On Site: Celebrity Ascent Debuts; Intel From the Line's Executives

After a poolside christening ceremony late last week at Port Everglades, FL, Celebrity Cruises’ newest Edge-class ship, the 3,260-passenger Celebrity Ascent is now sailing from that port for the winter 2023-24 season. The 140,600-gross-ton ship, a sister to Celebrity Beyond, is now operating a seven-night eastern Caribbean voyage to such destinations as St. Maarten, St. Thomas (U.S.V.I.) and the Dominican Republic. The cruise ship will sail in the Caribbean through late April, and then reposition to the Mediterranean for sailings from Barcelona and Civitavecchia (Rome).

Headlining Friday’s naming ceremony were co-godmothers Captain Sandy Yawn, star of Bravo TV's “Below Deck,” and her sister Michelle Dunham, founder of the Jacksonville School for Autism. Following maritime tradition, the duo officially named the ship with the breaking of a champagne bottle on the ship’s hull. The godmothers were escorted by Greek brothers Captains Dimitrios Kafetzis and Tasos Kafetzis, who are the ship's co-captains, a first for any Celebrity or cruise industry ship.

“With each new ship, our ambition is to debut the ultimate vacation experience and Celebrity Ascent achieves this by raising the bar for premium travel,” said Jason Liberty, president and CEO, Royal Caribbean Group, which is Celebrity’s parent company. From the brand’s perspective, "Celebrity Ascent has been designed to feed our guests travel wanderlust and provide unique experiences they will covet and love,” added Laura Hodges Bethge, Celebrity’s president.

Ship Highlights

Celebrity Ascent’s accommodations range from modern two-story villas with private plunge pools to staterooms with infinite verandas, as well as interior cabins. Highly popular on other Celebrity ships and now on the new ship too is The Retreat, an exclusive resort-within-a-resort area for suite guests, highlighted by a two-story sundeck.

#10141, a Sky Suite on Celebrity Ascent
No. 10141, a Sky Suite, has a wide entry area, a desk area and a spacious living area and private veranda. The window over the bed provides good natural lightflow into the bathroom.  (Photo by Susan J. Young)

During a two-night preview cruise last week, just prior to the christening, Travel Agent stayed in No. 10141, a 319-square-foot Sky Suite (U5 category), which provides access to the exclusive spaces, services and amenities of The Retreat. It also has an extra-large, 79-square-foot private veranda. The width of this suite and the floor-to-ceiling expanse of glass create an airy, open feeling.

The Sky Suite’s bathroom is simply spectacular with window (which can be shaded) to the bedroom. An elongated sink has two separate faucets on both ends. Most spectacular, though, is the combination spa tub and shower. One actually steps down from the bathroom floor into the extra-large, oval spa tub, which also has a rainforest shower and handheld shower options.

During our trade preview cruise last Wednesday, Liberty, Hodges Bethge and other executives participated in a travel advisor Q&A in the ship’s theater. Dream Vacations franchise owner Colleen Bryant of CJ’s Travel told the executives that “Celebrity has come a long way” on the accessibility side and acknowledged the new ship’s spacious, accessible accommodations.

That said, she also pointed out little things that need correcting such as unreachable light buttons and asked the team to consult more closely with mobility-impaired guests. “Our entire team is focused on accessibility, so if there are opportunities to improve, we always want to do that,” said Hodges Bethge. She told Bryant that in terms of “making sure that we’re consulting with the right people to get it right—I couldn’t agree with you more,” and promised to connect with the advisor about that. 

Favorite Onboard Spaces

Celebrity Ascent's Grand Plaza is a spot for socialization, relaxation, drinks and people watching.
Celebrity Ascent's Grand Plaza is one spot where guests gravitate to socialize and "people watch." Centrally located, it offers a cafe, restaurants, bars and more. (Photo by Susan J. Young)

As for favorite spaces on this ship, we personally couldn’t help gravitating—as we had on sister Celebrity Beyond—to the interior Grand Plaza, a multilevel space ringed by restaurants, the Craft Social bar and Café al Bacio, a coffee house. We enjoyed sitting at the cafe's comfortable seating areas adjacent to the glass, so we could peer over the open-air plaza. 

