When they sail into South Florida ports in the next several weeks, the region’s four newest cruise ships will be floating superlatives. They’re their line’s biggest, costliest, classiest, grandest — the list of -est’s goes on and on.
The latest additions, which debuted in Europe earlier this year, will make their journey to Florida for the Caribbean winter season. Each new ship represents the first local opportunity in several years for most of the lines to take what they do best and do it better. Royal Caribbean International’s Harmony of the Seas, Carnival Cruise Line’s Carnival Vista, Holland America’s ms Koningsdam and Regent Seven Seas’ Seven Seas Explorer introduce innovations that cater to their line’s particular niche, allowing the brands to express their personalities with an exclamation point.
This hyper focus on cementing each line’s identity through the new ships means positive returns both for the cruise companies — most headquartered in South Florida — and for consumers, said Tony Peisley, a UK-based cruise industry analyst.
If they can establish their own brand and what it stands for, passengers have their expectations at least met — if not exceeded — because they are on the right ship for their needs. Then if you get that, you can charge more for it.
Tony Peisley, a UK-based cruise industry analyst
“If they can establish their own brand and what it stands for, passengers have their expectations at least met — if not exceeded — because they are on the right ship for their needs,” Peisley said. “Then if you get that, you can charge more for it. People really want to go on your line, and they will pay for it, to some extent.”
The ships will start sailing from PortMiami and Port Everglades in Fort Lauderdale in November and December, rounding out a year that has seen more new ships than any year in recent memory. South Florida will play host to each of the four lines’ newest, partially because the area feeds the still-dominant Caribbean market and partially because South Floridians know cruising and they’ll line up to try the latest, experts said.
The ships are the first for each line in several years: 14 years for Regent, six years for Holland America, four years for Carnival and the first Oasis-class Royal Caribbean ship in six years.
Miami-based Royal Caribbean International, known for innovation, has for seven years graced Port Everglades with the world’s largest ships, its Oasis-class floating cities of 7,000-plus passengers. But South Florida missed out on its latest twists when Royal Caribbean deployed its Quantum class of vessels — the largest class of passenger ships behind the Oasis class on a gross tonnage basis — in New Jersey, Australia and China.
“We learned a lot in building [Oasis-class ships] Oasis and Allure, we learned a lot building [the] Quantum [class],” said Richard Fain, chairman and CEO of parent company Royal Caribbean Cruises. “We put all that together and that ended up with Harmony.”
The 6,780-passenger Harmony of the Seas, the world’s biggest ship, fuses together some of the Oasis-class’ noteworthy features — such as its neighborhood concept that divides the ship into seven distinct areas — with the latest amenities from the Quantum class, such as the Bionic Bar, manned by robot bartenders. The ship also includes another new feature for the Royal Caribbean fleet: its 10-story Ultimate Abyss slide, the tallest at sea.
Carnival Cruise Line, too, is introducing more new elements than ever before on a single Carnival ship with Vista. While the Doral-based cruise line says it’s aiming for a wide swath of the potential cruise market, an industry-wide objective, most of its new amenities are geared toward families.
Standout add-ons on the 3,934-passenger Vista include the SkyRide, a bicycling experience on a track suspended above the sports complex. Vista also boasts the first IMAX theater at sea, a beer brewery in partnership with Miami’s Concrete Beach Brewery, and Family Harbor staterooms, an industry first that includes a family lounge area, concierge and breakfast buffet.
“Carnival sails more families and more children; 700,000 children sail with us each year,” said Christine Duffy, president of Carnival Cruise Line. “So we want to create experiences that play to families traveling with their children and lots of multi-generational travel that is occurring.”
As the brand continues to grow and evolve, we’ve been around for 144 years, but in order to be around for another 144 years, we have to innovate.
Orlando Ashford, president of Holland America Line
Multi-generational travel also is inspiring Holland America Line, traditionally known for catering to an older demographic, to add its first family cabins, with space for up to five guests, aboard the Koningsdam.
“As the brand continues to grow and evolve, we’ve been around for 144 years, but in order to be around for another 144 years, we have to innovate,” said Holland America president Orlando Ashford.
