More Details on Azamara Club Cruises Revamp (Fewer Butlers, More Brits)

January 19, 2010
It's been a few weeks since Azamara announced that it was going to be renamed Azamara Club Cruises, with more in-depth itineraries and a more inclusive product. Now, further details of the new-look, two-ship line have trickled out at a press conference held last week in London.

We already reported that Azamara's president, Larry Pimentel, intends to "slow the ships down," which means more nights in port. Pimentel also announced last December that the "nickel and diming" onboard would end. Starting in April, cruise fares (which are rising as much as 20 percent) will include wine with dinner, basic gratuities, self-service laundry, mineral water and coach shuttles in some ports.

What else does Azamara have in store? Here are a few tidbits from the event:

No more butlers -- unless you're in a suite: Until now, every cabin has come with butler service, although there has been criticism, some on the Cruise Critic message boards, that these butlers are little more than glorified cabin stewards. Now, butlers will receive formal training at butler school in England -- but will only serve the passengers in suites or above.

A cover charge for the speciality restaurants: This one's a bit ironic for a line that's going more inclusive. At the moment, all passengers get two nights of complimentary dining in Aqualina and Prime C, the two alternative dining venues (three nights for suite passengers). From April 1, suite passengers can eat in these restaurants as often as they like, at no charge, while everybody else pays $15 a head. Reservations will be first come, first served.

Sport and shopping ashore: In line with the industry trend for hiking and biking in port, some tours will be quite ambitious, including cycling to the next port and catching up with the ship there. And despite the more immersive cultural tours announced back in December, there will be no shortage of shopping ashore, however high-brow the excursion: "We will even have special tours for collectors," said Pimentel. "I don't care how sophisticated people are -- they still want to see the shops."

"Brochures” without prices: From now on, all new prices will be on the Azamara Web site only. A lavish "destination guide" (we've been told not to call it a brochure) was revealed, containing striking photography provided at no cost by five art students who were taken on a Mediterranean cruise, let loose with cameras and given credits in the back of the book. In a pocket in the back, there's a giant, fold-out chart that tells you where each ship is and when.

A possible new tie-up with a spa brand: The spas are run by the ubiquitous Steiner at the moment, but like all arrangements, this one will be up for renewal at some point. "Let's just say we have a current contract with them," Pimentel said, perhaps hinting that he's got an open mind about working with a different provider in the future.

A new ship? "If we fill the ships at the right rate, it will be an enticement to take new tonnage," Pimentel hinted. "I would just say, stay tuned." Azamara would not go the same way as rival Oceania Cruises (the existing ships of which are sisters to the Azamara duo) and build larger. "The same size or smaller," is what Pimentel has his eye on.

Finally, more Brits! Pimentel said that 44 percent of the line's passengers were currently "international" (meaning, from outside the U.S. or Canada). "I predict that there will be more international guests than Americans within two years," he said, echoing a statement made by Royal Caribbean's CEO Richard Fain last year, suggesting that more than half the line's passengers would be "international" within two years. "The UK represents 14 percent of our business and I fully expect it to be our second-largest market. I wouldn't be surprised if 25 to 30 percent of our passengers were British in the next couple of years."

To this end, Azamara is increasing its staffing in the U.K., stepping up its effort with specialist cruise travel agents (so check with your agent for promotions and ship visits) and taking the unusual route of providing prizes for charity auctions, which, Pimentel said, gets the product in front of a suitably wealthy audience.

We will, of course, keep you posted as soon as more Azamara announcements are made.

--by Sue Bryant, Cruise Critic Contributing Editor