Taking two important steps forward toward its 2020 debut, Ritz-Carlton Yacht Collection (RCYC) launched the hull of its first 298-passenger, ultra-luxury yacht into the waters off Vigo, Spain, on Tuesday and also offered a sneak peek at mock-ups of two suite categories.
In addition, Doug Prothero, RCYC's CEO, confirmed that the ultra-luxury brand is in serious discussions with Vigo's Barreras Shipyard on the potential of exercising its second and third options with that shipyard if both vessels can be delivered in 2021.
Demand from luxury consumers and Ritz-Carlton's loyal guests has been very high, according to Prothero. While the luxury brand expected that about one third of its bookings would come from "new to cruise" guests, he said about half the new bookings are coming from those who've never taken a cruise.
"We're bringing people into cruise," Prothero stressed. He also indicated that RCYC is very happy with the high quality of the first 26,500-grt vessel as produced by Barreras but that "timing" for construction of the next two vessels is key to whether the options are finalized.
Due to demand, Prothero says the line wants both by 2021, a formidable timeline challenge for a shipyard that is both new to cruise construction and has other cargo ship construction contracts as well. Shipyard officials say, though, they've proven they can do the job.
It's certainly easier to build a sister ship at the same yard that built the first one, Prothero noted, but added that it's not the only consideration, given RCYC's desire to take advantage of current demand.
Luxury Travel Advisor and Travel Agent magazine were on site in Vigo earlier this week for the first ship's hull launch ceremony. Participants included Prothero; Tim Grisius, vice president of development, Marriott International; Jose Garcia Costa, chairman, Barreras Shipyard; Abel Caballero, the mayor of Vigo; and others.
Prothero, who grew up in a maritime family and who has maritime experience captaining tug boats and fishing trawlers, thanked Marriott International, Oaktree Capital and CaixaBank, and also praised the full RCYC site team, including Luca Milani, the project manager.
He also credited Barreras Shipyard's workers; many brought their families dockside to watch the dramatic "float out" as the 624-foot-long ship slid into the water.
Also present, according to a Marriott International spokesperson, was Fredrik Johansson, owner, Tillberg Design of Sweden, the interior outfitting and design company for the first vessel. His firm will be working over the next year to complete the luxurious yacht’s interior.
"One of the things that's unique about this design is that there was one design," stressed Prothero, noting that most ships have multiple interior designers for different areas within the vessels. In contrast, he said, RCYC's ship will "have the flow of the design throughout."
Accommodations-wise, the first ultra-luxury vessel will have 149 suites, each with its own private terrace. Those seeking the ultimate in cruise accommodations can opt for one of two 1,700-square-foot Owner’s Suites, each with its own private whirlpool.
Luxury Travel Advisor and Travel Agent walked through two suite mock-ups -- the 312-square-foot Terrace Suite that also has a 67-square-foot veranda and the 635-square-foot Grand Suite with a 108-square-foot terrace. In total, there are 90 Terrace Suites and 14 Grand Suites onboard.
In addition, in a separate area, we walked through two bathroom "wet mock-ups" for those two suite categories. While it was a quick look, agents can peruse the photos above.
All suites onboard feature Scandinavian design, which makes them "timeless," said Prothero. What did we see as the biggest innovation?
One absolute wow-factor item for those guests who book connecting suites is a wide sound-proofed, pull-out/close-up wall panel between the two suites.
This "moveable wall panel," as Prothero calls it, replaces the typical connecting door found on most cruise ships.
He said that in its research the line was told by some female luxury travel advisors that "connecting doors are creepy."
Essentially, it offers the feel of an open-concept home for those opting for the connecting suites. He described the new moveable wall panel as "much bigger than a door." Essentially, it occupies the space of one wall.
Also, if the suites are booked separately (not combined), guests won't hear sounds from the other suite, and will see the dividing section as just another wall panel -- not wondering if it's a connecting door that someone could open from the other side.
In the Terrace Suites, much effort was placed on giving guests plenty of space. So the coffee table in the living area has a table top that is stored in the closet area, and only added when guests wish to dine. That creates more living space when it's not needed.
In addition, the bed in the Terrace Suite can fold up into the wall, and a special storage space within the closet area has folding chairs and a table that can be set up in the suite in that space, if clients wish more space for entertaining, perhaps with other family members or friends who are also sailing onboard in other accommodations.
A lighting system that is used in Ritz-Carlton properties will also be used onboard. Black-out shades can be lowered electronically from the bed, so guests don't have to get up. Clients will have to close the sheer curtains by hand, if desired.
And, since Prothero says research shows that only 14 percent of guests in a suite use the coffee machine, it's hidden in a non-visible place -- yet, still easily accessible in both suites.