For Holland America, that means integrating new flourishes with its traditional style. The 2,650-passenger Koningsdam, the largest in the line’s fleet, pumps up the pace on the line’s music roots of offering string quartets and chamber music with a Music Walk that features three stages of live music: Lincoln Center Stage in partnership with New York City’s Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, B.B. King’s Blues Club and Billboard Onboard, a sing-along piano and guitar venue.
Enhancing already-popular options is also part of the strategy at Regent Seven Seas, which has added more culinary experiences on its high-end Seven Seas Explorer (billed as the “most luxurious ship ever built”) to satisfy luxury passengers’ cravings. Explorer has two main restaurants and three included (Regent is all-inclusive) specialty restaurants, a departure in a luxury market usually known for smaller ships and, consequently, less options. The ship’s main restaurant, Compass Rose, offers a customizable menu with more than a dozen protein options and a varied list of side items, all cooked to guests’ preference.
The menu includes options such as lobster, dover sole, filet mignon and veal medallions, with a complementary list of garnish sauces that include madeira-truffle, hollandaise and green peppercorn. For a side, guests can choose from a variety that ranges from lyonnaise potatoes to sauteed spinach.
The 750-passenger Seven Seas Explorer is still considered a small ship, but it’s the largest for Regent and part of an effort to include more options and draw more potential cruisers to the luxury market, said Jason Montague, the line’s president and CEO.
“When looking at it from a luxury standpoint, cuisine is a major component,” Montague said. “What we are doing with our Compass Rose restaurant is a perfect example of what we are looking to do. There is incredible opportunity, as we continue to educate the consumers on what they are missing.”
10 percent Average price gap between the new ships and their sister ships on the same itineraries
Each of these ships enters the market with one uniting goal: Attract new cruisers. Satisfaction rates for cruising are the highest in the leisure travel market, but cruising only accounts for 2 percent of leisure travelers, according to the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA).
Still, when so many new ships enter a market at the same time, it shines a spotlight on cruising as a vacation option, said travel agent Michelle Fee, CEO and co-founder of Cruise Planners, an American Express Travel Representative.
“It doesn’t matter what cruise line comes out with a new ship because it just attracts [people that are] new to cruise and it attracts those who have already cruised,” Fee said. “It creates that conversation.”
Fee said overall sales for 2017 and into 2018 are higher this year than in years past, driven in part by the fanfare around the new ships.
The ship boom is also indicative of changing consumer preferences, said Stewart Chiron, a Miami-based cruise expert and CEO of CruiseGuy.com. A record-breaking 24.6 million travelers are expected to take a cruise vacation by the end of 2016, according to CLIA projections.
Things change, their friends down the street have been on five cruises this year, and they wonder what they’re missing.
Stewart Chiron, Miami-based cruise expert and CEO of CruiseGuy.com
“Some people are just completely adamant that they will never try it, but certain factors change, higher airfare, higher gas prices,” Chiron said. “Things change, their friends down the street have been on five cruises this year, and they wonder what they’re missing.”
The pace of growth isn’t expected to slow down. Each line said it is focused on continuing to add the kinds of new attractions highlighted on their most recent vessels. Each already has ordered new ships: Royal Caribbean has six new ships coming through 2024; Carnival has ordered three through 2022.Holland America and Regent will build sister ships to their latest models, with Holland America’s set to sail in 2018 and Regent’s set for delivery in 2020.
The buildup to the boom
Until recently, the cruise industry was still feeling the effects of the Great Recession in 2008 and 2009.
The upswing in ship building in the early part of the 21st century would have continued, said UK-based cruise expert Peisley, if the recession hadn’t hit. The lag in ship orders during the crash was reflected about three years later when the ships were completed and the economy was beginning to recover.
By 2012, only about seven to eight new ships were coming out a year, Peisley said. But also around that time, tides started to change, currencies got stronger and the Asian market began to emerge as a possible gold mine for cruising.
