CruiseWorld Coverage

Andy Stuart says NCL's Partners First is here to stay

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Travel Weekly editor in chief Arnie Weissmann (left) with Norwegian Cruise Line CEO Andy Stuart at CruiseWorld.
Travel Weekly editor in chief Arnie Weissmann (left) with Norwegian Cruise Line CEO Andy Stuart at CruiseWorld. Photo Credit: Jamie Biesiada

FORT LAUDERDALE -- The future of Partners First, Norwegian Cruise Line’s signature program for travel agents, is assured even though its creator is leaving on March 31.

That was the message that retiring Norwegian Cruise Line president and CEO Andy Stuart delivered in his parting address on the closing day of CruiseWorld 2019.

Partners First was launched in 2011 when Stuart was executive vice president of sales. It was a pledge to make marketing dollars available to agents, to make Norwegian easy to do business with, and to shun direct-to-consumer selling.

Eight years later, it seems to be a fixture.

"It's so ingrained. I think it has a very bright future," Stuart said, noting that to grow and fill ships, Norwegian will have to find passengers that only travel advisors can deliver profitably.

"If we tried to do it without you, we'd spend 10, 15, 20 times more than we do," Stuart said. Partners First is here to stay. It's a powerful lens through which we put everything."

Stuart said that when he first joined Norwegian Cruise Line in London in 1988, he was hired as its first sales rep in the United Kingdom. "It was one of the most fun jobs I ever had," he said, recalling that NCL at that point was sourcing about 1,300 British passengers a year.

Now 56, Stuart said there was no one event that led to his decision to leave the company. "Thirty-one years is a long time. I've been blessed. From a job I really took for fun to the journey I've been on, it has been fantastic," he said.

As his work responsibilities grew, Stuart said he had less time for other things, mentioning family and leisure travel specifically. "I got to the point where I wanted to say yes to those things that I was saying no to," he said.

The Norwegian Encore, currently making its debut in Miami, is the last of a class of ships started in 2012. The new Leonardo class is now in the works. 

"It seemed like sort of a moment that was appropriate for me to [leave]. The company's doing fantastic. I leave at a moment where everything is really good. I got to do something in my way, on my terms," Stuart said.

He said that when introducing a new ship, typically in the interim between its European debut and its U.S. arrival, he would be frantic. With the Encore, he took time to visit a sister-in-law in Valencia, Spain, and to organize his mother's 85th birthday celebration.

"[There are] lots more plans like that," Stuart said. "Eighty-five is a pretty good age, and you don't know how much more time you have with people."

Asked what are the odds he will be back in the travel business at some point, Stuart responded, "The honest answer is, I don't know. I'm definitely taking a break, enjoying some downtime and some travel. And then we’ll see."

He said his successor, Harry Sommer, once co-owned a travel agency and has boundless energy. "He has the capacity to do more in a day than maybe any human being I've ever met," Stuart said.

Stuart said the time he found most rewarding at Norwegian was 20 years ago when the line first adopted its Freestyle Cruising concept. The initiative broke down the two-seatings routine that had ruled cruises for decades, although Stuart said he learned in the process why some people cherished that format. 

Nearly every industry has adopted dining choice in some form or fashion since then. "I was part of a team that was a big catalyst for change across the whole industry," Stuart said. 

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