Imagine a ship designed by a cruise line's most loyal passengers. Would they want bigger cabins or more public space? More restaurants to choose from or fewer decisions to make? A spa run by the cruise company or by a well-known brand?

Passengers aboard a Regent Seven Seas cruise in mid-March answered those questions and many others as part of a special "Build Your Ship" cruise. Regent's top brass boarded the Seven Seas Mariner in Fort Lauderdale, and over the next 10 days, as they sailed the Caribbean, picked the passengers' brains about how they would design the ideal cruise vessel.

On the second full day of their trip, as the Mariner sailed from Key West, Fla., to Cozumel, Mexico, passengers were invited to attend a Sunday morning town hall meeting with Regent President Mark Conroy, Regent's ship architect and other top executives to discuss what a new Regent ship should be like. Afterward, the guests were invited to attend 16, one-hour focus groups with no more than 10 other passengers.

The event itself was an unusual way to garner passenger feedback, but it underscored the growing industrywide emphasis on innovation when it comes to new-ship design, especially as cruise lines continue to up the ante in service and amenities and continue to search for ways to differentiate their product.

The response to Regent's invitation beat its expectations. One hundred seventy-three passengers booked the cruise specifically to be part of Build Your Ship. One hundred passengers participated in focus groups, and 184 filled out surveys about what they'd like to see on the ships. Concurrently, passengers on the Seven Seas Voyager were also invited to fill out the surveys, which 62 people did online.

"The energy was amazing," said Sophie Vlessing, Regent's vice president of marketing and guest strategy, who led the focus groups. "The guests felt that we really listened to them and tapped their expertise and made them part of the process. ... It's so important to the luxury product. They are investing a lot of money in your product, and they need to know you are taking it into account."

The idea behind asking passengers to be part of the new ship's design team stemmed from the line's decision to order a new ship, something it had not done since ordering the Voyager in 2000.

Apollo Management acquired Regent in February from Carlson and promised to grow the line the way it was growing Oceania Cruises. It quickly had Oceania place an order for two new ships when it acquired Oceania last year.

Regent and Oceania lines are now sister companies under an Apollo subsidiary, Prestige Cruise Holdings, which gave Regent the go-ahead to enter into talks with shipyards. Conroy said the line planned to place a firm order by September, with a likely delivery in 2011 or 2012. The line has proposals from four European shipyards. The town hall session, held in the Mariner's main theater, kicked off with a PowerPoint presentation for passengers of the proposal from Italy's Fincantieri shipyard, which is contracted to build Oceania's new ships.

The proposal gave passengers a general idea of what Regent was planning to do. The Fincantieri ship would be Regent's largest: a 66,000-ton, 812-passenger vessel that would use the same hull as the Oceania ships but include fewer cabins. The result would be 30% more per-passenger space than Regent's current vessels.

The ship would have 406 cabins, about 55 more than either the Mariner or Voyager. Of the total, 308 would be standard suites, and the rest would be various larger suites. All would have balconies. Conroy said that a new ship might have single-occupancy cabins to cater to an increase in requests for this rare breed of cabin category, and possibly multibed family suites to appeal to the larger groups of families that are sailing on Regent ships.

Conroy acknowledged that some Regent fans were not thrilled with the idea of a larger ship.

"People are asking me, 'Why make it bigger?'" he said during the town hall session. "It's pure economics. ... The reason is the ship will cost more. And we will have to charge more. Nobody wants to hear that, so we have to add the additional benefits and features for [guests] to pay the higher price."

The biggest factor in the increased cost of shipbuilding is the strength of the euro. Cruise ships almost always are built in Europe, which makes the price of ordering a cruise ship today almost double what it was when Regent ordered the Voyager.

Conroy said the Voyager cost 250 million euros, when the exchange rate was 84 eurocents to the dollar, for a price of $210 million. At today's exchange rate of $1.49 per euro, the Voyager would have cost $397.5 million, a difference of $187 million on the exchange rate alone. Beyond that, there has been an increase in the cost of materials and labor, meaning the cost of the new ship is likely to be more than $500 million.

The Build Your Ship cruise marked the first time that Frank Del Rio, Oceania's former CEO and now CEO of Prestige Cruise Holdings, had sailed Regent. He explained that in the mass-market segment it is not as easy to raise prices to offset the higher price of shipbuilding.

"Regent today is capacity constrained, just as Oceania is," Del Rio said during a lunch onboard. "These brands have the luxury to raise prices because of that."

What do passengers want?

People who cared enough about Regent to intentionally choose the Build Your Ship sailing were mostly stalwart Regent fans, many of whom didn't want to see much change at all.

"We want to keep the elegance," said a woman from Virginia.  "We don't want the climbing walls."

Rob, from Delray Beach, Fla., is an avid Regent cruiser with 500 nights under his belt. He chose the cruise to get a sense of where Regent would be going with the recent acquisition.

The panel consisted of Conroy along with Ken Watson, Regent's executive vice president of marketing and sales; Christian Sauleau, Regent's executive vice president of operations; Philippe Fichet-Delavault, captain of Seven Seas Mariner; and Petter Yran, an architect working on the new ship.

When panelists opened the floor to questions, at first guests wanted only to talk about bathrooms. Several guests said the Mariner's tubs were difficult to get into and out of. Half said they preferred no tub. The 6-foot-4 Conroy sympathized with a man who said he was too tall for the showers. One woman suggested more electrical outlets for hair dryers and electric toothbrushes. Another suggested a dimmer switch for going to the bathroom in the middle of the night.

Public bathrooms were not spared either; guests said more were needed for women in areas around the ship, especially outside the theater, where there are long lines to use them during shows.

