A few days ago, I attended a briefing by Edie Bornstein, vice president of sales and marketing, Azamara Club Cruises, onboard Azamara Journey off the coast of Baja California. Bornstein provided first-hand perspective on the brand, its features, agent sales tips and more.
One factor is clear, she said: “Travel agents are paramount because this is an intricate product and we need a communicator in the industry. Travel agents do a fabulous job of translating our brand to the consumer.”
Here are some highlights for agents from that onboard briefing:
Evolution in Branding
The brand was born in May 2007 so it’s about a four-year-old brand. “But we really think of it as about an eight-month-old brand,” Bornstein said, “because we re-launched it in April 2010 as Azamara Club Cruises.”
Bornstein acknowledged agents and consumers may still see some “logo dysfunction” in certain areas such as the design of guest key cards or printing on napkins. As a marketing person, “I still cringe,” she noted, “because I want 100 percent of everything to have the new logo.”
But she said the line has opted to efficiently use up old supplies before ordering new ones. Starting in February, though, guests should see the new logo on everything.
Parent company Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. is a publicly traded company that owns six global brands. When RCCL acquired Azamara’s two 694-passenger ships, it invested $18 million to $20 million into each for upgrades and refurbishment.
With that in mind, “I want people to know how well and financially backed our company is,” said Bornstein. “I think that’s important [for agents to know and emphasize] when your biggest challenge is brand awareness.”
Deluxe to Upmarket
Agents will recall that in its infancy, Azamara was branded as a deluxe product. “This brand was born out of nowhere, and [as with any upstart] it had its growing pains,” acknowledged Bornstein.
The brand spent time under Celebrity Cruises’ wing, before RCCL decided to break out the brand on its own. Richard Fain, RCCL’s chairman and CEO, hired Larry Pimentel as president and CEO. Pimentel, in turn, hired Bornstein and others.
The new team sailed on the ships, reviewed guest comment forms and talked to countless agents. As a result, Azamara’s branding evolved into “upmarket” rather than simply deluxe. “It’s a crowded market out there and CLIA forces every cruise line to give [itself] a designation,” said Bornstein. Azamara’s major competitors already were branding themselves under such terminology as deluxe, upper premium, luxury and ultra-luxury
She said that new upmarket philosophy helps the line do a better job of differentiating the product and creating a wider swath of new potential clients. “That term is a term like beauty – it’s in the eyes of the beholder,” stressed Bornstein. “It means different things to different people.”
Bornstein believes luxury boutique hotels around the world -- more so than any other cruise lines – are her brand’s top competitors. When clients ask about booking a boutique hotel experience in Europe, Bornstein hopes retailers put Azamara into the mix of vacation options.
But what about Azamara’s major cruise competitors? Based on guest feedback and data, the line identifies those as Seabourn Cruise Line, SeaDream Yacht Club, Oceania Cruises, Crystal Cruises, Silversea Cruises and Regent Seven Seas Cruises.
All are working well at differentiating themselves in the marketplace, says Bornstein. “Kudos to them,” she noted, as better differentiation on all fronts helps makes it easier for agents to understand the products and match the right client to the right product.
Bornstein describes the line’s two existing 30,277 ton vessels – Azamara Journey and Azamara Quest – as “small jewel boxes.”
From the average travel agent’s sales perspective, the ships are almost identical. So why does the line publish deck plans for both ships? “That’s truth in advertising,” stated Bornstein.
Tiny differences do occur, she said, such as the particular location of a handicapped stateroom. But should an agent sell one over the other based on hardware? No, says Bornstein. The only good reason to sell one over the other is the specific itinerary during the time the client wants to travel.
The R Ship Dilemma
Yet while Azamara’s two ships are virtually identical, Bornstein acknowledged to reporters that she tends to bristle when people say – all the time –“oh those ships you have are former R ships [the former Renaissance Cruises vessels], so you’re just like Oceania.”
While the hardware between lines may be similar, Bornstein said the onboard products are different. Princess too operates former R ships, yet she is rarely asked about that line in comparison.
So how does Bornstein recommend agents handle any client’s R ship questions? What should agents do when the client says, ‘oh, they have the same ships as that other line?’” It’s simple, according to Bornstein.
Just pick any type of aircraft – say the Boeing 747. Tell clients that British Airways, Emirates, Virgin Atlantic and Singapore Airlines all fly 747s, but they don’t have the same onboard products.
