Class warfare: The rise of luxury enclaves at sea

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Several cruise lines employ butlers in their exclusive accommodations. Onboard Royal Caribbean International's ships, they are called Royal Genies.
Several cruise lines employ butlers in their exclusive accommodations. Onboard Royal Caribbean International's ships, they are called Royal Genies.

As the co-owner and president of a Virtuoso-affiliated agency, Paul Largay never had much interest in Norwegian Cruise Line. The Waterbury, Conn., travel seller had cultivated a luxury clientele who preferred upscale lines such as Silversea Cruises, Regent Seven Seas Cruises and Seabourn.



But after Norwegian added the Haven to its ships, Largay began selling the line.

"It's a very viable alternative," he said.

The Haven, a secured enclave of luxury cabins around a courtyard, has re-engineered Norwegian into a line with both a mass-market and a luxury clientele, and its arrival on the scene has led almost every other operator of large cruise ships to tout some sort of exclusive accommodation.

Each has its own variation: MSC Cruises has the MSC Yacht Club, Royal Caribbean International and Celebrity Cruises have Suite Class, Disney has Concierge Level and Holland America Line offers the Neptune Lounge.

Even Carnival Cruise Line, the most egalitarian of the bunch, offers the Havana Cabana enclave on its newest ships.

The reasons that luxury enclaves have evolved on ships are many, but a common thread is the premium pricing that cruise lines can command by creating an aura of exclusivity to which guests can aspire.

Suites in the enclaves tend to be among the largest at sea, an attraction for some guests and yet another revenue enhancement.

In most cases, these cabins come with exclusive use of other areas, such as private pools, restaurants and lounges.

Guests with Suite Class accommodations aboard the Celebrity Silhouette have access to the exclusive Michael’s Club lounge.
Guests with Suite Class accommodations aboard the Celebrity Silhouette have access to the exclusive Michael’s Club lounge.

Kimberly Wilson Wetty, co-president of Valerie Wilson Travel, said, "I think it has created the aspiration for people to say, 'How do I get to that next level? I want that perk, that experience. What do I have to do to get there?'"

Several agents compared the rise of luxury enclaves at sea to similar choices in other hospitality sectors, such as business class on international airlines or private luxury railcars added to trains.

Airlines have started opening unadvertised invitation-only dining venues in some airports for their best customers. And hotels-within-hotels are proliferating, especially in Las Vegas. At the Wynn Tower Suites, located inside the 2,716-room Wynn Las Vegas, guests have a private entrance, a personal shopper, an exclusive restaurant and a private pool, among amenities.

Gaming also played a role in the creation of the Haven, which can trace its origins to large villa suites built for Star Cruises, an Asian line that shares common ownership interests with Norwegian through parent company Genting Group.

After acquiring Norwegian in 2000, Genting began to swap ships intended for Star Cruises into the Norwegian fleet. Ships such as Norwegian Dawn have a pair of three-bedroom, $25,000-a-week Garden Villas on the top deck. Those evolved into the Courtyard Villa, an enclave of 12 access-controlled suites when Norwegian launched its Jewel class of ships in 2005.

The exclusivity of the Courtyard Villas was one component of a package of extras that has continued to evolve. Rebranded as the Haven in 2011, the enclave cabins now come with access to a private restaurant, a private sun deck, private pool and a dedicated lounge and bar, all within the complex.

When Norwegian Cruise Line began offering the Courtyard Villa enclave in 2005, it opened the mass-market line to luxury clientele and prompted other cruise lines to follow suit. The Villa concept evolved into the Haven by 2011.
When Norwegian Cruise Line began offering the Courtyard Villa enclave in 2005, it opened the mass-market line to luxury clientele and prompted other cruise lines to follow suit. The Villa concept evolved into the Haven by 2011.

Other benefits include the services of a concierge and butler, priority embarkation, debarkation and tendering and preference for seating at shows and for shipwide dining reservations.

In-suite amenities include a cappuccino machine, white-tablecloth room-service dining and sparkling wine, fruit and bottled water on embarkation day.

Bathrobes, linens, bath products and mattresses are all top of the line.

Enclaves such as the Haven tend to be found on mass-market ships, or at least ships above a certain size. One reason is that smaller luxury ships have no need for a separate high-end product. Just as important, they don't have the real estate.