Simply put, it’s a great spot for "people watching" as guests constantly circulate through corridors on the plaza's various levels. Also, one can hear and see a live band, often with a singer, performing on the plaza's ground level. Plus, it’s a hoot to watch the unique entertainment at the Grand Plaza’s central bar, located in the middle of the venue: At appointed times, the bartenders simply stop making drinks and put on a show—masterfully juggling cocktail shakers and liquor bottles while moving to the music.

In the trade Q&A session, another advisor asked why the newest Edge-class ships have been lengthened, and Liberty cited, among other reasons, that Grand Plaza and how people were congregating there. As a result, “we needed to make that space bigger and that resulted in us making the ship a little bit bigger,” said Liberty. “We also wanted more space in order to improve our environmental footprint” and to make space for the new engine technology that’s coming." Plus, “we wanted some more culinary experiences,” he added.

From Hodges Bethge's perspective, “I’ll just add one other spot, which is the Sunset Bar in the back” which is now two stories. "Huge, right?” That comment drew applause from the trade audience. Many guests sailing on our short cruise absolutely loved that multilevel, multi-terraced aft bar, which delivers fantastic scenic views.

Among other highlights, Celebrity Ascent also now offers an expanded Rooftop Garden and Resort Deck, known for its unique cantilevered float pools. In addition, Blu, which is Celebrity’s “clean cuisine” restaurant offers a new outdoor dining terrace for guests who prefer al fresco experience. Le Voyage, providing an exclusive culinary experience by Chef Daniel Boulud, also sports an entirely new interior design and layout.

“To produce a ship like this is an incredible journey,” Liberty said. “To see the incredible success where Celebrity now is, it’s just really awe-inspiring and that all happens because all of us working together and partnering together to offer these incredible vacations."

Steve Eidelberg, vice president, marketing and partnerships, Cruise Brothers, said there have been a lot of changes in the industry this year and asked Celebrity’s executive team what’s had the most positive impact. Hodges Bethge said the line is totally focused on what Celebrity’s customers are telling the line. In fact, that "customer-centric" thread permeated throughout the entire Q&A session discussion. For instance, Hodges Bethge explained that Celebrity’s team reads every single guest comment card and pays close attention to what they desire. “So, any ship that we make is with that in mind,” she stressed. She cited five things that draw guests to Celebrity: “Service is, first and foremost, one of the most important things to them,” followed by accommodations, destinations, culinary offerings, and then entertainment and activities.

Celebrity Ascent's pool deck
The pool deck of the new Celebrity Ascent is shown here.   (Photo by Susan J. Young)

New Activities and Entertainment

“One of the things that I think you’re going to experience on Celebrity Ascent is that we very quickly leaned heavily into amazing entertainment and activities,” Hodges Bethge told advisors. Both have been sizably expanded to provide more fun things to do throughout the day and evening.

“So, we have the Experience Room," officially called The Annex, an activity venue with new interactive experiences, stressed Keith Lane, senior vice president of hotel operations. "You can do virtual golf. You can watch sports. You can do soccer, baseball, karaoke" with more than 1,000 songs to choose from. And guests can rent that room for up to 15 people with food and beverage-service from Craft Social. One of Lane's personal favorite things there is the Golden Tee,” a golf simulator. Guests can "tee off" and play at any of 90 different real-life golf courses. Other activities in The Annex include game-day streaming and a movie night.

Speaking of Craft Social, another big TV there elevates its experience as a sports bar. Plus, the line added more bar bites to that venue's menu. “In addition to that, bourbon-tasting is a new option. Celebrity partnered with Rabbit Hole, Whistle Pig and Blanton's, and “we’ve created our own Celebrity Select bourbon,” says Lane, which is for sale in Craft Social.

