QM2: A decade at sea


Reflections on the QM2

• Cunard and Carnival Corp. executives, travel agents and others reminisce about the inaugural of the QM2
• Rebecca Tobin and Donna Tunney discuss their first impressions of the Queen
• Donna Tunney's dispatches from a QM2 crossing in 2011
• Rebecca Tobin's 2003 article about preparations and marketing for the QM2
• View a slideshow of images from the Queen Mary 2

Ten years ago, thousands of people and 24 media helicopters were on hand when the first ocean liner built in 30 years sailed into Port Everglades, Fla.

In New York, the ship gridlocked Manhattan and received front-page coverage from the New York Times.

It was the superlative ship. Biggest. Longest. Widest. Most expensive to build. It was a ship, literally, in a class by itself, a vessel that inspired the marketing slogan: "Can you wait?"

That ship was the Queen Mary 2, christened in a naming ceremony in January 2004 by Queen Elizabeth II. But even before the two queens met in Southampton, the QM2 won fame as an $800 million vessel built to capture what Tracy Jessop, the hotel operations director for Cunard Line, called "the mystery" of the transatlantic.

Last month, Cunard and Carnival Corp. executives, travel agents and others who had been involved with the ship from its inception reminisced about the importance of the QM2 when it launched and commented on its role in the cruise industry in the years since. 

Cunard's destiny

Fittingly, it involved a cruise ship called the Destiny. 

In the late 1990s, Cunard Line was an independent, storied but troubled brand. Its fleet consisted of a handful of ships and older liners, including the flagship Queen Elizabeth 2. Carnival Corp. was mulling a purchase, but the way forward for Cunard was not entirely clear.

Micky Arison, the chairman of Carnival, last month recalled a cruise he took from New York to Halifax, Nova Scotia, on the then-new Carnival Destiny. It was the first cruise ship to break 100,000 gross tons, a feat that generated quite a bit of interest. Nothing extraordinary happened on the Destiny voyage, he remembered.

But a year later, after agreeing to purchase Cunard, Arison sailed to Halifax again, this time on the Queen Elizabeth 2, and among the differences he noted between the two sailings was the amount of attention the liner received.

"I turn to look, and there's literally hundreds of thousands of people on the quay," he said. Turning to the ship's captain, Ronald Warwick, he asked what was going on: "Is it a holiday?" 

"The QE2 is in town," the master responded.

Arison, musing over this reception, said he realized that the line had to be known for its Cunard Queens.

"And that's what we are now," he said. "That's when I knew it." 

Another factor in Carnival's and Arison's thought process ("people may not believe this," he said) was the movie "Titanic." 

Arison initially thought the film, which broke box-office records when it was released in 1997, was going to be a "huge negative" for the cruise industry -- the ship did sink, after all -- but "it turned out to be a pretty romantic depiction of transatlantic cruises." 

"Talking with our team, I thought ... What if we took the whole QE2 concept and created a new transatlantic liner and focused it just on the Queens and transatlantic voyages and nostalgia." 

Arison added: "I thought the success of the movie had to do with the nostalgia for a certain type of lifestyle that doesn't exist anymore. And I felt that if we could bring some of that back, but in a contemporary way, that it could work well." 

Rewriting history

Carnival Corp.'s chief naval architect, Stephen Payne, was onboard the QE2 on a crossing when he heard that Carnival was going to purchase Cunard and do something potentially game-changing. "There would be a study initiated to determine whether it was economically feasible to continue the transatlantic run," he said.

He was summoned back to London to begin work on a proposal.

Payne said he knew he had to convince executives that an ocean liner was the way to go. He wanted to persuade them to build a true liner and not just a cruise ship that looked like a liner. 

The difference, he said, was the transatlantic schedule. Cruise ships often cross the Atlantic on repositioning cruises. But those are occasional events operated at slow speeds. To handle scheduled service in the North Atlantic, with tight turnarounds at Southampton and New York, a special ship would be needed: one with a bow that would slice through rough seas, weighted in the middle so it wouldn't move around too much, that could be pushed to higher speeds if needed to stay on time. 

"And the problem of going from a cruise ship to a liner -- I did a very rough calculation -- it's about a 40% premium, because of the thickness of the steel and the hull and the power of the machinery," Payne said. "But also the shape: If you look at a modern cruise ship, it's squared off, and the back goes to the stern. With a liner it's more like a pyramid shape. 