Holland America Line, whose largest ship is the 2,650-passenger Koningsdam, does not offer a luxury enclave but does have the Neptune Lounge, a midship social area with refreshments and concierge service. It is reserved for guests booking the top Neptune and Pinnacle suite categories, who also get exclusive access to the ship's premier Pinnacle Grill for breakfast.

Sally Andrews, vice president of public relations for Holland America, said it's a question of economics.

"Dedicating private space for a segment of guests related to their accommodations really comes down to [return on investment] on use of that space for a small versus larger number of guests," Andrews said.

A table in the Queens Grill on Cunard Line’s Queen Victoria, which offers a sweeping view.
A table in the Queens Grill on Cunard Line’s Queen Victoria, which offers a sweeping view. Photo Credit: TW photo by Tom Stieghorst

It began with 20 penthouses

Some observers trace the origins of the enclave idea to the Queen Elizabeth 2.

In 1972, a refurbishment of the Cunard Line ship resulted in the addition of 20 penthouses to the 70,000-ton ship. A nearby bar/nightclub was converted to an exclusive restaurant called the Queen's Grill.

By the time Carnival Corp. commissioned a successor for the ship in 1998, the Queen's Grill accommodations had become a status symbol, and Carnival incorporated them into the Queen Mary 2, as well as into later ships the Queen Elizabeth and Queen Victoria.

Larry Pimentel, one-time president of Cunard and currently president and CEO of Azamara Club Cruises, said Cunard was a bridge between the transport era of passenger shipping and modern cruising.

The Queen Elizabeth 2 was designed with separate classes in mind, with segregated spaces for each price level.

"They represented a bygone era of cruising, a bygone era of transport, actually," Pimentel said.

Ships designed for cruising post-Queen Elizabeth 2 were one-class ships, Pimentel said. Only recently have separate classes crept back into the equation, in part to attract and keep a discerning type of customer.

The creation of a ship within a ship enables mass-market lines to pitch their cruises to more-affluent guests.

"While it is not strictly class-communicated, the reality is that there is a group of people who always want the best," Pimentel said. "What's happened in the industry is that there's going to be a bigger and bigger play for these people who have these desires to have the most space, to have the most in elegance and luxury, have their own space, their own pools, their own restaurants, etc."

The premium for staying in an enclave like the Haven can be five to 10 times the cost of an inside cabin, depending on deployment and time of year. MSC Cruises calculates that the per-person cost of staying in its Yacht Club enclave averages about $1,500 more than for a standard cabin.

One longtime observer of luxury cruising said it might or might not be worth the price.

"Theoretically, it's good," said Mark Conroy, managing director of the Americas for Silversea Cruises.

Conroy said one of the most appealing parts of the enclave idea is the ability to offer two ships in one. There's an "uptown" sanctuary with refined furnishings and service and a "downtown" for energy, variety and scale. But to make it work, the "downtown" has to be worth going to, he said.

"The challenge is in the execution, and some companies have been better than others," Conroy said.

Another way the uptown/downtown idea plays out is in attracting large family groups.

"It's been wonderful for the multigen families," said Valerie Wilson's Wetty. "If you have a very luxury client, let's say it's grandparents, or mom and dad, but they might want to take the whole family, they're not willing to compromise their standards."

With an enclave, the luxury client can afford luxury accommodations without springing for a luxury ship for the entire group, she said.

A staircase embedded with Swarovski crystals connects two decks in MSC Cruises’ exclusive section, the MSC Yacht Club. Access to a concierge desk and the Top Sail Lounge are some of the perks for Yacht Club guests.
A staircase embedded with Swarovski crystals connects two decks in MSC Cruises’ exclusive section, the MSC Yacht Club. Access to a concierge desk and the Top Sail Lounge are some of the perks for Yacht Club guests.

MSC Cruises has earned a reputation for affordable family cruising with its kids-sail-free promotion. Its Miami-based ship, the MSC Divina, is one of five in its fleet equipped with an MSC Yacht Club enclave.

The enclave includes 66 suites arrayed over two decks connected by spiral staircases with embedded Swarovski crystals. There is a private lounge, a library and butler service for all Yacht Club guests. They also get an adjacent private pool, access to a VIP area of the disco and special access to the spa.