Lane also pointed out that Celebrity now has augmented reality in The Club, where an '80s retro experience on the floor is activated when guests move their bodies. And on the pool deck, "we have this SLVR, which is this unbelievable lighting system," says Lane. That new experience, called “Ascent After Dark: Shine the Night,” transforms the Resort Deck into a radiant stage with live performances, a prism light show and DJ playlists.

The interior of Eden, where Celebrity has introduced three new shows on Celebrity Ascent.
Celebrity Ascent's Eden hosts three new shows, part of enhanced entertainment and activities for the Celebrity brand. (Susan J. Young)

In addition, Celebrity Ascent offers its guests six new live productions—three in the ship’s theater, three in Eden. Guests will also find more live music from bow to stern, and a redesigned casino with new casino games. For a more detailed entertainment update on the new shows, check out this recent update.

Of course, many favorite venues from other Edge-class ships have also returned to Celebrity Ascent, too. Those include the Magic Carpet, a multi-purpose cantilevered venue above the sea, where guests can sip cocktails or enjoy dinner.

Record Year, Marketing Push 

“We’ve had a record year this year and things are looking really bright for 2024,” Hodges Bethge told the advisors. “We’ve had record travel partner bookings and that’s because of all of you. I often say to my team that this is a team sport and it’s not only the team internally, it’s the team on the ship and all of you.”

One of those shipboard team members is Jesse Hamilton, a popular specialty performer with Celebrity’s guests. Shown in the photo below, he kicked off the trade Q&A with a high energy performance, just one of many we saw aboard the new Celebrity Ascent.

Jesse Hamilton, a popular entertainer for Celebrity Cruises.
Jesse Hamilton, a popular specialty performer with Celebrity's guests, kicks off the executive Q&A with travel advisors. (Photo by Susan J. Young)

Also motivating the trade audience onboard Celebrity Ascent in a different way was Michael Scheiner, Celebrity’s senior vice president and chief marketing officer. He said that 2024 will provide “a huge opportunity to drive a lot more demand than we’ve ever had before and everything really kicked off last week” when the line started running national television ads. They'll continue strongly through the first quarter and will pick up again in the fourth quarter of 2024.

“Everything for us at this point is focused on the guest,” Scheiner said, and, so, when looking at the line’s advertising, whether advisors see the content itself or even just where the ads show up, “it’s all places that our target customer is. So, they’ll be a lot more of our presence, messaging the things that our consumers care about, and really focusing on where the brand is going.”

Katina Athanasiou, senior vice president, sales and services for the Americas, said that, “especially for our travel partners, one of the beautiful things about having so much media presence going into 2024 is that you have the opportunity to supplement and amplify the messaging, [which] will be more consistent than we ever had as a brand.”

That means “more eyeballs, more demand being generated for all of you,” Athanasiou said. She urged the advisors to connect with their sales manager “so we can give you a plan and we can begin to supplement that together.”

Advice From Liberty

During the trade Q&A session, Tom Fenno, a Cruise Planners franchise owner from Wyoming, asked: “What do you perceive as the biggest threat to our industry, our ability to travel, and what can we do to mitigate that threat?”

Liberty cited “two things that we need to be very focused on in terms of making sure that we always have a right to operate." One is local anti-tourism sentiment in certain destinations with a high volume of visitors—not simply due to cruise visitation but from many other travel segments, as well. Liberty says that across all brands “we need to be sensitive to make sure that we continue to diversify our destinations and to build incredible concepts,” mentioning Perfect Day at CocoCay, beach clubs and so on. It's also important to “make sure that we’re really good listeners in our communities and we build up our communities in that support,” Liberty said. That means trying to assure that someone doesn’t tell cruise lines they can’t come because of hefty tourism volumes or community impact. 

The second thing, he said, is trying to figure out “How do we decarbonize? How do we get to a net zero emissions basis.” He said the line must be set on a path “to prepare ourselves to take on alternative fuels as they become available. So, we think about that in the future ships.” He cited Royal Caribbean Group’s goals of net zero by 2050 and building of the first net zero ship by 2035, he said. Liberty also said that right now the industry is trying to evolve the technology to meet the alternative fuels as they come.

