Three Moves to Watch in Luxury Cruises

Guests booking a Silversea Verandah Suite can enjoy an al fresco breakfast.
 
Guests booking a Silversea Verandah Suite can enjoy an al fresco breakfast.

As 2016 unfolds, Travel Agent asked travel advisors about the “most watchable” cruise moves as the industry moves into spring. Top of the list? Advisors we spoke to cited three prime developments in luxury cruising.

A Change at the Helm

Perhaps the most noteworthy move concerns the recent appointment of Mark Conroy, former president of Regent Seven Seas Cruises and a veteran executive at several other lines, to head up Silversea CruisesMiami office with responsibility for the Americas. (Kristian Anderson, former senior vice president and general manager for the Americas, has left the company.) Feedback about Conroy assuming control of the ultra-luxury line’s North American helm, owned by Italy’s Lefebvre family, was both swift and positive. 

“Mark Conroy is very well respected by travel advisors and, more importantly, his personal relationship with past cruise guests,” says Mary Jean Thompson, TravelDesigns by Campbell, Dallas, who serves on the Virtuoso cruise and marketing committees. Her luxury clients have fond memories of sailing with Conroy in the past and often ask her about him. “They have wondered if he would ever return, and now I can share — Mark is back,” she says enthusiastically.

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Vicky Garcia, co-owner and COO, Cruise Planners, an American Express Travel Representative, Coral Springs, FL, tells us: “I was very pleasantly surprised to see that Mark is back. He is a great guy and a powerhouse in the luxury market and has so much to offer Silversea as they go through their next chapter with a new build on the way.” Similarly, “I am more than excited about Mark’s new position,” stresses Sally Goldwasser, president, Unique Travel of Palm Beach, another Virtuoso member, who says: “Silversea was always a top luxury cruise company but has had some problems. Mark is the perfect choice to again bring it back to its top of the market.”

From Conroy’s perspective, “we need to continue to focus on making sure the product is where it needs to be and I think it’s in good shape. We have Silver Muse coming on and major dry dock plans for each of the existing vessels. So, we’re going to continue to focus on product quality and I think that’s still quite good.” He believes the real issue is a need to more strongly engage with and listen to travel advisors. “I operate with an open book and when I’m speaking to partners I like to tell them where we are and where we see our relationship together and then to ask them how we can improve it together,” Conroy says. “I just think we need to focus on that.”

Dining en suite on a private balcony is an option onboard Silver Whisper and other Silversea ships.
Dining en suite on a private balcony is an option onboard Silver Whisper and other Silversea ships.

Silversea also offers superb value for ultra-luxury, he says, noting that shore excursions are included and there are enticing offers for both Venetian Society members and new guests. “We have not been very aggressive on really pointing that out,” Conroy says. He’ll address that and find ways to help agents upsell their clients. While Conroy was at Regent, the line created price comparisons with its product and that of premium and contemporary brands, showing that — when inclusions are considered — “luxury doesn’t cost that much more.”

Comparatively between the luxury products, “if you look at the pricing, Silversea is probably equal to or maybe even somewhat less than Regent or Seabourn,” Conroy explains. “But we haven’t told that story to the agency community so I plan to spend a lot of time doing that.”

Ruth Turpin, owner, Cruises Etc., Fort Worth, TX, says of Conroy: “He is one of the most involved, dynamic and travel advisor friendly executives the cruise world has ever had. I have always loved working with him and I think he will do a great job at Silversea.” Conroy believes that the entire luxury segment has an opportunity to show travel advisors that they can evolve with their customers as they move through their life cycle of cruising.

Look for Silversea to also begin focusing more on “intimacy” rather than “small ships.” Why? “We talk about small ships but the reality is that they’re not that small,” Conroy acknowledges. “What they are is that they’re intimate, but because they’re still a good size, they’re good sea keepers and very spacious with 300 or 400 or 500 guests aboard.”

Conroy certainly has witnessed the industry’s evolution over the years. He began his cruise career working in Norwegian Cruise Line’s mailroom in 1973 before moving to reservations and then group sales and inventory control, following which he moved into higher levels of management. He also previously served as president of Commodore Cruise Line, Renaissance Cruises, Regent Seven Seas Cruises and Regent Hotels the Americas.

