By Bill Becken
Luxury cruise lines naturally look for ways to leverage the acclaimed value and authenticity of their visits to foreign ports of call—stemming from the posts of guests, travel agents, or industry partners. Especially when you consider that, in this respect, some lines are more blessed than others—that is, they have a lot more going for them than meets the eye.
As an example: Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines’ Azamara Club Cruises, based in Miami, FL. In 2016, Azamara’s two continental-boutique-hotel-style, 694-passenger Renaissance-class vessels, the Azamara Journey and the Azamara Quest, will offer 48 different cruises and voyages, of between five and 18 nights’ duration.
Travel-Intel sat down with Azamara CEO, Larry Pimentel, to find out what is working these days for the cruise line and what may be ahead for 2016 and beyond.
You’re a part of a very large corporation. How do you keep Azamara differentiated from other companies under the brand?
One might think our organization at Azamara is fairly extensive, considering the extensive kudos we receive on the type of experience we offer,” says Larry Pimentel, Azamara’s CEO. “But actually I head a relatively small but seasoned team around me devoted to destination immersion. And it’s quite interesting: we’re asmall group contained within a gigantic machine at Royal Caribbean Cruises, Ltd.
How does being part of Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines help the branding?
When all is said and done, I’ve been given tremendous latitude by our chairman, Richard Fain, to create a unique product. We’ve proceeded to do that. It’s different than others. Whether it’s better, of course, will be debated. But it’s clearly different. I think being in a gigantic S&P 500 company gives our little brand a lot of resources that otherwise it would not have. Even beyond destination immersion. For example, the timing and speed of our two vessels’ drydocks this year—fine examples.
Indeed, we hear a lot about “Destination Immersion” in reference to Azamara. Could you explain?
Keep in mind, our brochure is labeled a destination guide, not a cruise guide. To be specific about what destination immersion means: We’re trying to create deeper travel experiences and one-of-a-kind events. Small group excursions that you can’t Google, so to speak. That’s the interesting thing to tell the people here: we create excursions and events you can’t replicate. So where does that effort take us?
We created something called Azamazing Evenings– exclusive, bespoke, authentic, localized experiences (those adjectives well-define a luxury experience, by the way). We boldly created a nocturnal deliverable (ships are not typically in port at night). And those evenings are included in the tariff.
How is that working?
Our guests don’t like this, they love this. They can’t wait for the Azamazing Evenings. Because they are very authentic, very real and again, very bespoke. And, indeed, one can’t just search for “azamazing evenings” online and pick one. They’re not available that way. It’s telling that, when we talk to shore operators, who are quite accustomed to dealing with the cruise industry, they sometimes ask, ‘What do you mean you want to do a program at night? Ships aren’t in port at night.” Well, this one is, we say–indeed, pretty much during every week and on every voyage.
Can you also discuss some of your other intriguing programs?
The second program is called Nights and Cool Places. These are customized after-dinner events in places that offer beautiful settings. They are for purchase but are also very localized and authentic. So, as an example, we might go to Amsterdam, to Rembrandt’s house at night, with no cues. It’s a complete bespoke experience, with no other guests, no crowds and complete curated access to a museum experience that’s awesome. Again, as with our Azamazing Evenings, the guests don’t like it, they love it.
More generally, we do “Insider Access” programs. These are behind the scenes — meeting local residents in their homes, in their shops, in their farmhouses. So we have gone and taken small groups to culturally connect with the different cultures. The residents can be doctors, lawyers or those with more everyday occupations.
Basically they’re families who happen to live in a small community, whether it be Norway, Holland, Australia, New Zealand, what have you. That’s Insider Access, which is also for purchase. So again, Azamazing Evenings is included, but Nights in Cool Places and Insider Access are items for purchase.
What about special dining experiences?
Our most recent program, and one of the most unique, is called “Cruise Global, Eat Local.” The program offers private onshore culinary experiences (pointedly, they not meals at chic, three-star Michelin restaurants). Through research, we’re constantly discovering anew where the locals eat. What tend to think are their best restaurants.
How does that work with what are usually fairly rigid dining schedules on these ships?
So, for our guests interested in doing this, who want to do this in a flexible format, we have this, since Azamara does have longer stays and more overnights. They can enjoy these programs on their own at lunch or at dinner. It’s not necessarily with the group; they can be arranged individually. We talk to our groups in local or global tour operations to get select and procure the restaurants. By the end of 2016, we’ll probably be up to 200 restaurants.
The point is that there is all this product. One may call us here at Azamara a cruise line, but, I think you can see that we’re really offering a destination immersion deliverable—and that’s pretty much all the way through.