Execs Talk Ritz-Carlton, New Ships and Latest Luxury Cruise News

The new RitzCarlton Yacht Collection will launch the first of three new luxurious, 298-passenger yachts in 2019. Shown here is the all-balcony, all-suite ship’s aft marina.

In 1922, upscale travelers boarded Cunard Line’s RMS Laconia for the first complete circumnavigation of the globe by a cruise vessel. Today, high-end clients with plenty of time and money can still book that type of 100-day-plus voyage, but they also have many more robust options. Today’s luxury voyages are both long and short. The products themselves are more differentiated, and the number of ocean players is increasing year-over-year. 

Luxury clients can choose a pampering yacht experience or opt for a vacation on a mid-sized cruise ship. They can book an adventurous expedition to remote locales or simply upgrade to a suite on a range of lines, in some cases staying within the exclusive “ship-within-a-ship” area of a mega-ship. “This is a fast-growing segment of our industry and the affluent traveler has more options than ever,” emphasizes Saul Fonseca, director of sales for CruiseOne, Dream Vacations and Cruises Inc.  

Case in point? In June, the Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company LLC, part of Marriott International Inc., announced plans for The Ritz-Carlton Yacht Collection, a new luxury yachting and cruising brand. Created by The Ritz-Carlton and maritime experts Douglas Prothero and Lars Clasen, in collaboration with funds managed by Oaktree Capital Management, L.P., The Ritz-Carlton will provide luxury hospitality service under a long-term operating agreement. Launching in 2019, the new boutique brand plans three 298-passenger, all-suite, all-balcony luxury yachts. The first vessel will set sail in 2019, the second will launch in first quarter of 2021 and the third in first quarter of 2022.

Why is an iconic luxury hotel brand heading to sea? “Maybe I should have started 20 years ago” given the strong consumer interest, says Herve Humler, Ritz-Carlton’s president and COO, but he insists: “It was important to find the right ship and the right partner who totally understands luxury.” He believes Ritz-Carlton has found that in Douglas Prothero, managing director, The Ritz-Carlton Yacht Collection, who he’s been working with for more than four years in developing the luxury cruise / yacht concept. Lars Clasen is the other managing director of The Ritz-Carlton Yacht Collection and a veteran cruise industry executive formerly with AIDA Cruises and a co-owner of A-Rosa

The hotel group’s Washington D.C. staffers and the cruise collection’s veterans in Miami are collaborating as a team on the brand development, plus several senior management appointments, which Prothero describes as well-respected cruise industry veterans, will be announced soon. Humler also says he does nothing at Ritz-Carlton without customer and travel agent feedback. So top luxury travel advisors provided him with input about the most desired features, best design and amenities desired by their upscale clients for any new yachting product.

Guests seeking pampering while sailing in the lap of luxury may book a high-end suite on Silversea’s Silver Muse. Look for new Peninsula Hotel perks on the 73-day Grand Asia Pacific Voyage in 2019.

Recent research from Ritz-Carlton’s database showed that 405,000 Ritz-Carlton hotel guests have taken a cruise in the past year. Humler says the brand will eventually welcome 36,000 luxury guests annually. He’s confident knowing the brand can market to clients who already are both loyal to Ritz-Carlton and are past luxury cruise guests. “That’s a position we want to be in,” he says. 

General reservations are expected to open in May 2018 for the first ship’s itineraries, which will likely be seven- to 10-day voyages and mostly point-to-point. While specific itineraries weren’t public at press time, Humler stresses that the 623-foot-long vessels will be able to call at ports that larger ships can’t. The ships will also have an aft marina or watersports platform. Pre- and post-cruise stay options will be available at Ritz-Carlton’s properties across the globe. But in addition to the normal sailings with individual guests, the brand expects that full-ship charters will be a big part of its business; he indicated that reservations for meeting planners and corporate / charter operators will open a bit earlier.

As for ambiance, look for an onboard product that’s casual but “I’m not going to dictate to the customer,” he says. “You can have it any way you want. If you want to have breakfast at 1 p.m. we’re going to create it for you. We’re always going to make sure the guest is always very comfortable.” And of course, impeccable service in the Ritz-Carlton tradition is a given. 

