Breaking bottles
and norms

The role of the cruise ship’s godmother, once an honor regularly bestowed upon nobility, the wives of political elites and the family of cruise line chiefs, has evolved to include groups, entertainers and men.

When Norwegian Cruise Line picked Pitbull to christen its Norwegian Escape in 2015, it intentionally broke the mold for what constitutes a cruise ship “godmother.” Choosing a man was highly nontraditional.

But Mr. 305 proved to be not only up to the job of breaking a bottle against the side of the vessel; he was also a willing promoter of the Escape and the Norwegian brand. Norwegian liked the results so much that when it came time to pick a godmother for the Norwegian Bliss, it went with another man with promotional potential: syndicated radio host Elvis Duran.

“I can’t tell you how lucky we were to persuade Elvis and his team to be godparents of this ship,” Norwegian president Andy Stuart said in remarks at the Bliss christening in Seattle. 

Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings CEO Frank Del Rio said Duran was a “large reason” why the Bliss was the best-booked new ship in Norwegian history.

Pitbull and Duran underscore how the role of the godparent, also known as the ship’s sponsor, is changing in the 21st century. In addition to men, some cruise lines are picking families to perform the role.

Pitbull, right, fist-bumps with Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings CEO Frank Del Rio on elevated platforms at the christening of the Norwegian Escape in 2015.

Pitbull, right, fist-bumps with Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings CEO Frank Del Rio on elevated platforms at the christening of the Norwegian Escape in 2015.

Pitbull, right, fist-bumps with Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings CEO Frank Del Rio on elevated platforms at the christening of the Norwegian Escape in 2015.

Ethnically, there are more black women being picked, such as Queen Latifah, who recently named the Carnival Horizon, and Oprah Winfrey who was chosen to name Holland America Line’s Nieuw Statendam next year.

At the same time, christening ceremonies have gone from brief, simple affairs to elaborate productions with multiple entertainments that sometimes stretch the event into the evening and beyond.

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Carnival Horizon’s Naming Ceremony featuring ship godmother, Queen Latifah. Video courtesy of Carnival Cruise Line/Youtube

Carnival Horizon’s Naming Ceremony featuring ship godmother, Queen Latifah. Video courtesy of Carnival Cruise Line/Youtube

To be sure, some lines have stayed conservative in choosing a godmother, a role that dates back millennia. At Silversea Cruises, for example, female relatives of owner Manfredi Lefebvre serve as godmothers.

And marketing considerations aside, some cruise executives say the godmother’s — or godparent’s — personality and character are paramount because that person is so closely identified with the ship.

Michael Bayley, CEO of Royal Caribbean International, said, “There’s a real spiritual relevance of having some people who have goodness in their heart, who are nice, who you can look up to and say, ‘Wow! That’s a nice, good person.”

Cruise ships inherited the godmother tradition from cruise liners, which weren’t as numerous and were often christened by the wives of heads of states that typically subsidized their construction.

The SS France, for example, was christened in 1960 by Madame Yvonne de Gaulle, wife of French president Charles de Gaulle.

The first generation of modern cruise ships tended to be named by royalty or by the wives of cruise line owners or key executives. But as the era of state-sponsored sea transportation waned and cruise lines became private businesses, christenings took on a more commercial tone. 

Legendary Hollywood actress Lauren Bacall walks with Royal Caribbean Cruises chairman Richard Fain. Bacall was named godmother of the Monarch of the Seas in 1991.

Legendary Hollywood actress Lauren Bacall walks with Royal Caribbean Cruises chairman Richard Fain. Bacall was named godmother of the Monarch of the Seas in 1991.

Legendary Hollywood actress Lauren Bacall walks with Royal Caribbean Cruises chairman Richard Fain. Bacall was named godmother of the Monarch of the Seas in 1991.

So the next wave of godmothers tended to be movie stars, TV anchors, models and singers who could bring media attention to the ships. Audrey Hepburn christened the Star Princess in 1989 and Lauren Bacall the Monarch of the Seas in 1991.

