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Cruise ships get extreme makeovers: water parks, bars, shows

The Carnival Sunshine’s new water slide features after a $155 million renovation.
The Carnival Sunshine’s new water slide features after a $155 million renovation. ©Danny Lehman

When Miami middle school teacher Kathy Balboa boarded the Norwegian Sky in December, she expected to find the same amenities she had enjoyed on a previous voyage on the new Norwegian Getaway: water slides, varied entertainment venues, a Vodka Ice Bar and onboard texting capabilities between family members.

On her December voyage, those features were nowhere on board.

The problem: Norwegian Sky was launched in 1999, before water activities and comedy shows became standard cruise ship features. Though it was refitted as the Pride of Aloha in 2004 and then redesigned for the Norwegian fleet in 2008, those state-of-the-art amenities won’t come until February 2017.

“It’s like going out with a supermodel and then going out with the ugliest girl in the world,” Balboa said. “I don’t want to cruise for a long time because I was so disappointed.”

The disconnect between old and new ships explains why Norwegian and other major lines are spending hundreds of millions of dollars over the next two years to refresh their vessels. In doing so, they create brand consistency, ensuring that cruisers find the same features and equivalent experiences no matter which of the line’s ships they are on. And even the most extreme makeovers come at a fraction of the time — and cost — of building a new ship.

Refurbishment is one of the trends likely to be discussed at this week’s SeaTrade conference in Fort Lauderdale. The industry’s largest annual meeting draws CEOs and executives from 60 ocean-going and river-cruising lines, technical suppliers and some 180 ports from Africa to Asia, New England to Patagonia. About 11,000 people are expected to attend the conference, being held in Fort Lauderdale for the first time while the Miami Beach Convention Center is being expanded.

It’s like going out with a supermodel and then going out with the ugliest girl in the world. I don’t want to cruise for a long time because I was so disappointed.

Kathy Balboa, Miami middle school teacher

For those in the industry, Norwegian’s announcement late last year that it would spend $400 million in ship renovations over the next two years was the continuation of a familiar trend that picked up steam a half-dozen years ago. Renovations helped better meet consumer expectations and created more profit for lines. As new ships grew bigger and incorporated flashy new features, lines were forced to shift from traditional cosmetic touch-ups of older ships — such as new carpets and bar menus — to complete overhauls.

Perhaps the most extreme example was the 2013 near-gut of the Carnival Destiny.

Carnival Cruise Line radically transformed its decades-old Carnival Destiny, adding nine new dining options — including four specialty restaurants — six bars; a recreation complex with a ropes course, mini-golf and basketball court; and its crowning glory: a water park with a 334-foot-long Twister slide, the longest in the Carnival fleet. The renovation added 182 staterooms, taking the ship from a 2,642-passenger vessel to one with capacity for 3,006 guests. The ship even debuted under a new name, the Carnival Sunshine.

The tab: $155 million, plus 75 days out of service — a bargain when compared with Carnival’s new $780 million Carnival Vista. That 3,936-passenger ship, due to launch in May, took two years to build.

“The revolution is in the renovation,” said Mike Driscoll, editor of the trade publication Cruise Week. “You take the best of your old ships — when it came out Carnival Destiny was the best Carnival ship — [and] you spend the money to make it good for the modern era.”

60 Approximate percent of ships that are more than 10 years old in the three major cruise companies

The challenge — and opportunity — are in the numbers. More than 60 percent of ships in service in the three major lines — Carnival Corp., Royal Caribbean Cruises and Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings — are more than 10 years old.

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Between Jan. 1, 2015 and Jan. 1, 2017, about 20 percent of all ships, 34 total, are slated for extreme makeovers that include the addition of new entertainment venues such as a Beatles-inspired club on the Norwegian Epic, new restaurants including SHARE by Curtis Stone on the Emerald Princess and Ruby Princess; and new attractions like the two racer slides debuting on Liberty of the Seas. In that same time frame, more than a dozen new ships will join fleets across the world.

Riding the consumer wave

In the past, most cruise ships were in service for 15 to 20 years before they were moved to secondary markets or underwent significant alternations. Public opinion can change a lot in that time.

