‘Part of our investment strategy is to accelerate our fleet rejuvenation programme as soon as we can. We are actively looking for vessels at the moment,’ he said. ‘We're doing due diligence on a number of ships that could potentially work for us.’
Efforts are being driven by fresh demand for balconies and suite category staterooms, currently offered in limited capacity by Celestyal Cruises, ‘It's something being amplified because of the pandemic, people want more personal space and fresh air. For the new vessels, we'll be looking for a higher ratio of balcony and suite staterooms,' he said.
At the end of last year, Celestyal secured an investment injection from Searchlight Capital Partners of €70m, with €30m of that ring fenced for the vessel renewal programme. Peden is eager for the ships not to exceed a 1,700 lower berth range to prevent congestion at destinations, ‘It would be a capacity increase anyway, because Crystal only has about 480 staterooms [but] we want to maintain the character of the Greek islands.
‘The other element is that the port infrastructure isn't always there: when you have 1,500 to 1,700 capacity it’s very manageable to get passengers on and off the ship without it being an overburden on the destination.’
Celestyal has ‘worked hand in glove’ with the destinations it frequents. In the three months that its cruise ships were in operation last year, it contributed €26m to the Greek economy and in a typical season that figure would reach well over €100m. As well as being a sponsor of The Hellenic Initiative (THI) supporting entrepreneurial programmes in Greece, during the pandemic it donated masks and disinfectant and supported food banks in Piraeus.
Now the line aims to ‘weave the DNA of Greece and the Eastern Mediterranean into the onboard product,’ as well as its shore excursions. ‘For the 2022 season, we've curated a number of new shore excursions, Authentic Encounters, where there's a maximum of 15 guests. Those that are into art can create their own mosaic or we have music experiences where, for example, you can learn how to play the bouzouki or about the history of the instrument and Greek music.
‘On the other extreme, we have new kayaking and hiking experiences such as in Milos, visiting beautiful coves with caves.’
Pre-bookable only, the experiences open additional opportunities for agents, ‘What's also important is that we're paying travel agents their standard commission on all of the pre-bookable shorex as well,’ explained Peden. ‘That's one way we can put additional revenue into agents’ hands, which is so important in terms of the recovery from the pandemic.’
Onboard, the line will also expand its authentic experiences from stargazing and the history of astrology to improvised beach club events. ‘These are the types of new experiences we want to develop; Mykonos is known for its beach clubs, so why not replicate a beach club onboard the ship, making it cool, beautiful, complete with day beds.’
Celestyal’s 'Idyllic Aegean' itinerary commenced April 30, reimagined to include a new transit port, Thessaloniki, which doubles as a new embarkation/disembarkation port for the cruise line. Kavala has additionally been added as part of the 'Eclectic Aegean' itinerary.
As well as adding new destinations, Celestyal aims to introduce year-round sailings, ‘Before the pandemic hit, it was very much our strategy to get to year-round deployments rather than just seasonal operations in the Greek islands,’ continued Peden. One of its ships will be in operation for 10 months this year, spending Christmas in Israel and New Year's in Istanbul, ‘a bit of a trial to see how guests would like to spend that bit longer in the typical shoulder winter season in the Eastern Mediterranean.'
‘We'll get back to an earlier start in March instead of April, we’ll run all the way through the end of the year… in 2024 we should be getting to full operation, year-round.’
Bookings and growing key markets
2022 is a ‘transition year,’ in Peden’s view, with late bookings (even one week before embarkation from long haul markets) which are concentrated at the start of the season. But the encouraging element, asserted Peden, is ‘solid build in each and every single month of sailings.’
Subsequently, the line continues to ‘go deeper into the markets rather than wider’ in preparation for the future, establishing greater headroom in each of its key source markets. In New York’s tri-state area it is adding a business development manager and boosting the number of people in its US contact centre by three. In late 2017, 27% of Celestyal passengers came from the US while today that stands at over 50%.
A BDM as well as a country manager and commercial assistant will also be introduced in the UK. ‘We embarked on developing our presence in the UK about a year before the pandemic hit. We did the same in Australia and New Zealand, establishing an office in that region to amplify the brand… We've always had very strong support from the Spanish and the French markets, it's about getting deeper into those markets and having a much greater penetration,' Peden said.