When Celebrity suddenly announced in early May that two recently acquired ships intended for Xpeditions, its exotic cruise arm, would instead be spun off into Azamara, a brand new line, it took us all by surprise.
As it turns out, the creation of Azamara represents an entirely unique approach to Celebrity's existing cruise offerings. Azamara Journey, which will be joined by Azamara Quest later this year, represents an almost retro approach. The ships, measuring 30,277 tons and carrying 710 passengers, are significantly smaller than even Celebrity's smallest vessels.
Azamara Journey and Azamara Quest will offer more than a cozier ambience. Among the differences? The ships will feature longer (and more off-the-track) itineraries than are offered by Celebrity. They will feature all open-seating dining, offering a range of options that include a main restaurant along with boutique-style venues focusing on Mediterranean cuisine, and steaks and chops. All cabins come with butler service. These vessels, counter to big-ship cruise line trends, are designed to appeal to folks traveling without kids.
You may recall that Journey and Quest were acquired by Celebrity parent Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. as a result of last year's purchase of Pullmantur, a Spain-based line. The ships were originally part of the now defunct Renaissance Cruises' very special fleet of eight identical vessels (the others belong to Princess and Oceania). Journey has undergone a massive refurbishment; Quest, when it makes the transition from Pullmantur, will receive similar treatment.
But Azamara's debut, coming off Journey's intense, four-week refurbishment on Grand Bahama Island, was controversial for a number of reasons. Challenges in completing the renovation work led to an abbreviated maiden voyage. And there were communication issues: Most folks booked on the Azamara's initial voyages had originally purchased cruises on Celebrity's Zenith, which was transferred out of the fleet. And although Celebrity allowed passengers to swap their bookings from Zenith to Journey (or issued a refund), few details were provided on the facilities and services offered on the new ship. Guests who decided to sail with Azamara had little idea of what to expect.
And Cruise Critic readers were full of concerns and questions.
Which is why Celebrity President Dan Hanrahan, who also sits at the helm of Azamara, asked Cruise Critic if he could address the issues. "We really appreciate the opportunity to talk to your readers like this," he told Cruise Critic Editor Carolyn Spencer Brown, who conducted the interview using a combination of questions from staffers and queries submitted by Cruise Critic members.
"They're tough critics. But the thing we like about Cruise Critic is that the readers really care about the product. Even when they're voicing displeasure, they're voicing displeasure because they care so much."
So ... off we go. Our Azamara Q&A is divided into two sections. Hanrahan's interview starts with questions about the creation of the new line and its strategy. Then we'll move on to more practical matters.
Creating a New Line
Cruise Critic: What precipitated the switch from an Xpeditions product to the new line?
Dan Hanrahan: As we were building the Xpeditions product, we were seeing lots of opportunity. We decided as we went along that this [the addition of the two ships] was bigger than what we thought it was going to be. We also thought it had the potential to create real confusion with Celebrity. So we decided to start a new brand. We made the decision late though, and that caused us some headaches. We made some mistakes as a result.
After months' long hype regarding Century's $55 million renovation, the marketing and launch of Azamara Journey was abysmal. Why wasn't a stronger emphasis placed on marketing the new cruising concept -- and ultimately a new brand? (asked by ocngypz)
DH: We were focused the entire time on Celebrity Journey and Celebrity Quest under Xpedition; our original intention was to not launch a new brand. We decided to change the brand in March, and that didn't give us a whole lot of time to do marketing. At that point we were putting all our time and effort into making sure we were creating an excellent product.
We would have liked to announce the brand earlier, but the name was a challenge. I don't know how, 10 years from now, companies will be able to start brands because all the names are taken! Chances are someplace somewhere in the world, the name is used. We had a whole list of names ... and then had to do diligence, making sure the names weren't already being used through U.S. and then world searches.
Ultimately, we made a name up (originally it was Azamar) rather than choosing one you can find in the dictionary. And even though we essentially created the name, we still had problems! Turns out that Azamar is a travel agency in Spain (Editor's note: hence the addition of the "a"). We had to steer clear of that!
I read a thread on Cruise Critic's Celebrity board on which one member said our last-minute Azamara launch was a publicity stunt or gimmick. If that was the case it was a bad one. We would have preferred to announce it earlier -- we just didn't have everything together.