Each vessel will have 149 luxurious suites with modern craftsmanship and interior finishes jointly designed by Ritz-Carlton and Tillberg Design of Sweden. Given the brand’s luxury clientele, “I need to have the largest accommodations,” Humler stresses, noting that even the lead-in category of accommodations - 90 Veranda Suites on Decks 5 through 8 - will have a minimum of 312 square feet.

Many of the luxurious accommodations, though, have much more space, including 12 Verandah Duplex Suites on  Decks 4 and 5 (700 square feet); 23 Superior Suites on Decks 6 and 8 (nearly 475 square feet); four Special Superior Suites on Deck 7 (570 square feet to 620 square feet); and 18 Signature Suites on Decks 7 and 8 (635 square feet). Balconies for all those add additional square footage as well.

For guests desiring the ultimate in luxury, two lavish, 1,000-square-feet-plus duplex Penthouse Suites are aft on Deck 7, with almost 662 square feet of balcony space. Each can accommodate four guests. If both Penthouse suites are reserved, they can serve eight guests and the corridor between the two penthouses can become exclusive to the two units.

Dining-wise, “we will have five food and beverage outlets, some that are small — for example, one with 15 tables, another with 20 tables, but really catering to the luxury market,” says Humler. He absolutely didn’t want fixed dining with set times, and an experience where guests felt rushed, stressing: “Let the guest decide where, and when, and what [they] want to eat.” 

Regent Seven Seas Explorer’s two-bedroom suite includes an in-room spa retreat with private sauna.

Two important points? First, the Ritz-Carlton brand won’t be an expedition product. Second, it won’t simply be a hotel brand transplanted onto a ship. Humler and Prothero both want to assure the new brand couples Ritz-Carlton’s guest service standards, dining excellence and pampering amenities with top-notch maritime and cruise operations, as well as the activities and features that veteran cruisers expect. So yes, the new Ritz-Carlton branded vessels will have cruise directors. But what will continue is the Ritz-Carlton attention to service, “the heart and soul of the brand that is our people,” says Humler. “That isn’t going to change, it’s going to amplify.” 

Separately, Silversea Cruises, which has a long-standing, productive relationship with Relais et Chateaux for fine dining onboard and experiences ashore (and that is continuing), will partner with Peninsula Hotels on programming for Silver Muse’s 73-day Grand Asia Pacific Voyage, departing on February 2, 2019. Peninsula will bring onboard a team of local specialists and chefs; exclusive events will be arranged in select Asian cities; and guests will conclude that cruise with a three-night post-cruise stay at The Peninsula Tokyo, where they will be treated to a Japanese-themed dinner event in the hotel’s Grand Ballroom. The two companies also said they plan to collaborate on other Asian-focused voyages. 

“The Peninsula Hotels shares our commitment to excellence and providing the highest level of personal attention,” says Manfredi Lefebvre d’Ovidio, Silversea’s executive chairman, while Clement Kwok, CEO of The Hong Kong and Shanghai Hotels, owner and operator of  The Peninsula Hotels, notes, “the two companies will offer a seamless and exquisite journey on sea and on land for our discerning guests…We look forward to developing personalized programs that will provide Silversea guests with truly memorable and authentic experiences of Asia’s culture, history and traditions.” 

In terms of new luxury ocean players, Scenic, a popular luxury river operator, will launch Scenic Eclipse, its first luxury ocean “Discovery Yacht” next year. Serving just 200 to 228 passengers, varying by itinerary, the vessel will have luxurious suites that range from 345 square feet to the 2,659-square-foot two-bedroom Penthouse Suite. Multiple dining choices will include Italian, steaks and seafood, French fine dining, Asian Fusion, poolside grilling, 24/7 room service, a Chef’s Table and Epicure, a chef-led dedicated cooking emporium.

