The Avid Traveler
Build A Ship: Regent Taps Guests
To garner passenger input for its first newbuild ship order in eight years, Regent Seven Seas Cruises went beyond the typical comment card. The luxury cruise line offered customers a 10-night Caribbean cruise on the Seven Seas Mariner with a Build Your Ship theme that included a town hall session with Regent's top executive team and 16 subsequent one-hour brainstorming sessions during which guests were asked what they would and would not like to see on a new Regent ship.
Regent President Mark Conroy presided over the panel, held on the first Sunday morning in the ship's main theater. He promised additional alternative restaurants, more spacious staterooms, and better spa and fitness facilities.
But improved bathrooms were what most guests were concerned with, telling the panel that the bath-tubs on Mariner were difficult to get in and out of, that the showers were too short, and while some passengers said they liked the tubs in the rooms, others felt they'd rather have just shower stalls.
Some Like It As It Is
The town hall meeting showed just how opinionated and connected a line's most loyal customers can be. Almost 200 passengers signed up for the mid-March cruise with the intention to be part of the ship design process. A hundred guests participated in the focus groups throughout the week, and nearly 200 submitted written surveys about the new build.
Additional surveys were submitted online. Many guests said they didn't want to see much changed on Regent at all and they came to try and ensure that. "We like the all-inclusive nature," said Rob from Island Beach, Florida, who has spent more than 500 nights on Regent ships. "They don't nickel and dime us."
Conroy, who was born in Iowa and didn't see the ocean until he was 16, got his industry break in the mailroom at Norwegian Cruise Line. He worked at Royal Viking Line and Commodore Cruise Lines, and then was on the team that launched Renaissance Cruises. From his collective experience, Conroy reminded Regent passengers that although he understands and appreciates how much they like the line as it is, the lesson is obvious; cruise lines that don't evolve, don't survive.
Regent hopes to order the new vessel by September, and introduce it by 2011 or 2012. The line already has a general idea of what that ship would be like - most notably, that it will be larger than the four ships in its current fleet, by about 100-150 passengers.
While some passengers winced at the notion of a larger vessel in the luxury category, Conroy said that it would be larger but also more spacious than its other vessels, by 30 percent. But some Regent fans worried that they would never see the new ship. "Are those of us whose budgets today are in [the least expensive categories] ever going to afford to get on your new ship?" asked Dick Burrage, who was traveling with his wife Sue. "We hope we are not going to be priced out of this market."
"The ship will be more expensive," Conroy said during the meeting, "due to the weakness of the U.S. dollar. Regent will have no choice but to recoup that additional cost with more expensive tickets. It's pure economics," Conroy said. "The ship will cost more, and we will have to charge more . . . so we have to add the additional benefits and features for guests. The premium lines are getting bigger and better. Everybody is raising the bar, so we have to raise the bar."
Conroy showed guests at the town hall session a proposal from Italy's Fincantieri shipyard, one of four shipyards vying for the new build contract. Conroy said that Norwegian shipbuilder Aker Yards and also Italian T. Mariotti were in the running as well, but no decisions had been made. Fincantieri's proposal for a 66,000-ton ship would cost about US$450 million, Conroy said, compared to the US$207 million it paid for its last vessel, the Seven Seas Voyager, which debuted in 2003. When the ship was ordered in 2000, the Euro was worth .84 cents on the dollar, an equation that is almost the reverse now. At that time, building materials were far less expensive as well, Conroy said.
And cruise lines don't have many choices when it comes to finding a shipbuilder; the yards with the expertise to build cruise ships are all in Europe, and they all charge in Euros. All cruise lines that are building ships now are contending with the costs far higher than when they built ships in the past.
Conroy led the panel along with Ken Watson, Executive Vice President of Marketing and Sales; and Christian Sauleau, former Executive Vice President of Operations; Petter Yran, partner and president of Yran & Storbraaten Architecture & Design, the ship's designer; and the ship's captain, Philippe Fichet-Delavault.
The panel explained that the larger ship would likely have four specialty restaurants instead of the two that Regent ships have now.
The ship's propulsion would go back to propellers. Regent tried the pod system on its latest ships, but Conroy said they did not deliver the fuel economy they were supposed to, and have been difficult to maintain. He said advancements in propeller design will reduce noise and vibration as pods do.
Of course, in the wake of rising oil costs, Conroy said that energy efficiency was of utmost importance to any new ship. "What keeps me awake at night is fuel," he said. This year we will spend $39 million in fuel. "Fuel costs for Regent was $9 million just three years ago."
Besides Regent executives, the top brass from Oceania Cruises, now Regent's sister company under Prestige Cruise Holdings, were also in attendance. Frank Del Rio, Prestige CEO, and Bob Binder, Oceania president, were both on their first Regent cruise. The two executives ordered two new ships for Oceania last year, and were no doubt taking in some of the customer's suggestions; while upper-premium cruise line Oceania and luxury line Regent are sister companies, they are also competitors.
The lines are clearly learning from each other. When a passenger from the town hall meeting audience suggested that the line add an all-day restaurant, one that would be open between lunch and dinner, Conroy pointed to the successful sandwich corner and ice cream bar that Oceania has on its ships. But when a passengers asked if Oceania and Regent could have a point sharing system for its guests that travel on both lines, Conroy said those things havent been worked out yet.
Off the panel, the executives were quick to say that they are competitors as well as sister companies, but that they are also very different. Regent is a luxury line and is more expensive than Oceania. Oceania's passenger base is older than Regents and caters less to families.
Bigger, Better, New & Improved
That Regent Seven Seas Cruises proposed new ship will be larger than the four vessels in its current fleet should come as no surprise: Bigger, better, new and improved mirrors an industrywide trend.
No stranger to ships large or small, Petter Yran (pictured), president of Oslo-based Yran & Storbraaten, has had a hand in planning more than 100 vessels, beginning with the Sea Goddess ships in the early 1980s. Heading up Regent's design efforts, he and his team also are currently at work on new ships for Disney Cruise Line, Seabourn Cruise Line and Oceania Cruises. Holland America Line's newly delivered Eurodam also features elements of Y&S design.
All of these ships are larger than their predecessors, and Yran says that's okay. "The good thing with big ships is that there are more activities to choose from," he says. Yran and his team have contributed to the design of some of the world's largest ships, including Royal Caribbean's Voyager-class series. His company also consulted on the line's Genesis-class vessels, which will carry more than 6,000 passengers when cruising at full capacity.
How large can ships go? "I don't see a big difference between 6,000 passengers and 10,000 passengers," Yran says. But he adds that some things will have to change. Two-seating dining will be replaced with smaller dining venues, he predicts, and the main show lounge may become a thing of the past too, being replaced with multiple entertainment outlets throughout the ship.