Oceania's Insignia wins friends, influences agents

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MONTE CARLO, Monaco -- Joe Watters' eyes sparkled every time he uttered the phrase, "We proved them wrong."

And Watters used it more than once.

"The two-week itinerary some said was too long ..." he said during an interview with TravelWeekly.com. "We proved them wrong."

The occasion was the inaugural cruise of Oceania's second ship, the Insignia, and the sense of triumph was palpable.

The ship was loaded with Oceania's friends and VIPs, mostly travel agents who are top producers -- or could be.

Insignia is the twin sister of the Regatta, which was launched in July 2003 and heralded the birth of the new cruise line.

Both are former R-class ships, built by Renaissance; they now lay claim to a market niche near the top of the premium class.

Oceania changed both the Insignia and the Regatta from their previous incarnations. A third refurbished member of the R fleet will have its first sailing for Oceania as the Nautica in early 2005.

The changes reflect the kind of clientele the line is targeting: 50-plus, affluent, educated, experienced travelers.

"We've made a lot of changes from the very beginning from listening to clients and agents, and we will continue to do that," Watters said. "To be a successful cruise line, you have to be a good listener.

"This was a sports bar," Watters continued, as we toured the Horizon lounge, a window-lined room at the top of the ship.

He gestured toward delicate colored-glass sculptures poised on display cabinets that Renaissance had placed in a semi-circular pattern between the bar and the picture windows.

"There were TV screens [atop the cabinets], and also over the bar," he said. "The cabinets were closed. We thought, 'Why should we block this beautiful view?' So we opened up the cabinets and put these art pieces on top."

Oceania refurbished the Martini Bar on the Insigniablah blah.Oceania remodeled the Toscana restaurant on the Insignia, giving it a richer and more vibrant color scheme and new carpets, wall coverings and artwork, and updated the Martini Bar by adding new furniture. The verandas on the Insignia are inlaid with teak, in contrast to the prefabricated teak on the Regatta. The Regatta is slated to receive the same facelift when it goes into dry-dock this spring.

"We're a small company," Watters said. "We're not bureaucratic. Decisions are made quickly."

The 'uncruise' line

"I like to refer to it as approachable elegance," said Watters. "We have been very successful appealing to people who never cruised, the land-based resort clientele. They find us to be 'the uncruise.' We're not regimented."

Jeff Drew, senior vice president of sales, said Oceania is targeting "disenfranchised" premium cruisers, enticing them with "the highest level service, the finest cuisine you can find at sea and a wealth of creature comforts and amenities you won't find in other premiums."

Drew called the ship's food "the ace in the hole," thanks to a hotel team that was drawn in large measure from Silversea.

There are four restaurants on board, plus a poolside bar and an outdoor grill called Waves.

The Grand Dining Room offers what Oceania calls five-star continental cuisine. The Terrace serves breakfast and lunch buffets. Toscana is an Italian restaurant. The Polo Grill serves steaks, chops and seafood.

The restaurants operate on an open-seating basis. Room service is offered on a 24-hour basis.

The sales strategy

The Oceania sales strategy is to price its ships in a category comparable to lines such as Holland America, Celebrity or Princess, but then provide a small-ship experience that approaches that of the luxury lines, such as Crystal Cruises or Radisson Seven Seas Cruises.

The 700-passenger Oceania ships are smaller than most of the ships of the premium lines. Dining is open seating. Dress is business casual.

"I don't want you to compare us to the luxury lines," Drew told travel agents on board. "I want you to sell us as a premium line, and then we'll get you on here and blow you away."

Crystal and Radisson customers would be perfectly at home in the penthouse and owner's suites, Drew said, "but that's not our target. We're looking for the upper-premium group."

Food is included on the Insignia, drinks are not. The staterooms on Oceania ships are not all suites, as on the luxury lines.

"The reasons we're not a perfect match for the luxury lines is that we have a smaller stateroom and we do not include everything. I don't want the customers who come from those ships to feel that they are being nickeled and dimed."

Oceania's itineraries also are designed to target high-end customers.

"Our itineraries are destination heavy," said Drew. "We go to unique destinations, spend more time in port, and our shore excursions are being upgraded."

Oceania's per-day charges break down to about $200 to $300 through offers like its two-for-one fares.

"Celebrity is going for the 40-year-old," said Drew. "But they have no time ... only a quick, seven-day vacation. It's a small market. I'm after the mature market. They have more money, less debt, more time. They can take the 10-day, 12-day or 14-day cruise. That's our niche."

The agents were clearly on board with the sales strategy.

"I'm very critical when it comes to product," said Jeffrey Kivet, CEO of Cruise Value Center. "But I have to work pretty hard to find something not to like about this."

Kivet, who said he moves 10,000 passengers a month, said he has experienced everything the cruise market has to offer.

"It's great to see a cruise line that can talk the talk and walk the walk," he said. "This company has lived up to everything it promised. It's refreshing when you can deliver what you promised and then some."

Kivet said his clients will find the country club atmosphere "refreshing." And the food and service are at the top of what the market offers, he said.

"Some are comparable," he said, "but in terms of bang for the buck, this is thousands less."

In 2003, Watters said, every Europe sailing of the Regatta was full. Every inaugural sailing in the Caribbean was 23% ahead of projections. The least successful sailings, he said, were winter departures that sailed 80% full.

"People thought a new company can't make it today," said Watters. "We proved them wrong."

To contact reporter David Cogswell, send e-mail to [email protected].

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