'It's been a long and winding road. It's difficult, if not impossible, to break into the cruise market,' co-managing director Doug Prothero told Seatrade Cruise News in an extensive interview. 'We're just so excited about this hybrid between yachting and cruising.'
Prothero has been developing the 'cruise yacht' concept for several years together with Lars Clasen, co-managing director, who's based in the company's Hamburg office and oversees marine operations.
'It's amazing to work with this team,' Prothero said of The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Co. Parent Marriott International's acquisition of Starwood Hotels & Resorts created a 'powerhouse sales and marketing team.' They bring vast expertise in areas like digital marketing and research and development, all benefiting The Ritz-Carlton Yacht Collection.
Marriott International has no equity in the venture but put in key (development) money, according to Simon Neggers, vp global communications for Marriott International Luxury Brands.
Los Angeles-based Oaktree Capital Management, with $100bn in assets under management, is an equity investor. Prothero declined to tell the amount of Oaktree's commitment but characterized the investor as 'smart money.' With their vast shipping and hospitality expertise, 'they brought a lot of value.' He and Clasen worked with Oaktree's Frankfurt office.
The Ritz-Carlton Yacht Collection's team includes finance director Victor Cai, who spent four years as cfo of Silversea Cruises in Monaco, and marine operations director Capt. Erik Bredhe, former master of The World.
The Coconut Grove office, which Prothero heads, will be ramping up with more cruise veterans. A next key hire will be a hotel operations director. He seeks a 'dynamic, creative person who sees this as an incredible opportunity.' Other positions include sales and marketing, and heads of reservations and shore excursions.
The Coconut Grove team won't be a large-scale operation, though, since the company can 'plug into an incredible global machine' through its Ritz-Carlton/Marriott network.
Prothero, a seasoned mariner, boatbuilder, shipowner and finance professional who ran Canadian Sailing Expeditions, more recently worked as partner at Capital Canada, a boutique investment bank in Toronto, and Clasen and Cai were clients. Clasen ran A'ROSA until 2013 and earlier headed Seetours (the parent of AIDA Cruises), including when it was a subsidiary of Carnival Corp. & plc. (Back then, Michael Thamm reported to him.)
Three cruise yachts are planned. The first 190-meter/623-foot, all veranda suite vessel—which sports a sleek, super-yacht profile—is scheduled to enter service in fourth quarter 2019. The second ship will come just 13 months later, in first quarter 2021, and the third in Q1 2022.
The brand will debut in the Caribbean, and the first two cruise yachts are going to sail the Caribbean, Latin America, Canada/New England, Mediterranean and Northern Europe. Smaller ports offering city-center berths and places with fabulous anchorages are favored.
In a distinguishing twist, the vessels are designed to be able to go all the way through the Saint Lawrence into the Great Lakes. 'We'll be the only luxury player there,' Prothero said. The cruise yachts will be able to call at cities like Chicago but also explore to the far edge of Lake Superior.
Prothero talked about 'carefully cadenced, yacht-style itineraries.
'We're not trying to do seven ports in seven days. We'll do four ports in seven days or six or seven ports in 10 days,' he said.
Shore excursions will be highly curated, with a concierge team on board to serve clientele who are expected to be similar to those who own residences on The World: adventurous, demanding customers who expect a perfectly customized experience.
The yacht style and the size of the vessel—under 300 passengers—are styled to be extremely enticing to Ritz-Carlton's well-heeled target market.
'Everyone has sort of moved away from that sort of intimacy,' Prothero said.
Tillberg Design of Sweden brought in yacht specialists to help create the sleek profile and chic look, and the shipyard additionally tapped super-yacht designers and naval architects with high-end cruise design experience.
Ritz-Carlton enters the field at a time when many luxury and small ship cruise brands are adding capacity.
'Certainly a lot is being built in the expedition sector,' Prothero said. 'We don't think of the expedition sector as our competitor.' The line hasn't said anything about polar operations and parkas. Instead, Ritz-Carlton is developing a 'highly curated' yacht experience that targets just 1% of global travelers.
Most clientele are expected to be from the US, however the brand will also be marketed in Europe. And, given that Ritz-Carlton has properties worldwide, guests in Beijing and other locations will be seeing and hearing about The Ritz-Carlton Yacht Collection on their in-room televisions. Prothero said the entire Ritz-Carlton global sales organization will be trained to sell the product.
Besides the deep pool of Ritz-Carlton guests, passengers will be sourced from experienced cruisers seeking something new and different and people who've never cruised. Neggers said research showed 400,000 people who stayed at a Ritz-Carlton property in the last year have taken a cruise. The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Co. operates more than 90 hotels and 40 residential properties in more than 30 countries and territories, while Marriott International has more than 6,100 properties across 30 hotel brands.
The Yacht Collection plans its own loyalty rewards program and whether that would interact with the Ritz-Carlton and Marriott points schemes is still being determined.
Prothero wasn't ready to provide an average per diem or specify where Ritz-Carlton fits, pricing-wise, into the cruise market. Bookings don't open until May 2018. He did say pricing will be highly inclusive; for example, dining at four of the five restaurants will be included in the fare.
Among the dining venues is a seagoing Aqua, by Sven Elverfeld, whose Aqua at The Ritz-Carlton in Wolfsburg, Germany, has three Michelin stars. The 40-seat spot will have a la carte pricing.
As for entertainment, there won't be any show lounge, big productions or casino. The entertainment will be intimate—classical music, jazz and, whenever possible, local performers. A Ritz-Carlton Spa and watersports marina round out the amenities.
Prothero expects some people to come aboard and 'disappear into their suite and never come out.' That's because they'll be fabulous—spacious, with stylish, contemporary decor.
Most cruise ships have a mix of 80% standard and 20% premium accommodations. The Ritz-Carlton cruise yacht will have a 60/40 mix. All rooms are veranda suites. The entry-level category provides a generous 29 square meters/312 square feet of living space, plus veranda. The pair of penthouse suites each offer 100 square meters/1,076 square feet of living space plus, as Prothero put it, a 'massive veranda' of 50 square meters/538 square feet.
Regulations challenge the ability of smaller ships to put verandas on lower passenger decks. Ritz-Carlton's answer to that was creating duplex suites, where the lower level consists of a bedroom with a one-way panoramic window and the upper level sports the veranda. The cruise yacht offers a dozen of those.
Since the charter business is expected to be important—an inquiry has already come in—the ship was designed for that. It's the ideal size, plus many of the veranda suites have a movable wall panel, instead of a connecting door, to double their size. This is particularly important for the meetings and incentive business since companies want to provide similar accommodations for their top performers.
June 27 update: 'Spain's Barreras bags Ritz-Carlton order, and here's why.'