Carnival Corporation's move last fall to place the venerable Cunard Line under the umbrella of friskier Princess Cruises raised some consumer concerns if not also a few industry eyebrows. Indeed, Cunard was coming off of one of its most spectacular years ever with the launch of its much-anticipated Queen Mary 2 -- the world's biggest and most innovative ship to date. "It was," says David Gevanthor, the line's long-standing marketing vice president, "the good news story of 2004."
But prior to joining Princess in fall 2004, Cunard had also found itself earning some attention for bad news, too. QM2 may have been the most hyped new ship to launch in a decade or more, but passenger reviews -- in areas ranging from dining to service to entertainment -- started out dismally and pretty much stayed there. And long-time icon Queen Elizabeth 2 seemed to be experiencing a malaise; even Princess/P&O chief Peter Ratcliffe described the once-regal ship's interiors as "tatty."
These days, the proverbial sky looks a bit brighter for Cunard, the line's top executives told Cruise Critic during a series of in-person interviews at the company's headquarters in Valencia, California. Growing pains have eased. "Put it down to Cunard's inexperience in running big ships," Ratcliffe said. "Bringing her into the Princess set-up behind the scenes makes the back of the house run more smoothly."
And worries that Princess would weaken Cunard's storied heritage seem to be premature. Rai Caluori, the hands-on senior vice president of fleet operations for Princess, who took on the same job for Cunard, says that "we are very cautious about making changes [to Cunard]. It's our goal to maintain and evolve -- not to dilute it."
Ultimately, he adds, the most important issue is that "people want to know that the change will result in tangible improvements."
It must be said, in fairness, that quite a few aspects of QM2 have consistently garnered raves, including the Canyon Ranch SpaClub, the Todd English alternative restaurant and the ultra-deluxe penthouse suites. QM2 boasts the finest library at sea, cruising's only planetarium and the largest ballroom on any ship afloat. The "ye olde England"-style Golden Lion Pub and the trendy disco G-32 are among the most popular venues.
Still, much preliminary attention has been focused on improving QM2. Some changes have already been made, others are in the works and still others (in the cases of major structural adjustments) will have to wait for the ship's dry-dock period this fall. Changes passengers can anticipate include:
Smoother onboard operations: Princess transferred senior onboard staffers experienced in mega-ships -- such as a hotel director whose credits included Grand Princess and Coral Princess, and a maitre d' from Diamond Princess -- to QM2.
Ship designers at Princess took a cold, hard look at some physical areas regarded as weaknesses on QM2. First among them was service and food quality in Britannia, the ship's largest dining room, whose problems, primarily, were deemed logistical in orient. According to Caluori, the waiter stations were all lined up together in the huge dining room -- so those waiters with tables at far reaches were invariably slower in delivering service (and more frequently showed up with cooling food). There is no alfresco dining on QM2 -- not much of a problem during windy Atlantic crossings, but certainly a disappointment during the ship's warm weather itineraries. Weather restrictions had limited access to venues originally planned for outdoor dining, such as the top-deck Boardwalk Cafe and the patio area outside the Todd English alternative restaurant. Both have been closed and ship designers are evaluation new options.
King's Court, the ship's buffet venue, was simply not large enough for the crowds. According to industry publication Cruise Business Review, the inadequate seating during peak times "resulted in causing the service staff to go into hiding while frustrated passengers were looking for free tables." (Lack of signage, too, was a problem -- this one has already been resolved.)
Beginning in March, Cunard introduced White Star Service, a program aimed at supporting onboard crew and staff that will raise ship service levels in the process. White Star Service emphasizes communication, relationship building and interaction between onboard staffers (and departments). A note: This month, White Star Service will also be introduced to QE2.
Entertainment-wise, the ship's much-ballyhooed Oxford University at Sea was offering programs that were a bit "dry" for the 65 percent of Americans who have so far comprised the ship's passenger demographics, and Cunard is re-evaluating its offerings.
QM2 is not the only ship in the fleet to warrant close attention. Caluori says that QE2 will get a boost as well. Improvements include "pretty aggressive refurbishments of public rooms and suites" (a decision on whether to undertake major work in standard cabins hasn't yet been made, Caluori says). Cunard won't wait for a dry-dock period to make these improvements; they'll be gradually introduced over the next four to six months.
And Queen Victoria, the line's newest ship -- now under construction and slated for launch during the summer of 2007 -- has benefited from new attention to detail. The ship, designed on the same platform as Holland America's Vista-class vessels, will now see some distinctions of its own. These include a structural redesign that features a Ritz-like tea room and a double-high Queens Room (ballroom).
Ultimately, says Cunard's marketing honcho David Gevanthor, one of a handful of long-time staffers who made the move from Cunard's former Miami headquarters to its new California office, the key to the success of Cunard is implanting modern day strategies onboard while maintaining a reverence to tradition. "What we are is an established icon," he notes. "We appeal to folks who've traveled extensively, who have an appreciation both of the quality of life we represent and its bygone era, too. For us, sailing on Cunard should be a 'Nick and Nora Charles' event -- in living color."
We'll keep you posted on changes as Cunard continues to evolve (and look for our fresh review on QM2 later this fall once the ship emerges from its dry-dock transformation).
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Princess "Takeover" of Cunard Spurs Intriguing Evolution
April 11, 2005