The challenge, experts say, becomes anticipating what guests will want in the future while building a product relevant for today’s consumers. That’s where renovations find their sweet spot.

Adding flexibility and options to a cruising experience helps accommodate changes in consumer tastes.

Case in point: In 2000, Norwegian launched Freestyle Cruising, with multiple options for dining and entertainment. Prior to that time, most cruise passengers dined at set times in a single, massive dining room and attended a production show scheduled around their dining times.

When the approach proved successful, other lines followed suit. But first, they had to reconfigure their ships.

Carnival’s renovation of the Carnival Destiny cost $155 million over 75 days. It cost the line $780 million and two years to build its new Carnival Vista.

One big complication has been the growth in ship size. In the past decade, cruise lines have introduced larger ships to accommodate more elaborate shows, comedy clubs, bars and restaurants. Older ships have been too small to fit in the same amenities.

Norwegian Cruise Line’s three newest ships, for example, the Norwegian Breakaway, Getaway and Escape, all carry about 4,000-plus passengers each, twice the capacity of the Sky.

“Now it becomes a much more significant issue that we have a fleet of larger newer ships and a fleet of mid-size ships,” said Andy Stuart, Norwegian Cruise Line president and chief operating officer. “The issue of consistency on that is more disparate.”

Renovations help narrow the divide by restructuring existing ships to mirror newer ones. Refurbishments are also an opportunity to inject features that are more profitable for cruise lines, such as specialty dining restaurants that are available for an added fee.

During its renovation, for example, the Carnival Destiny expanded from a single main dining room to a total of six restaurants — the two main free dining rooms plus four options available at a per-person fee. The Destiny’s main theater dropped from three decks to two to make space for other venues to join the rotation of nighttime activities, such as a game show, comedy club and live performances.

Another factor: Family and multi-generational travel has also become more popular. To accommodate that shift, MSC Cruises, an Italian brand with a U.S. office in Fort Lauderdale, is adding play areas for children and teens through a partnership with toy brands LEGO and Chicco. The change is part of a $273 million “Renaissance Programme” aboard its oldest ships, dating from the early 2000s.

As they slow down the new builds coming to the North American market, you have to make new features on the ships you’re renovating.

Mike Driscoll, editor of the trade publication Cruise Week

To satisfy younger travelers, Royal Caribbean International last month debuted a slide that boomerangs riders on an inflatable tube up a vertical wall on the Liberty of the Seas, a ship launched in 2007, rather than on a new vessel.

“In Royal’s case, [the new slide] fits in with what people expect from the company,” said Cruise Week editor Driscoll. “They expect some action element. It’s the next logistical step. As they slow down the new builds coming to the North American market, you have to make new features on the ships you’re renovating.”

The conversation has turned to how each line’s most successful features can find a home on older ships.

The examples abound across the cruise lines. Carnival is adding a collection of guests’ favorite features to all ships in its fleet through refurbishments over five years. Those include more restaurants, bars and facilities for activities, such as its rope course sporting complex.

Norwegian is taking its most popular specialty restaurant arrangement from the Norwegian Epic, which combines two restaurants, Cagney’s Steakhouse and Moderno Churrascaria, connected by a bar for both venues, and adding it to two new ships and two older vessels during makeovers.

“When these ships are renovated, sometimes they are actually better than the newest ships because [the cruise lines] have figured out which of these new features worked,” Driscoll said. “They can’t predict what’s going to catch on with their market — there are always surprises. So they look at what’s working and put that on older ships.”

Beyond extensive physical changes, smaller infrastructure upgrades are now also part of refurbishments.

Technology has come into play. Where once vacationers sought to disconnect from their worlds, now they want to stay in touch with those at home.

That’s why Royal Caribbean is adding capabilities to all its ships for its VOOM high-speed Internet, marketed as “the fastest Internet at sea,” during an exhaustive revitalization period in the next two years. Other lines are seeking faster connections as well.

I don’t ever want to hear someone say, ‘I’m going to the early show.’

Andy Stuart, Norwegian Cruise Line president and chief operating officer

With more flexible onboard spaces, lines can focus on the programming — menus, decor, entertainment — that goes in them.