He’s known Silversea’s owners, the Lefebvre family, since the era of Silversea’s founding. At that time, Conroy was at Radisson Seven Seas Cruises, when that line was operating Diamond and Song of Flower. The two companies — linked via their relationship with late industry legend Mauro Terrevazzi, founder of V.Ships — even met to see if they could work together back then. “We talked about a merger but at the end of the day, the ownerships could never come up with a formula that made everybody happy,” says Conroy.

But the two groups remained friendly. As a result, Silversea’s Chairman Manfredi Lefebvre d’Ovidio says, “I’ve known, appreciated and respected Mark for more than 20 years and cannot hide my satisfaction in having him join us. He is an energetic leader with extensive knowledge of the cruise industry.” Top accomplishments for Conroy include developing Regent Seven Seas Cruises from a single small ship operation to a major luxury cruise brand; he also shepherded the line’s movement into the Prestige Cruise Holdings fold several years back. He was chairman of Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) from 2002 to 2004 and inducted into CLIA’s Hall of Fame in 2013.

“Something that really excites me because it’s bringing me back to my roots is the expedition business,” Conroy stresses, noting that he ran the first Antarctic charters on the Hanseatic back in 1994 and also was involved at Regent in chartering Minerva; Regent then dropped out of expedition cruising in 2006 to focus on its classic luxury ships. Silversea Expeditions operates three expedition ships with a fourth, the existing Silver Cloud, to be refurbished before joining that adventure product fleet in late 2017.

Expedition cruising is “a fun business to be in,” says Conroy, adding that it also offers a broader portfolio of product for Silversea to both maintain and acquire new customers. “A lot of people that take expedition cruises might not otherwise cruise,” he says. Either they hadn’t thought of it or have a misperception about it. But if they opt for a Silversea expedition ship, he believes they’ll see the pampering hospitality provided and give the classic fleet a try later on.

Dining en suite on a private balcony is an option onboard Silver Whisper and other Silversea ships.
Unveiling the rendering of SS United States are Edie Rodriguez (right), president and CEO, Crystal Cruises, and Susan Gibbs, executive director of the SS United States Conservancy (and granddaughter of the ship’s designer, William Francis Gibbs).

Hope for a Storied Ocean Liner

Infused with a bigger bankroll following its $550 million purchase by Genting Hong Kong last year, Crystal Cruises whipped up widespread agent interest with its February announcement about possibly resurrecting America’s classic liner, the SS United States, launched in 1952. Crystal signed an exclusive purchase option agreement with the SS United States Conservancy to possibly bring the ship into compliance with the latest standards and return the vessel to service as an 800-passenger luxury liner. The once proud ship still holds the coveted Blue Riband as the fastest passenger liner in regular service to cross the Atlantic Ocean.

However, it’s languished in a Philadelphia pier along the Delaware River for two decades, as supporters hoping to save it have hit financial roadblocks time after time. While any plans for the liner’s potential relaunch by Crystal hinge on the results of a technical feasibility study to be completed later this year, the luxury line has — in fast-paced fashion — diversified in the luxury segment to create new experiences for high-end guests. For example, Crystal River Cruises launches this summer in Europe; the Crystal Esprit luxury yacht launched in late 2015; and Crystal Luxury Air, a new airline is set to fly for luxury charters and company-scheduled departures affiliated with Crystal land or cruise programs. The fleet will include a new Boeing 777-200 LR, a Boeing 787 Dreamliner, an ACJ319 jet and a Bombardier Global Express XRS.

In a recent Maritime Matters blog, Peter Knego, a cruise expert and ocean liner historian, noted that extensive studies were done more than a decade ago to see if the S.S. United States could be used by Norwegian Cruise Line, then a subsidiary of Genting-owned Star Cruises; Genting’s Chairman Tam Sri Lim Kok Thay was “especially keen on the project,” says Knego. Ultimately, though, nothing happened, so what’s different now? Knego pointed out that Genting now owns the Lloyd Werft shipyard in Bremerhaven, Germany. In theory, at least, that cuts out the middle man and could reduce shipyard costs associated with major repairs, construction and outfitting.