Audrey Hepburn names Star Princess.

Female high-achievers also took a turn, as cruise lines chose Olympic athletes, astronauts and teachers for the role. Another trend honored employees and influential people in the travel trade.

In 1993, Carnival Cruise Line picked four of its female vice presidents — Vicki Freed, Roberta Jacoby, Cherie Weinstein and Geri Donnelly — as the first group godmother, to the Carnival Sensation.

Thereafter, groups were occasionally chosen again: A quartet drawn from the New York Police Department and the New York Fire Department named the Adventure of the Seas in New York after the 2001 attack on the World Trade Center towers. The casts of the TV sitcoms “Happy Days” and “The Brady Bunch” named the Emerald Princess in 2007.

Radio City Music Hall's Rockettes were the first group godmothers at Norwegian Cruise Line. They christened the Norwegian Breakaway, which was themed to New York City.

Radio City Music Hall's Rockettes were the first group godmothers at Norwegian Cruise Line. They christened the Norwegian Breakaway, which was themed to New York City.

Radio City Music Hall's Rockettes were the first group godmothers at Norwegian Cruise Line. They christened the Norwegian Breakaway, which was themed to New York City.

Starting in 2013, Norwegian jumped on the group idea and ran with it. To introduce ships that were themed to the cities from which they would be sailing, Norwegian picked Radio City Music Hall’s Rockettes to name the Norwegian Breakaway and the cheerleading squad of the Miami Dolphins to name the Norwegian Getaway.

Those groups not only cast a spotlight on the ship on its naming day but also did promotional appearances before and after.

That began to ease a frustration expressed by Stuart: that the christening brings two big bursts of publicity when the godmother is named and the ship is christened but little sustained attention.

“It doesn’t do enough for you,” Stuart said.

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The Miami Dolphins cheerleading squad was the group godmother of the Norwegian Getaway.

The Miami Dolphins cheerleading squad was the group godmother of the Norwegian Getaway.

The Miami Dolphins cheerleading squad was the group godmother of the Norwegian Getaway.

Two years later, Stuart got more mileage out of Pitbull as sponsor of the Norwegian Escape, not only from the novelty of naming a man to the role, but from the continuing co-branding that Pitbull represented.

The Miami rapper has done two concerts on Norwegian cruises through the line’s Sixthman musical theme-cruise subsidiary and has composed two songs that formed the basis of advertising campaigns.

“I think Pitbull was the first time we really looked to try to extend it beyond the typical outcome,” Stuart said. “And I think the relationship with the ‘Elvis Duran in the Morning Show’ is the next level of that.”

The uninitiated might wonder who exactly is Elvis Duran. Not entirely a household name, Duran hosts a drive-time radio show with a “morning zoo” format. It is syndicated in 60 U.S. markets, reaching 5 million listeners.

Stuart is one of them. After sharing his morning commute with Duran via the airways for years, he began to muse about whether that audience could be targeted as a Norwegian Cruise Line market.

Radio personality and  Norwegian Bliss godfather Elvis Duran, left, holding a cutout of the ship with Norwegian president Andy Stuart.

Radio personality and  Norwegian Bliss godfather Elvis Duran, left, holding a cutout of the ship with Norwegian president Andy Stuart.

Radio personality and  Norwegian Bliss godfather Elvis Duran, left, holding a cutout of the ship with Norwegian president Andy Stuart.

“It’s as national as a syndicated radio show can be, so I approached them,” Stuart recalled. Initially, he said, Duran was skeptical. “But it evolved. I think everyone saw the opportunity. It’s been far and away the most successful partnership in relation to new shipbuilding.”

As an example, Stuart cited the initial announcement on Duran’s radio program that he would be the Norwegian Bliss godfather. 

“We thought it was going to be a 10-minute segment” Stuart said. “It turned out to be a 45-minute segment.”

Following the show, Stuart said, traffic to the Norwegian Bliss microsite shot up 2,000%. Web visits and calls to the call center soared 575%. Bookings on Bliss jumped 72%, and brandwide, Norwegian bookings rose 27%.