PortMiami is expecting this to continue. They are essentially expecting another surge over the next 10 years coming into Miami, Fort Lauderdale and Port Canaveral [in Orlando]. m
Tony Peisley, a UK-based cruise industry analyst
“The emergence of China really has a big impact. Now they’ve got a market there that’s growing probably faster than any market has every grown in the cruise industry,” Peisley said. “They are ordering ships specifically for that market and they are also moving ships that would have been North America or Europe to China, so they can then build new ships for here as well. It stimulates both sides.”
By 2013, orders started coming in more rapidly. Now that change is finally being reflected: 27 new ships entered the market in 2016, according to CLIA.
“This is really the beginning,” Peisley said. “PortMiami is expecting this to continue. They are essentially expecting another surge over the next 10 years coming into Miami, Fort Lauderdale and Port Canaveral [in Orlando].”
The surge in ships correlates with a surge in ship size too, said Carolyn Spencer Brown, editor-in-chief of CruiseCritic.com, particularly for the higher-end lines like Holland America and Regent.
“The generation coming into luxury travel wants some options. They don’t want every option, but they don’t want just one theater, one bar, one dining room,” Spencer Brown said. “In most cases, ships are getting bigger.”
Royal Caribbean deliberately made Harmony of the Seas ever-so-slightly larger than its sisters — by just a foot in length to snag the title of biggest.
“I never used to think about size. We always said, ‘We design the ship based on what we want to put in it,’” said Fain of Royal Caribbean Cruises. “But I have learned that whether I think in terms of size or not, the media and the public very much do focus on that. We did make a conscious decision that Allure [of the Seas] would be a silly millimeter bigger than Oasis [of the Seas] and Harmony would be a bit bigger.”
But the lines have to strike a balance, Peisley said. Although Holland America’s Koningsdam is its biggest ship, it’s still 99,500 tons, just under the 100,000 tons that were once considered massive. (By comparison, Harmony of the Seas weighs nearly 227,000 tons).
“Holland America, they deliberately are always low-key. They don’t go for wow factors,” Peisley said. “Their ship is just 99,000 tons, and that’s deliberate.”
Each brand also has a long history and loyal following, Chiron said. Departing too much from the ethos of the company threatens those relationships.
Royal Caribbean has six new ships coming through 2024; Carnival has ordered three through 2022.Holland America and Regent will build sister ships to their latest models, with Holland America’s set to sail in 2018 and Regent’s set for delivery in 2020.
“What [Holland America] does is it rewards, it gratifies their past passengers that have sailed with them and provides them with a new ship, with new technologies,” Chiron said. Koningsdam is the first new Holland America ship in six years.
The ship’s main theater, The World Stage, features a 270-degree LED screen that projects background scenes during productions, a new offering for loyal Holland America cruisers (Royal Caribbean’s Quantum class has similar technology on its ships).
Regent also has ramped up its entertainment on Seven Seas Explorer in conjunction with parent company Norwegian Cruise Line. Among the new offerings are an adaptation of Tony Award-winning show “A Day in Hollywood” and Norwegian’s popular Beatles-inspired ballroom dancing show “Burn the Floor.”
At Royal Caribbean and Carnival, the lines are improving guest favorites: Royal added water slides, popular in the industry but a first on its ships, while Carnival has expanded on one of its pioneering features, the outdoor video screen, with a multi-sensory Thrill Theater.
Mike Driscoll, editor of the trade publication Cruise Week, said the recently revealed upgrades are just the first step. “We are going to have more announcements, and they are going to be more like this. You can’t stand still.”
The new amenities mean the lines can offer higher rates. Fares on the new ships will be about 10 percent higher than similar ships on the same itineraries, Driscoll said, meaning high yields for the lines.
But prices for cruises aboard older ships in the fleets will likely go down.
“It may affect the yield on their existing ships because there is a migration to new ships always. The demand is always higher for them,” Peisley said. “[But] it’s worth it to introduce new ships [in South Florida] and to stimulate the market. That’s the sort of balance that they strike.”
Then, Peisley said, it’s a question of how much the lines hold their nerve and resist lowering their prices on new ships to offset effects on yield elsewhere.
“There is usually one brand that panics,” he said.
27 Number of new ships that entered the market in 2016
Concurrently, the lines are working to refurbish the rest of their fleets, creating a more uniform experience across the brand.
