|Pool deck onboard Marco Polo|
When Michael Cohen, vice president of sales and marketing, Cruise & Maritime Voyages USA, talks with travel agents about the firm, he says they don’t immediately know what the company is all about. But when he mentions that “we own and operate the Marco Polo,” some agents get really excited. That’s because the ship has a huge past passenger group and many agents know the ship well, so Cohen says, they say: “Oh! So, you’re the company that has that ship. We wondered where it was.”
Today, Marco Polo is owned by Global Maritime Group, Inc., CMV’s parent firm, and CMV operates it. The organization also operates the Ocean Countess, the former Cunard Countess, which is owned by Majestic International Cruises. While CMV has been operating for more than three years, it’s just setting up shop for the support of U.S. travel agents and promotion to both agents and consumers. CMV’s new U.S. office is in Fort Lauderdale.
During 2010, CMV carried more than 36,000 passengers on both ships with 95 percent reporting a satisfactory or better cruise experience. At 22,080 tons, Marco Polo is small by today’s ship standards, yet the 40-plus-year-old ship has an extremely loyal following. No, it’s certainly not a mega-ship, nor a new ship for sure. But its unique qualities appeal both to past guests and others seeking a traditional cruise experience on a smaller ship with British flair.
Carrying up to 800 passengers, Marco Polo is a classic vessel with eight passenger decks, a distinctive dark blue hull, teak decks and a clean Art Deco styling. Cruise expert Stewart Chiron, whose company sells cruises online, notes that while Marco Polo doesn’t have all the bells and whistles of a modern ship, “there are always some fans of the older, classical type cruise ships and Marco Polo has its own cult following.”
Based on feedback at cruise review sites, cruisers apparently recognize other fellow past guests onboard and even some crew members who served them on past voyages. The 425-cabin ship certainly has a storied heritage that delights maritime fans. Launched in the mid-1960s as the Alexandr Pushkin, the ship was originally operated by Soviet owners.
|Marco Polo passes sister ship Ocean Countess in Eidfjord, Norway.|
But the vessel’s claim to fame really began in the early 1990s, when cruise industry veteran Gerry Herrod purchased the ship, refurbished it, and began operating it under the Orient Line flag. During that era, Marco Polo, which has an ice-strengthened hull, made a name for top-notch service and destination-intensive exotic itineraries.
Ultimately, though, Orient Lines (then owner of Marco Polo) was sold to Norwegian Cruise Line in 1998, which operated the ship for a number of years. NCL sold Marco Polo in 2008 to Global Maritime Group.
While one agent we spoke to this month expressed some concern about the ship’s age, cabin size and freshness, Alexios Tsokos, CMV USA’s vice president of operations, says Marco Polo recently received approximately $10 million in upgrades, including up to $7 million for replacement of its generators, and at least $3 million for removal of the casino, addition of a lounge/piano bar in that space to provide more room for relaxation, and general soft furnishings upgrades throughout the vessel.
Separately, the 17,593-ton Ocean Countess had a $6 million refurbishment of public areas last summer.
Both ships sail from ports in the UK to places in Northern Europe, Scandinavia and elsewhere. Itineraries are destination-intensive and embarkation ports are unique. Marco Polo voyages embark at Leith (for Edinburgh), Newcastle and Tilbury (for London), while Ocean Countess departs from Greenock (for Glasgow), Liverpool and Hull, all in the UK.
Itineraries and Rates
Northern European options range from a two-night Amsterdam weekender cruise to 14-night Northern Light voyages (essentially sold out) this winter. Other types of cruises include Christmas market cruises, a three-night “Dutch Bulbfields Weekend,” a nine-night “Diamond Jubilee British Isles” sailing and a 10-day “North Cape and Land of the Midnight Sun” voyage. Clients can also opt for cruises to Baltic capitals; St. Petersburg, Russia; France and Europe’s western Atlantic coast; the Azores and Madeira; and the Mediterranean.
|One of Marco Polo’s deluxe staterooms|
One unusual Marco Polo voyage, with space still available at press time, is the seven-night “Britain’s Maritime Heritage” sailing on April 10, 2012 to Cherbourg, France, and Cobh, Ireland, where a century ago passengers boarded Titanic for its ill-fated inaugural voyage. In Belfast, guests will visit the Titanic Quarter and in Liverpool, they’ll see the memorial and White Star Line head office. The ship will also cruise near the site where the liner Lusitania was torpedoed and sank in 1915. A twin oceanview room on that voyage starts at $1,213 per person double if booked before Dec. 31.
Agents should know that CMV’s fares include port taxes and fees, but neither shore excursions nor gratuities. If agents cannot find affordable air options, Cohen says the group can assist.