Top executive Q&A Discussion, attended by travel advisors in Celebrity Ascent's theater.
Executives from Celebrity Cruises and Royal Caribbean Group conducted a Q&A session with travel advisors in Celebrity Ascent's theater. (Photo by Susan J. Young)

At the same time, “the propensity to cruise is at all-time highs,” he said, citing younger generations coming in, more family travel, more multigenerational travel and more people with the time to travel—whether that’s via retirements or more discretionary funds. “Most of all, post-COVID, “we appreciate our families and our friends, and we want to build memories and experiences with them.”

So, the tailwinds for cruise from "a demographics standpoint, secular trends standpoint and population standpoint are really exceptional" compared to other forms of travel, he explained. Now, it's just about balancing those incredible positive tailwinds with addressing anti-tourism sentiments in some destinations and how to reach net zero emissions.  

Other Advisor Questions

Teena Dowd, owner/travel specialist, Vacations for Canadians in Ancaster, Ontario, Canada, asked what the most critical factor was for Celebrity’s long-term success.

"Giving guests who come aboard things they absolutely love," said Hodges Bethge. Pointing to those five guest passions she mentioned earlier, “our job is to take those things and innovate them in a way that just elevates it” so guests say, “Now I can’t vacation any other way.”

“And that’s really, honestly, our North Star every single day,” she emphasized. “If we do not do right by customers and we don’t give them the things that they absolutely covet and love, they’re not going to come back to us. So, that has to be what we work up every day worried about. Honestly, the rest of that comes when you do that right.”

Listening to the guest feedback caused the line to recently remove gratuities from the line's all-inclusive option; now that only includes Wi-Fi and drinks. But not all advisors agree. “I can only tell you what my clients are saying,” said Nancy Yoffe, franchise owner of Cruise Planners in Summit, NJ. “They’re not happy about it.” Those comments elicited strong audience applause. Listening to Yoffe’s perspective, the executives said they’ll continue to monitor the situation, but again pointed to their overall guest feedback.

Steve Solomon, another Cruise Planners franchise owner in San Diego, CA, asked the executives about the possibility of putting the luxurious Retreat concept on a small ship as a standalone Celebrity offering. Some of his clients love The Retreat but not the bigger ship. Liberty said that all the brands—to some extent—have smaller products, including Celebrity’s own 100-passenger Galapagos ship, and also said it was important to take care not to blur differentiation between the brands.

Mary Lynne Bracewell, an Expedia Cruises franchise owner in Washington, asked Liberty about what great piece of advice he had been given along his career path—something that led him to where he is today and how it impacts his leadership. Joining Royal Caribbean Group 18 years ago, Liberty said he was about 30 years old at the time, and “I was known to have pretty sharp elbows. And I was also somebody that liked to get credit for my hard work.” But his predecessor in the CFO job, Brian Rice, pulled him aside and gave him this valuable advice. “That was to go out and make other people look like heroes,” said Liberty. “And when you put it together it makes a lot of sense. As your career progresses, of course, you realize more and more that you can only do so much—that it takes an incredible village of incredibly talented people to be able to do that.”

Also, “typically, there are people involved in deciding how you progress, whether that’s at a board level or a management level and you’re much better off filling a stadium full of fans,” he said, as that results in “people cheering for you. If you only focus on yourself, you’ll walk into that stadium and you’ll be clapping for yourself and that’s not going to get you very far.”

Similarly, on Celebrity Ascent and all the lines’ ships, “we want our guests to walk away with this feeling that creates memories with their friends and families,” he says. Overall, by working together to create a feeling of teamwork, that’s how “we make ourselves better each and every day.” Pointing to 2023 as a record year for bookings and the way the line is seeing business go for 2024, Hodges Bethge told the advisor audience that “our business is doing phenomenal because of wonderful partners like you.”

For more information, visit www.celebritycruises.com.

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