Bernard Stacher, vice president of hotel operations for MSC, said guests are paying for more than exclusivity.

"That's a portion of it, but it's not the majority," Stacher said. "It also comes down to the personalized, tailored service, to really unique and fast access to the ship on and off, the choice of the finishings we choose and the no-questions-asked attitude from the staff in the Yacht Club. I think that plays a big part.

"Yes, you are away from the crowds, you have your own private pool, but it's the sum of all the parts that makes the Yacht Club so exciting," Stacher said. "It's not one thing."

In marketing the enclaves, cruise executives walk a fine line between appealing to discriminating customers and coming off as elitist.

Wetty said exclusivity inevitably rubs some people the wrong way.

"There was a pushback in the industry of saying, 'Hey, that doesn't feel fair or right,'" she said. "How can you create a ship that you pay a certain price and you only get access to a certain part of the ship?"

Wetty said the key for lines that have made an enclave product successful was positioning it as an extra to an already handsome package.

"Those lines are creating a consistent experience for everybody, so nobody feels they got less than somebody else," Wetty said. "But then if you pay more, you get something a little extra special."

The Royal Loft Suite on the Anthem of the Seas.
The Royal Loft Suite on the Anthem of the Seas.

Not every line offering exclusive luxury accommodations has gone the route of building a full enclave.

Celebrity Cruises and Royal Caribbean International, both brands owned by Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd., offer guests a Suite Class package of benefits that includes a separate lounge and restaurant, among other perks.

Suites are in different areas depending on which of Royal's eight ship sizes they are sailing.

On Celebrity, Suite Class guests have the Luminae restaurant and Michael's Club to themselves. On Royal, Suite Class includes a suite lounge and sun deck and the Coastal Kitchen restaurant on some ships.

Top suites come with Royal Genies, a name for what other cruise lines call butlers.

"We thought it was a fun twist on this idea of a butler," Royal Caribbean president Michael Bayley said. "We think part of our success is not taking ourselves too seriously."

Bayley said that Royal has the same package of amenities that competitors do, but "we just haven't put them in one place."  Royal guests, he said, "want to be engaging with the world around them." Still, he said, he wouldn't rule out building a dedicated luxury enclave area on future ships.

Even Carnival Cruise Line, which prides itself on being unpretentious, has cozied up to the enclave concept. On its latest ship, the Carnival Vista, it has created the Havana Cabana, an area of 61 cabins with a lounge and pool area with a tropical-leisure theme.

Most of the cabins are on deck five and feature a sliding door that opens to a 100-square-foot patio with a swing chair. A key-card gate keeps the aft part of the promenade that encircles Deck Five closed during the day. Also behind the gate is the aft pool and hot tub area. A few Havana cabins are located on decks six and seven and have enlarged balconies rather than patios; these cabins also include access to the pool.

In the Havana Cabana section onboard the Carnival Vista, guests have exclusive access to an aft pool area and a promenade. Carnival is expanding the 61-cabin exclusive section on the Horizon, due next year.
In the Havana Cabana section onboard the Carnival Vista, guests have exclusive access to an aft pool area and a promenade. Carnival is expanding the 61-cabin exclusive section on the Horizon, due next year. Photo Credit: TW photo by Tom Stieghorst

Carnival Cruise Line president Christine Duffy said that limiting access to the pool hasn't caused any issues. The Havana Cabana is the only area on Carnival's 25 ships that isn't open to all passengers.

"We really haven't had any complaints, as there are so many other options on the Carnival Vista," Duffy said.

Carnival is expanding the area on the Horizon, due in April, by 18 cabins. Other luxury enclaves are also growing. The Yacht Club on MSC Seaside, which will be christened in Miami in December, will have 80 suites, the most ever.

In the future, cruise executives said, the enclave concept could be expanded to include more dedicated entertainment. MSC has a piano player in its Yacht Club, and it will rotate a violin duo into the mix on the Seaside.

Pimentel said that other ideas will percolate for small musical ensembles.

"I think it is possible that some of the units that have a lot of space begin to have venues for that space that could be a small, tiny jazz club," Pimentel said. "I think the industry's just going to push the edges on that one."

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