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New Crystal owner 'visionary,' understands luxury, Rodriguez says

Crystal Cruises
Everyone shipboard and shoreside 'over the moon' about growth prospects, says Crystal president Edie Rodriguez, pictured with Crystal Symphony officers in New York (file photo)
As Crystal Cruises' acquisition by Genting Hong Kong nears—a filing this week put the completion 'in or around May'—president Edie Rodriguez said everyone shipboard and shoreside is 'over the moon' about the luxury brand's growth prospects.

'The closing is on track,' she told Seatrade Insider Wednesday, adding: 'It's a very exciting time.'

This is another good year for Crystal, which doubled earnings before interest, taxation, depreciation and amortization in fiscal 2014, the company's fourth most profitable year.

In early January, Crystal announced 80% of its budgeted 2015 revenue was already booked, along with 40% of 2016's.

'Any luxury cruise business would be delighted to turn the year at 50%. We continue to do extremely well,' Rodriguez said.

Part of that is thanks to the robust US economy and stronger consumer confidence. Considering the dollar's strength, for Americans looking to go to Europe for the summer, 'This is probably as good as it's going to get. Most certainly that has helped us.'

But equally Rodriguez cited 'fabulous itineraries' and vaunted service—Crystal has been voted Condé Nast Traveler and Travel+Leisure's 'World's Best' for 21 years and 19 years respectively. Plus, there's the ability to book far ahead to lock up the best rates, accommodations and air schedule.

'Our books have been opened for quite some time through the first quarter of 2018. People want flexibility ... and we're trying to provide more options to an international luxury consumer.'

For lines, of course, it's 'critical' to have business on the books as far out as possible, and Crystal's five-year-old 'Book Now' strategy of opening sales with the lowest fares, which go up over time, entices people to commit earlier.

With just two ships, the line has to be extra-imaginative to keep its well-traveled Crystal Society clientele, and those new to cruising, engaged.

When sales opened in July 2014 for the 'iconic, record-breaking August 2016, 32-day Northwest Passage voyage,' which Rodriguez further called 'history-making,' it sold out in three days. Two years on, the cruise has a wait list of 700 people.

Any itineraries that feature new ports are well received.

And the novel four world cruises on two ships in 2018—Crystal Symphony and Crystal Serenity will meet mid-voyage in Sydney for a huge celebration on Feb. 17, when travelers may switch ships—has captured attention. Rodriguez said this essentially gives people the opportunity to customize their travel.

2018 is the year Crystal expects its first newbuild since 2003's Crystal Serenity.

Meanwhile, many upscale and luxury rivals are adding capacity—Seabourn, Regent Seven Seas Cruises, Oceania Cruises, Viking Ocean Cruises, Windstar Cruises and, perhaps, Silversea Cruises.

'I wish them well,' the Crystal chief said, adding the growth shows operators are bullish on the sector.

But pointing to the Condé Nast and Travel+Leisure awards, Rodriguez said: 'It's obviously not all about the hardware. That comes from the service we deliver.'

She framed the newbuilds in the context of new hotels versus fabulous classic properties that are painstakingly kept up. Crystal has put more than $120m into refreshing its two ships.

'They look brand-new,' Rodriguez said.

As she sees it, any concerns about the Crystal product under Genting HK, also the parent of Star Cruises, are unfounded. This is no different than Carnival Corp. owning multiple brands, from mainstream Carnival Cruise Line to luxury Seabourn.

Plus, Genting HK chairman Tan Sri KT Lim was a proponent of luxury touches at Norwegian Cruise Line, including vastly more dining choices, the lavish Garden Villas owner's suites and the Courtyard Villa suite complex that evolved and was rebranded as The Haven by Norwegian.

'He's such a visionary, and design is one of his greatest passions,' Rodriguez said. 'He understands luxury quite well.'

She also credited Lim with the vision to turn around NCL. Star Cruises acquired the line in 2000, fostering its growth and the 'Freestyle Cruising' brand transformation.

Crystal is noted for some of the longest-serving crew in cruising, and they are the ones who year in, year out deliver that award-winning product. Their confidence in the brand's future is vital.

When the Genting HK acquisition was announced, Rodriguez met with the teams on board and in the Los Angeles headquarters.

Everyone, she said, is 'excited beyond belief and sees this as such an opportunity for growth, not only for our company, but for them. We love to promote from within, and this gives everyone more opportunities.

'They've been waiting a long time for this.'