Also planned for the suites is a new Wave Art Program, but Prothero wasn't ready to talk details, other than saying, "it's not your typical art-at-sea program."
The Yachting Lifestyle
The new ultra-luxury cruise brand is expected to combine the lifestyle of The Ritz-Carlton’s luxury resorts, the casual freedom of yachting on vacation and itineraries that the brand promises are “unique journeys.”
Prothero characterizes the first ship a "cruise yacht." A crew of 246 will serve the 298 guests onboard. Most crew members are being recruited from luxury cruise ships and trained in Ritz-Carlton standards.
Why not just pick people who work at Ritz-Carlton properties? "It's a different lifestyle [at sea]," says Prothero. Those who already work in the luxury cruise space know what being at sea and away from family/friends for a long period entails.
Crew members will have many perks onboard including an 11th deck space that's the highest in the ship. No more than two crew members will stay in each crew cabin.
As for luxury guests, they'll dine in style at five onboard restaurants including one by Sven Elverfeld of Aqua, the three Michelin-starred restaurant at The Ritz-Carlton, Wolfsburg.
In addition, they can enjoy pampering treatments at a signature Ritz-Carlton Spa and enjoy entertainment at a Panorama Lounge and champagne bar.
The yacht will also feature children’s programming and have a dedicated children's space for those 4 to 12. Prothero calls it "cool" and "colorful."
It will have both indoor and outdoor space, but the outdoor space is designed for safety -- so kids can't get out or fall overboard, a comfort for parents. Prothero quipped: "It doesn't feel like a cage but it is."
While the number of kids onboard is going to be low -- about 3 percent of all bookings, that's even less on the average voyage, he said. Many of the kids are sailing with their families on holiday cruises.
What won't the yachts have onboard? Guests won't find a show lounge or a casino. Yes, there will be entertainment, but it will be performances that are smaller and more intimate and that will span the arts.
"Guests interested in what we are doing [for a seagoing product] aren't interested in a big show," he said, describing the onboard aura as "quieter but not boring."
Itineraries and Activities
Throughout its first year, the yacht will operate itineraries of mostly seven to 10 nights in the Mediterranean, Northern Europe, the Caribbean, Latin America, Canada and New England.
Ports of call will include such destinations as Barbados, Cartagena, Copenhagen, St. Barths, Bordeaux, Mykonos, Portofino and other smaller ports and off-the-beaten-path destinations.
To create a longer yachting experience, guests can book back-to-back voyages without repeating ports. The brand recently unveiled its new Shore Collection, comprised of shore excursions that feature small group sizes; most can also be personalized into private tours.
The ship is capable of sailing at 17 nautical miles per hour, but except on ocean crossings, it mostly will sail in the eight to 10 nautical mile per hour range, "as we're not trying to cover a great deal of ground," said Prothero, and the line will linger in places longer than many lines.
When guests go ashore they won't ride in the typical cruise tenders, but instead in what the line alls "limousine tenders," which will be all enclosed, air-conditioned and have leather interiors.
In addition, they won't look the same as other cruise ship tenders. Instead, they'll be bright yellow with black highlights.
Both ashore and onboard, RCYC plans one-of-a-kind curated events, designed so guests can engage with the local destination cultures; these will include everything from cooking classes with local chefs to private concerts with local musicians and more.
Guests will have a full marina allowing swimming and water sports right from the platform. The ship will carry Zodiacs and other toys.
Don't expect either a helicopter or submarine, though. While the line did consider the helicopter, since few people at a time could take the experience (potentially creating some unhappy guests) and safety/regulatory requirements required to have helicopter service combined for a "no" decision.
RCYC rates, varying by itinerary and season, are highly inclusive but do not include dinner in Aqua, spa experiences or shore trips.
Reservations opened to the Ritz-Carlton’s rewards members in May and to the public in June. The yachts are also available for private charter.
While there was an initial delay in the first vessel's delivery schedule, it will now be delivered three weeks earlier than anticipated. However, Prothero said the line won't add more early cruises -- instead focusing on ensuring the guest experience is exceptional.
Awaiting a Decision
At a celebratory dinner after the hull launch, Prothero told local officials and the shipyard that "today was evidence that we put our trust in the right place," noting the quality of what the team put together is exceptional.
So as RCYC decides whether to exercise its options with Barreras or turn to another yard for its next two vessels, both the Spanish shipyard and the city of Vigo are working to keep the brand's cruise building business. It's brought jobs and more economic development to the region.
Costas said that while Barreras has 125 years of ship building experience and has constructed 1,700 cargo and other vessels, it had never previously built a cruise ship.
But, he said, RCYC "trusted in us"... "You are friends of Vigo. You are friends of this house."
For more information, visit www.ritzcarlton.com/en/yachts.public.