Have you ever considered taking a luxury cruise but fear you'll miss big ship Broadway entertainment and the sheer variety of dining venues offered on 3,000-plus passenger ships? Are you daunted by the price tag -- or concerned that a luxury cruise on a small ship will be stuffy and way too formal?
A few years ago, your fears may have been well-founded. As big-ship, 3,000-plus passenger lines were busily innovating, creating bigger staterooms and suites, devil-daring zip lines, ropes courses and free-fall water slides, luxury cruising was a bit more staid. Most luxury lines, operating ships in the 500-passenger ballpark, simply didn't have the space for such variety.
That's no longer a challenge for luxury lines, which are creating larger ships. It's now possible to call a 1,000-passenger ship, as with Crystal Cruises and Viking Ocean Cruises, luxury. Even small-ship lines like Seabourn, Regent Seven Seas and Silversea are building their ships bigger (and welcoming more passengers onboard). They're also broadening beyond their usual, older demographic. Silversea pioneered the creation of a fleet that specializes only in expedition, while Crystal, Scenic and Ponant are among those growing that luxury category with newbuilds meant for the wilds of the Arctic.
To fill all this capacity, the luxury cruise industry is working hard to lure big-ship cruisers -- particularly those who splurge on suites -- to their upmarket lifestyle by altering the way they price their cruises and updating what's in store when onboard.
"I'm a firm believer in the trickle-up theory," says Mark Conroy, Silversea Cruises' Managing Director, The Americas. "Eighty five percent of Silversea guests have taken a premium or contemporary cruise before they sail with us."
How do you entice the big-ship travelers to check out a luxury line? You borrow from mainstream lines' own playbooks when it comes to entertainment, design and dining. Ambience aboard new ships like Seabourn Encore and Silversea's Silver Muse, which both launched this spring, is markedly more casual, with lighter colors, an expanded emphasis on alfresco spaces for dining and lounging, and just a lighter, airier feel all around.
In other areas, Seabourn and Crystal are both partnering with artists with Broadway pedigrees to upgrade their entertainment. Ponant, in a radical design innovation, has announced that its next series of new builds will feature the Blue Eye, an underwater lounge with whale eye-shaped windows and the piped-in sounds of dolphins and whales swimming nearby. Silversea's new Silver Muse tossed out the restaurant rule book when it abolished the usual main restaurant in favor of eight smaller, more boutique-style eateries that range from Michelin star-style French to Asian fusion to a Neapolitan pizza joint.
Luxury cruising's transformation is not without controversy about there being a generational divide. "We're the last bastion of class distinction," one cruise line CEO told us, noting that the niche's revolution is driven by demographics and the urge to appeal to a younger traveler, say 40-plus, than has been the more traditional customer in the 60-plus age bracket. "The older the clientele the more formal they want it, the younger, the less formal," he says.
In the end, the toughest job these cruise lines face is the perception that they're way more expensive than their big ship brethren. And sure, they can be, particularly if you're booking top suites, like Regent Seven Seas' 3,000-square ft. Regent Suite, with a balcony that stretches another 1,500-square ft.
Regent's president Jason Montague tells us, "If you're not pricing the total cruise vacation experience, you're not going to see the true value. When you look at our price points, we look more expensive than any other option. The reality is you need to examine every aspect."
Indeed, as mainstream lines are moving away from "inclusive" pricing of cruise vacations -- with everything from shore excursions to restaurant cover charges and the always-extra casino gambling and spa fees not fare-included -- luxury lines are going in the other direction. They're all offering more value in the price you pay. What looks like a quite expensive $1,000 per person per day fare on a Mediterranean cruise aboard, for instance, Regent's Seven Seas Voyager, actually is much more reasonable when you consider the following is included in that price: business class air, transfers, all shore excursions, beverages from coffee to cocktails, unlimited Wi-Fi and pre-paid gratuities.
Sure, the price still may be too rich for a lot of folks, but if you've cruised in suites on the big ships, do the math.
In the end, the one thing you can't put a price tag on when it comes to a luxury cruise, whether you're a traditionalist or a contemporary barnstormer just discovering the niche, is this: "We all have suites, interesting destination, high quality food," Silversea's Conroy tells us. "The one thing that we all have in common is that the personal service is what they like most of all."
From the Bridge is a recurring column on hot cruising topics by Carolyn Spencer Brown, Cruise Critic's Editor in Chief. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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