“What we changed in most of the brands is that we made more interactive and shorter shows so that you are not sitting one and a half hours, two hours in the grand show, but sitting with an entertainer for 20 minutes and getting the latest gadget from the entertainment world — but more of them and more in different times of the day,” said Peter Fetten, senior vice president of corporate ship refits at Carnival Corp.

Royal Caribbean Cruises’ premium line, Celebrity, announced an entertainment initiative late last year, “18 Shows in 18 Months,” offering 18 different productions across its fleet ranging from a hologram show with iPads called iMagic to risqué, adult-themed show Elyria. The line also debuted its “A Taste of Film” rooftop lawn dining experience, which pairs films with food inspired by the movie, on its early 2000s ship class — rather than new vessels — during a year-long refurbishment program that began in October.

“Our revitalization program and strategy has been very successful in both increasing our guest experience ratings as well as driving our ticket premium and our onboard revenue,” said Brian Abel, Celebrity’s vice president of hotel operations.

While productions are not necessarily getting bigger, the renewed focus in quality reflects a rise in more selective consumers. Cruise lines are expected to compete with entertainment found at land-based vacations.

Norwegian has brought Broadway productions of Rock of Ages and After Midnight to its newer ships, while its Cirque Dreams theatrical dining experience, originally on the Norwegian Epic, has been brought onto a new ship, Norwegian Getaway.

“I don’t ever want to hear someone say, ‘I’m going to the early show,’ ” said Stuart of Miami-based Norwegian. “I want people to be excited about the entertainment, not feel like they only have one choice and that’s early or late, where they don’t even know what they’re going to see.”

Carnival Cruise Line has thrown in a George Lopez comedy show and Hasbro game show with upgrades. Royal Caribbean is adding Broadway shows, a poolside stunt and diving show and varied entertainment options in smaller venues — even a pianist who does impromptu concerts inside elevators.

Royal Caribbean’s Broadway production of Grease will be on the line’s new Harmony of the Seas when the ship starts sailing in May, and on its nearly decade-old Independence of the Seas.

Rising expectations

The days of cruise lines moving older ships to new markets across the world, where a decade-old ship would be new again to a new set of passengers, are coming to an end as global audiences become more familiar with cruising and demand the latest products.

And while cruising hasn’t caught up to other kinds of vacations yet — only 8 percent of all U.S. travelers went on a cruise vacation in 2014, according to market research company TNS Travels America — the number of people choosing to travel by sea continues to increase.

In 2016, the Cruise Lines International Association projects that 24 million people across the globe will cruise, up from 23 million in 2015.

34 Number of ships undergoing renovations between the start of 2015 and end of 2016 in the three major cruise companies

For cruise lines, those climbing numbers are incentive to deliver high quality, up-to-date amenities regardless of a ship’s home port.

In England, Carnival Corp.’s luxury Cunard line is giving its iconic Queen Mary 2, launched in 2004, a fresh look this summer. That includes nearly twice as many dog and cat kennels for travelers making the transatlantic voyage from Southampton, England to New York with their pets.

Carnival also is refurbishing its recently relocated Holland America ships, Pacific Aria and Pacific Eden, which were moved to P&O Cruises Australia, to meet the demands of that market — a more relaxed feel from the traditional Holland America line and a selection of bars and dining options specific to the Australian region, said Carnival’s Fetten.

“The cruise lines have been growing and they have multiple brands worldwide, so it’s easier to move their older ships with a new identity,” said Teijo Niemelä, editor and publisher of Cruise Business Review.

And while shipyards are booked into the 2020s with new ships that can each take several years to build, scheduling two or three weeks for a renovation is far easier.

Those factors, experts say, mean refurbs will soon surpass new builds in the years to come.

The revolution is in the renovation.

Mike Driscoll, editor of the trade publication Cruise Week

Driscoll sees cruise ships on the same career track of aging Tinseltown stars, where once-popular actors are pushed into less prominent roles.

“The whole strategy of building a ship, letting it run for 10 to 15 years and then moving it to another market, it’s the Hollywood system — like a studio town, that’s how they treat their stars,” he said.

But these days, both ships and over-40 actors are finding new life in reinvention.

“The whole process fits in better than the new-build process,” Driscoll said, “and it’s not going to stop. They are going to keep doing these.”

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