The line also offers pre- and post-cruise packages in London and Edinburgh; guests receive three nights in a four-star hotel pre-cruise and one-night post cruise, including breakfast, along with sightseeing and transfers. The London packages start at $1,079 per person double, with a single supplement of $469, while the Edinburgh package begins at $939 per person double with a $369 single supplement.
Regarding ship personnel, Marco Polo fields a crew of about 350 and Ocean Countess about 330. Officers are European with most of Greek heritage. Purser’s office and hotel management staff are European or British. Entertainment staffers are British. Cabin stewards are from Eastern Europe and Southern Asia, including India, Myanmar and the Philippines.
Accommodations on both ships range from single cabins to suites, all with en suite facilities of a shower, washbasin and toilet. Cabin amenities include personal safes, hair dryers, direct-dial phones, tea/coffee making facilities, minibar (with added fees for items consumed) and 17- to 19-inch flat-screen TVs for watching satellite and in-house movies.
Guests in deluxe and higher category cabins also receive bathrobes and slippers during their cruise, along with complimentary cabin breakfast service, a fresh fruit bowl replenished throughout the cruise, a welcome bottle of wine and mineral water upon arrival, enhanced bathroom amenity pack, World Atlas to use in the cabin, a CMV golf umbrella to use ashore and a complimentary CMV bag.
Junior Suites have all the above perks plus priority embarkation; priority boarding at tender ports; a welcome bottle of champagne (instead of wine) and a bottle of mineral water; fresh flowers upon arrival; an “at your leisure” disembarkation service; and a UK newspaper delivered on the day of disembarkation.
Deluxe Suites and Owners Suites get all the above benefits, plus complimentary laundry service; pre-dinner hors d’oeuvres delivered each evening; complimentary rentals from the ship’s DVD library; a bookshelf of novels to read; confirmed dining and restaurant seating requests; and confirmed shore excursions reservations.
Activities and Dining
Your clients who wonder what there is to do onboard both ships should know they definitely won’t find rock-climbing walls and ziplines. Attractions range from fitness activities to full-scale production shows in the ship’s theater. Clients also might play bridge, chess, backgammon or other games; surf the Internet; enjoy arts and crafts; participate in quizzes and trivia contests; listen to guest lecturers; take a dip in the pool; book spa and salon treatments; or relax with late-night cabaret entertainment and dancing. Marco Polo has a full walk-around promenade for those who wish to keep active and view the sites or ocean.
Dining-wise, both ships have two fixed seatings in their main dining rooms, plus a more casual buffet-style restaurant. There are two black-tie evenings per weeklong cruise, but Cohen says clients may wear a coat and tie, and leave the tuxedo at home if they so choose. There are no other alternative, fee-based dining options.
One sample Marco Polo menu we viewed featured an appetizer choice of smoked pork loin with red radish, Thai seafood cocktail or penne rigate carbonara; a soup choice of beef consomme with diced vegetables or cream of leak soup; and a salad choice of mixed garden greens or bell pepper with red onions and watermelon.
For the main course, clients that night chose between pan-fried filet of Pangasius, pork Parmigiana or classic French beef bourguignon. Guests may also talk to their waiter and ask for a steamed vegetable platter, grilled chicken breast, vegetarian platter or a grilled salmon filet. Sugar-free, gluten-free and special diets can be accommodated. Dessert options on the sample menu included a cheese plate, panna cotta with strawberry coulis, strawberry gateau or ice cream of the day with gooseberry compote.
UK travelers currently make up more than 90 percent of the onboard guests, but now the line seeks to expand in other English-speaking markets, starting with the U.S. and Canada. Cohen says the clientele is typically 55 and older from the middle-income bracket, and the best clients are experienced travelers who seek to sail to places they haven’t visited earlier such as Guernsey, the Shetland Islands, Iceland and the Norwegian North Cape. Clients also must appreciate a small ship experience, a classical ship and traditional dining.
One interesting aspect about Marco Polo is that it’s being positioned as a “child-free” ship; it only accepts kids 16 and older traveling with adults. Ocean Countess still accepts children, although it has no dedicated children’s facilities.
Standard commission is 10 percent, but to celebrate the launch of the CMV Florida office, the line offers a 12-12-12 agent deal. Agents who sign up as a registered trade partner by December 31 and then book 12 passengers who sail over the course of the next year, will ultimately receive 12 percent commission on the 12th guest who sails, as well as a retroactively paid 2 percent additional commission for the first 11 passengers. The agent will then receive the 12 percent level for other bookings as well. For reservations and inquiries call 855-206-4897 or visit the website.