Hello Down There

CRUISE LINE EXECUTIVES HAVE LONG CONTENDED THAT THEY COMPETE NOT AGAINST ONE ANOTHER BUT AGAINST THE LARGER VACATION MARKET. That argument, in fact, allowed Carnival Corporation to pass regulatory and antitrust hurdles in acquiring P&O Princess in 2002. In a story that is now well known throughout the industry, Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. was left standing at the alter without a bride when Carnival Corporation made a last-minute hostile bid for Princess P&O.

What’s not as well known is that in an attempt to quash Carnival’s bid, RCCL argued in a letter to travel agents that, if approved, the newly merged Carnival/Princess company would control more than 50 percent of all cruise berths, hence imposing an effective monopoly on the market. Carnival countered that it, like all other cruise lines, competed in the overall vacation market, of which cruising represents less than 3 percent. U.S. Federal Trade Commission officials nodded in Carnival Corp.’s favor and approved the merger by a narrow margin.

It should come as little surprise then that cruise lines look to their competitors in the broader vacation market for inspiration and ideas to invigorate their own products. What is it that Las Vegas and Orlando do so well to attract vacationers — and keep them coming back for more?

“We see ourselves in the vacation market, not just the cruise market, so we look at the entire global vacation industry for inspiration,” Carnival Cruise Lines’ then-President and CEO Bob Dickinson tells The Avid Cruiser. “Las Vegas and Orlando are certainly the two most successful vacation destinations in the United States, but we also look at places such as the Middle East.”

Dickinson says Carnival is keeping an eye on tourism developments in Dubai. “There’s a lot of investment there, and a lot of new ideas in the process,” the Carnival chief says. “We look at how consumers react to what’s going on there and elsewhere. We’re just continually looking at trends worldwide.” Rather than take a leadership role in developing innovative features to attract consumers, cruise lines often are followers.

The cruise industry scans the broader entertainment industry to stay on top of trends so that many of the attractions on cruise ships only emulate what can be found at land-based vacation venues. Don’t cruise ship passengers deserve something better? Something new? Something they can’t get on land?

Flights of Fantasy
After all, designers are supposed to dream, aren’t they? While it’s true that designers take inspiration from external sources, in the end, it is their minds that conjure ideas of fantasy vessels and fantasy features on vessels. Fantasy, in fact, was the name that Carnival Cruise Lines applied to its early 1990 series of ships. Designed to revolutionize cruising, those ships were the brainchild of Joe Farcus, the industry’s most prolific ship designer.

Farcus, who lives in Miami, says he takes his inspiration for new ship design not so much from field trips to vacation destinations (after all, he lives in one) but from a lifetime of acquired experience. The experiences that influence his work today began to take form when he was 15 years old. It was then, during a summer job of cleaning the pool at the Deauville Hotel, not far from where he lives now, that Farcus acquired “a kind of vision, seeing lots of people in leisure-time activities and watching people sitting by the pool all day.”

The pool did not have a waterslide, the popular feature that Farcus conceived of for Carnival ships, but working at a hotel gave him an inbred intuition for what people are looking for in their vacations. In later years, that intuition was supplemented by travel and by everyday experience. “Every bit of it influences me,” he says. “The experience of the past, the experience of today, the experience of travel and of living — the mix of all of that influences the evaluation process that I use to go from the germ of an idea to the finished idea of a ship.”

Not all ideas germinate inside the mind, however. Some are wholly derivative of a specific place. No flights of fantasy; just replications of real place. And nowhere is that more apparent than on Holland America Line’s new — and newly refurbished ships.

Though the company has its roots in Rotterdam, inspiration for Explorations Cafe can be found just around the corner from its offices in Seattle, Washington. Installed fleetwide as part of the line’s Signature of Excellence program, Explorations Cafe was inspired by Barnes & Noble, says Pieter Rijkaart, director of newbuilds at Holland America Line. And indeed many reviewers have described Explorations Cafe, which features a coffee shop and an area to browse newspapers, books and the internet, as an upscale Starbucks (also headquartered in Seattle) or a Barnes & Noble.

Similarly, the line’s popular reservations-only restaurant Pinnacle Grill was inspired by restaurants in the Pacific Northwest. Surely, someone at the executive level visited these places and thought, “This would work on a ship.” Captain Nemo, Where Are You?

It’s difficult to predict what may appear on cruise ships of the future. Cruise executives and ship designers are reluctant to talk about what they have tucked away in their minds or on the drawing boards for their own newbuilds.

Carnival Corp.’s chief architect has spoken of dreams of one day putting a roller coaster on a ship; other designers dream of ski slopes wrapped around the funnel.

The industry possibly could do with innovations that cannot be replicated — or cannot be replicated with the same degree of success — by land-based destinations. Cruise lines need only look to Atlantis, the popular resort on Paradise Island in the Bahamas, as testimony for people’s fascination with the underwater world. And exposing people to the underwater world is something the cruise lines could do better than land-based destinations.

Imagine a ship where passengers board the elevator to the bottom deck where they emerge in an underwater lounge with exterior lights piercing the dark sea to cast light on marine life and reefs. Naval architects say it is possible to construct a partial glass-bottom hull to allow for a Captain Nemo-style lounge that would allow patrons to view underwater life.

“I think the sky is the limit,” says Aker Finnyards’ Rotkirch. “Going down to a glass bottom and looking at the underwater world is one thing to think about. An even better idea might be to have a small submarine that you launch from a ship to allow passengers to look at the underwater reefs. In many ways, we are only now waking up the possibilities of what we can apply to cruise ships.”

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