New ships of all sizes create marketplace “buzz” that bolsters agency sales. Fonseca cites recent launches of Silversea Cruises’ 596-passenger, ultra-luxury Silver Muse with eight distinct dining venues and expanded suite categories, and Regent Seven Seas Cruises’ 750-passenger Seven Seas Explorer with a 3,875-square-foot, two-bedroom suite that includes an in-room spa retreat with private sauna, steam room and treatment area. Looking into 2018, “Seabourn will welcome the Seabourn Ovation to its fleet,” Fonseca says, noting it has a design based on the line’s Odyssey-class ships with a high ratio of space per guest. 

He’s also looking forward to Crystal Cruises’ first 1,000-passenger, Crystal-Exclusive-class ship launching in late 2018. That all-suite, all-balcony ship will have polar ice class ratings to facilitate any Arctic and Antarctic itineraries. Last year, on the ocean side, Crystal launched its oceangoing Crystal Esprit mega-yacht. In addition, Viking Ocean Cruises launched its third 930-passenger ocean vessel, Viking Sky, in February, and will add a fourth, Viking Sun, in November. Small ship luxury operator Ponant will welcome Le Laperouse and Le Champlain next year

Celebrity Edge, a new class of upscale ship for the line, will have six, two-story luxury villas.

Certainly, “new ships bring excitement to our customers – and luxury clients are no exception,” says Roger Block, president, Travel Leaders Network, who applauds luxury lines for continuing investments like the ships mentioned above. He says they deliver exceptional customer experiences, but also believes that “as beautiful as these ships are, the differential for the luxury segment is the outstanding service guests have come to know.” 

Throughout the decades, travel agents have used labels — contemporary, premium, luxury and expedition — to differentiate the various cruise products. But increasingly, some agents say luxury is essentially anything clients consider it to be. “The labels are still used internally for agents as they are qualifying their clients for a cruise, but since so many contemporary [and premium] cruise lines have added luxury elements to their product I don’t believe labeling the lines to clients is necessary,” says Betsy Geiser, vice president, Uniglobe Travel Center, Irvine, CA

Instead, she says it’s about qualifying the client for the best product. “If they have a multigenerational family and not all [travelers in the group] are equal financially, they may need a contemporary line with luxury options,” Geiser says. For example, “we’ve grown tremendously over the years…from smaller vessels with less than 1,000 guests to the largest, most advanced ship sailing under the Italian flag, Costa Diadema,” says Scott Knutson, vice president of sales, North America, Costa Cruises, who describes Costa as “upscale contemporary.” Culturally minded clients will find new Costa tours this summer from Savona, Italy, to Turin, Italy, with entry to either the Egyptian Museum, the National Cinema Museum, the Venaria Reale or the J-Museum

Other contemporary or premium lines also are attracting upscale cruisers with amenities, suites or ship-within-a-ship enclaves. Royal Caribbean International’s mega-ship Symphony of the Seas launches in spring 2018 with high-end features like the two-level Royal Sky Suites with butlers. In December 2018, Holland America Line welcomes its 2,666-passenger Nieuw Statendam with design similar to Koningsdam but with new exclusive public spaces and design by Adam D. Tihany and Bjorn Storbraaten. Also launching in 2018 is Celebrity Edge, the first in a new class of upscale vessel for Celebrity Cruises, with innovative design, new Edge Staterooms with Infinite Veranda (with glass that can be lowered/raised to create an open-air balcony) and stunning two-level Edge Villas.

Launching later this year, MSC CruisesMSC Seaside has the exclusive MSC Yacht Club “ship-within-a-ship” complex, and setting sail in spring 2018 in Alaska is Norwegian Cruise Line’s mega-ship Norwegian Bliss; its ship-within-a-ship concept, The Haven, has pampering suites and a new Haven observation lounge. For families, Disney Cruise Line has new “Star Wars” and Marvel themed areas for kids on Disney Fantasy, while the new Carnival Horizon, debuting next year, will have Family Harbor Staterooms with access to a Family Lounge for breakfast, big-screen TVs, games and more. 

Queens Grill Suites on Cunard’s Queen Victoria have personal butler and concierge service.

