NCL Briefs

Travel Agent’s cruise editor, David Eisen, sailed on Norwegian Cruise Line’s newest ship, Norwegian Gem, in The Netherlands, and reported on NCL’s new F3 series of ships.

ST. NAZAIRE, FRANCE—With a push of a button, Norwegian Cruise Line initiated construction on its boldest ship class to date, the F3 series (F3 is an initial, working name, which will be changed farther out), which, once the first ship is completed in January 2010, will hold 4,200 passengers—that’s 1,800 more than its just-delivered ship, Norwegian Gem.

A steel-cutting ceremony was held at Aker Yards in St. Nazaire, France, on Monday, which brought together both American and European press along with a collection of NCL’s top-producing travel agents from its President’s Club.

Andy Stuart, NCL’s executive vice president of sales and marketing, Brad Anderson of America’s Vacation Center in San Diego and Tom Coiro of New York-based Direct Line Cruises, were given the symbolic honor of launching the F3, as they stood on a metal plank and watched as an incandescent steel-cutting apparatus sliced through a sliver of steel, signifying the start of work. “Today is the beginning of a new day for us,” Stuart said. “It’s our biggest single order in history and we would not be doing it if not for the help of our agents.” Jacques Hardelay, general manager of Aker Yards, joined the three on the scaffold.

The shipyard will be responsible for constructing two F3 ships, at an all-in cost of about 1.5 billion euros, while an option for a third is still under negotiation. Both NCL and Aker Yards were tightlipped on whether the option will be picked up. “We have two firm orders,” Stuart said, “nothing beyond that.”

As hush as Stuart was about a third ship, he was even more careful not to blow the lid on what the public can expect from the F3 ship

Here’s what we do know: the ship’s will be much larger and spacious than NCL’s previous Jewel class of ships, run on a new propulsion system and contain increased technology. Beyond that, it’s anyone’s guess. “F3 will be a differentiated product for a new level,” Stuart said. “But we are not saying how it’s different yet.”

While Stuart was reluctant to divulge concrete details, the fact that the new class of ships is markedly bigger offers some clues. “You can put more stuff in it,” Stuart said. “There are more opportunities.” Just what those opportunities are, is the question. NCL’s newest ships contain features such as four-lane bowling alleys. The new ships would easily be able to absorb even eight lanes, but other amenities might be expected.

Without question, the new trend, especially among the Big Three—Carnival, Royal Caribbean and NCL—is to build bigger. Royal Caribbean’s next class of ship, Genesis, will be capable of carrying well over 5,000 passengers. “People didn’t think it could be done,” Stuart said, “but the ships keep being delivered, bigger and bigger. There is more space to add things, and people want exciting things to do.”

NCL currently has 12 ships in service with three under construction. Along with the F3 ships, Aker Yards is building four new MSC Cruises vessels in the Musica class.

AT SEA—Travel Agent had the chance to snatch Andy Stuart, Norwegian Cruise Line’s executive vice president of sales and marketing, away from his hectic schedule aboard Norwegian Gem, as he talked to us about the future of NCL and what was on the mind of its travel agent partners. Stuart met with about 45 agents on NCL’s newest ship, gathering immediate feedback and discussing a range of topics from online tools to Apollo Management’s $1 billion investment, which Stuart called a “good thing that validated our efforts,” adding, “it puts us in a strong position to go forward and potentially grow faster.”

Growing quickly is one thing, but growing the right way is paramount. In November, according to Stuart, NCL will become the youngest fleet in the industry with the sale of Norwegian Crown to Fred Olson Cruises and the addition of Norwegian Gem (NCL’s average ship age will be 5.5 years). “We simply get younger,” Stuart said. “Not the biggest, but most innovative and youngest.”

Stuart touched on three main goals going forward: drive demand, drive revenue and work with agents. He said agents are most impressed with the freestyle cruising element. “They [travel agents] get it,” Stuart said. “It’s genuine differentiation.”

There is room for improvement. Stuart said NCL will look to improve its group programs, though he was sketchy on how that would be accomplished. He also added that agents were looking for the cruise line to add more online tools to facilitate better reporting and keep a clearer line of goals.

While the feedback from agents was mostly positive, Stuart understands that not all agents are willing to express their true feelings when in the presence of company executives. To address that, Stuart left the room at one point, handing over the discussion to an independent party who recorded additional agent comments. “People will be more frank,” said Stuart, who will learn the results at a later time.

The travel agent community will also find out at a future time if NCL plans to cut out air commissions on bookings like Carnival and Royal Caribbean have already done. Stuart would not speculate, but did say it’s “not sensible to get with a higher cost structure.”


Aboard the Norwegian Gem

AT SEA—Travel Agent’s cruise editor David Eisen filed this report from the Norwegian Gem: Our first full day aboard Norwegian Gem was chock full of education and even a little fun. We first met the captain of Norwegian Gem, Mikael Hilden, on the ship’s bridge, and I can now say that I feel that much more safe aboard. I didn’t understand much of the technology and equipment, but I did spot a wheel, so I know someone’s driving.

After checking out the ship’s hardware, it was time for an activity that takes less brainpower: bowling. Yes, bowling. Norwegian Gem has a four-lane bowling alley housed in its Bliss Ultra Lounge, which, undoubtedly, is the swankiest spot on the ship—and the loudest. Video screens adorn the walls, while the floor is decorated with hip furniture and even two beds. The entire room gives off a warm orange glow and there are two VIP rooms, which offer bottle service and need to be reserved.

Now, back to the bowling, because this is where I get to toot my horn. Of all the journalists aboard, yours truly grabbed the top spot with a score of 144. (Not bad for not having rolled a bowling ball in more than a year.) Since there are only four lanes, I asked if getting a lane is difficult when the ship is full. I was told it’s not too bad, especially easier on days when the ship is in port. Bowling carries a $5 fee per person, which includes bowling shoes.

In the evening we dined at the Asian fusion restaurant Orchid Garden, which has everything from sushi to popular Thai and Chinese dishes. There also is a teppanyaki room off to the side (think Benihana).

From first glance, Norwegian Gem is a good-looking ship that offers fun and excitement at every turn. The ship also has trendy and modern furnishings, and its colors are bright and bold without being tacky.

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