Azamara Reveals Details Of Major Cruise Transformation

December 8, 2009
Azamara, one of cruising's youngest lines, is embarking on an ambitious overhaul that starts with a name change. The "new" Azamara Club Cruises will become a destination-focused cruise line that takes aim at the notion that people who cruise aren't genuine travelers.

With a new tag line that reads "you'll love where we take you," Azamara's primary focus will be on creating dynamic itineraries, shore excursion menus and enrichment-oriented programming that will make cruising as much about the destination as it already is about the journey. The effort aims to overturn one of the ironies of cruising, which is that travelers visit a lot of different places -- but never have much time to really see them. Azamara intends to provide, onboard and onshore, a cruise experience that is all about people and places that you meet along the way, says Larry Pimentel, president.

Many of the changes will begin to be reflected in Azamara cruises aboard the line's two ships, Azamara Journey and Azamara Quest, in April; more will roll out through the rest of 2010. These include:

More Overnight stays. While cruise lines often feature overnight calls at marquee ports like Venice, Sydney, Athens, Bangkok and Istanbul that also serve as embarkation cities, Azamara will add overnight stays on itineraries in more offbeat places that offer nightlife and dining opportunities where ships typically visit for just a day. Among them? Ho Chi Minh City, Livorno (for Florence), London, Sorrento, St. Barth, St. Tropez, Warnemunde (for Berlin).

Dynamic touring. New tours created for passengers with specific interests will be introduced, such as a Ferrari driving tour in Civitavecchia, Italy, a Croatian liquor tasting in Zadora, and an Imperial Russian Court evening at Tsarskoye Selo in St. Petersburg. As well, multi-night tours will take passengers into non-traditional cruise territory, like a two-night trip from Bangkok to Laos, an overnight visit, via bullet train, to Hiroshima and Osaka, and a three-night journey from Mumbai to the Taj Mahal.

Matching food and wine. While this might seem like a no-brainer (you'd be surprised how few cruise lines really make an effort to source foodstuffs and wine from the regions in which they travel), Azamara will introduce culinary programs that match itineraries. Also new: its "Wines of the World" program, which will spotlight wines from a different country every night.

Incorporating interests. In a similar vein to efforts recently introduced by Holland America and Celebrity to offer broad based enrichment programs that feature culinary, lifestyle, and wellness, Azamara's effort focuses on onboard enrichment and on-shore activities that feature culture, shopping and collecting, and wellness and vigor.

Beyond the new destination focus, Azamara has also made a strong commitment to upgrade the onboard experience.

"Azamara is absolutely fabulous already," says Edie Bornstein, vice president of sales and marketing. "But we're taking it a notch further."

Announced today is a move toward a more inclusive pricing option in which house wines, soda, bottled water and specialty coffees will no longer incur an additional charge. Other items that will come off the "nickel and diming" list include shuttles in ports where transportation is necessary and do-it-yourself laundries, both now rolled into the fare. Gratuities for cabin attendants and waitstaff will also be included in cruise fares rather than charged additionally. Its spas, which are operated by the ubiquitous Steiner, will receive gradual upgrades and Pimentel told us that a partnership with a major player in the culinary arena would be announced soon (he declined to comment on whether that partner would be Bon Appetit magazine, which already has an arrangement with Oceania Cruises).

Azamara's unusual (and democratic) butler concept -- which has been a source of confusion for passengers since the line's debut -- will get a much-needed overhaul. Butlers, who many Cruise Critic members say provided no more service than glorified cabin stewards, will attend butler training in England.

The line is also actively differentiating itself from sister company Celebrity Cruises. At one time positioned as a slightly more upscale, smaller ship version of Celebrity, Azamara Club Cruises will now hone its own identity. That will begin with the launch of its first-ever dedicated past passenger program. Specific details of rules, regulations and offerings by the program, dubbed Le Club Voyage, have not yet been determined.

As well, cabin categories on Azamara ships will change. Since they were originally named after cabin types on Celebrity (sky suite, concierge cabin and the like), and since the different ship style and size rendered them quite dissimilar from those on the bigger line, this effort will ultimately alleviate confusion, Pimentel said. New names include club world owner's suite, club veranda staterooms, etc. On Azamara, he explained, "we want to have a clear differentiation and separation, so people see us, Celebrity and Royal Caribbean as three different brands."

Some changes announced today may be more controversial. Cruise fares on Azamara, which have been rising over the past few months and are about 20 percent higher than in summer, will increase further. "Future increases will be substantial," Pimentel says. The hike will take effect on Monday, December 14 and will be "between six and 12 percent depending on the voyage." The Mediterranean peak season, he adds, will have the highest prices increases (especially July – September). You'll also see increases in Asia going forward."

And tell us: What can cruise lines do to help passengers get more out of the places ships visit?

--by Carolyn Spencer Brown, Editor in Chief