With Wolber at the helm, Crystal will focus on stabilization

Crystal CEO Tom Wolber speaks during the company's annual sales gala onboard the Crystal Symphony.
Crystal CEO Tom Wolber speaks during the company's annual sales gala onboard the Crystal Symphony. Photo Credit: Jamie Biesiada

ONBOARD THE CRYSTAL SYMPHONY -- Meeting with 74 top-producing agents last week at Crystal Cruises' sales gala, CEO Tom Wolber laid out a plan to refocus on ocean cruising and stabilize the company after a period of rapid growth, while also focusing on the agent community.

The top producers, who had to generate more than $1 million in revenue with Crystal to qualify for the sailing, responded positively, saying the focus on ocean, the cruise line's core, is the right call.

"My team and I are very aware of the challenges that we all faced and are facing together," Wolber told agents. "A lot of these challenges were due to a number of reasons, including rapid growth, introducing new technologies and processes and launching new ships and experiences -- and all at the same time.

"While we were doing that, we were growing our team in different locations around the world. So we have taken the first seven months of my time here at Crystal to refocus and recommit to the delivery of the Crystal brand that has resonated with audiences for over 27 years."

The gala was Crystal's 27th but Wolber's first. He joined Crystal last September, replacing Edie Rodriguez, who one month later took a position at Ponant. Wolber came to the line from a long career at the Walt Disney Co., including 10 years at Disney Cruise Line.

He said that 2018 would be "a year of focus on stabilization."

That means minimizing itinerary changes, enhancing technology and fine-tuning communication procedures to grow both Crystal's and agents' businesses.

"As you well know, Crystal has very long enjoyed a loyal and very devoted fan base, which is largely due to the great onboard experiences on our ships," he said.

Wolber specifically pointed to "generous space," "genuine and professional service," "attention to detail and quality," "immersive destination experiences" and choices to help offer personalized vacations.

"So we are going to remain focused on these pillars throughout each sailing, each refurbishment, each new experience and each vessel launch," he said. "Simultaneously, we reaffirm our commitments to you as we strive to be a pleasure to do business with. We're committed to providing tools and resources that will help you grow your business, and we are committed to listening and learning from you on how we can be better partners."

Wolber said Crystal will focus on its ocean ships, specifically looking toward innovation and a pleasing design aesthetic. That was evidenced in last year's improvements to the Crystal Symphony, bringing open-seating dining; technology upgrades, including free WiFi and a new guest portal called Crystal Connect that enables guests to access information about the ship, such as menus and activities; new penthouses and more. The Serenity will undergo a similar transformation this fall.

Crystal will also strive to bring new clients aboard -- many are attracted to river cruising, with the average age of guests skewing a little lower than those on oceangoing ships -- and provide new experiences for existing clients. Initiatives like the Crystal Endeavor, a polar-class expedition yacht, will also help attract new audiences, he said.

Wolber has already begun scaling back some plans. For example, he decided to reduce the size of the three oceangoing ships it has on order, in the area of 60,000 to 65,000 gross tons, and eliminate the residences portion of those ships. Crystal's service component is not conducive to larger ships, he said, and after researching residences further, the cruise line found that the concept wouldn't work aboard a passenger vessel. The ships will be known as Crystal's Diamond class.

Agents in attendance were pleased with Wolber's comments and the direction he is taking Crystal.

"In the last few years, there's been too much announcement, not enough delivery, and so I think for their best clients who are here, I think it gives them a sense of confidence," said Alex Sharpe, president and CEO of Signature Travel Network.

"They see that [Wolber] is focused, and he's going to make sure that the team is focused on fixing it. It's not about what's coming next, it's not about the bluster and the press releases and all the rest of it. It's about delivering, and we have a great business with Crystal. I can't afford for the ocean [cruise product] to become second fiddle."

Sharpe also praised Wolber's simplification of some things, such as the elimination of residences on future ocean ships.

"It was exactly what I wanted to hear," Sharpe said. "It's just a different speed and a different attitude than we've heard in the past, but I think that's good."

Michelle Fee, CEO of Cruise Planners, pointed specifically to Crystal's refurbishment of its existing ocean vessels. "At some point, you can't just keep expanding without investing in the hardware," she said.

Avoya Travel co-founder Van Anderson was also pleased with Crystal's renewed focus on ocean cruises.

"I was glad to hear [Wolber] say that their focus is going to be what got them here, which is the ocean," he said. "It doesn't take away from the river, but the river can't be the tail that wags the dog."

The sales gala provided many with the opportunity to meet Wolber for the first time. Among them was Anderson, whose early takeaway was that the new CEO is "very competent" and moving the brand in a good direction.

"Crystal's always been trade-friendly," he said. "They've got a very small direct team. They'll do everything they can to drive the business back to the agent. They have a history of that. I don't see that changing, I really don't."

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