Tuesday, 27 December 2011

Preview 2012: River Cruise

Preview 2012: River Cruise

By Michelle Baran
While new ships will continue to launch on Europe's inland waterways in 2012, the year will see some notable advancements in river cruise markets both nascent and reborn.

From the Mississippi to the Mekong, river cruising isn't just a European phenomenon anymore.

Mississippi resurrection

Two companies next year will be resuscitating the Mississippi River cruising market, which has lain dormant since one of the largest domestic river operators, Majestic America Line, ceased operations at the end of 2008.

Guilford, Conn.-based American Cruise Lines is building a 140-passenger paddlewheeler, the Queen of the Mississippi, slated to enter service in August. And the Memphis-based Great American Steamboat Co. is in the process of renovating the 400-passenger American Queen, which will relaunch in April. (The Delta Queen Steamboat Co. launched the American Queen in June 1995, and the vessel was turned over to the U.S. Maritime Administration in 2008 after Majestic America Line's parent company, Ambassadors International, defaulted on a guaranteed loan.)

Both companies are pulling out all the stops in their effort to breathe new life into the Mississippi River cruise market.

Tim Rubacky, senior vice president of sales, marketing and product development for the Great American Steamboat Co., said the new American Queen will be "significantly upgraded from [when it was owned by Majestic] in terms of food and service. They had cut everything to the bare bones. We are upping the ante on every level."

Viking Longship renderingIndeed, the American Queen's culinary program, spearheaded by executive chef Regina Charboneau, offers four specialty dining venues, including the main J.M. White Dining Room and the Front Porch of America, which will be open 24/7.

"We're bringing the boat back to [its] mid-1990s heyday," Rubacky said, adding that back then, when the ships were owned by the Delta Queen Steamboat Co., they were considered on par with Seabourn and the Queen Elizabeth 2 in terms of food and entertainment. "We're getting away from the nickel-and-dime mentality."

The entertainment options will include nightly dancing to swing, big band and Dixieland jazz music as well as concerts featuring the ship's calliope.

Departures will run from April 13 through Dec. 28 and will range from three to 10 days in length.

American Cruise Lines, which is currently building the Queen of the Mississippi in Salisbury, Md., plans to ramp up the entertainment offerings aboard its ship, as well.

According to the company, the program will feature entertainment "reminiscent of America's legendary steamboating era," including Dixieland bands in the vessel's Paddlewheel Lounge. Passengers will also be invited to play the ship's calliope.

Both ships will sail between Louisiana and Minnesota on the Mississippi and as far East as Pittsburgh on the Ohio River.

The Mekong's maturation

What was once a slow burn on the Mekong River has grown to a roaring blaze, with the planned launchings of a slew of newbuilds in Southeast Asia.

In 2012, Viking River Cruises will charter Pandaw River Cruises' 66-passenger Tonle Pandaw; Avalon Waterways will lease the 32-passenger Avalon Angkor, which will launch in September; and Uniworld Boutique River Cruises is partnering with Pandaw on a three-year charter of the 60-passenger River Saigon, which will launch in January. Moreover, Uniworld has already inked a second deal with Pandaw for an additional ship on the Mekong, the 60-passenger River Orchid, launching in January 2013.

Those ships will join Pandaw's existing three ships on the Mekong River and Ama Waterways' two ships: the 94-passenger La Marguerite and the 124-passenger Amalotus.

Ama does not plan to introduce a new ship in 2012, but the company has said that it is looking into options for more vessels in 2013 and beyond. And Viking has also hinted at plans for a possible 2013 newbuild.

The classic Mekong cruise sails a route from Siem Reap, Cambodia, across Tonle Sap Lake, through the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh and on to Vietnam's largest city, Ho Chi Minh City. Many itineraries also include a flight to Hanoi for an overnight cruise through Halong Bay.

Europe: Longships and Panoramas

In 2012, Viking River Cruises will launch an unprecedented six ships in Europe that fall under a new class of vessels the company calls Longships. The six new ships will be the Viking Freya, Viking Idun, Viking Njord, Viking Odin, Viking Embla and Viking Aegir.

The 190-passenger Longships, designed by maritime architects Yran & Storbraaten, will be 443 feet long, with 95 cabins each. They will have several defining elements, not least of which will be their reconfigured layout. By shifting the central corridor over and adding two suites at the aft of the ship, Viking will be able to accommodate balcony space. Consequently, three-quarters of the cabins on the new ships will feature a balcony, French balcony or both.

And instead of having only larger cabins on the upper decks and smaller cabins on the lower deck, there will be a mix of larger and smaller cabins on all the decks because of the off-center corridor.

In addition to new cabin configurations, the Longships will have an indoor/outdoor Aquavit Terrace at the front of the ship, a feature Viking was able to add by squaring off the bow rather than having it come to a point.

The plan is for the new Viking Longships to sail existing itineraries within Europe, with an emphasis on adding capacity to Viking's two most popular programs: the 15-day Grand European Tour, from Amsterdam to Budapest, and the reverse; and the eight-day Romantic Danube, sailing from Budapest to Nuremberg, Germany, and the reverse.

The six newbuilds will bring the Viking-owned fleet to 25 by the end of 2012.

Viking originally estimated that the new ships would cost about $30 million each, about $5 million more than its previous class of ships.

