Commentary: Crossing Lines: Big Ship, Small Ship

While true connoisseurs of luxury cruising may not accept a substitute for sailing on a small upscale ship, there are now pockets of luxury on almost every large premium and contemporary cruise ship afloat.

Recognizing that there are many cruisers with a taste for luxury but who appreciate big ship amenities (and often lower rates), or who may be traveling with families or in groups for whom bigger ships make more sense, most cruise lines now offer optional exclusive experiences to passengers.

On some ships it may be concierge service, or a special lounge, a pool deck cabana, or exclusive access to the spa or certain restaurants. On others, entire areas are blocked off for people in some of the ship’s best staterooms to have a private pool and deck area.For the cruise lines the logic is simple – these programs and amenities keep passengers who can afford to from straying to luxury lines. “A large percentage of our guests simply stay with Celebrity because they appreciate all that we have to offer and find no reason to select another brand,” says Dan Hanrahan, President & CEO, Celebrity Cruises and Azamara Cruises. “And, rather than our guests trading up, we’re actually attracting many luxury cruisers”

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Hanrahan says an example many luxury cruisers have selected the new Celebrity Solstice for its widely acclaimed attributes, from innovative dining options, to attentive service, to plush accommodations — including AquaClass, ConciergeClass, and several categories of suites with 24-hour butler service — and for the incredible value Celebrity offers, particularly when compared with luxury products.

Similarly, he adds, many luxury cruisers also select Azamara Cruises for similar attributes.
Perhaps the most upscale way to cruise on a downscale ship is to book a room or suite in a private area that houses some of the ship’s best cabins, private butlers, and exclusive pools and sun decks.

Ship-within-a-ship accommodations, an elevator ride away from the myriad restaurants, casinos and other big ship draws, was started by Cunard Line, but has been replicated by contemporary players Norwegian Cruise Line and recently, MSC Cruises.

On Cunard, Grill-level passengers have exclusive access to Grill-level restaurants, as well as the use of the concierge-staffed private Grills Lounge and the Grills Courtyard for outdoor dining and afternoon tea.

Ah, Spa
The premium cruise lines also have been innovative with their spa category offerings. It is another way to attract not just luxury cruisers but also land-based spa-goers.

Celebrity’s Hanrahan says the new AquaClass accommodations on Celebrity Solstice are indeed attracting certain luxury cruisers, as well as land-based spa enthusiasts.

Costa introduced the first spa-friendly cuisine in a special restaurant for Spa cabin guests, which has also been followed by the other lines. Carnival was the first to copy its sister line’s idea, which Holland America recently followed on the Eurodam.

Celebrity’s Solstice was the most recent ship to introduce its own version with AquaClass cabins. The line has added sound, light and aroma elements to the rooms to give them a spa feeling, as well as a five-head Hansgrohe showerhead in its bathroom.

Guests who book any of the 130 AquaClass staterooms on Solstice also have exclusive access to “Blu,” Celebrity’s Mediterranean-themed specialty restaurant, and complimentary use of the Persian Garden and AquaSpa relaxation room. There are also ways to add luxury to a cruise experience without splurging on the best staterooms.

Oceania Cruises was the first line to offer private cabanas, which it has done quietly for years. For a daily fee, passengers can rent the cabanas, with Balinese Day Beds on its top deck, that look out to sea.
The cabanas have a personal valet who serves fruit skewers, ice cream, and chilled towels. Customers can also order from a special cabana menu.

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Holland America began offering private cabanas last summer, making them a signature element of its new ships. The line even upped the cabana ante by offering a group of them in the Retreat, an exclusive, open-deck area looking over the main pool. The private cabanas are outfitted with loungers, and also offers its guests fresh fruit and lunch delivery, and also an iPod with preloaded music, a glass of champagne and chocolate-covered strawberries. Cabana guests also get discounts on certain spa services during port days.

HAL also offers the cabanas and their amenities right on the pool deck, for a lesser fee.

Alternative Restaurants
Beyond cabanas, every large cruise ship now offers alternative restaurants. These steakhouses, sushi bars, rustic Italian places, and many more, offer intimate dining experiences and superior food.

On the Solstice, Celebrity used celebrity chefs and designers to offer people eating experience that rival top restaurants in New York and Las Vegas.

Adam Tihany, the creative mind behind New York’s famous Per Se and Jean Georges restaurants, designed the Solstice’s Tuscan Grille.

Concierge Classes
Making a big-ship cruise experience feel more upscale is not only about offering private areas, added amenities, or top cuisine. Many upscale cruisers come onboard because they enjoy the amenities that only the largest vessels can offer – a variety of restaurants, water sports and rock-climbing walls, a golf simulator, a lively nightlife. For them, the cornerstone of offering a luxury experience on a contemporary or premium ship is getting expedited check-in, smoother ways to book shore excursions, spa treatments and restaurant reservations.

