Explora Journeys is MSC Group's four-ship endeavor, starting with Explora I in 2023 and one ship a year to follow. The Ritz-Carlton Yacht Collection's 2022 debut is long-awaited. There is talk of other hotel brands seriously studying the sector. And Genting Hong Kong has proposed to build ships for luxury hotel brands that would be managed by Crystal.
Plus, both established and new players are bringing out expedition vessels that are transforming this niche with unprecedented style, service, design and comfort.
What exactly defines luxury cruising, though?
Seatrade Cruise News asked longtime luxury cruise veteran senior executive Dietmar Wertanzl, currently president and CEO, CMI Leisure, for his views. CMI Leisure is managing hotel operations for Vantage Cruise Line's newly introduced Ocean Explorer, the latest Infinity-class vessel commissioned by SunStone Ships. It's customized to a luxury standard for Vantage.
Wertanzl will take part in a Seatrade Cruise Global session, 'Dining Trends,' with food writer/restaurant critic Victoria Pesce Elliott, at 2 p.m. Sept. 28.
Luxury means different things to different people depending on their expectations, Wertanzl said, and expectations are based on previous experiences and lifestyle. For example, people with servants at home will have a different perspective than those without live-in staff.
For this reason, it's challenging to precisely define luxury cruising, and there are no set parameters like those for international hotels.
Most countries' hotel associations award stars or other points for certain 'musts' in hardware and service, and some aspects may be regulated, such as a minimum bathroom size or 24-hour reception staffing. And, since 2004, HOTREC, the European umbrella association of hotels, restaurants, and cafes, has been working to bring the various countries' systems closer to one another, with 18 countries now members of the Hotel Stars Union.
Many other countries around the world have established rating systems. Plus, groups like Leading Hotels of the World and Preferred Hotels & Resorts have their own required standards. There are also unofficial but widely considered as reputable ratings by AAA and Forbes Travel Guide in North America. Forbes' slogan is 'We verify luxury.'
Wertanzl noted European consumer laws are more stringent, so hospitality providers need to deliver on their promises. In America, though, it's a marketing free-for-all where claims 'the world's best pizza' are rife. 'In Europe, they would call you out on it,' Wertanzl quipped.
No universal ratings system for ships
There's no comparable universal rating system for ships, though guides like Berlitz have been publishing their own ratings for years. Wertanzl said travelers and travel advisors need guidance, so third-party endorsements from guides and publications like Condé Nast Traveler and Travel+Leisure have been important — though perhaps are less so now, with social media.
So what constitutes luxury/niche cruising, which is roughly a 5% sliver of overall cruising?
Wertanzl lists characteristics including relatively small but spacious ships with a high space ratio; all-suite, mostly balcony accommodations; large bathrooms, elevated design, a high crew to guest ratio, a selection of food and beverage options that cater to different cultural expectations and diets, open-seating dining and 24-hour room service. Worldwide itineraries are another luxury index.
'The big thing is service'
'The big thing is service,' Wertanzl said. The customer never wants to wait; instant gratification is demanded. There should be simplicity (no annoyances) and peace of mind. Attention to detail, highly personalized and anticipatory service are musts.
Wertanzl referred to 'hospitality in the moment.' For example, over breakfast, a waiter may hear a couple wondering what time their tour is leaving and tell them he'll find out. He takes the initiative to 'satisfy the guest in the moment. You hear the wish for something that's not there and make it happen.'
Training is critical, and personnel must understand that each guest is different.
Art and science
'It is art and science,' Wertanzl stressed. 'The back of the house is science. The front of the house is art, orchestrated to detail.'
Hotel chains like Ritz-Carlton and Four Seasons have been 'benchmarks for all of us,' he said, citing the Ritz-Carlton motto, 'We are ladies and gentlemen serving ladies and gentlemen' that defines its service culture.
When Crystal Cruises was formed in 1990 — Wertanzl was the founding team's director of hotel operations — its teamwork philosophy was summed up as 'There's always somebody who serves someone who serves the guest.' The brand sought to redefine luxury as providing choices, more service, more space, the right attitude, and quality.
Luxury brand partnerships
Luxury partnerships give instant quality recognition and credibility — Michelin-star chefs, world-class designers, top brand names throughout. All elements, from the china and crystal to the linens and carpets to the cuts of meat, must be the finest.
'Everything should give a high-end feeling of quality,' Wertanzl said. 'Everything is curated.'
Yet today's luxury is not stiff, he added. It's much more casual than in the past, with relaxed dress codes. There's an atmosphere of sophistication and elegance, yes, but not formality.
Style, design, attention to detail
Style, Wertanzl said, is important in the luxury space. 'You've got to be creative. Design is important. Attention to detail.'
Authenticity and a sense of place and are other luxury hallmarks. Sustainability and 'eco-chic' are also emerging trends.
A high price point is a given, with some lines' commanding an average of $500 to $1,000 a day per person, depending on suite category and destination.
Inclusive pricing also characterizes luxury. Inclusivity provides convenience — not having to sign a check for every purchase — and bundling in elements like shore excursions gives a better-perceived value, according to Wertanzl. In his view, including drinks creates a better social environment, though luxury lines typically also offer a connoisseur's list of special, extra-charge vintages and brands.
Exclusivity, bragging rights
Furthermore, Wertanzl said luxury clientele want 'exclusivity, bragging rights, things nobody else has' — a private visit to the Sistine Chapel or even a shipboard, back-of-the-house pop-up Chinese laundry dinner party.
As Wertanzl sees it, hotel brands like Ritz-Carlton will 'enlarge the pool' of customers for luxury cruising. 'I don't think they'll steal market share from Regent and the others,' he said. When it comes to Explora Journeys, 'Luxury can't be boring, and it's a little more adventurous.'
He equates the new crop of luxury expedition ships with the boutique hotel segment. Each has a different style and personality.