Take Regent. Seven Seas Explorer is the line’s first new ship in 14 years, so the attached $125 million renovation plan for the other three ships in its fleet is almost a given.
“When you’re bringing out something that is to the level that we brought Explorer out, it was important that we keep the existing fleet in line with that level of expectation from our guests,” said Montague, Regent’s president.
Riding the wave
Going on a ship that gives passengers options is of paramount importance for Miami cruiser Ryan Cellucci and his family.
Cellucci said he “fell in love” with Royal Caribbean International after a trip on Oasis of the Seas in March. Now, he’s excited to meet her sister Harmony.
“The vast array of options for families is really important for us,” said Cellucci, who has two kids: 4-year-old Alexis and 6-year-old Jacob. “Something to do with the kids during the day, but to really have a night out to ourselves is really phenomenal.”
Cellucci, who is director of food and beverage at Barry University, enjoys the restaurant selection on the Oasis-class ships (there are 25 dining options on Oasis, 20 on Harmony) and the “attention to detail.” When the family goes on Harmony in the next few years, Cellucci said he and his wife, Rosa, are most excited about the newest features, particularly the robotic bar.
We will never again witness a pace of change as slow as it is today; that is simply a fact of life. The consumer has come to expect that, and the people with whom they do business will act accordingly.
Richard Fain, chairman and CEO of Royal Caribbean Cruises
Each of the lines recognizes that the lure of something shiny and new is the golden ticket to attracting cruisers, repeat or new. That applies to smaller or behind-the-scenes changes too. While those may not be the deciding factors for a consumer considering cruising, they definitely enhance the experience.
For instance, Carnival is transitioning passenger photos from print to digital on Vista, with a facial recognition feature that draws up a guest’s photos. The line’s mobile app, Carnival Hub, available on Vista and coming to the remainder of the 25-ship fleet by March, enables guests to communicate, check ship schedules and use social media for a $5 charge.
Behind the scenes, Carnival and competitor Royal Caribbean International are preparing for bigger structural changes. Both companies have announced they are building a new class of ships powered by liquified natural gas, the cleanest burning fossil fuel, for deployment in the early 2020’s.
Travel agent Fee said the environmentally friendly move is a plus for travelers.
For the lines, it’s a huge step, Peisley said.
“[LNG] has come a lot sooner than people expected,” he said.
Carnival Cruise Line Royal Caribbean International have announced they are building a new class of ships powered by liquified natural gas, the cleanest burning fossil fuel, for deployment in the early 2020’s.
The lines have to abide by a regulation instated by the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships that requires ship fuels release no more than 0.5 percent sulfur content. The cap is set for implementation in 2020, but may be deferred until 2025. LNG allows the lines to meet the cap for their upcoming vessels.
Royal Caribbean International will also test fuel cells on its 2022 and 2024 ships for a new, LNG-powered Icon class.
Moving forward, the off-board experience will also get a facelift.
Holland America wants to enhance its shore excursions to offer truly unique experiences. The line is working to finalize an excursion available when its ships are in Amsterdam, for example, that will give passengers exclusive after-hours tours of the Rijksmuseum, a crowded stop during the day.
In June, Royal Caribbean announced it’s building a state-of-the-art terminal, a $247 million project, at PortMiami, one that will finally bring its megaships to Miami from Fort Lauderdale. The new terminal is set for completion in late 2018 and will fully roll out new technological features, such as digital luggage tracking, which allows guests to follow the location of their bags on an app. The first test of that technology will be on Harmony of the Seas this year.
$247 million Cost of Royal Caribbean Cruises’ new terminal at PortMiami
The new ships, say their owners, position them for a future powered by maturing customer expectations that reflect the growth — and untapped potential — of the industry.
“We have never seen a pace of change like this,” said Fain of Royal Caribbean Cruises. “We will never again witness a pace of change as slow as it is today; that is simply a fact of life. The consumer has come to expect that, and the people with whom they do business will act accordingly.”
This article includes comments from the Public Insight Network, an online community of people who have agreed to share their insights with the Miami Herald and WLRN. Become a source at wlrn.org/topic/public-insight-network