Celebrity Cruises came out with its “Concierge Class” in its largest balcony cabins, which offers amenities like fresh flowers, canapes, champagne, and better bedding than in its other cabins. But what is most special about this cabin class is the priority check-in, the expedited luggage delivery, a more elaborate room service menu, and dining and shore excursion preferences.

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The same is true for Holland America’s Neptune class cabins on its Navigation deck. The exclusive Neptune Lounge, which has free espresso drinks and pastries, has a concierge to help with booking tours and restaurants. Neptune passengers get priority embarkation and debarkation, even when the ship has to tender; Neptuners can go whenever they want. A big perk is also free laundry and pressing.

“Holland America Line guests have always enjoyed a premium cruise experience and have been able to choose from many additional luxury options,” says Richard D. Meadows, executive vice president, marketing, sales and guest programs. “While everyone aboard the ship receives our Signature Mariner stateroom experience, fine dining, entertainment, ports and intimate environment, some guests choose to do this in a most luxurious and personal manner.”

Meadows says that in addition to booking suites and Neptune class cabins, luxury seekers also reserve Holland America Line’s exclusive shore excursion options, called Signature Collection and featuring private transportation and guide. “When you look at everything together, this personalized luxury allows our suite guests to enjoy the best stateroom categories with our renowned service and choose the experience that is important to them, whether it be a spa or shore excursion focus,” Meadows says.

Not everyone thinks that the butlers, large suites, and private spa access are enough to sate the upscale palette. They feel the level of product, capacity, service, cuisine can not be replicated by contemporary or premium brands. Passenger to crew ratio on upscale ships, for example, can’t be replicated by larger ones.

But the key challenge is that luxury cruisers often want to cruise with other members of the upper echelon, which is not guaranteed even in the best cabins on premium lines. Those cruisers want to travel with likeminded travelers who have an appreciation and respect for the same type of lifestyle experience and financial demographics.

Moreover, passengers who cruise on upscale lines are discovering that luxury ships are offering value that may be only a notch above what they’d pay on a larger ship.

Paying Less For Luxury
Crystal Cruises, for example, offers an onboard credit of $2,000 per couple on European sailings. And some of Crystal’s cruises begin at a little more than $3,000 per person, so it’s like getting 1/3 off.

Seabourn Cruise Line reduced fares on European cruises by up to 65 percent off the brochure rate. The discounted fares start at $3,000 per person on seven-day Mediterranean cruises. The cruise line’s brand new ship, Seabourn Odyssey, can be had for a song, starting at $3,299 per person. Seabourn, unlike Crystal, includes alcohol in its rates.

Also, the line’s “Between Friends” promotion is a modified referral program that offers $1,500 per couple for private shore excursion arrangements to groups of three or more couples sailing together if one couple is new to Seabourn.

“The theory is that a small group like that (family, school friends, etc.) may be in the mood to share special experiences together in times like these, and we can extend that to what they do ashore as well,” Good says. “That would be $4,500 for the three couples. They can use them together or separately for private cars, special arrangements like a picnic lunch in a historic site, etc.”

Silversea Cruises jumped on the discount wagon with 50 percent off its fares, and that’s not just Europe. The half-price fares are available from the Arctic to the Antarctic (on its new expedition ship) and many destinations in between, including Alaska, Australia and Africa. And some of those sailings also offer free roundtrip air.

Regent Seven Seas will include free shore excursions on all its 2010 cruises, and on 35 cruises this year. Regent is upping the luxury ante with what it calls “ultra-inclusive” cruise pricing. Luxury lines often bill themselves as “all-inclusive” by having most alcoholic beverages, soft drinks, coffee drinks, and alternative dining and gratuities included in its price, but it’s rare to include shore excursions.

Regent will offer passengers on those cruises at least one free excursion in every port, worth up to several hundred dollars per person per cruise. “We sat down and asked: What can we do to distinguish ourselves? What message can we own? We decided that what we wanted to own was to be the cruise line offering the most inclusive product in the world,” says Andrew Poulton, director, corporate communications for RSSC. “Up until now we have not included shore excursions, and we have always charged separately for government fees and taxes, so we said ‘lets make a splash for 2010 and include these things.’ ”

“One thing we have learned about Regent customers over the years is that they hate to be nickel and dimed to death,” says Mark Conroy, president of RSSC. “We have therefore made the conscious decision to make our product more and more inclusive – first with gratuities and wine with dinner, then with all the liquor, and now for 2010 with shore excursions and government taxes. You pay one price up front and that is pretty much it. Our guests love that concept.”

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