In late October, I spoke with Larry Pimentel about the growing awareness of Azamara Club Cruises. Pimentel is the company’s president and CEO, but more than that, he is one of the cruise industry’s visionaries. He helped chart a successful course for both Cunard and Seabourn, and along with his team, he created SeaDream Yacht Club, which differentiated itself from all other cruise companies that had come before it with a simple defining slogan, “It’s Yachting, Not Cruising.”
My October interview was a follow up to a series of interviews with Pimentel on Azamara Quest back in October of 2010, not quite a year after he was recruited to take the helm of (then) Azamara Cruises (without the “Club,” which Pimentel added).
The company was struggling with brand recognition, and Pimentel knew he had a big job ahead of him. Of Azamara, he told me back then: “My biggest problem is awareness. It’s not performance.”
Watch those October 2010 video interviews with Larry Pimentel at this link.
Three years after Pimentel began his work in earnest, and six years after Azamara’s founding in 2007, Azamara still is not a household name but the little cruise line may finally be getting some of the respect it deserves. “The advance business for 2014 is up 44 percent on a revenue basis,” Pimentel told me.
While plenty of the small ship cruise lines are reporting robust revenues and advance bookings, thanks in no small part to the strong performance of the U.S. stock market, Azamara’s achieving double-digit growth is no small feat, especially for a company that had been cloaked in obscurity since its founding and operates only two ships, both more than a decade old.
The formula for success: destination immersion. “The point is when you have ships that are 15 years old, you have to come up with something different,” Pimentel said. “In our case, we focused on destination. That seems to have brought a lot of people out of the woodwork, and we’re getting up to 22 percent of our guests who have never been on a ship. That’s an amazing number to me.”
Attracting more than 20 percent of its guests who are new to cruising is an impressive number, to be sure. So who are these new Azamara cruisers? They might be defined as travelers, rather than cruisers.
The largest single source market for Azamara are guests coming from boutique hotel experiences, Pimentel said, and they’re cruising with Azamara because of the line’s emphasis on destinations and itineraries, which are characterized by longer stays in port and more overnights than most, if not all, other cruise lines.
“This type of guest doesn’t want to go to Saint-Tropez, get there at 9 a.m. be on the first tour and return at 4 p.m., because they realize it’s a night destination,” Pimentel said. “The industry has forgotten about destination, as the ship became the destination. But if you look at every study and you ask a very simple question, ‘Why do people travel?’ they’ll tell you it’s for the destination.
“In our case, we’ve made it really simple,” Pimentel continued. “We came up with an alpha kind of description, L, M and N. Longer stays, more overnights, and night touring, and we do more of that than anybody in the world by a long shot. If you’ve heard of the expression slow-cooking, we are slow-cruising.”
In 2014, Azamara’s two ships will visit 226 ports in 67 countries. More important, however, are the immersive aspects of the typical Azamara voyage. One component that Pimentel and his team introduced is AzAmazing Evenings. Offered on every Azamara sailing, Azamazing Evenings is described on Azamara’s website as “authentic, exclusive bespoke events that capture the sights, the sounds, and the tastes of the destinations we visit.”
Pimentel gave an example from an October 2013 voyage: “The week before last we were in Livorno, which is generally the port used for Florence or perhaps Pisa. We scoured Livorno and found a two-century-old opera house. From the outside, it looked pretty modest. On the inside, you’d be mind-boggled at the art and the architecture. We brought in three tenors from the Florence opera house to perform, and we had a lecturer from Oxford talk to the audience about opera in Italy, its significance to the culture, its significance to music.”
These events are offered at no additional charge to guests cruising Azamara.
Read more about AzAmazing Evenings and other destination-immersive innovations in this post Six Years Later, Azamara Club Cruises, Redefined & Refined
Pimentel said that if he were to ask guests why they sail with Azamara, they would reply: ” ‘You guys just don’t travel to destinations. You actually visit them.’
“As simple as that sounds, that’s the core essence of the product,” he added. “We’re not just taking them to the destination. They’re actually seeing it with us. Now, that may seem like a very subtle, insignificant statement, but it is actually the very thing that’s allowed us to break out. The industry has delightfully forgotten about the destination, and that’s provided us with an opportunity to step into that place.”
When Pimentel took the reins of Azamara, the cruise line was competing with the likes of premium players such as Holland America Line, which operates mid-sized ships. Today, guests are coming from the luxury lines, which operate small ships. “The number one cruise line we get guests from today is Regent,” Pimentel said. “Most people think it’s Oceania. They’re actually number two. Then we have Silversea, Seabourn and Crystal as the last of the top five. Now, when I look at those five, they were not in the top five when I walked in in ’09.”
With the exception of Oceania, the other cruise lines in Azamara’s competitive set are all-inclusive luxury cruise lines. Azamara, which some, including us here at Avid Cruiser, position in the “upper premium” segment is “mostly inclusive,” but with a few features that even the luxury lines don’t offer in all cases.
In addition to AzAmazing Evenings, Azamara now includes gratuities; bottled water, sodas, specialty coffee and teas, as well as international wines, beers and select standard spirits in the ships’ bars, lounges and restaurants; complimentary self-service laundry; English Butler service for suite guests; and shuttle transportation between the ships and city centers in ports where Azamara is allowed to offer the service.
Upping the ante, the company is currently promoting free shore excursions for those who book Mediterranean voyages by December 15. See Limited-Time Offer: Azamara Club Cruises Offers Free Shore Excursions
“We get a lot of feedback about the notion of guests feeling that they were nickeled and dimed, using their expression, not mine,” Pimentel said. “So we sought to create a product that just simply didn’t do that.”
Pimentel is quick to credit his team for Azamara’s growing success. Many of those under his command have followed him through successive stints at Cunard, Seabourn and SeaDream.
“As I look out at the main group of people here, I would say 40 percent of the group has been with me in three to four companies,” Pimentel said. “They’ve come along to each company and watched me analyze the market and come up with a niche.”
One of those key team members is Claudius Docekal, who scouts out and ultimately decides where he thinks Azamara should be sailing and what experiences it should be offering ashore.
“Claudius is one of the foremost experts on destinations,” Pimentel said. “He knows the world. He’s a walking Google and Wikipedia combined. If you ask him about any particular destination, it doesn’t matter where it might be, it could be Hvar (Croatia), it could be San Francisco, it could be Bergen, it could be Dover. No matter. He could tell you in great detail about the sights and sounds from the perspective of culture.”
In the end, Pimentel said, that’s what Azamara is selling, the sights, sounds and experiences of a particular place. “We’re really the destination-immersive or cultural-immersive line,” he said. “If people are not interested in the destination, if they’re not interested in culture, we’re the wrong line for them.”
Larry Pimentel’s Twitter Bio: President & CEO, Educator, Positive Guy, Luxury Thought Leader, Explorer, Cruise Line Executive, Travel Enthusiast, Wine Lover