Keep the alternative restaurants, said a man from San Francisco. Add a promenade deck like on the old-fashioned ships, said Anne from south Florida. A couple from Naples, Fla., wanted a soundproof division between the bed and the sitting areas of the cabins so that Lois, a night owl, could stay up watching TV without disturbing Dick, who goes to bed early.

Conroy agreed with a woman from New Jersey who found that the ladders in the Seven Seas Mariner's pool made it difficult to get in and out.

"Even if you're healthy, pulling yourself up that ladder isn't the easiest thing to do," Conroy said, adding that the line would build a pool one could walk into, as it has on the Voyager.

Many passengers' requests had nothing to do with the ship's construction. A woman from North Carolina said the safes in the room were too small for longer cruises, especially a world cruise. A bedside clock would be helpful, another couple commented. The ships now have hand sanitizers, said a man who brought up the roosters roaming the streets of Key West the day before: Why not shoe disinfectors?

Guests also suggested that Regent install a marina off the ship for water sports, and some kind of all-day eatery for guests who return hungry from shore excursions too late for lunch and too early for dinner.

"Especially on longer cruises, it would be wonderful to have a dedicated area for hobbyists where we can have crafts and lessons," said a woman from North Carolina. "We have no space for that now."

Vlessing said the idea of a dedicated hobby space came up often in the focus groups as well.

"There was a lot of energy around interactive kinds of workshops," she said. "Not huge lecture halls, but things where guests can participate in discussions and workshops and hands-on learning. If we want to focus on providing these experiential opportunities to our guests, we need to make sure we design the ship with that in mind."

During the focus groups, Vlessing asked passengers to try to think about an ideal ship.

"I asked what they liked in other industries like spas, resorts, even their favorite restaurants or their gym," she said. "I told them not to be bound by what already exists in the industry or on our ships. ... One guy even came up with something he liked in the Paris Metro."

Vlessing was cautious about disclosing some details of the focus groups, for fear that Regent would tip off competitors, an understandable concern with luxury cruise shipbuilding undergoing its fastest growth in years.

She did say that large balconies came up, as well as good wireless Internet capabilities and expanded fitness and wellness facilities.

She also heard concerns about the ship being bigger than current Regent vessels.

"They just wanted to make sure that when we create the new dining venues, they will still be intimate," she said. "We heard a lot about keeping the ship intimate, cozy and warm."

Dealing with trade-offs

One of the biggest considerations for a cruise line is balancing the priorities of the shipyard with what the cruise line wants to please its passengers.

"The cost for a ship is in the interior volume," Conroy said. "The shipyard would rather make all the walls square. Curves are hard to engineer. If a shipyard could design the ship, it would build a big box with a pointy end."

Yran, who is president of Oslo-based Yran & Storbraaten Architecture & Design, was part of the team that designed Regent's Mariner, Navigator and Voyager. After the town hall session, he said he had heard some good suggestions, adding that the shipbuilding team was already considering many of the passengers' ideas but that it was good to have them reinforced as priorities.

He said it could be difficult for passengers to understand the complexity of building a ship. For example, on a luxury ship there are always the conflicting interests of providing more public areas or larger cabins. He noted that passengers don't always think about everything they don't see, like wiring for ceiling lights or air-conditioning ducts.

"Everything happens in the ceilings because the floors are made of steel and you can't penetrate them," he said. "You have to be smart in how you use the space."

The difficult balance between passengers' desires and engineering feasibility is true for any cruise ship, especially since cruise ships' increasingly larger size and greater breadth of amenities mean that people expect more of them.

Harri Kulovaara, executive vice president of maritime for Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd., is preparing to launch the first of Royal Caribbean's Genesis-class ships next year, which will be the largest cruise ships in the world. It has already introduced the world's current largest ships, the Freedom-class vessels.

Thirty years and 50 ships into his career, Kulovaara said his job was as much about coordination as about expertise. "From an engineering point of view, a cruise ship is one of the most complex projects there is," he said in a phone interview from Helsinki, Finland. "A ship moves. It has its own power plant. It has limited space, and it has weight restrictions because it needs to be stable. That complexity is something people don't think about."

People who are not involved in the building of a ship, he said, would be surprised by how difficult it is to balance the delivery of the customers' expectations with the engineering and architectural elements of the ship.

"If you want to design it and push the envelope as we have been doing, you need to have an effective decision-making process," he said.

Kulovaara said that ships as large and innovative as the Genesis class or Celebrity Cruises' Solstice-class vessels could have 10 architectural firms involved in their design, in addition to teams of structural and naval engineers, along with the operations and marketing people.

RCCL has a corporate newbuild department with 100 employees, and the company also keeps offices for between 15 and 30 people at the shipyard where a vessel is under construction. Balancing the interests of so many different team members is a challenge.

"We lock ourselves in a conference room for a day or two every month and review the design and make presentations," Kulovaara said. "It is there that we make decisions after we listen to different points of view."

Passenger feedback is always considered in ship design, Kulovaara said, adding that the shipbuilding team constantly reviews the feedback from guests when they consider ways to evolve and improve upon ship design.

Last year, Celebrity appointed a panel of women, some cruisers and some not, to help design the Solstice cabins. Their suggestions included foot rails in showers, larger bathrooms in general and more closet space.

No matter what, there will always be a clash between what passengers want and what the cruise line can deliver.

"People want more marble and more ceiling height, and they want to open bigger windows," said Kulovaara. "The biggest balancing act is constantly to combine the architectural and interior design wishes with the structural requirement the ships have."

To contact reporter Johanna Jainchill, send e-mail to [email protected].

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