CC: Now that the Xpeditions brand is back to one ship, are there any new plans in the works for Celebrity Xpeditions? (asked by florisdekort)
DH: No. At this point we're really happy with what's going on down in the Galapagos. The guests love it, our crew loves it, and the ship is consistently sold out. We couldn't be any happier with what's going on down there. [In terms of expanding beyond the one ship] there's nothing that's captured our imagination -- i.e. the perfect ship for a unique destination. But … if one of your readers owns a ship someplace in an exotic part of the world, we'd consider it.
CC: What are your plans for the growth of Azamara, even at this early stage? Is there a possibility that Celebrity's smaller, older vessels (Century for instance) or even members of Royal Caribbean's Vision class, will be transferred?
DH: There's no chance we'll transfer any of those ships in. Those ships are too big for Azamara; it's going to be a line of smaller ships. Right now, we'll just wait and see how this goes. If it's successful we'll start to think about expanding the brand. At this point though, all our focus is centered around delivering a great experience on Journey and Quest. But -- our company has a history of building new ships. If we did design new-builds for Azamara, they'd be under 1,000 passengers.
CC: How different will Azamara be from Celebrity? Until now, from what I have seen and heard, the impression is that Azamara can be described as "Celebrity with a twist." (asked by amazing)
DH: We have butler service in all staterooms and suites. Bathrooms have special amenities -- Elemis products everywhere. The dining experience is something we're very excited about; it rivals the best of on land restaurants -- at least that's what we are shooting for. Each of the guests gets one complimentary night [in specialty restaurants]. Entertainment is live -- but not of the production show variety. There is enrichment on topics such as home design and finance.
[Our approach to ports of call will be different, too]. We'll do more overnights. We're featuring enhanced destination-oriented lecturers. Along with more traditional types of shore excursions, we're offering more immersive tours (some you can only find on luxury lines). For instance, on our South America itineraries that call at Punta Arenas, there's an Antarctic flight-seeing tour that lasts six hours. In Brazil there will be a two-day, one-night overland to Iguacu Falls. These are not available on Celebrity. There will be more customized and private opportunities, too.
CC: If the Azamara brand is being positioned at a more premium level, are there other changes being contemplated toward this end, such as a trend toward a more all-inclusive ship like some of the competitors among the premium lines? (asked by Lsimon)
DH: We've been careful not to go too luxury. A luxury ship is even smaller. We didn't think it would be right for this style of ship. We are not going in the all-inclusive direction. We watch the ratings each week -- and are seeing guest comments get more and more favorable, so we're comfortable that Azamara is headed in the right direction.
CC: The launch of Azamara Journey could safely be called a fiasco. The ship's refurbishment wasn't ready in time, you had to cancel a day of the cruise midday on the day of departure, and even into successive cruises various aspects of the Journey experience were most definitely not up to snuff (missing furnishings, the incomplete pool deck, and confusion about butler service, among them). Ultimately, the seven-night cruise was turned into a six-nighter and inaugural passengers got it for free. What went wrong?
DH: We made most of our mistakes at the end. We weren't fully prepared for the revitalization as much as we could have been and as much as we will be for Quest. Journey was a ship that we weren't completely familiar with; as a result the dry-dock and refurbishment didn't come off as smoothly as it should have.
We had a lot of logistical problems, and in the end 11 containers that were supposed to have shown up in the Bahamas (or that should have been waiting for us in Bayonne) were late. That killed us. [The day before the ship was supposed to set off on its maiden voyage] we worked through the night, unpacking huge boxes on the dock, loading furnishings onto the ship, and then arranging them in the right places. We felt like we could get it done.
The reality is, we could have boarded passengers at the end of the day we'd planned to embark them. But keeping people waiting in the Cape Liberty terminal for the full day didn't make any sense, so we decided to sail a day late.
Believe me, it's not what we wanted to do. We're not happy with the way we handled this. We would have liked the ship to be perfectly ready for the first day, and we've learned from it. We just didn't do it as well as we should have, it was embarrassing and unfortunate, and it was the reason we decided to make the first cruise free.
[Hanrahan shares one funny-in-hindsight anecdote from that crazy day]: At the end of unpacking all the boxes we ended up with four random chairs. We could not figure out where these chairs were supposed to go. We tried different restaurants, though they didn't match. Ultimately we put them in Aqualina (the ship's Mediterranean-inspired restaurant). On the cruise's second day, one of our entertainment staffers was in the restaurant and said "Oh, there are the chairs for our show!"
CC: Are refurbishments complete? What's still left to be done on Azamara Journey?
