Crystal adds to its products, offering new luxury experiences

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ONBOARD THE CRYSTAL SYMPHONY — Crystal Cruises and its deep-pocketed parent company, Genting Hong Kong, made it clear last week that they are driving full throttle with — indeed, expanding on — their aggressive vision of transforming the one-time two-ship cruise line into a global luxury and lifestyle leader in ocean, air and river hospitality.

Building on last year's announced plans to move into and raise the bar on river cruising, expedition yachts, traditional ocean liners and private round-the-world jet excursions, Crystal Cruises CEO Edie Rodriguez and her boss, Genting CEO Lim Kok Thay, traveled to Genting's German shipyards for ceremonies that underscored the depth of the financial, human and logistical resources behind the effort.

On May 9, they were at two of Genting's Lloyd Werft Group shipyards in the Bremen area, where Rodriguez made the ceremonial first cut of steel for six previously announced newbuild river ships and the opening of a design center to house the growing staff needed to build the rapidly expanding roster of new ships for Crystal and Genting's Asian line, Star Cruises.

Asked if he was worried about being overly bullish on the sector, Lim said the "cruise market is still relatively unexploited." Rodriguez said she hoped the new river vessels were "just the first of many more to come."

Last week, at Crystal's 25th annual sales gala honoring the company's top-producing travel agents in 2015, Alf Nucifora, the chairman of the Luxury Marketing Council of San Francisco, cited research from MMGY indicating that while 1.2 billion people crossed international borders last year, only 23 million, or less than 2%, have ever cruised.

Rodriguez said that by expanding the brand beyond its two traditional ocean liners and building three new ocean vessels with larger, more luxurious rooms and amenities as well as private residences, Crystal was responding to demand by its loyal customers, the Crystal Society members, for more options.

The strong focus on a quick expansion of its European river fleet, Rodriguez said, came in response to their top request from members, while Crystal's launch last year of the Esprit luxury yacht and the planned August 2018 debut of the world's first purpose-built luxury expedition yacht, the Endeavor, are aimed at attracting younger, more adventure-oriented and multigenerational travelers.

As the ships and planes are being built, the company has already begun beefing up its staff, hiring executives and captains from competitors like Uniworld, Azamara and others to help it design the ships, hire and train staff and develop the finest in cuisine and excursions.

The river vessels, for example, will substantially raise the bar on European river cruising, with spacious suites that include walk-in closets and king-size beds. The ships will also have extensive spa and fitness centers.

"We will be the most luxurious vessels on the river," Rodriguez said.

As to concerns that the explosive expansion could dilute or otherwise hurt the brand, she said, "It's about evolution, not perfection, but we are striving for perfection."

Markus Schindelegger, who came to Crystal from Uniworld to be destination area manager for Crystal's European cruises, said the company is developing the most exclusive excursions, as well as fine dining that will feature only the freshest food.

The company is also purchasing its own motorcoaches equipped with touches such as WiFi and onboard cappuccino machines to ensure comfort and consistency in the luxury experience. Company officials said they are developing programs to recruit and train employees to Crystal's standards

With the new products, which Rodriguez refers to as "experiences," agents will now have a host of puzzle pieces from which to build the best in custom itineraries for travelers looking for more than a traditional ocean cruise.

In addition to creating the experiences, she said the company is beefing up its sales team, launching a new website and developing other technologies to help travel professionals sell the more diverse packages and custom group and individual trips that Crystal is creating to target a wider traveling audience.

Last year, the company said, baby boomers for the first time overtook mature travelers as the majority of Crystal Society members. Its yacht product is attracting a younger demographic than its traditional ships with over-the-top amenities such as submarines.

Julian Hang, a Crystal Cruises Platinum agent with Nasa Cruises Luxury Travel & Tours in Austin, Texas, said he was eager to have new Crystal products to sell his clients, whom he described as "uber rich."

"This opens up a whole new demographic," he said of the company's yachts and river cruises.

"I have a client who has a $50 million yacht, but he still cruises," Hang said. "He is booked on the Mozart in September."

The Mozart is Crystal's first European river ship, a retrofit that is launching in July.

Rodriguez traveled to the shipyards from the sales gala, which took place this year on a Mediterranean cruise aboard the Crystal Symphony. She also used the opportunity to invite the cruise's hosted media on roundtrip flights between ports of call on Crystal's 13-seat Bombardier Global Express SRS jet, the first for its new luxury air division, which plans to have a Boeing 777 in service by 2017 and add a 787 Dreamliner by 2018. The planes will be deployed for round-the-world luxury "air cruises."

In addition to offering customers an alternative to commercial jet travel to and from their cruises, Rodriguez said, it gives agents a tool to book their clients on multiple legs of the company's expanding range of itineraries, get them on and off cruises more easily or to help them book custom excursions.

The jet, which can be chartered for $8,000 an hour, plus airport and other varying fees, has a range of 10 to 11 hours.

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