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New CEO James Rodriguez on how he'll lead Atlas Ocean Voyages

James Rodriguez said he was drawn to Atlas for its 'impeccable service, culinary excellence, beautifully designed ships and active destination immersion'
As Oceania Cruises veteran James Rodriguez becomes president and CEO of Atlas Ocean Voyages, his immediate priority is 'bookings, bookings, bookings.'

He brings 'really strong relationships with the trade' and plans to 'aggressively pursue strong partnerships' with travel advisors who specialize in selling small, luxurious ships — including those who may not have this new brand on their radar yet.

Rodriguez, who was part of Oceania Cruises' founding team and served as EVP sales and marketing until a year ago, said the Atlas opportunity happened quickly so he hasn't had the chance to sail yet. But the more he learned about the brand, he was convinced 'This is the job I want.'

Giving his first interview before starting Aug. 1, when he succeeds outgoing president Alberto Aliberti, Rodriguez said he was drawn to Atlas for its 'impeccable service, culinary excellence, beautifully designed ships and active destination immersion,' adding that customer feedback shows the product is 'over-delivering on its promise' and provides a strong value proposition.

Luxe-adventure branding will continue

He credited Atlas for inventing a distinct style of travel since its founding in 2019 as the North American offshoot of Portugal's Mystic Invest Holdings, and said the 'luxe adventure' branding will continue.

World Navigator and the upcoming World Traveller are built to Polar Category C and Ice Class 1B and employ Schottel pump jets for clean, safe and quiet operations — something that really resonated with the environmentally attuned Rodriguez. Another advantage he sees is the ships' small size, enabling them to access coveted destinations like Venice, and allowing a sense of intimacy onboard but with enough space for a variety of activities.

He also pointed to distinguishers like the first SeaSpa by L'Occitane and the fact that Atlas includes emergency medical evacuation and repatriation insurance.

Entrepreneurial connection

Rodriguez moved his family from Florida to Colorado after leaving Oceania Cruises a year ago but said he 'really missed the industry.' Meeting Mystic Invest Chairman Mário Ferreira at Porto headquarters last week, he felt an 'instant connection,' adding: 'We're both entrepreneurs.'

Ferreira built his company — which includes the DouroAzul river empire — from scratch while Rodriguez comes from a family of entrepreneurs and, early in his career, developed an intranet site for Navigant International's coincidentally named Atlas Travel that led to his hiring at Crystal Cruises as sales director.

From there, in 2003, he joined the 19-person start-up team for Oceania Cruises as the specialist in database, e-commerce and e-marketing. 'But with only 19 people, you do more than what your job is' — he called it 'baptism by fire' and an opportunity to expand his knowledge. He got involved in areas beyond his sales and marketing forte such as revenue management, HR, ship design and even selecting china for restaurants.

In the last year, Rodriguez took classes at Harvard Business School in sustainable business strategy and sustainable investing.

All these things have 'lots of parallels' with joining Atlas Ocean Voyages — a start-up with a 'small, very passionate team where people wear many hats.'

'Agility in spades'

Rodriguez said the brand's challenges are the same facing everyone — economic headwinds, COVID waves, air ticket prices/service interruptions and inflation. However, 'This product was born during the pandemic. It's learned to be agile. Atlas has agility in spades.'

Citing the trendy managerial acronym VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity), Rodriguez sees it as his job to transform volatility into a vision, dig into uncertainty to find understanding, provide the team with clarity to tackle the complexity and turn ambiguity into agility to live through the turbulence.

'It's a really strong team,' he said. 'No doubt they can meet the challenges.'

Core team

Key figures include Paul Girouard, senior director of sales, North America — he and Rodriguez go back to Crystal; Colleen Rodriguez, VP marketing; Mostafa Beshir, senior director of finance; and Jacqueline Leyva, senior director, guest services, reservations and air/sea. Carlos Garzon, SVP business development & operations, resigned a month ago.

Rodriguez is assessing the organizational structure and seeks to 'optimize the positions we have' while also looking at repurposing some roles. For example, Atlas doesn't currently have someone focused on guest experience for the entire lifecyle of the product.

He would like to strengthen the pre-cruise communications strategy because the time from when a booking is made to embarking the ship is 'really critical. People want to know more, and they become brand ambassadors even before they board,' he said. Developing a loyalty program is important, too.

Sales coverage

The Fort Lauderdale office currently numbers about 40, which Rodriguez considers the right size today. However, Atlas will add head count as capacity grows. A couple sales positions are currently open, and Rodriguez is talking with Girouard about regions needing coverage. He's not sure the brand has to have a higher-level sales executive now.

But Atlas has got to reach more travel advisor partners who may not know this new entrant. Mystic Invest shareholder Certares Management also owns Internova Travel Group, which includes Travel Leaders Group, and Rodriguez called it 'essential to leverage' that relationship.

Five ships

He confirmed the plan for Atlas to grow into a five-ship fleet. When World Traveller enters service in November, that makes two ships for the important 2022/23 Antarctica season. World Seeker is to begin cruising in 2023. Sisters World Adventurer and World Discoverer are due in 2024.

Joining a growing company was enticing for the new CEO, and having more ships enables expanded itineraries and destinations, which Rodriguez welcomes.

For example, there are thoughts about a world cruise.

Though Atlas was forced to revise deployment several times due to geopolitical issues, Rodriguez said that as a young brand, it can be more agile than others because it doesn't have business booked out for three or four years.

'We can move quickly,' he said, adding it's also not usually an issue to arrange berthing for a smaller ship.