"I didn't want it to look fancy -- well, I did -- but the primary superstructure had to be pushed further back than normal, because if a wave came over the bow then it wouldn't be like the Michelangelo," a liner that in 1966, when caught in high seas, had its bridge broken by a wave. "We've got to have that distance; we've got to have that high bow." 

In separate conversations, Payne and Arison recalled some of the considerations taken from concept to reality: revenue opportunities, costs, deck and engine design, yard availability, size, cruise ship comforts and amenities and the configuration and location of the public rooms, which unlike old liners had to be accessible to all passengers, not just those in first class.

John Maxtone-Graham, a ship historian, lecturer and author of "Queen Mary 2: The Greatest Ocean Liner of Our Time" (Bulfinch, 2004), said: "It's a liner, no question, and the only liner left in the world that's operatable. But it has to have cruising convenience and cruising pleasures, because that's what people expect these days."

The design was completed, and Chantiers de l'Atlantique (now STX France) won the bid for the project. "The end result was amazing," Arison said. 

The wait for the Queen

As soon as Cunard revealed its plan to build the Queen Mary 2, agent Derek Bergl started making a waitlist of clients who wanted to sail the inaugural cruise aboard the world's first new ocean liner in 30 years.

"A maiden voyage is always very popular, and at the time, this was the biggest ship," recalled Bergl, the general manager of Pied Piper Travel in New York. "There was huge demand, and I had people waitlisted five years before the Queen Mary 2 was launched." 

As for Bergl himself, "I was one of the first on the waitlist." 

Several people last month recalled Deborah Natansohn, Cunard's senior vice president of sales and marketing, who died in 2006, as being instrumental in bringing awareness to the QM2. That included her role in the unique ad campaign, which featured women going about their everyday lives in formal finery as they dreamed of sailing on the ship. "Can you wait?" the tagline read.

"We knew what we had," said Pamela Conover, Cunard's president during the delivery and inaugural period. "We knew we had a transatlantic liner, and there was an awful lot of work that went into the interior and what it was going to be onboard ... and the discussion was, how to build up the experience and how to market the experience.

"There was the 'I can't wait' campaign," she said, "tied to the romance of the experience and creating a desire among people who have lots of other demands on their time saying, 'I want to have this life experience.'"

Conover added: "We had very effective PR, and as a result of the coverage, I think it caught the imagination of people. They wanted to have something different, and it wasn't just another ship." 

The incomparable Queen

Despite the QM2's 10 years at sea, Bergl said, "she's still as beautiful as ever and still the only true ocean liner. I've been on 35 times, and I'm still excited every time I go." He added that each time he cruises on the Queen Mary 2, he runs into people he's seen onboard before, a testament to passenger loyalty. 

Bergl said the ship met all of his expectations in terms of service, accommodations and cuisine, and it set a benchmark for luxury cruising. 

"I didn't expect it would reshape the luxury cruise market, because it's a one-of-a-kind ship," he said. "But it did create a unique position for itself within the market. 

"For one thing, it has different levels of luxury," he said, alluding to the Queens, Princess and Brittania classes, which determine cabin category and dining venue.

Kimberly Wilson Wetty, co-president and co-owner of Valerie Wilson Travel in New York, agreed that comparisons with other ships were difficult, but the Queen Mary 2 did break new ground in some ways. 

"I think the QM2 helped to define luxury cruising, especially for larger ships," she said. "It made the impossible seem possible in some ways. And sailing on the QM2 is something that clients aspire to and want to experience at least once."

The Queen Mary 2, she said, "proved it was possible to be big but also be luxurious, that you could make staterooms, suites and public areas more elegant and subtle with furnishings and carpet you could imagine using in your home."

The ship was notable for its brand partnerships, a practice commonplace in the industry today but less so in 2004. Cunard touted the QM2's Veuve Clicquot bar, Wedgwood and Waterford in the dining rooms, Canyon Ranch spa, Todd English restaurant, Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts performers -- names that might be recognizable and enticing to luxury clientele ashore. 

Of course, since the Queen's debut, other ships have been designed with the latest in amenities, partnerships, accommodations and seafaring technology. The QM2 is no longer the largest ship in the world. And as far as the onboard experience goes, the latest ships in all price points continue to push the envelope with restaurants, spas, activities and itineraries. 

Former President Peter Shanks, who was senior vice president, Europe, in 2004, said he thought the Queen helped to spark a turning point in cruise-ship evolution.

"I think now, there's an incredible product out there on cruise ships," he said. "I think up until the early 2000s, the wow factor didn't really exist in cruising. Today, if you look at the variety and innovation, brands like Cunard have brought in entertainment and education and maintained history and heritage; brands like Royal Caribbean have just brought in the wow factor; Princess, the destination variety. The bar is so high now."

