RAISING THE GAME; NEW CRUISE SHIPS IN EUROPE FOR 2015

Allure Of The Seas is Europe bound next year

Allure Of The Seas is Europe bound next year

Princess Cruises has announced that their new Royal Princess- launched just last year- will return to Europe for a full season of cruises over the summer. Her arrival- the latest in a slew of announcements from the major lines- points up just how much all the big players see Europe as seminal in filling- and for displaying- their prime movers and shakers. Just look at what else will be here next year.

Royal Caribbean’s new, second of class ship, Anthem Of The Seas will also be based in Southampton and, to no one’s great surprise, so will P&O’s new Britannia, a vessel being built on the same hull platform as Royal Princess.

The deployments by Princess and Royal Caribbean, in particular, represent a quite extraordinary statement of intent. Two of the world’s newest mega ships, with a capacity of well over 4,000 passengers each, will be based in the Hampshire port. It should be great news for the local business in Southampton for sure and, for the canny cruising purchaser, there should also be some great bargains available as well.

Nor is it simply Northern Europe that will be the recipient of state of the art mega ships. After four consecutive summer seasons in the Med, the game changing, 2010 built Norwegian Epic will be permanently home ported in Barcelona for 2015 onward. The one off mega ship significantly ups the ante for year round cruising from the Catalan port, though her itineraries will not be announced until next month, at the Seatrade Conference in Miami.

Larger still, Royal Caribbean took some people by surprise when it announced a full, summer season of 2015 Barcelona sailings on the jaw dropping Allure Of The Seas, one of the two largest cruise ships ever built. The gargantuan vessel will offer a series of seven night round trips from May through October. She will be by far the biggest ship to offer an extended cruise season in these waters and, with a passenger capacity in excess of 6,000, she will also offer roughly half as many berths again as her nearest rival. Should be interesting.

Pompeii's remains a staple of the Med cruise circuit. See them from Naples.

Pompeii’s remains a staple of the Med cruise circuit. See them from Naples.

Plus, next year will also mark the inaugural Med season for the new Costa flagship, the Costa Diadema. Due to debut this autumn, the ship is the biggest ever built by Carnival for the Italian franchise.

And, it has to be added, a few other players will stay their hands as regards dramatic new announcements until Seatrade. Arnold Donald, CEO of Carnival, is on record as saying that the line might possibly return to Europe in 2015. Given that the newest Carnival ship- Carnival Vista- will not emerge from her Italian builders yard until 2016, the smart money would be on one of the Dream class trio coming back to the Mediterranean, though probably not the Baltic.

Though the numbers of ships being deployed are not really up on the 2012 figures, it is pretty obvious that nearly all of the major lines still see Europe as the prime arena for showcasing their new ships. Beside the big ticket, first time deployments in Southampton, Princess Cruises are also bringing over the huge Caribbean Princess and, for the first time ever, the line is offering an all inclusive drinks package in the fare.

So the European catwalk (cruisewalk?) season of 2015 looks like being quite a floor show, with each of the entrants bearing all the traits and positive selling points- both real and imagined- of their respective sponsors. One thing there will be no shortage of is choice.

Stay tuned.

THE CHANGING FACE OF CARNIVAL CRUISES

Sailing to the sun, Carnival style

Sailing to the sun, Carnival style

Of all the major cruise lines, none in the last couple of years has experienced such a painful learning curve as Carnival. With a string of PR disasters ranging from the Carnival Splendor breakdown off Mexico, to this year’s Carnival Triumph debacle, you could be forgiven for thinking that the line had shot every albatross in existence out of the sky. The line’s image took a battering on the same scale as the Bismarck.

It was clear that far reaching changes were needed right across the line, and these would be addressed in due course. But the fact is that Carnival was already in a state of transition before the incidents cited above. While maintaining its core ‘fun’ product, some of the old eighties and nineties mainstays were being discreetly dumped overboard in favour of a more refined, all encompassing style of product delivery.

First, there was the Evolutions Of Fun programme, designed to breathe new life into the jaded, mid life, eight ship Fantasy class ships. The revamping of the pool deck areas was accompanied by the addition of around a hundred small balconies to each ship. Most significantly, each was upgraded with a new, adults only Serenity Deck, with padded loungers, ambient music, and a couple of whirlpools. It gave the whole class a new life. And, with it came a new look.

A lot of the original, whimsical neon, granite and glass fixtures- they were the creations of Carnival’s very own Andy Warhol, Joe Farcus- were stripped out and replaced with a more restrained, but still subtly vibrant palette. It was a theme already presaged by the most recent Carnival new builds- Carnival Dream, Magic and Breeze- and it has been universally well received. Twenty years of changing tastes is not something any cruise line or hotel chain can afford to ignore.

With these new ships came a whole new host of bars and eateries that have now spread across the entire Carnival fleet, such as Guy’s Burger Joint, the Red Frog Bar, and the Blue Iguana Cantina. There was also a shift away from the old fur, feather boas and fillet steak kind of evening options, with the introduction of a dedicated, late night comedy club. The entire project was known as Funship 2.0.

Carnival's distinctive funnels remain their trade mark

Carnival’s distinctive funnels remain their trade mark

So, in truth, Carnival was already well on the way towards morphing into something more upmarket, while at the same time attempting to preserve its mass appeal, long before the conga line of media cuts and kicks started to tear into its profit margins. Wounds were inflicted here that clearly required a lot more than simply cosmetic surgery.

The main step involved upgrading all the safety, engineering and back up systems right across the Carnival fleet, so that, in the event of a loss of propulsion, the ships would not be left without lighting, cooking facilities, functioning elevators, and working sanitation across the board. This was a huge but necessary task in and of itself. In fact, it was the single most important facet in restoring faith in the entire Carnival brand.

Next came the return of the savvy, highly regarded Bob Dickinson, Carnival’s marketing genius of the eighties and nineties, in a new consultation role. This was seen as a very positive move on the company’s part. There followed a massive, 155 million dollar transformation of the Carnival Destiny into the ‘new’ Carnival Sunshine. Though not without its own birth pangs and bad headlines, the relaunched ship has generally been very well received. However, Carnival chairman Gerry Cahill has said that there will be no more similar conversions across the fleet- a move that surprised some, including this writer.

Carnival is also coming back to a more responsive level of interaction with travel agents; brochures are now being printed again and made available for the first time in a few years, and both Arnold Donald and Micky Arison have recently been fulsome and complimentary in emphasising how important good agents are to the Carnival brand. And, signs are that the industry is responding positively to this.

After a period of painful and expensive retrenchment, it appears that the Carnival ship of affairs is making sluggish but steady progress forward once more. But no one should be hanging a ‘mission accomplished’ banner up anywhere yet.

Carnival Dream

Carnival Dream

2013 has been another bad year for lines in Europe in general, and Carnival is withdrawing completely from the continent for 2014. However, Arnold Donald remains bullish about the possibility of a return in 2015. We shall see.

Elsewhere, the line has upped its commitment to the Australian market with the deployment of a second ship down under, and there is also a renewed presence on the Mexican Riviera run out of Los Angeles; all indicators of a more ambitious strategy to come.

Right now, it is Royal Caribbean who are seen as the headway makers, with their giant Oasis class ships being genuine, world beating game changers in their own right. This is their time in the ‘nice’ spotlight and, naturally, they will ride that wave for all they are worth.

But it would be a foolish man indeed that would underestimate a quartet as formidable as Arison, Cahill, Dickinson and Donald, or a brand with the scale, style and pulling power of Carnival. The next few years will be interesting, indeed.

My advice? Stay tuned….