“From the minute you call their reservations office, go on their Internet sites, or step on one of their aircraft, the hardware takes on a whole new meaning with each and every one of those brands, particularly depending what airline cabin category you’re [traveling in].”
Another analogy agents might use? Bornstein said she lives in a gated community with six different model homes. But even homes of the same model look totally different in everything from curb appeal to interior furniture and appointments.
“Our key brand differentiator is destination immersion,” according to Bornstein. She said that encompasses six words and three thoughts: “Longer Stays, More Overnights and Night Tourism.”
Bornstein’s view: “Those six words define destination immersion. It’s great that we get to these 180 ports but if you’re going to…just pull in by 9 a.m. and out by 5 p.m. [as other lines do], then to me then you really haven’t experienced the destination.” That’s particularly true if the port destination comes to life at night or if several days ashore are needed to experience the destination.
So when an Azamara ship calls at St. Tropez, Bornstein said it’s going to still be there at 6 p.m., when many other lines have already sailed. In St. Petersburg, an Azamara ship might stay up to three full days; it typically would dock down the street from the Hermitage and clients might sightsee in a leisurely fashion in St. Petersburg and also take a flight to Moscow one day if desired.
Night tourism also allows guests to immerse themselves in local events. For example, “this ship was in London on June 1, and it was docked in London -- not in Greenwich, not in Harwich but on the River Thames in London, and it was staying overnight,” said Bornstein, who was onboard.
“I got off the vessel at 7 p.m., I hopped onboard one water taxi [to go one stop] down to the O2 Arena, I attended the Rod Stewart concert and afterward I had dinner at a three-star Michelin restaurant,” she said. “I arrived back onboard at about 3 a.m.” She said the only other way to do that would have been to book a land-based vacation.
She urged agents to consider Azamara itineraries for clients with specialized interests. For example, the line just doesn’t sail to Monte Carlo, but it offers guests the ability to go during the Grand Prix of Monte Carlo and even will sell clients tickets to the race at non-scalper prices. Similarly, the line can take guests to Rio de Janeiro during Carnivale.
Wherever its ships sail, “everything we do evolves around four key brand pillars,” said Bornstein. She describes destination immersion as the powerhouse of those pillars. Others include wines and cuisines of the world; wellness and vitality; and extraordinary service.
“I think that extraordinary service is often over promised and under-delivered,” Bornstein said, noting that agents can tell their clients: “Azamara Cruises puts its money where its mouth is.”
Prior to April 2010, everybody sailing on Azamara got a butler, even those sailing in an inside stateroom. “When Larry and I sailed on these vessels, we didn’t quite understand the concept and what were they delivering,” she said. “Respectfully, at that point in time, [the butlers] were really nothing more than glorified stateroom attendants in tuxedos.”
In April 2010, the product delivery was revamped. Now only suite guests have a butler. And, Azamara hired the same firm that trains the butler staff for Her Royal Majesty Queen Elizabeth II to train those crew members. So for clients wondering what the line’s service quality is about, agents might utilize the fact that Azamara has proper English trained butlers in its suites.
Bornstein also reported that when she and Pimentel arrived at Azamara, the brand was happily scoring 260 out of a possible 300 for the guest’s overall cruise experience rating. “Now we’re consistently scoring in the high 290s,” she said, noting that agents can sell the product with confidence.
Still, she was respectful to sister line, Celebrity Cruises, noting that Celebrity laid a good foundation. “It’s not a good-to-great strategy we’re implementing,” she said, in reference to the former product. “It’s a great-to-exceptional strategy.”
But she stressed that Pimentel isn’t ever satisfied with a score of 299, adding: “He wants to know why the score isn’t 301? So, it’s an evolutionary process.”
With the vessels’ size and onboard aura, Bornstein says agents should explain to potential clients about the line’s “country club casual atmosphere.” Dress onboard is described as resort casual. Even when any Azamara ship is sold out and carrying 694 guests, she believes the experience is still intimate.
We found Azamara Journey quite easy to navigate. Tell clients they won’t be far from anything including dining, shops, the pool area, spa or entertainment. Décor-wise, the ships boast rich woods and appointments, but with a comfortable – not stuffy – feel.
A good case in point? The Drawing Room with its fireplace, piano, comfortable furniture, prolific bookshelves, and attractive ceiling with painted birds could just as easily be a cozy yet large drawing room at a country home.