To entice clients to step up to a luxury ship, or alternatively to book into a suite on a variety of other lines, agents can tap into the client’s specialty interests, whether that be music, heritage, culture, fitness, art / architecture or these big draws:  

The Taste of Wine: Nearly all luxury and premium lines offer either regular wine themed cruises, special wine journeys or itineraries that take guests to Bordeaux, Tuscany or other spots popular with wine aficionados. SeaDream Yacht Club has a savory wine voyage on the 112-passenger SeaDream II that departs August 4, 2018 from Athens (Piraeus) to Civitavecchia (Rome). Guests can partake of exclusive wine tastings and a Winemaker’s Dinner, which offers a degustation menu complemented with top cuvees from the visiting winemaker. 

The Thrill of an Expedition: Polar bears and penguins rule. “The potential in the expedition ship segment is more than three times higher than supply,” says Karl Pojer, CEO, Hapag-Lloyd Cruises. As a result, his line has ordered two new expedition ships launching in 2019 and, he says,“We will appeal to even more customers in the luxury segment in the future.” Targeted at both the international (English speaking) and German markets, the luxurious, ice-class Hanseatic Inspiration will carry 199-230 passengers, depending on itinerary, and feature three restaurants, a wellness / fitness area and watersports marina. 

The Devotion to Religion: As a cruise gateway to Bethlehem, Masada and Jerusalem, Ashdod, Israel has beaches, museums and, more importantly, proximity to top religious sites. Jewish clients can visit Jerusalem’s Western Wall, Christians will seek out Jerusalem’s Via Dolorosa, the path of Christ’s final walk, and Muslim clients can head for Islam’s third holiest shrine. Crystal Serenity’s 2018 World Cruise, departing in January from Los Angeles, and Seabourn Encore on its April 22, 2018, departure from Dubai to Barcelona, both call at Ashdod, as do other vessels.

The Rise of Wellness: Oceania Cruises has introduced new Wellness Tours inspired by Canyon Ranch on Riviera and Marina in France, Spain, Italy and Greece. A “Vinyasa Yoga at Monte Carlo Bay” tour includes a private yoga class ashore with spectacular Mediterranean views. Onboard, wellness specials pair select Canyon Ranch SpaClub treatments with the new tours. Regent Seven Seas Cruises also offers a new holistic wellness program on Seven Seas Voyager’s summer Mediterranean voyages.

The Lure of Events: Windstar CruisesStar Pride sails a “Barcelona & the Grand Prix of Monaco” cruise on May 22, 2018; guests will be escorted to Monte Carlo and sit in a reserved Section K grandstand seat to watch the Grand Prix time trials. Alternatively, clients sailing on Azamara Club Cruises in 2018 have several chances to view 2018 World Cup events in Russia; the line has reserved seats in St. Petersburg’s new 67,000-seat Zenit Stadium on voyage dates that correspond with regular play, semi-finals and the third place match. 

The Draw of Culinary Delights: Cuisine is a big draw and Paul Gauguin Cruises will welcome Celebrity Chef Massimo Capra onboard the Paul Gauguin’sTahiti & the Society Islands” voyage on September 23, 2017; guests can expect a lecture, culinary demonstration and meet-and-greet photo opportunities. This past spring, Princess Cruises introduced a fresh new restaurant design for its Sabatini’s Italian Trattoria as well as enhanced menus with antipasti and hand-made pasta dishes from Chef Angelo Auriana; the updates are now on Caribbean Princess and will be fleetwide. Soon, the restaurant will also add pasta-making classes. 

The Bucket List: The destination continues to absolutely rock when it comes to enticing clients to book. Find out their dream destinations and match those with several luxury options. Recent trend data from Travel Leaders Group shows that consumers asked to name their “ultimate dream destination” picked Australia in the top spot, but “Cruise – World” ranked sixth in the survey, with Cruise – Europe (Mediterranean), Cruise – Europe (river), Cruise – South Pacific and Tahiti and Cruise – Australia/New Zealand all placing in the top 15. 

Many high-end lines offer World Cruises, some including Crystal and Oceania also have multiple options. For 2019, Silversea’s 132-day World Cruise, called “The Tale of Tales,” from San Francisco to London on Silver Whisper will visit 52 ports in 31 countries. Plus, famed authors Paul Theroux and Pico Iyer will sail on certain segments. Fresh from a recent refurbishment with new suite options, Cunard’s Queen Victoria will sail a 107-night 2019 World Cruise that’s a western circumnavigation of the globe. 

