NCL returns to Houston for 'Texaribbean' voyages

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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 drive away.

The Norwegian Sea is the only cruise ship to sail from Houston, offering year-round, seven-day cruises. NCL abandoned the short-cruise Caribbean market in favor of longer, more profitable cruises. Cruise executives have marveled that Gulf Coast cruising attracts drive markets as far away as El Paso, Texas; Louisiana and Oklahoma.

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.

The homecoming

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 and Belize.

"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 job."

"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 drive markets.

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 trickier.

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 agent reported.

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 said.

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. -- R.T.

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