Crystal Esprit, launched by Crystal Cruises late last year, will make its Europe debut this summer.
Crystal Esprit, launched by Crystal Cruises late last year, will make its Europe debut this summer.

For now, Crystal has committed to covering all costs associated with preserving the S.S. United States (some $60,000 or so monthly) while undertaking the technical feasibility study and has appointed U.S. Coast Guard Rear Admiral Tim Sullivan to head the project. For full regulatory compliance, the former liner would have to be extensively re-built to meet over 60 years of new maritime rules and shipbuilding practices. In addition, the interior is essentially stripped and so nearly all of the ship would need to be reconstructed from the keel up.

Prior to her retirement in 1969, the SS United States was a glamorous and elegant ship that transported four U.S. presidents, international royalty, Hollywood’s “golden-era” celebrities and a million passengers. Edie Rodriguez, Crystal’s president and CEO, envisions the ship could have 400 luxurious suites measuring about 350 square feet plus dining, entertainment, spa and other luxury guest experiences. A few original features including the Promenade and Navajo Lounge would be retained, the partners say.

Potential new itineraries might include traditional transatlantic voyages, other itineraries from key U.S. ports and global voyages. One big plus is that the vessel is U.S. flagged. So, potentially, Crystal could — under current Jones Act regulations — legally operate the vessel from one U.S. port to another without the need for any foreign port call, something foreign flagged vessels must do. Still, an all-American crew or, in lieu of that, a government-approved agreement allowing flexibility in crew sourcing, would be required.

But even without that, the ship still could operate under the same rules as foreign-flagged cruise ships as Crystal’s other ships do now. “Crystal is the perfect brand to take the iconic SS United States and create a unique product that will be at once historical and luxurious,” says Scott Koepf, senior vice president of sales at Avoya Travel, who’s thrilled to watch this project develop.

Ponant’s L’Austral offers 20,398-square-foot (plus balcony) Prestige Suites among its 132 accommodations.
Ponant’s L’Austral offers 20,398-square-foot (plus balcony) Prestige Suites among its 132 accommodations.

Oceangoing Small Ships Deliver Luxury Adventure

It’s not just big luxury lines making waves. Small-ship luxury oceangoing lines are now calling at exotic ports worldwide. So leadership is more critical than ever. Earlier this year, Navin Sawhney, formerly with Cunard, Royal Viking Line, Sea Goddess, Holland America Line and Tauck, was appointed the new CEO of Ponant Cultural Cruises & Expeditions for the Americas; he was most recently COO. Ponant was acquired last fall by Artemis Holding Company of the Pinault Family.

What do luxury clients want in small-ship, luxury oceangoing adventure? “If I look back a generation ago, consumers were all about things that were very, very tangible,” Sawhney says. Today, though, luxury means different things. “It means ‘me’ time,” he says. “It means ‘okay my basic needs are all well satisfied with travel, but I need to come back totally inspired and totally transformed.’ This type of a category simply didn’t exist [before]. The experience now matters a great deal more.”

Put another way? “Customers want to be ‘present’ in the moment,” stresses Sawhney. “They don’t want to be a spectator. They want to participate.” Thanks to social media and an evolution in consumer mindset, they also desire to travel with people of similar tastes and interests. They seek adventure, exploration and to return from their voyage with their curiosity satisfied. “That is the sweet spot for us,” he tells Travel Agent. “That is the audience we cater to.”

Antarctica, a featured destination on some itineraries from Crystal, Ponant and Silversea, among others, is a bucket-list item for many luxury travelers.
Antarctica, a featured destination on some itineraries from Crystal, Ponant and Silversea, among others, is a bucket-list item for many luxury travelers.

For Ponant, operating a new fleet of sleek, modern small ships across the globe, itineraries are developed with the theme of going where others usually don’t venture — to the Arctic, Australia’s Kimberley region, New Guinea and Madagascar, among other exotic destinations. This year, Ponant also will have three ships in Antarctica and two ships doing the Northwest Passage.