The Rivers: And lastly, while the focus of this article is oceangoing cruising, luxury river cruising has certainly skyrocketed in popularity. In a recent Travel Experts survey of agents, river cruising ranked first in growth for luxury travel. 

Some 55 percent of Travel Experts’ agents polled in that survey attributed their growth to an increased awareness of the value of using a luxury travel agent. “Very sophisticated, experienced travelers, fully capable of booking their own hotels online, are turning to travel advisors to do the work for them,” says Lynn Juliano, an independent Travel Experts affiliate. Why? They see their time as valuable and trust the agent’s ability to not only handle arrangements but also, she stresses, “to leverage contacts to get the best rates, special upgrades and VIP treatment for guests.”

Oceania Cruises’ Marina has three Owners Suites; each measures more than 2,000 square feet and spans the entire beam of the ship.

Tips for Upselling

If agents have clients who typically book a balcony stateroom but haven’t yet made the leap to a pampering suite, how can they “upsell” to enhance guest satisfaction and deliver more commission?  

Qualify New and Existing Clients: Saul Fonseca, director of sales, CruiseOne, Cruises Inc. and Dream Vacations says to ask such questions as: “Do you prefer higher floors? Would you like butler or concierge service? Would you like access to the private lounge or check-in area?” Also, ask if the cruise is for a special occasion celebration such as a milestone birthday, anniversary, new job, graduation or retirement. And remember that desires may change at different chapters of a client’s life. 

Familiarize Yourself with Amenities: Be very familiar with all suite amenities. Depending on the line and suite, they could include everything from priority embarkation and debarkation to free beverages, complimentary shore excursions, upgraded bathroom amenities, free laundry, priority tendering, VIP seating for the shows, a spa treatment and more.  

Emphasize the Butler: Many suites also include butler or concierge services, according to Theresa Scalzitti, vice president, sales and marketing, Cruise Planners, an American Express Travel Representative. But “don’t say, ‘you get XYZ with this suite,’” Scalzitti stresses. Instead say: “Imagine arriving to the ship and being greeted by your personal butler and receiving a personal escort onboard directly to your suite. Imagine your butler unpacking your bags for you and immediately allowing you to begin enjoying the ship. Don’t worry about standing in line to book your spa, dinner or excursions — your concierge or butler will do all of this for you.”

Start by Quoting a Higher Category: Quote a suite or higher room category with additional benefits — not the lead-in category. “This way you are working downward if the client is resistant to the price and it gives you an opportunity to paint the picture for them,” says Fonseca, adding that most travelers want to cruise comfortably with more room to spread out. “Chances are they don’t live in a 250-square-foot home and wouldn’t want to spend 10 days in a smaller cabin.”

Upselling from a balcony stateroom to a Royal Sky Suite on Royal Caribbean International, for example, can enhance guest satisfaction and agent commission.

Talk Space and Exclusivity: Scalzitti suggests saying: “Also, you’ll be enjoying the extra space in your stateroom and on your large balcony so much that you’ll feel more relaxed. Take an evening to enjoy dinner overlooking the ocean.” Or, bring up that on certain ships, guests staying in a suite may be able to dine at a high-end exclusive restaurant. 

Show “Per Day” Cost: Suites come with bigger balconies, more square footage, concierge booking services for restaurants and shows — “unique experiences that you aren’t going to get in any other lower category stateroom,” says Emerson Hankamer, president, Vacations to Go, a Travel Leaders Network member. “The easiest way for agents to upsell clients to a suite is to calculate the cost per person, per day, to receive those extra amenities — which seems like a small cost for a big benefit.”

Ask If a Refund Can Be an Upgrade: If the cruise line needs to refund funds to a client, such as if the price drops for the booked stateroom, Tammie Richie, senior director of Avoya Mastermind, Avoya Travel, suggests asking the line about an upgrade instead. For Richie’s detailed “how to upsell” tips visit “The Art of Upselling.”

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