Sea trek: the next generation

2013’s cruise ships will launch new designs

09/08/2012 12:00 AM

09/05/2012 1:08 PM

When the Celebrity Reflection sets sail in Europe next month before crossing to Miami in November, it will carry Celebrity Cruises’ newest features, including spa suites. Significantly for the cruise industry, the ship’s arrival will also signal the end of an era.

Bang, bang, bang: New vessels were built for North American cruise lines in Europe during a huge shipbuilding phase that started well before the global recession and comes to an end with Reflection — 14 new ships since 2010.

Comparatively, in the next few years, the introduction of new ships will be at a trickle.

Norwegian will float out its 4,000-passenger Breakaway and Getaway; Princess its two largest ships ever, the 3,600-passenger Royal Princess followed by sister ship Regal Princess; and Royal Caribbean, with its 4,000-passenger ship code-named “Project Sunshine.” That’s a total of only five new ships for North American lines in 2013 and 2014. Carnival, which only has hinted about new ships, will rename an existing one after a major, $155 million makeover that includes additional cabins and expanded decks. The 2,642-passenger Carnival Destiny will re-launch next April as the 3,006-passenger Carnival Sunshine.

As with every other generation of new ships, the next batch will have the advantage of lessons learned from the last generation, and promises to bring intriguing advances. At the top of the agenda are energy efficiency, new entertainment and food options, and better showcasing of what may be cruising’s greatest asset — constant sea views.

The cruise industry growth spurt that comes to an end this fall started with a “build it and they will come” attitude, says Rod McLeod, a Weston-based cruise consultant and former cruise executive.

“Some very optimistic and realistic assessments of the potential of the cruise market in the early and mid ’90s fueled a seemingly endless succession of orders right up to the present time,” McLeod says.

Cruise lines are slowing the rate of growth to keep their ships full, he says. But don’t expect the lull to last.

“Some time in the next three to five years we will see another spate of orders,” McLeod says. He adds that the new breed of ships won’t necessarily be built for North American cruisers.

“They will start coming fast and furious as the Asian market led by China opens up. There’s an awfully lot of Chinese. And they have a strong economy,” McLeod explains.

LESSONS LEARNED

When you look at the ships of the past two years in terms of innovation, several trends emerge, the biggest one perhaps being a continuing effort by the industry to show no matter who you are and what you want to experience on vacation, cruise ships can provide it.

Expanded spas and outdoor fitness offerings highlighted active stuff to do onboard, while expansive waterparks on Carnival’s 3,690-passenger Magic and Breeze and Disney’s first-of-its-kind AquaDuck water coaster showed that kids can have fun in activities beyond established children’s programs.

Foodies were given more alternative restaurant choices, including an outdoor grill on the Reflection’s sister ship, Celebrity Silhouette, while those who eschew formality were offered more casual dining options, even on Oceania’s fancy 1,250-passenger Marina and Riviera.

In cabin choices, the new ships brought more private balconies and accommodations linked to expanded spas. More extensive outdoor relaxing, eating and activity areas brought the sea more in focus. Entertainment was broadened and updated. And adults got more attention with adults-only lounging areas and additional nighttime activities, even on Disney’s 4,000-passenger Fantasy.

Signaling the start of the new era next year is Norwegian Breakaway, under construction in Germany and set to debut in its home port of New York in May; followed by Royal Princess, under construction in Italy and set to debut on Mediterranean itineraries in June.

Shaping the design of these new ships are rising fuel costs, a continued focus on onboard revenue and, in the case of Norwegian, a desire to have the ships reflect their home port.

The 4,000-passenger Breakaway will be all about New York, says Norwegian CEO Kevin Sheehan. The ship will have a seafood restaurant and raw bar created by Geoffrey Zakarian, Food Network star and New York restaurateur; a production of the popular Broadway show Rock of Ages; and New York-themed hull art by Peter Max.

“It’s almost like we’re capturing the island of Manhattan. If we do this right, when people say they are going to cruise from New York, they will say they are taking the Norwegian Breakaway,” Sheehan says. No word yet on how sister ship Getaway will reflect Miami.

Royal Princess will be “peppered with changes based on lessons learned,” says Rai Caluori, executive vice president of fleet operations for Princess Cruises.

“We did not want to build a maverick ship compared to the rest of the fleet,” he says. “My view is our competitors tend to want to outdo themselves with every new build. This is not a criticism. We don’t feel that imperative.”

While Royal Caribbean is keeping “Project Sunshine” details under wraps, Adam Goldstein, president and CEO, hinted of innovations to come.

“Obviously Sunshine gives us a new opportunity,” he said. “It’s in our DNA to do pathbreaking ship features.”

THE FUEL FACTOR

What keeps cruise executives up at night are fuel costs, and rising costs have certainly affected the design of the new ships.

“I think the perspective now when you start a new-build process is very different. Whereas the priority would have been on public room design, one of the priority areas now is the fuel efficiency of the ship. That’s certainly the case with Royal Princess,” says Caluori. “The top of the list is fuel efficiency.”

As a result, he says, Royal Princess has a new hull design and improved hydrodynamics, state-of-the-art propellers, the ability to operate on one engine in port, distributed air conditioning with more local zone control, and keycard activation of cabin lights, among other energy savers.

“It’s reached a crazy level, so you have to have a very keen focus on fuel efficiency,” adds Sheehan of Norwegian’s focus. “We’re all thinking about it, obviously, looking at alternatives. That’s being evaluated.”

