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Breakaway Q&A: CEO Talks Epic Lessons, Ship Size, See-Through Loos

It's never too early to catch new ship fever, the side effects of which include rampant speculation, the creation of amenity wish lists and general excitability. The first of NCL's two 144,017-ton, 4,000 passenger "Project Breakaway" cruise ships will debut in spring 2013, and we'll be following the progress along the way.

The line has revealed little about these next generation vessels beyond that they will feature a slew of cabin options, including accommodations for the solo cruiser similar to Norwegian Epic's popular Studios. Cruise Critic News Editor Dan Askin chatted with CEO Kevin Sheehan about learning from Norwegian Epic's hits and misses, switching shipyards and what will and won't be a part of Project Breakaway.

Cruise Critic: First off, what does "Project Breakaway" mean?

Kevin Sheehan: It's a name I've used a few times in my life, personally and professionally. We as a family bought a vacation home in Emerald Isle, North Carolina, and we called the house "Breakaway." We were breaking away from the stress of work and school, so the beach house was our escape from reality. When you take that frame and apply it to Norwegian, we're breaking away as a brand, trying really hard to define who we are.

CC: People might naturally assume that the "breakaway" also refers to Norwegian Epic, the monolith -- there will be no sister -- that was a struggle to complete and has some much-debated elements. Are there learnings from Epic that will not be incorporated into Project Breakaway? We're referring specifically to the controversial see-through bathrooms and the "hat," the top-ship protrusion housing the courtyard villas that gives Epic is unforgettable look.

KS: The cabins on Epic are very interesting, but [the bathrooms] are little bit much for many of our guests. We do get a lot of comments from people who say they love the cabins. If you're a young couple or whatever, it's not a big deal. But if you're in there with a couple of kids, it gets a little dicey. The [clouded glass bathrooms] were something very new to the industry and they were probably beyond what the industry was ready for. [Editor's note: They are far more common in hotels.] I suspect that we won't be bringing them to the next ships.

We left the "derby" at home this time. [Editor's note: "Derby" refers to a bowler hat, as worn by Charlie Chaplin.] We thought [the courtyard complex] through in the Project Breakaway planning, and so it'll be more integrated into the structure this time around. What must have happened [on Epic] was that somebody said, "Let's put another level on it," and it made the ship look a certain bit odd.

CC: Is there anything that's guaranteed to reappear on the Project Breakaway ships, i.e. big hits from Epic like the Studio cabins for solo travelers or O'Sheehans, the 24-hour pub that serves munchies?

KS: We can't go into specifics at this point, but we can say that all of the stuff that everybody likes on Epic will be back. We think that all of Epic's entertainment options are winners. But beyond everything, guests who have gone on the Epic have said the flow of the ship is terrific. You alluded to it when you mentioned O'Sheehans. Epic is a ship that's really conducive for people to be out very late at night. The location of casino, pub and lounges keeps the ship very active, unlike the old contemporary ships, where it was dinner, show, bed. So we're definitely pushing that idea of the "action ship" forward. We know it works well, so what we're trying to do here is to refine that to improve the overall offering.

CC: Can you tease out any brand-new concepts -- the rumor mill is that the studio space will incorporate balconies in some fashion?

KS: We can't comment on that.

CC: So you changed shipyards -- from STX France to Germany's Meyer Werft -- for the construction of the Project Breakaway vessels. How did you make the choice to give Meyer, which built Norwegian's four Jewel-class vessels, the job this time around?

KS: The reality is that I knew the [ship building] market was [and is] really difficult, and no one had got a ship order in awhile. So I pitted all the yards against each other to get the best deal. We ended up getting best-in-class pricing with a great financing structure. We also have a great history with Meyer. They build great ships and you just feel what you see is what you're going to get. The French yard, they were very nice people, but frankly, it was not as easy to get things done.

CC: How did you determine the size -- some 10 percent smaller than Epic, but significantly larger than the Jewel-class, Norwegian's next biggest ships? How do you find that ship size sweet spot?

KS: We wanted to combine the feel of Epic with the best of what we've learned from each ship we've built. You want to have the balance of the efficiencies of a larger ship -- entertainment, fun outdoor areas -- and still create a ship that allows people to reconnect with the sea. Richard Fain [Royal Caribbean Cruises, Ltd.'s Chairman and CEO] ordered his next ship at about the same size.


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