Additionally, in 2012, Avalon Waterways will introduce two sister ships to the Avalon Panorama: the 128-passenger Avalon Visionary and the 164-passenger Avalon Vista. With the Vista and Visionary, Avalon's Europe fleet will total 11 ships in 2012, increasing the company's capacity in Europe by 22%

Preview 2012: Cruise

Preview 2012: Cruise

By Donna Tunney
Carninval LibertyEmerging from a challenging year that left cruise executives with furrowed brows, the cruise lines have already taken steps to shore up and protect their 2012 business.

Still, they can only take action based on what's obvious at the moment.

They know, for example, that they don't want to be forced to undertake costly redeployments of ships away from areas where geopolitical unrest spooks potential passengers, as it did in the Eastern Mediterranean and North Africa regions during the Arab Spring in 2011.

For next year, some of the major lines have reduced their capacity in that part of the world in favor of areas such as the Western Med, the Baltics and other cruising grounds in Northern Europe.

Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd., for example, cut its brands' deployments in the Eastern Med by 17%.

And cruise executives know that the stubbornly slow, at times spotty, economic recovery will draw down at least some portion of the traveling public's discretionary spending. Agents already have seen some lines' early responses to that in the form of widespread and deep early-booking discounts for 2012 among the upmarket and luxury segments.

For most, this is a new strategy to build a more solid foundation of advance bookings, coupled with the hope that they won't have to discount again close to departure dates.

The deals include incentives such as 50% or higher discounts on published fares, free airfare, thousands in bonus savings per cabin and hefty onboard spending credits.

Ross Spalding, president of Princeton, N.J.-based Crown Cruise Vacations and its luxury unit, Crown Cruise Collection, recently observed: "It's tight out there. People are being very careful with their money, and if the deal isn't good enough, they'll look elsewhere." Moreover, he noted, the deals are not just for early 2012 or the summer season but well into next fall, too.

Azamara Club Cruises, for example, is trying to entice prospective passengers with 50% off published rates, air credits and prebooked shore excursions.

A 'recalibration of thinking'

Azamara President Larry Pimentel has said that troubling economic data, coupled with lower home sales and the decline in home values, led to a new consumer sentiment: a "recalibration of thinking."

The uncertainty in global markets, the ongoing sovereign debt crisis in Europe and the potential for more civil unrest in certain destinations have led even the most senior cruise executives to avoid making strong predictions about business expectations for 2012.

Grandeur of the SeasCarnival Corp., in its Q4 report to analysts last week, said it had very little inventory left to sell on cruises departing in Q1 2012 but "significant" inventory in later quarters. Chairman Micky Arison predicted the industry would see a strong Wave season based on booking patterns of the last six weeks.

Richard Fain, chairman and CEO of Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd., parent of Royal Caribbean International, Celebrity Cruises and Azamara, said late this year that the volatility in the global markets is causing "angst for us and everybody else."

In their Q3 conference call with analysts this fall, Fain and other RCCL executives flatly refused to provide any specific booking or yield predictions for 2012.

Overall, though, for the major lines at least, revenues have increased and yields have held steady or improved slightly, all signs that the cruise vacation market can hold its own even in a tough economy.

Other bright spots are also easing cruise executives' concerns somewhat, among them the 2012 Alaska cruise season. Coming off of a very successful 2011 season, Arison recently declared, "We don't see any reason why it wouldn't be as good in 2012."

Retailer Bill Wodarski agreed. The owner of Above & Beyond Travel in Austin, Texas, recently said he's been selling a lot of Alaska cruises for summer 2012. But while it's one of his most-requested destinations, he also said he's spending much more time comparison shopping for budget-conscious clients.

And several agents agreed that many clients are holding out for a bargain on advance registrations. Edith Salter of Tampa-based Bowen Travel Service said, "My clients continue to be very concerned about the economy. They're not spending as much, not getting the oceanview cabin. But they're still going."

Renovations and newbuilds

Other encouraging signs for 2012 can be seen in the ambitious renovation projects that both Royal Caribbean International and Carnival Cruise Lines are undertaking.

Royal Caribbean embarked on the Royal Advantage, a $300 million project to bring Oasis-class innovations to more of the line's fleet.

The revitalization plan, which began with upgrades to the Radiance of the Seas last spring and the Splendour of the Seas in November, will extend to the Rhapsody of the Seas next March, the Grandeur of the Seas in May and the Serenade of the Seas in November.

The revamps will continue in 2013 and 2014, when revitalizations will take place aboard seven more of the line's vessels.

Carnival in 2012 will continue to expand its Fun Ship 2.0 project, a $500 million program to enhance 16 ships. Intended to "transform the Carnival vacation experience" through partnerships and new branded spaces, the line partnered with several big names for onboard branding.

New features will include Guy's Burger Joint (a restaurant created by Food Network star Guy Fieri), RedFrog Rum Bar, BlueIguana Tequila Bar, BlueIguana Cantina, Alchemy Bar and EA Sports Bar. Also, comedian George Lopez will oversee the line's comedy presentations.

The enhancements have been added to the Carnival Liberty and in 2012 will make their debut on the Carnival Conquest. They also will appear on the newbuild Carnival Breeze when it enters service in June and on other ships during the next three years.

Newbuilds typically generate a lot of consumer buzz about the cruise industry, and 2012 will be no exception.

In addition to the 3,600-passenger Carnival Breeze, agents will be able to sell several other new vessels next year.

Disney Cruise Line will debut the 4,000-passenger Disney Fantasy; Oceania Cruises will launch the 1,250-passenger Riviera; Costa Cruises will christen its 3,800-passenger Fascinosa; Celebrity Cruises will introduce the 3,000-passenger Celebrity Reflection; and MSC Cruises will welcome the 4,363-passenger Divina.