Since then, the cast of the show has continued to talk up Norwegian and in a way that doesn’t sound like advertising. Stuart has been on the show four or five times, along with the Norwegian Bliss concierge, Adrian Bica. 

After each visit, impressions go up, Stuart said, adding, “There’s no doubt we’ve introduced new people to the brand.” 

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Royal Caribbean fans Alexa and Carlos PenaVega and their son, Ocean, were “godfamily” to the Symphony of the Seas.

Royal Caribbean fans Alexa and Carlos PenaVega and their son, Ocean, were “godfamily” to the Symphony of the Seas.

Royal Caribbean fans Alexa and Carlos PenaVega and their son, Ocean, were “godfamily” to the Symphony of the Seas.

Another unusual choice for ship’s sponsor is the decision by Royal Caribbean to name its first “godfamily” to christen the 5,400-passenger Symphony of the Seas in Miami this November.

The godfamily was Carlos and Alexa PenaVega and their 17-month-old son, Ocean. The married couple are entertainers. Carlos starred in a Nickelodeon musical comedy and went on to films. Alexa starred in the “Spy Kids” film series.

In announcing their selection, Royal called them “the embodiment of the adventurous millennial family.” But Bayley minimized the value of choosing a family to market a “family-friendly” ship.

Rather, it was their long-standing affection for Royal Caribbean that carried the day, Bayley said.

“Within their own right, they’re Diamond Plus [loyalty status],” he said. “They’ve sailed with us a gazillion times. As a kid he sailed with us the first time when he was 4. They met aboard a Royal Caribbean ship. He proposed aboard a Royal Caribbean ship. They conceived a child onboard a Royal Caribbean ship. Their child’s named Ocean. 

“For some reason, they’ve always been in and around our universe and they’re very lovely people,” Bayley said.

Outsiders fail to appreciate how much of the debate surrounding the choice of a godmother is driven by internal considerations, Bayley said.

“I firmly believe that over 50% of this is for us,” he said. “Maybe 60%. That’s my belief. And maybe 20% or 30% is for people outside the company. Our customers? I’d kind of put our loyal customers in the 50% to 60%; everyone who has a passion for Royal Caribbean, I think that’s what this is about, more than it is trying to get more publicity for the brand because so-and-so named the ships.”

The first Silversea ship, the Silver Cloud, was named by the CEO’s mother, Eugenia Beck Lefebvre; the most recent, the Silver Muse, was named by his daughter, Costanza.

There’s no doubt that at some lines internal criteria are front and center, especially at family-owned brands. At Silversea, naming is a family affair, spokesman Brad Ball said. The first Silversea ship, the Silver Cloud, was named by the CEO’s mother, Eugenia Beck Lefebvre; the most recent was named by his daughter, Costanza.

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Sophia Loren at the christening of the MSC Seaside. The Italian film star has been the godmother of all the MSC newbuild ships since 2002.

Sophia Loren at the christening of the MSC Seaside. The Italian film star has been the godmother of all the MSC newbuild ships since 2002. 

Sophia Loren at the christening of the MSC Seaside. The Italian film star has been the godmother of all the MSC newbuild ships since 2002. 

At MSC Cruises, another family-owned line, the godmother has remained constant since it christened its first newbuild, the MSC Lirica, in 2002. Since then, all 13 MSC newbuilds have been christened by Italian screen star Sophia Loren.

MSC Cruises president Gianni Onorato called Loren an “icon of beauty, Italian style and elegance, which let me say, perfectly fits with our brand positioning. She has been the godmother of these ships, and she’s now practically part of the MSC family. Certain types of tradition, when things go well, bring good luck.” 

In a shift from the past, Carnival Cruise Line has picked black women to name its last three ships. It was a role that prior to 2000, no African-Americans had filled. That year, Royal Caribbean picked Olympic gold medalist Jackie Joyner-Kersee to christen the Adventure of the Seas. Several years later, actress Whoopi Goldberg christened the Serenade of the Seas.

