As the new Norwegian Encore sailed to Great Stirrup Cay, Norwegian Cruise Line's private Bahamian isle, late last week, travel advisors, consortia partners, VIPs from local communities and media explored the new ship and also went ashore at the cay to see the new, luxurious Silver Cove experience.
Look for original photos of Silver Cove and extensive details about that, plus more from the ship itself, in stories over the next week here on www.travelagentcentral.com. Norwegian Encore was christened on Thursday at PortMiami by Grammy-winning recording artist Kelly Clarkson and is now sailing on Caribbean itineraries.
Goodbye Andy, Hello Harry
But the ship’s launch was also a “goodbye” for many guests to Andy Stuart, the line’s affable president and CEO, who announced earlier this fall that he would be stepping down from his role at year’s end, although he will remain a special advisor through March 31 to ensure a smooth transition.
The launch was also a chance for travel partners to get acquainted with Harry Sommer, the president, international of Norwegian Cruise Line's parent company, Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings, who will take the helm of NCL on January 1.
Also introducing herself to trade partners and media was Katina Athanasiou, the company’s newly appointed chief sales officer; she’s been in the travel industry for 22 years and actually began at what was then Radisson Seven Seas Cruises, the predecessor of Regent Seven Seas Cruises.
Her new role will involve maximizing opportunities across all third-party booking channels to drive the cruise line’s sales strategy. She formerly worked for the company in international meeting and incentive sales, and Stuart noted that she was promoted twice within the MICE channel.
“As we were looking at ways to take the organization forward, there was an opportunity for her to take over all of sales,” Stuart said. “She was just an obvious choice to bring charter/incentive sales and domestic sales together. She’s talented, smart and really personable and likes people, understands the business and is strong, tough, doesn’t take ‘any you know what’ and is going to be just a fantastic leader of our sales organization.”
“A strong team” is how Van Anderson, co-founder of Avoya Travel, described the new leadership. Emerson Hankamer, CEO of Vacations to Go, asked the new team of Sommer and Athanasiou what their priorities were for Partners First and the trade side of the business.
Athanasiou said, "one thing is really bringing it back to simple, and bringing it back to our core values of Free at Sea and that what we do in terms of our promotions are simpler and easier for you and all of the front-line advisors to actually be able to sell."
Simply put, "we got a little complicated for just a minute," she noted. "But what I love about our brand -- and this is what I love about Andy and Harry -- is that we're not afraid to change, to innovate, to be nimble and flexible, and in most instances we hit it out of the park. Some instances, it's not always perfect."
"First for me is making it a lot simpler in terms of promotions," she said. Secondly, she wants to assure that her team in responding to travel partners and working with them "isn't trying to do one size fits all. In today's market and where we go over the next five, 10, 15 years, the model of distribution channel is continuing to evolve and super quickly."
She said NCL has to do a better job in making sure that its team can support every single model for the best opportunity. She wants to support agents "in the way that you actually succeed."
Sommer again stressed that he's 100 percent committed to the trade. "We know that as a company, we cannot succeed without trade support. I say that privately, I say that publicly, I say that to anyone who will listen."
He talked about cuts made to commission in the airline and hotel sides of the travel industry and said that while it looks good to those companies economically on the surface, his view is: "I think that's a false economy," he stressed.
While much of the discussion focused on looking ahead philosophically with the new leadership team, much of Norwegian Encore’s debut was also a farewell tribute to Stuart, who has been with Norwegian Cruise Line since the late 1980's and is beloved by many trade partners.
“Andy has done such a fabulous job with the brand. I can talk for hours about it but the proof is right here,” said Sommer. “This is Andy’s ship.”
In Stuart’s five years as NCL’s leader, Sommer said Stuart really put his footprint on Norwegian Bliss and Norwegian Encore, as well as Norwegian Joy, which recently returned from China service and has been revitalized to make her a true sister to the other two Breakaway Plus-class vessels.
“So if you walk on the Joy, Bliss and Encore and say, ‘this is a fantastic ship,’ that’s a testament to what Andy did with our shipboard team to design something so incredible,” Sommer added.
The new NCL president also quipped that he ran into people in New York, where the ship debuted in North America prior to sailing to its home port in Miami, and he said those people had never been on a cruise ship. They asked him whether every ship looks as Norwegian Encore does. “Not quite,” he quipped in his reply.
“This is truly something spectacular and that is truly the legacy that Andy leaves behind as we will have these wonderful ships for decades.” But Sommer added, “the legacy he really leaves is the team, and I think we have the best team in the cruise industry.”
Sommer also praised the new CSO, noting that he tried to hire her in international awhile back and she turned him down. But he quipped that he and Athanasiou go back 10 years.
Certainly, as Norwegian introduced travel partners, media and loyal guests to the product on Norwegian Encore, Sommer noted that the new ship is also a credit to Frank Del Rio, the president and CEO, Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings, parent of Norwegian, Oceania Cruises and Regent Seven Seas Cruises.
Sommer noted that Del Rio came on Norwegian Encore when the ship was in New York, spent two days sailing down with the ship to Florida and spent the entire time “looking at every venue, every hallway, every piece of art, every stateroom – making sure she’s perfect and learning what we can for the next class of ships.”
Talking about the level of Del Rio’s involvement, Sommer said: “He’s involved in every menu, every recipe… We have a test kitchen back in our corporate headquarters where he tastes the food.” Sommer said that Del Rio, as the group’s CEO, shares best practices from Regent and Oceania, which have always had a strong focus on culinary. “I know NCL now has incredible food as well.”
Sommer added that NCL has always had great entertainment, but the company has also moved that excellence in entertainment over to the Oceania and Regent products as well. “So, there’s been great synergies between the brands and we’re thrilled at what we’ve been able to accomplish.”
He also introduced Isis Ruiz, the line’s new chief marketing officer, who joined NCL in 2010 and previously led international marketing and public relations; she’s also served in marketing services and trade marketing with the company.
For his part, Stuart said there was one thing in process that was not announced as yet that involves the onboard product. Calling it "pretty exciting," he said "Harry's going to have that privilege" of introducing it most likely, although, depending on timing, "I will, maybe possibly."
Stuart acknowledged it would be a "bittersweet" moment walking off Norwegian Encore, but he clearly takes great satisfaction in his career, the people at NCL and what everyone has accomplished together.
Stay tuned for more on Norwegian Encore this week.