t was 6 p.m., and the Norwegian Sea
was almost ready to sail from Houston with a full load of travel
agents, but the 42,000-ton ship seemed nearly empty.
Where was everyone?
I found them on the pool deck, crowded around the bar and
several enormous charcoal grills. There they were, drinking
Texas-brewed Shiner Bock beer, eating barbecue and taking little
notice of the gloomy November evening and the even gloomier-looking
cargo port with its accompanying oil refineries.
The preview cruise out of Houston was a celebration for these
area retailers, who now have another ship to sell.
It was a celebration for Norwegian Cruise Line, as well, which
was back in Houston after a three-year absence.
The ship likely will attract a fair amount of cruisers from the
Texas market; during a predinner meeting in the Sea's Le Bistro
restaurant, Andy Stuart, NCL's executive vice president of
marketing and sales, said about half of the Sea's cruisers hail
from the Lone Star State.
Although most of the agents on board were "locals" selling to
the Houston market, in Texas "local" can mean a five- or six-hour
Cruise executives have marveled that Gulf Coast cruising attracts
drive markets as far away as El Paso, Texas; Louisiana and
But as a former Houstonian, I can say (with some authority) that
residents there think nothing of driving an hour, at top speed,
merely to get across town.
There were plenty of ways to get into a Texas state of mind on
the Sea's send-off cruise, where NCL passed out cowboy hats and
"Texaribbean" bandannas for agents to wear.
Several people did don the hats and neckerchiefs, although there
was more than one cruiser who had brought his own cowboy hat.
The bandannas featured the line's logo for its seven-day
Texaribbean cruises, which feature a western Caribbean itinerary: A
cowboy riding a bucking dolphin.
NCL inaugurated Texas-based cruising from Houston in 1998 --
practically eons ago in cruise-industry years. The line pulled out
in 2000, saying then that it needed more tonnage in the
short-cruise markets in Miami.
Since then, the Texas market has been dominated by cruises from
Galveston, about an hour south of Houston.
But, according to Stuart, "We always knew we'd be back.
"And it looks like it's been a good decision," he added. "We're
raising more prices than we're lowering."
NCL is the only cruise line to sail from Houston, offering
year-round, seven-day cruises from the Barbours Cut terminal.
Older ship, longer stay
Two travel agents aboard the Sea seemed surprised by the ship's
itinerary length, given the industry practice of putting smaller,
older vessels in three-, four- and five-day rotations.
But Stuart said NCL was comfortable with the Sea operating a
seven-day itinerary. This year, the line quietly abandoned the
short-cruise Caribbean market in favor of longer cruises that
executives have said are more profitable.
Other agents applauded the "Sea change" to Houston as well as
the ship itself.
Gerrie Collins of Four Seasons Travel in nearby Lake Jackson
praised the Sea's initial itinerary, which offers four ports:
Cozumel and Cancun, Mexico; Roatan, Honduras; and Belize City,
Belize. Starting in May, the Sea will operate a three-port
itinerary that substitutes Grand Cayman, Cayman Islands, for Cancun
"What I've seen looks nice," Collins said of the Sea. "There are
still areas where you can tell it's older, but they've done a nice
"You don't have to fly; it's cost-effective," added Leah
Hardesty with Mason Evans Travel in Lake Jackson.
Texas has been hailed as a drive-in market with huge potential.
About 30% of the ship's traffic comes from the Texas and Louisiana
Driving to the Barbours Cut terminal might be easy if your
clients have directions in hand (as long as they ignore the nearby
clusters of oil refineries, billowing smokestacks and a cavalcade
of 18-wheelers -- this is a working cargo port), but grabbing a
taxi from one of Houston's two airports might be a little
Several agents reported that airport taxi drivers had no clue
where the Houston "cruise port" would be.
NCL sells transfers to and from Houston (Bush) Airport, which is
about an hour's drive from the port. Clients will need to find
their own way to the port from the smaller Hobby airport, but they
can purchase a return transfer on board.
Out to Sea
The 15-year-old Norwegian Sea was NCL's ship-of-choice for the
Houston market when the line was here three years ago. It earned
that distinction because, among other things, the terminal here is
only big enough to accommodate a midsize ship like the Sea.
But clients who sailed the ship during its first tenure here
will notice several differences: The Sea recently went through a
multimillion-dollar renovation that spruced up its public rooms,
restaurants and pool deck.
NCL provided a cheat sheet on which areas got the brush-up:
There's a new restaurant, the Pasta Cafe, which serves Italian
food. Gatsby's wine bar has new red and green decor and is now
"more romantic," according to the line.
The Stardust Lounge got new threads, the pool deck was
refurbished, the main restaurants got a touch-up and there are new
soft goods all around.
On the other hand, there are some aspects of the aging Norwegian
Sea that even a refurbishment can't disguise. One is the small,
balcony-less cabins. These cabins really do have "berths" instead
of beds (although there aren't any bunks).
Seven suites at the forward end of the vessel give passengers
more room to spread out, although one suite bathroom revealed
something of a cruise faux pas: "There's a scale in here!" one
Deep in the heart ...
The Sea sails to well-known Caribbean ports, but the onboard
experience caters to the crowd's Texan roots.
The sailaway barbecue (accompanied by a Caribbean steel band to
symbolically mesh the two regions) is only the beginning: NCL
offers barbecue for lunch and/or dinner throughout the entire
cruise and a Texaribbean dinner menu.
Meanwhile, if y'all are looking to two-step the night away, the
Sea's "house band" specializes in country music, and the cruise
offers a country night party each week.
To contact reporter Rebecca Tobin, send e-mail to [email protected].
Line promotes CRM technology
ONBOARD THE NORWEGIAN SEA -- Norwegian Cruise Line is touting
its new in-house technology, which executive vice president of
marketing and sales Andy Stuart said represents the biggest system
implementation in the company's history.
"Basically, we were operating on 1984 [-era] technology," Stuart
The system, called Freestyle Connect, has advanced customer
relationship management tools that enable NCL to come up with the
best cruise price based on client information received from agents,
such as the client's age or home address.
"We're encouraging agents to give that information" up front,
Stuart said. He added it will take "some education" to get travel
agents and res agents used to the new protocol.
And, he said, the line isn't interested in stealing customer
data. "They shouldn't worry about it," Stuart said. "We're trying
to improve the conversation [with agents]."
Freestyle Connect will be available 23/7 -- the previous system,
Stuart said, was taken down every night for several hours -- and
can apply individual clients' accounting to group bookings.
The system likely will be expanded to enable passengers to tack
on shore excursions and the line to track onboard spending
patterns, giving NCL "extraordinary flexibility," Stuart said.