Christine Duffy, president of Carnival Cruise Line, said it was more serendipity than a deliberate strategy that led to the string of African-Americans being chosen. 

“To be honest, it really is more of a coincidence than a conscious choice,” Duffy said of picking Tracey Wilson Mourning, wife of former NBA star Alonzo Mourning; Army reservist and Miss USA winner Deshauna Barber and entertainer Queen Latifah.

Tracy Wilson Mourning, wife of former NBA star Alonso Mourning, was the first of three African-American godmothers that have christened Carnival Cruise Line's recent ships.

Tracy Wilson Mourning, wife of former NBA star Alonso Mourning, was the first of three African-American godmothers that have christened Carnival Cruise Line's recent ships.

Tracy Wilson Mourning, wife of former NBA star Alonso Mourning, was the first of three African-American godmothers that have christened Carnival Cruise Line's recent ships.

“They were chosen first and foremost for their community service work and how they align with Carnival’s own commitment to being active and members of our greater community,” Duffy said.

Over the years, the christening ceremony has evolved alongside the role of the godmother, Duffy said.

“Back in the day, naming ceremonies were relatively simple affairs, usually held dockside with a wooden stage and some musical entertainment,” Duffy said. “Nowadays, naming ceremonies have gotten progressively more elaborate with well-known celebrities, ornate decorations and unique entertainment.”

Carnival’s naming of the Carnival Horizon last month in New York was a case in point. Travel agents and VIPs were invited to stay overnight on the ship as well as witness the christening, during which Latifah poured champagne over a ship’s bell.

Entertainer and godmother Queen Latifah pours champagne on the ship's bell of the Carnival Horizon.

Entertainer and godmother Queen Latifah pours champagne on the ship's bell of the Carnival Horizon.

Entertainer and godmother Queen Latifah pours champagne on the ship's bell of the Carnival Horizon.

Afterward, Latifah squared off against Philadelphia Eagles Super Bowl champion Jake Elliott in a Lip Sync Battle, an entertainment borrowed from a Paramount Network TV series and installed on most Carnival ships.

In Seattle, guests at the Norwegian Bliss christening saw video tributes to Duran from Pitbull and pop star Demi Lovato, watched excerpts from the ship’s stage shows “Jersey Boys” and “Havana!” and were serenaded by the rock band Train. 

The Norwegian Bliss christening saw video tributes to Duran from Pitbull and pop star Demi Lovato, watched excerpts from the ship’s stage shows “Jersey Boys” and “Havana!” and were serenaded by the rock band Train.

Two years ago in Fort Lauderdale, when Royal Caribbean International officially named the Harmony of the Seas, the event included bagpipers, aerialists, aquatic performers, juggling, salsa music by Latin singer Jon Secada, a blizzard of blue confetti and fireworks.

When it came time to break the champagne bottle, godmother Brittany Affolter, a 23-year-old Teach for America instructor, was handed an electronic transmitter. With the punch of a button, she released an oversized bottle of Veuve Clicqot Champagne attached to the Harmony’s 82-foot-long zipline, which sent the bubbly crashing into a bulkhead in the first christening by zipline.

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When it came time to break the champagne bottle, godmother Brittany Affolter, a 23-year-old Teach for America instructor, was handed an electronic transmitter. With the punch of a button, she released an oversized bottle of Veuve Clicqot Champagne attached to the Harmony’s 82-foot-long zipline, which sent the bubbly crashing into a bulkhead in the first christening by zipline. Video courtesy of Royal Caribbean Cruise Line

When it came time to break the champagne bottle, godmother Brittany Affolter, a 23-year-old Teach for America instructor, was handed an electronic transmitter. With the punch of a button, she released an oversized bottle of Veuve Clicqot Champagne attached to the Harmony’s 82-foot-long zipline, which sent the bubbly crashing into a bulkhead in the first christening by zipline. Video courtesy of Royal Caribbean Cruise Line

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