DH: For the most part, they're complete. We're still waiting for pool deck furniture (it's all teak); we have poolside lounges there, but they are not what they want. We're replacing carpeting in hallways on cabin decks; we made that decision after the fact because when we first walked the ship we didn't think we'd need to replace the carpet in all the hallways in the stateroom area. It will arrive in October. The only other thing we're still waiting on is the mini-bars; they are custom designed. The manufacturer made a mistake on a group that they sent us and that prevented us from installing them. We do have refrigerators onboard for guests with special medical needs and can provide them upon request.
CC: Are you confident that Quest will be finished on time for its maiden sailing? Do you have any updates? (asked by Janiefrmde). And another in this vein: If you delay, will you inform passengers in a timely manner so that they may make alternate vacation plans? (asked by JKYLovesRuss)
DH: When we had the trouble on Journey I made a quick call: We really need to slow Quest down, dissect what went wrong with Journey because we will not repeat that experience. That would be unacceptable.
Editor's Note: Azamara announced today that it would delay Quest's maiden voyage.
CC: Given that there was no market "push" for Journey in Bermuda for 2007, why have you abandoned Bermuda for 2008? Any plans of returning to Bermuda? (asked by ocngypz)
DH: Probably not. I know there are a lot of fans of Bermuda. We are working with Bermuda to find a way to bring another ship back from the New York area. With the Century itself, there's some concern about getting into Hamilton -- there's debate about dredging. But there are never enough ships to do what everyone would like us to do. We actually have a lot more demand for Europe than for Bermuda. It's not that we're abandoning Bermuda, but the demand from passengers overall is stronger for Europe.
CC: What aspects of the onboard experience on Journey are still works in progress?
DH: I don't think we executed our butler service as well as we should have in the beginning. The interesting thing is that I've read it's just a stateroom attendant, but we're not seeing those comments now. Another thing that we're tweaking now is our daily canape and in-cabin afternoon tea services. We're developing a hand tag to let guests let us know if they want them; the canapes in particular are meant to be consumed when delivered, not three or four days later.
Other than that it's all fine tuning. Because the experience on Azamara is different from Celebrity, there's still some confusion. Some guests don't realize there are no formal nights. It surprises me that we haven't heard much from passengers about our smoking policy (it's not permitted in staterooms and on balconies). That's different from Celebrity. To clarify things, we're going to be including a letter in guests' documents that really explains Azamara, and we are reaching out to travel agents to encourage them to better highlight changes.
And onboard we do a midweek comment card for guests. We're using that to make sure if there's an issue we can address it while the passenger is on the cruise rather than waiting until afterward.
CC: What are plans for a passenger loyalty program on Azamara, and how will it differ from the others? (asked by ocngypz)
DH: It will all be the same (as Celebrity) with two major exceptions. Since there's no thalassotherapy pool on Azamara, we can't offer that benefit. And we can't give out one-category upgrades. The size of the ship will preclude us from that because there just aren't enough cabin categories.
Azamara's Captain's Club is twinned with Celebrity's. If you've reached Elite on Celebrity, then you'll have reached Elite on Azamara.
CC: Is the single supplement the same or different from that on Celebrity? (asked by Lois R)
DH: It's the same.
CC: Will crewmembers be exclusive to the new line or will they be moved back and forth between Celebrity and Azamara?
DH: There are people who are cycling through in the very beginning as we get established. We will get to the point where crewmembers/staff are either on Celebrity or on Azamara.
CC: Anything else you want to share?
DH: We've learned an awful lot from our mistakes. Clearly we made mistakes in the beginning. We are embarrassed by that. We plan on not repeating them, and that's why we made the decision to delay Quest. We want everyone to feel comfortable -- whether it's the ship's first cruise or its 100th. We're fully committed to delivering a really fabulous deluxe experience. There's a difference between premium and deluxe. Some will like both. Some will prefer Azamara. Others will prefer Celebrity.
CC: And speaking of Celebrity ... what are your short and long range plans for Celebrity Cruises? (asked by Snow Road Cruisers)
DH: We really love Celebrity, please don't take anything away from Celebrity. We continue to work on making Celebrity even better than it is today, and we are working hard to make sure that Celebrity doesn't go anywhere but up. When we bring Solstice out, you'll be amazed at the quality of the design, how spectacular it will be. I think that as Voyager of the Seas changed the cruise industry and changed Royal Caribbean, Solstice will do something similar for Celebrity.
A lot of jaws will drop.