“The big news is that our readers’ appetite for travel has proven to be undeterred and indestructible, and their standards are more exacting than ever.“
That was Conde Nast Traveler Editor in Chief Klara Glowczewska, speaking of the winners of it’s 2010 Readers’ Choice Awards. I think she has the future of travel in general and quite specifically cruise vacations clearly defined.
The 23rd annual awards were voted on by 25,916 readers who voted awards be given to lines with a keen focus on the entire cruise experience. Disney, Celebrity, Cunard, Princess and Royal Caribbean make up the top five in the “Mega Ship” category I most frequently talk about here. I happen to agree with the top picks, you may not. Painfully absent were Carnival (“FUN FOR ALL, ALL FOR FUN”) and Norwegian Cruise Lines (“Freestyle Cruising”) who surely qualify in the category, size-wise anyway. I guess you have to draw the line someplace and a top five is a top five not a top seven.
But let’s put on our “The-cruise-industry-is-maturing” glasses for a minute. If it’s true that guests standards are “more exacting than ever”, which lines are doing a better job of meeting those expectations? Take a look at what each line in the top five has for us
Disney Cruise Line always ranks high with past-guests and consistently delivers a good cruise experience. Coming up soon, more than doubling the size of the fleet in the next couple of years might take a bit of a toll on the available crew to staff the ships. Cruise lines commonly pull the best and brightest crew members from existing ships to staff the new ones. Disney really can’t do that like, say, Carnival might with a much larger fleet to pull from. They simply do not employ enough crew members. But let’s not get too carried away and think that for the next couple years we need to stay away from Disney Cruise Line. Quite the contrary, Disney has the whole training thing down pat with it’s “cast members” and does a good job of it. Indeed, this is a unique situation for sure. Look for some unique if not revolutionary training methods to come of it all. Disney’s approach is more methodical than flashy with the only fireworks at sea on each sailing, a private island where the ship docks at; no tender needed and onboard programming that blows away both the casual cruise guest and Disney-freaks alike. From the time guests are announced by name upon boarding a Disney ship to their last walk off when the cruise is over, cast members treat guests as an important part of the show they are charged to deliver with each sailing.
Celebrity Cruises has moved towards a solid focus on the onboard experience. Cooking classes, demonstrations, food and wine themed sailings and online restaurant reservations have all been added with a focus on, as they say, “you”. The Celebrity Life programs are divided into three main categories; Savor, Discover and Renew. Described by the line as “an exciting new variety of palate-pleasing, intellectually stimulating and life-renewing onboard programs with your interests in mind”, Celebrity has gone beyond just assigning a catchy name to existing programming. Courses titled “Mixology 101″ or “The Art of Food and Wine Pairing” are geared towards very specific interests and should prove to be rich experiences.
Cunard Line, like Disney Cruise Line, has just a few ships; 3 now with the addition of Queen Elizabeth this month. This line wrote the book on enrichment programs; onboard programming with a specific focus that allows guests the opportunity to expand their knowledge and/or gain a new interest while at sea. With celebrity speakers and performers aboard different sailings, guests get the chance to go deep into a topic of interest and get a personal view from someone highly involved with the topic. From shipbuilders to authors to photojournalists, Cunard has a line-up of interesting speakers sure to make for an rewarding experience. Other programs like their Book Club, the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, Royal Astronomical Society and Cunard Science at Sea provide rewarding experiences
Royal Caribbean lives, breathes, feeds on and grows off of attention to new innovation and the whole “what’s next” syndrome. Or at least they have. Lately, Royal Caribbean has been paying more attention to older ships which has been long overdue. With no new builds on the books after Allure of the Seas which comes out next month, Royal Caribbean is set to turn their focus inward and fix their main dining concept which, pretty much fleet-wide, is dated, ineffective and does not deliver the “Wow” they are so famous for. Frequent guests note “nothing ever changes” and “It’s been the same menu everywhere for years” referring not only to the dining room but to the Windjammer buffet area. They need to hire Bobby Flay or watch a few episodes of Gordon Ramsey’s Kitchen Nightmares on BBC America to shake things up. Still, the line has begun spreading the goodness around by offering the popular Broadway shows not just on Oasis-class vessels but on to older Freedom-class ships as well. No new builds is probably one of the wisest moves the line has made in a while and will allow them to focus more on addressing those exacting standards guests are concerned about.
Princess Cruises sort of just does things their way without a lot of fanfare or flashy graphic-loaded advertising. As far as consistency goes from ship to ship, Princess has this nailed. A new promotional piece titled “Rediscover that feeling. Escape again…with Princess” testifies that the line has been paying attention and is offering an onboard product sure to please the most discerning guests. Let’s take a look at what Princess has to satisfy those guests with exacting standards
- Princess has added their most popular venues and features to almost all ships in the fleet. The signature piazza-style atrium with new restaurants like the International Cafe (a personal favorite) and Vines Wine and Seafood Bar add a sense of familiarity to each ship.
- The Sanctuary, an adults-only oasis where Serenity Stewards take care of your every wish, has proved so popular that I get guests calling wanting to know if they can reserve it for the whole cruise even before boarding (they can’t).
- An enhanced culinary program with an “emphasis on flavor” is addressing a long-held belief by frequent cruisers that cruise-line food “all tastes the same”.
- Princess has their specialty restaurants too but unlike other lines, Princess’ choices provide a nice complement to the standard fare, not a “this is where you go for the good stuff” feeling among frequent guests.
- Diverse itineraries have always been a hallmark of Princess with some of the most unique sailings available. Recently added is a 14-day Panama Canal Transit between Los Angeles and Fort Lauderdale, a new 28-day Hawaii, Tahiti and Samoa itinerary aboard Sapphire Princess goes deep into the Pacific with calls at Hilp, Hololulu, Kauai, Maaui, Pago Pago, Apia, Bora Bora, Morea and Papeete. Debuted last year was new Family Cruising To Alaska with special cruistours designed just for families and just this week, the line announced a stronger Alaska in 2012 by adding a ship to the lineup.
- Complementing their menu of destinations is a new social emphasis that gives in-depth personal insight for ports of call. Called “50 Essential Experiences: The Travel Bucket List” will be gradually revealed over the next year in a series of weekly posts, each written by one of Princess’ longest-service shipboard and shoreside employees. This is Princess answering the eternal call “What should I do when in port?” that traditionally elicits a laundry list of available shore excursions on pretty much all cruise lines.
Other lines would d0 well to take a very close look at what Princess is doing. While all of the above have been focusing on building new ships, Princess has dug in, added new programs, redefined old ones and is solidly capable of satisfying guests with even the most exacting standards.