Skilled travel advisors are increasingly valuable to Ponant and other small ship lines, which often offer webinars to help agents understand the differences in products. Fortunately, “agents are becoming more discerning about which client to match to the type of product and how a river cruise client could be vastly different from the client who likes an expedition cruise,” Sawhney says. The ships might have the same number of guests, for example, but there’s a contrast between the client seeking an adventurous Zodiac landing on a frozen Antarctic terrain inhabited by penguins and the one walking off a ship in Amsterdam for a city tour and beer tasting.

“Given its ownership roots in France, Ponant also differentiates itself with a distinctive French style, elegance, savoir faire and brand-name luxury partner perks from such brands as Veuve Clicquot, Ladurée and Ducasse Conseil; the bilingual crew speak both English and French onboard. “All of those kinds of things give us a certain flair and all those things are very unique about us,” says Sawhney. Most of Ponant’s accommodations have balconies plus its “green” fleet boasts Clean Ship certifications. “It’s a fun brand to be in,” Sawhney emphasizes. “People come back totally inspired and transformed.” 

More High-End High-Seas Options

Updates and new features are also on tap for oceangoing luxury lines this year. Here’s a sampling.

* Refreshing the Fleet: Regent Seven Seas Cruises will renovate most public spaces and redesign all suites in a $125 million fleet-wide refurbishment program: Seven Seas Navigator will be refreshed this spring followed by Seven Seas Voyager (late 2016) and Seven Seas Mariner (spring 2017).

* Back to the Volcano: New “San Juan & the Virgin Islands” and “Caribbean Hideaway” itineraries for Windstar Cruises will call at Little Bay, Montserrat. Windstar is the first cruise line to make regular port calls since the 1995 eruption of the Soufriere Hills volcano, which buried the island’s capital city.

* Europe or Bust: With 60+ departures to 100 destinations on three ships, Seabourn Cruise Line fields a robust 2016 European itinerary line-up. Ships sail to the French, Spanish and Italian Rivieras, the Greek Isles and Norwegian fjords. Activities include “Shopping with the Chef” or watersports from the ship’s foldout platform.

* Sea & Sky Safari: For a safari tour of eight countries over 20 days, SeaDream Yacht Club has partnered with TCS World Travel, a private jet tour operator. On May 5, 2017, the itinerary visits Spain, France, Italy, Monaco, Rwanda, Botswana, South Africa and Morocco.

* West Indies Explorer: In a series of new 11-day cruises called “West Indies Explorer,” in winter 2016-17, Viking Ocean Cruises will sail roundtrip from San Juan to such ports as to Tortola, Antigua, St. Lucia, Barbados, Guadeloupe, St. Kitts, St. Maarten and St. Thomas. 

* Partner Communications: In a new B2B communication platform for international sales partners, Hapag-Lloyd Cruises has relaunched “Time is Precious” with a new design and sales information; visit www.time-is-precious.com.

* A Refreshed Queen: Earlier this year, Cunard Line’s Queen Victoria received a multimillion-dollar update. The ship now sports nine new single staterooms, new carpeting, updated shops, large TVs in staterooms and sun awnings near the Lido pool and on the sides of the Grills Upper Terrace. 

Azamara Journey has refreshed public spaces and accommodations following a recent dry dock.
Azamara Journey has refreshed public spaces and accommodations following a recent dry dock.

* Updated Digs: Azamara Club CruisesAzamara Journey has emerged refreshed from a major dry dock. Its Club World Ocean and Owner’s Suites have been fully redesigned, plus two new Spa Suites were added adjacent to the Sanctum Spa, among many other enhancements. Azamara Quest will be similarly updated this spring. 

* Pampering Slumber: When Sirena enters service in April for Oceania Cruises, she’ll have a new Ultra Tranquility Bed System from Italy; the new coil spring structure has 3,000 coils, four times as many as a typical mattress. Other Oceania ships will receive the bedding during their scheduled dry docks.

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