THE NEW ATRIUM

While atriums on cruise ships once seemed to serve mostly as a big “wow!” for passengers when they stepped onboard, they are being redesigned as lively, entertaining and revenue-generating areas.

Princess has been a leader, transitioning what it calls the “piazza” on its ships into a central hang-out spot — home to the pizzeria, wine bar, coffee café and entertainment.

On Royal Princess, the three-deck central piazza is about 50 percent larger than the largest on the line’s other ships.

“Strategically we have identified the atrium, the piazza, as a significant icon/hallmark of our brand,” says Caluori, adding the move was stimulated by a change in passenger behavior.

“I think the days of going to dinner, going to the show and going to the nightclub are over. People enjoy staying in one place that gives them pleasure, and they don’t want to move from it,” he says. “I can see on the Royal passengers hanging out in the atrium with a glass of champagne at the Bellini’s bar, a plate of seafood at the seafood bar, maybe then going for a pizza and hanging out in the atrium.”

On Breakaway, as on Epic, Norwegian also replaces the traditional tall atrium in favor of a three-story interior hang-out , with food, drink and entertainment options nearby.

“It forces people to stay out and want to have fun,” says Sheehan. “The casino is near there and people see it. People are out having a great time at 2 or 3 in the morning.”

Sheehan adds, “To me it’s an experience. The fact someone is building a big huge atrium on a cruise ship, maybe that’s smart to someone. I’m going for guest experience.”

SPA FOCUS

Shipboard spas and fitness centers have expanded in recent years both in terms of space and offerings — and in terms of onboard revenue for cruise lines as well. On nearly every modern ship they’ve occupied real estate near the top, to take advantage of ocean views.

In a bold move, Princess is changing things up. The Royal Princess will have an ocean-view fitness center up on top but the Lotus Spa has been moved to smack dab in the middle of the ship. The intentions are clear — make the spa more in your face.

The line says in a press release the move makes the spa “a convenient stop for passengers enjoying a treatment before or after the many activities and dining options nearby.”

Says Caluori, “We wanted to capitalize on the traffic from the atrium.”

Facilities will include a Turkish-style steam room, the line’s first hydro-therapy pool, sauna, Couples Villas and Medi Spa (for Botox and acupuncture treatments).

“Royal Princess is really taking it to a whole other level of offerings,” Caluori says. “I think the spa will very much be a showcase for the ship.”

ENTERTAINMENT AS A BATTLEGROUND

Consultant McLeod says that cruise lines are duking it out over who offers the best in entertainment.

The oft-maligned cruise ship production shows have been experiencing a sea change.

Royal Caribbean brought cruising’s first Broadway productions, Chicago and Hairspray, onto Allure and Oasis, just slightly condensed.

On Breakaway, Norwegian will make noise with the rowdy Broadway show Rock of Ages. Says Sheehan, “It’s edgy and we have to do a little work there. But anyone age 70 on down will relate to rock ’n’ roll.”

On Royal Princess, Princess Cruises will introduce streamlined, 30-minute shows that make use of LED screens and other technology — similar to what Carnival recently introduced on Breeze.

“It seems the passengers’ attention span is shorter. This may be a product of the digital age,” says Caluori. The shorter shows and high tech scenery also reduce costs.

Princess is putting additional focus on in-room entertainment.

“What we think is necessary now is for passengers to be able to demand music or a movie from their cabin whenever they wish,” Calouri says. Princess is developing its own proprietary on-demand system, which will debut on Royal Princess.

FOOD FIGHT

Zakarian, newest celebrity chef to hit the high seas, joins a bunch of familiar names including fellow Food Network star Guy Fieri, who has burger joints on Carnival ships, and legendary French chef Jacques Pepin, who has bistros on Oceania.

Sheehan says Zakarian will help Breakaway attract “the sophisticated market in particular.” No word yet on what sampling the chef’s treats will cost.

The new ships will also continue the trend of increased focus on casual dining, including with more outdoor dining options and beefed-up buffets.

“For people who have a very casual approach to vacationing, it’s important,” says Caluori. “Passenger don’t want to go to the dining room every night.”

BEHIND THE SCENES

In the back of the house, cruise lines are looking for increased productivity from crew — the idea being to add more passengers but not more crew, says McLeod.

Much that is groundbreaking on Royal Princess is taking place behind the scenes, says Caluori. “We spent a lot of time and money on better design for crew.”

He says crew quarters, recreation, welfare, dining, training, hiring and retraining are all areas of focus, and that the line will be using technology to both evaluate crew and get feedback from crew members.

“There will be a lot going on that our competitors won’t be able to emulate because they won’t know how we’ve done it,” he says.

SHOWCASING THE SEA

A light bulb seems to have gone off somewhere that a big reason people cruise is to experience the sea.

After Royal Caribbean caught some heat for its focus on vast interior spaces lacking views of the ocean on Oasis and Allure, the designers of the next breed of ships seemed intent on expanding the view, and that trend continues on the new ships.

On Breakaway, Norwegian will introduce an expanded Deck 8 Promenade with outdoor dining and drinking options and room too for people to take a stroll.

“On Breakaway we have an unbelievable water park. Five slides. I don’t think anybody has been close to having that experience on a ship. And our ropes course will have 40 activities,” Sheehan says.

On the Royal Princess, a focus is outdoors at night, including water and light shows accompanied by music at the pools. Those who want the ultimate sea view can also do the ship’s SeaWalk, which extends 28 feet beyond the edge of the ship, providing unobstructed views of water 128 feet below.

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