial officer, while Maria Miller, another former NCL executive, is its chief marketing officer.

To handle the increased capacity, Sheehan Jr. told Travel Agent that the line's employee count at its Palm Beach County headquarters will rise from 90 to 120 this year.

Updated Ship

Travel Agent was onboard the ship, which has 10 passenger decks, on Friday as it sailed to Grand Bahama on a "shake-down" cruise. Photos of some of the public spaces, as well as shots of a stateroom and a suite, are shown in the slideshow above. A complete review is planned for the June issue of Travel Agent magazine. 

Overall, Travel Agent thought the "hardware," the ship itself, looked fresh. Some updates were completed by Costa Cruises prior to the ship's transfer to Bahamas Paradise, but it's also important to note that as the former Costa neoClassica, the ship had been totally redesigned and refreshed by Costa in late 2014. 

In particular, we liked the "big ship feel" of the open, spacious Encore Lounge, as well as the Yellow Elder (named for a Bahamian flower), the main dining room, which had a lovely look and elegant place settings. 

Those kinds of spaces were a definite "step up" from what's typical on a two-night product. That said, we felt the Ocean View buffet restaurant, painted green inside, was a bit confining and "cut up" in design. Yet, just behind is the Rock Bar & Grill's space, which has glass doors that can be opened to a nice outer deck with tables and chairs.

Several new experiences have been added by the new ownership. One is A Slice Above, the new pizzeria. Another new space is that aft Rock Bar & Grill, which gets our "thumbs up" for its new alternative evening dining experience.

For an additional $28 (without drinks) per person, the guest chooses an appetizer and then their personal choice of raw beef, chicken or seafood, which waiters then carefully place in front of the guest on a searing, 1200 degree plate-sized slab.

Guests turn the food until it's cooked to their perfection. Yummy sauces and sides are also provided, plus clients receive a choice of dessert.

Accommodations  

Interior staterooms are 172 square feet, outside staterooms are about 181 square feet and the line has several suites on Deck 11 with private balconies; one we toured (with photos in the slide show above) had a separate living and bedroom area. 

In addition, the line is in the process of creating two junior suites on a lower deck, the hotel director said. 

Our stateroom, #7127, was pleasant and comfortable. It offered such features as a mini-refrigerator, two chairs and a table, a separate make-up table and stool, closet and drawer space that was more than adequate, an in-room safe, flatscreen TV with multiple channels, and a bathroom with sink, toilet and shower. 

A few public space tidbits? The ship's decks have been renamed for islands of the Bahamas, such as Abaco or Treasure.

The main pool was in use constantly, with plenty of loungers and clam shell loungers available. While on this first cruise, the adult Oasis pool wasn't filled with water (but it was the morning of the second cruise's departure); that aft space had great sea views, a quiet aura and two whirlpools. 

For the most stunning sea views, cruisers can head for the newly named Crow's Nest Sports Bar & Grill, the highest point on the ship on Deck 14. This large semi-circular lounge, which already has a pool table, is being enhanced in the next few weeks as the line adds more features to turn it into a sports bar. 

The ship also has a large tiered theater, spacious casino, other lounges, a spa, exercise facility, outdoor jogging track, shops, a photo gallery, kids' clubs, chapel, conference facility, medical center and more. 

Service With a Smile

Our sailing was a "shake-down" cruise -- typically a chance for crew and officers to get their feet wet, so to speak, in delivering a product to guests and becoming familiar with operational processes. Typically those on a shake-down cruise don't expect perfection. 

And considering that many crew members boarded Grand Classica for the first time on the same day as guests did last Friday, it's not surprising that there were numerous service glitches, as well as some computer and provisioning issues. 

That said, cruise line officials were adamant that processes should be humming along more smoothly in a week or so. The hotel director also told us that he was still expecting 100 more crew to join the ship this week.

The line took 25 percent of Grand Classica's crew from Grand Celebration. Thus, 75 percent of the crew on our sailing were totally new to the ship, secured from a cruise crewing agency. Larger lines have more flexibility in this regard, as they can pull people from across multiple vessels.

Yet, despite their newness and the shake-down process issues, crew members on our sailing tried to please at every turn. We felt that, overall, the crew was excellent -- friendly, hustling with a smile when needed to serve guests, and doing their best under the circumstances. 

My cabin steward had a "can do" attitude when I asked for an additional pillow. My waiter in the dining room the first night was seen all over the ship over the next two days, always with a smile and a friendly word to me -- despite clearly doing a zillion things in food service. 

That could bode well for the onboard service delivery once the line gets the kinks out process-wise. We hope to sail on the line again in a few weeks and report back to agents from a "regular" voyage and how things have progressed.

Product Attributes

Fares start from $149 to $379 per person double, depending on accommodations selected. One online promotional fare this week, though, started at $129 per person double.

Fares include shipboard accommodations, meals (excluding specialty dining options), select beverages, onboard live entertainment (excluding the adult comedy show), and the supervised kids programs.

Not included in the fare are the following: valet port parking, shore excursions, bar beverages, soft drinks, specialty dining, casino play, entry to the adult comedy show, phone calls, photographs, shopping purchases, government taxes of $67.52 per person, gratuities of $12.95 per person per night and a $1 per person Port of Palm Beach Cruise Terminal Infrastructure Fee.

The ship spends a day in Grand Bahama, where some guests on our cruise took shore trips and others headed for a beach resort for the day or a full stay.

The line has partnerships with several hotels, including the all-inclusive Lighthouse Pointe at Grand Lucayan, as well as the hotel-stay only packages at Marlin at Taino Beach or Pelican Bay Resort.

Both the cruise fare and the hotel stays are commissionable. Clients can cruise over for one night, then spend two, three, four or six nights at a beach resort, and then sail back the final night. 

It's a flexible way to get a full beach stay and land overnight -- not simply a beach day at a cruise line private island with a return to the ship overnight. 

Building for the Future 

While the line's commission is modest, given fare levels, the line points out that the agent can satisfy the client and give them a cruise getaway -- something that might not have happened with another product in their budget. 

Also, that can put a new client in the agent’s portfolio. Later, that client may have life changes – marriage, divorce, inheritance, children (family vacation needs) or retirement -- that create even more opportunities for various types of cruises or vacations.  

More importantly, skeptical cruisers who like the short cruise experience often move up to another line’s product after they’re comfortable with the cruise experience.

Sheehan Jr. reports that the major cruise lines love his line because it’s developing new cruisers, many of whom will shift over to a longer cruise product at some point. 

That said, he says those same clients also are coming back when they’re seeking just a short getaway once again. We confirmed that with a self-employed guest who told us he and his wife sail on the line multiple times a year for short getaways.

Attracting a Broader Base

Under the former owners, the previous line's main audience consisted of consumers from South Florida, specifically from Broward County (Greater Fort Lauderdale) or Miami-Dade County.

While that's still a priority region for the line, both Sheehan, Jr. and Miller say their reach has now expanded throughout Florida, particularly to Orlando, Daytona Beach, Tampa and Jacksonville

In addition, cruisers are coming as well from the southeastern U.S., and as far north as Charlotte, says Sheehan. Many are drive customers. 

The line's promotional efforts are targeted at Florida, with more select promotions or targeted initiatives in the Southeast and Northeast, as the line methodically "grows" the market.

As for group potential, Sheehan says the line also is seeking corporate groups and the new ship's conference center is designed just for that. He notes that many corporations prefer a two-night corporate program, rather than four or five nights for a retreat.

Again, stay tuned for our upcoming review of the full ship experience. 

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