Smaller ships, fewer cabins: Crystal's plans change for new ocean vessels

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The Crystal Serenity's passenger capacity will be reduced from 1,070 to 980 in the fall.
The Crystal Serenity's passenger capacity will be reduced from 1,070 to 980 in the fall.

MIAMI -- In what is perhaps the biggest decision by Crystal Cruises CEO Thomas Wolber since he moved to the position from Disney Cruise Line last fall, Crystal will downsize its next generation of oceangoing ships.

The size of the three newbuilds had been announced in 2015 as 100,000 gross tons, with a passenger capacity of 1,000 at double occupancy. They will now be in the 60,000- to 65,000-ton range with a maximum passenger count of 800.

In an interview in Crystal's office here, Wolber said he thought the announced size was "slightly aggressive," in terms of luxury service. 

"The delivery of the service is what Crystal is known for," Wolber said. "To be able to continue that, I think we need to take a step back and focus on the size of the ship."

Wolber also said the previously announced plan to carve out 48 private apartments on the top deck of each ship "will not materialize."

He said the first of the three new ocean vessels is still scheduled for delivery in 2022.

When they were announced in 2015, the trio of ships marked the first new tonnage in decades for Crystal, which under Japan's NYK Cruises was content to refine the service and amenities on two luxury ships, rather than expand.

After Genting Hong Kong acquired the line from NYK for $550 million, it rapidly unveiled a number of new ventures, including expansion into river cruising, luxury yacht cruises and air tours/charters.

Tom Wolber
Tom Wolber

Wolber said his priority for 2018 will be to stabilize Crystal and refocus it on blue-water cruising.

"I think this year we need to put our eyes back on what made us Crystal in the first place, and that's the ocean product," he said.

The addition of new products, computer systems, global offices and technical platforms unfolded rapidly under previous CEO Edie Rodriguez, who left last August to accept a job at Ponant.

Wolber said the rapid growth had created a lot of disruption.

"As you do so many new things with a relatively small team," he said, "it's easy to take your eyes off the ball and focus on all these little new things that we're rolling out, and you start diverting your attention a little bit from what is your core product and what really is the bread and butter of the business."

Wolber also said he would like to use 2018 to renew Crystal's ties with the travel agent community.

"Crystal, as many luxury brands, is highly dependent on the travel trade. And, again, with the disruption, the rollout of so many new things, we need to focus again on our travel trade partners as well and listen to them and their concerns."

The refocus on the ocean experience started with the September refurbishment of the Crystal Symphony, which was in the works well before Wolber arrived. The ship's capacity was cut to 848 and some cabins were enlarged, while extra room was used to allow for open dining.

Wolber said the changes have been well received.

"Obviously, we're in the first three months of rolling this out," he said. "So we're still refining the way that we deliver [the product] and where we can learn things."

Crystal's second, larger oceangoing ship, the Crystal Serenity, is scheduled for a similar drydock this fall that will reduce its passenger capacity from 1,070 to 980.

To build the new vessels it has planned, Genting acquired several shipyards in Germany.

"A lot has gone on since the company purchased those yards, a massive investment program in the hundreds of millions of dollars range," Wolber said, adding that the money had been "dedicated to building new steel-cutting lines and assembly lines. They invested in a cabin-building factory where the modular way of working that we see in most modern shipyards now can be done in-house really close to the yards."

Wolber was recently in the yard in Stralsund, Germany, to witness steel cutting for Crystal's first luxury expedition yacht, the Crystal Endeavor, due in 2020. He said that although it won't be the first of a new wave of expedition ships, it will be one of the most spacious. He said he thinks there will be plenty of demand for new tonnage.

"I would not discount the effect of Asia on that area," Wolber said. "What we're getting through Hong Kong and Singapore is that there is a huge interest, particularly in the Arctic and Antarctic regions, from the Chinese point of view."

Wolber said Crystal will continue to have two offices, one in Los Angeles and one in Miami that will serve as his base. He said a historic building on Biscayne Boulevard in Miami that was being redeveloped as a showcase for the Crystal brand has been returned to parent company Genting after it was decided Crystal would no longer need it to market residence units on its new ships.

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