In addition, “we just rolled out aromatherapy,” says Bornstein. “If you go to certain parts of the vessels, just like Las Vegas, just like many boutique hotels do, we have [touches of] aromatherapy flowing down through each of the vessels.”
Another factor that lends itself to a club-like environment? Azamara ships often dock at places the big ships can’t. In Venice, Bornstein stressed that the line docks much closer to St. Mark’s Square and the heart of the city than do other lines using the normal cruise piers.
Azamara currently sails to 60 countries and 180 ports worldwide. It also attracts a decidedly global clientele. While Bornstein didn’t have 2010 final numbers yet, she shared the previous year’s statistics so agents can understand the mix of onboard guests.
In 2009, 56 percent of Azamara’s guests were from the United States and 11 percent hailed from Canada. The other 33 percent were an eclectic international mix of nationalities – predominantly originating in the United Kingdom, Germany, Australia and the Nordic countries.
“What’s critical is that whomever sails on us, they [must be] comfortable speaking English, because English is the language spoken onboard primarily,” Bornstein said. But if a guest requires translator services, the line can often assist.
She tells the trade that each ship’s 480 crew members originate from 50 countries across the globe. During our time aboard this week, we met crew members from Costa Rica, Honduras, the Philippines, South Africa, Norway, Jamaica and France, just to name a few.
Another top sales pitch tactic for agents is to discuss the line’s value proposition – and specifically the inclusivity of Azamara’s rebranded product.
Now all gratuities are included in the cruise fare. Guests from diverse cultures with different tipping philosophies no longer have to fuss about the amount to give and whether they’re doing what’s appropriate or even agree with the line’s suggested amount.
In turn, crew members are paid for delivering exemplary service every day all the time. “We have a saying that goes: ‘Happy crew, happy guests,’” said Bornstein.
Agents need to know that bottled water, soda, coffees and teas are included in the cruise fare as well. So are glasses of red and white wine with lunch and dinner. “These boutique wines aren’t typical wines,” says Bornstein. “They are really a fabulous palette and array of wines.
Agents might stress the free shuttle buses the line operates to and from port communities. Just be sure clients understand that these are shuttles to port cities, not to destinations further away. For example, the shuttle might go to the heart of Civitavecchia, the port for Rome, but not to Rome itself; the latter would constitute a shore excursion that carries a fee.
Suite guests also receive many other inclusions. Among those are the services of a butler, complimentary dining at Aqualina and the Prime C Steakhouse and complimentary use of the Thalassotherapy area. “It’s an absolutely, tremendous value to upsell [guests] into the suites,” Bornstein said.
When compared to competitor pricing [as much as can be done], Bornstein said an Azamara Club Cruises vacation runs about 30 percent less that some other comparable cruise products. In the course of a seven-night voyage, typical guests might save an additional $1,000 per couple in onboard spending over other less inclusive cruise products.
Why aren’t the line’s two ships totally non-smoking? Bornstein said that “effective January 1, there is only one area on each of the vessels where you can smoke, and that is a corner of the pool deck. That’s as close to totally non-smoking as we can get it, because we do deal with a global clientele and they want that option.”
Previously, smoking was also permitted on the left side of the Looking Glass Lounge, so the policy was just tightened. As for staterooms, Bornstein said they don’t want guests smoking in staterooms, so the cabin steward will relay those thoughts to any guests who are found to be smoking in their stateroom or suite.
As for whether kids are welcome onboard, “cash is king and anybody’s money in any currency we love…because we are a publically traded company and it’s about delivering ROI (return on investment), “said Bornstein, adding, “but this is not really a vessel for kids.”
On one December holiday sailing, the line added a camp counselor for the 24 kids onboard and it will do that from time to time if needed. But Bornstein wants agents to know Azamara has no kids’ club facilities or regular kids programs onboard.
Bornstein added: “If somebody has kids, we [try to] sell them on one of our stellar sister companies like Royal or Celebrity because they have fabulous physical plants and fabulous programs for children of all ages, from 2 to 17. We do not. But having stated that, we take kids and we accept them. It is what it is.”
If you plan to put guests onboard with kids, Bornstein advises that they should bring their own Game Boys, games, toys and other diversions so the kids won’t be bored.
Charters are lucrative for agents to really consider from the revenue perspective. “Anytime you have 250 couples or a group that encompasses that, these ships are ‘charterable,’” Bornstein said.
Azamara will help the agent with customizing the journey to the group’s special interests.
For more information on all aspects of Azamara Club Cruises visit www.cruisingpower.com.