In March Signature became the first retail group to form a preferred partnership with Crystal under the ownership of A&K Travel Group, a significant early vote of confidence.
Sharpe and scores of Signature owners joined Crystal Serenity's trade preview cruise leading up to Monday's inaugural voyage from Marseille.
Q: How does the ship look overall?
Alex Sharpe: Fantastic. They did a very nice refresh on the public areas with a few of the dining venues being completely redone, along with the spa and a number of suites. The ship looks really good and still feels like a Crystal ship.
Q: Any standout aspects of the decor or features that struck you?
Alex Sharpe: The biggest improvement is the suites. What they did there is game-changing for a number of reasons. First, the new categories and suites are very well done, but probably more importantly, they have created an additional 120 'large suites' (over 47 square meters/506 square feet) to sell, while reducing capacity some 30%.
What makes that more impactful is that it raises the space per passenger ratio to the highest in the industry and since they left the crew intact, it creates an almost 1:1 crew to passenger ratio, too, which is incredible.
Q: Do you have any personal favorite spaces?
Alex Sharpe: Tastes [for casual, tapas-style dining] and Umi Uma [Japanese-Peruvian fusion fare by longtime Crystal partner Nobu Matsuhisa].
Q: How about crew and service? Are a lot of experienced folks back?
Alex Sharpe: The word is 82% of the crew is back. The only folks I have found onboard that weren’t with Crystal previously were in the spa.
Q: Based on what you experienced, do you feel your Signature members can sell the new Crystal brand with confidence? Any concerns or caveats?
Alex Sharpe: I, and the 40 or so members we had onboard, came away with a comfort level around this product. The hardware is improved, the service feels like Crystal, as did the product, i.e. entertainment, food, enrichment.
The onboard feels 'Crystal familiar' and the in-destination programming was good, but I believe they have an incredible opportunity with A&K in the coming months and years to really enhance what they do for shore excursions, pre-/post-cruise tours and overland tours.
Back in the office shoreside, they are still a start-up. They have accomplished a ton in a short period of time but have a long way to go with reservation systems, growing the sales force and just maturing with their policies and programs. It will take some time and patience, but I believe with the product delivering well, advisors will be a bit more patient.
Q: Your thoughts on the planned newbuilds?
Alex Sharpe: They need the newbuilds. Certainly there's still lots of work to confirm the [shipyard] slots and the details, but a brand cannot survive on two ships and only 1,300 berths.They need more critical mass, which will allow them the opportunity to invest in marketing and salespeople.
On the surface, I don’t think we need many more expedition ships, but I certainly believe that their current A&K business and the Crystal database will make filling them pretty easy.
Q: Any last words?
Alex Sharpe: It is great to see Manfredi [Lefebvre d'Ovidio] back in the cruise business. His passion is clear as is his commitment to building another strong luxury cruise brand. He looks incredibly happy and was effusive in his praise for this small but mighty team, led by Cristina Levis, that has accomplished so much in one short year.