There have been major advances in logistics, such as getting 3,000 or 4,000 passengers on and off a ship. Dining used to be a two-seating affair, and "now you see the Getaway and Breakaway with 28 restaurants," Shanks said. A great deal more square footage is set aside for spas. 

With 10 years' hindsight, Payne said he would make some changes to the Queen's design if he were to build it today. For example, the decision to include two gas turbines: The subsequent increase in fuel prices makes their operation too expensive. An observation gallery on top of the bridge didn't have the kind of views he'd imagined. And the captain's cabin is a little too small. 

But for staying power, the Queen has few rivals. Travel Weekly readers have voted it a Readers Choice Award winner as best luxury cruise ship for 10 years in a row, most recently in December. 

The 'Titanic' connection

The romance of the transatlantic sailing was apparent to some agents, including Wilson Wetty.

"I think the dining room on the QM2, in particular, certainly embodies a similarity to [what people saw in] 'Titanic,'" she said. "It is hard not to imagine long gowns, black tie, jewels and sophistication when you see the staircase, the chandelier, the fine linens as well as the artwork. And a structure that provides exclusive access and separation, such as the Grills, is appealing to many [clients]." 

Brian Robertson, owner of Robertson International Travel in Santa Barbara, Calif., said he believes the liner is as relevant today as it was 10 years ago.

"I think that from a standpoint of maritime history, the Queen Mary 2 is very relevant in that it's the only ocean liner out there," he said. "It has the class system, and my take is that when you walk around the ship, you're really seeing the elegance of not only the history of Cunard but the history of ocean liner travel."

The ship, he said, appeals to a broad spectrum of clients, but not to every client.

"If you have a client who says, 'We don't want all that fuddy-duddy stuff, the British pomp, the afternoon teas and all of that,' well, that's fine. It's up to each individual." 

He added, "I have clients now who belong to a very upscale country club, and probably the entire club, if I could put them into Queens Grill they would be in heaven. It's the ambience and tradition a lot of people are so hungry for now. With this ocean liner, there is a feeling of romance and history and tradition that is very, very difficult to find anywhere else." 

Over the last 10 years, the industry's direction has increasingly moved toward casual. But on the QM2, especially on the crossings, passengers appreciate the formal aspect, Jessop said.

"There seems to be that mystery about the transatlantic, the elegance," she said. "They still look forward to that."

The dramatic Queens Room, after all, remains the largest ballroom at sea. 

A ship for all ages

Company officials have said the ship originally was marketed to boomers, but agents said that the Queen Mary 2 has appealed to a broad range of demographics from day one. 

"I've seen families onboard, not with very young children but with young adults, and younger professionals on the ship now," Bergl said. "I've also noticed there are more nationalities, really an amazing variety. I would say it's been that way since the beginning, a variety of age groups." 

The ship naturally attracts Brits and Americans, but there is a large market for the QM2 in Germany, aided by calls it makes at Hamburg, and Shanks said the ship is popular in Australia, a phenomenon helped by the sight of the Queen in Sydney Harbour.

"Thousands of people will come down to see the ship in and out," he said. "She causes traffic jams in Sydney."

Arison said the QM2 has been "very profitable" for Carnival. 

Shanks said, "She's the best-performing Cunard ship by a mile, and she's always done well on the transatlantic." He added that sales of the Queen's crossings tend to remain strong "even when the economy's tougher and airfares are higher." 

Ten years gone

A decade after the ship's inauguration, with all its pomp and circumstance, the QM2 continues to cross the oceans regularly. Many recalled that its biggest initial challenge had been crewing, but that has smoothed out over the years; Shanks estimated that about a third of the crew has now been with the ship since 2004.

To be sure, things have changed. The vessel switched from six- to seven-day crossings to conserve fuel. It has been refurbished. Its primary New York port was moved from Manhattan's West Side to Brooklyn. Its flag was switched from the U.K. to Bermuda. Warwick retired. Two additional Queens have been constructed.

But the Queen Mary 2 stands as the only liner in service on what Maxtone-Graham called the "line crossing," and nearly every executive remarked on its distinction as an ocean liner, defined by its clean lines and strong hull, its ability to provide a relatively smooth, powerful ride and an elegant experience onboard. 

"It's just special, Cunard; especially QM2," Jessop said. "She's not a cruise ship, she's a liner, and you feel that when you step onboard." 

Follow Rebecca Tobin on Twitter @travelrtobin.


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