Fred. Olsen’s four ships converge on Bergen

All four ships in Fred Olsen Cruise Lines’ fleet have come together for the first time in Bergen today (Tuesday).

Balmoral, Braemar, Boudicca and Black Watch carrying almost 4,000 passengers have converged on Norway’s second city for a joint ‘Four Bs in Bergen’ celebration.

All four ships arrived in the port of Bergen at 8am and will depart at 6pm.

The Fred Olsen Company originated in the village of Hvitsten, outside Oslo, in 1848, when three Olsen brothers – Fredrik Christian, Petter and Andreas – bought their first ships and began an international shipping company.

The company is now into the fifth generation of the family.

Managing director, Mike Rodwell, said: “This is a very special occasion for Fred Olsen Cruise Lines, and we know that the city of Bergen is looking forward to welcoming our fleet on this unique day.

“We are committed to the city of Bergen – known as the ‘Gateway to the Fjords’ – on our Norwegian cruise itineraries.

“The Olsen association with Bergen can be traced a long way back, probably as far as the original Olsen brothers themselves, and we shared in a very successful partnership with Bergen Line during the 1960s and 1970s.

“In fact, the number of days that Fred Olsen ships have spent in Bergen from 2006 to 2015 is 176 in total, and we know that the city is a highlight to many of our guests on cruises to our historic homeland.”

Virgin Cruises tasked with offering distinctive experience on smaller ships

Virgin Cruise Concept Drawing.

Virgin Cruises’ decision to order ships that are smaller than those commissioned recently by its future competitors has prompted questions about whether it will have enough room to fashion a distinctive onboard experience.

The line, part of Richard Branson’s Virgin Group business empire, in June ordered three ships from the Fincantieri shipyard for delivery after 2020, when it plans to launch weekly Caribbean cruises.

The ships will each be about 110,000 gross tons and carry 2,860 passengers at double capacity, Branson revealed at an appearance in Miami last month along with Virgin executives.

That capacity is far less than recent orders, for example, for as much as 6,000 passengers for Carnival Corp.’s Aida Cruises brand in Germany, 5,400 for Royal Caribbean International, 4,500 for MSC Cruises, 4,200 for Norwegian Cruise Line and 3,954 for Carnival Cruise Line.

All those lines sail at least one ship from Miami, the homeport where Branson said Virgin will launch its line.

When it comes to setting prices, larger ships provide economies of scale that can help reduce fares while still generating profits.

“Virgin is in a very difficult position to differentiate themselves from everybody else. The key for their success is how they differentiate their onboard product.” — Art Rodney, Crystal Cruises founder

Tom McAlpin, president and CEO of Virgin Cruises, said that while pricing has not been disclosed, it will likely be above the cheapest fares advertised for seven-day itineraries.

“We’re not going to be a budget brand,” McAlpin said in an interview. “What Virgin has done in the past has been to give you a better experience at the same price point.”

To do that, it helps to have a generous amount of public space to work with. Virgin has not disclosed its onboard activities or designs yet but has emphasized that it will stand apart from the pack.

A key measure for new ships is the space ratio, which divides gross tonnage into the number of passengers carried. The higher the ratio, the more room for larger cabins and public spaces.

Mark Conroy, who helped design several ships as president of Regent Seven Seas Cruises in the 1990s, said the key question is how big the cabins will be on Virgin Cruises.

“There is only so much square footage, particularly outside space, that needs to be divided between technical space, public spaces and staterooms,” Conroy said. “The technical space is pretty standardized, so then it becomes a balancing act between public space and suites and cabins. The larger you make the suites/cabins, the less space you have for public room.”

Art Rodney, one of the founders of Crystal Cruises, said that at 38.5, the Virgin ship’s space ratio is “no better than and in some cases worse than other large ships,” such as the MSC Divina or Royal Princess, both of which have space ratios of 40.

“Virgin is in a very difficult position to differentiate themselves from everybody else,” Rodney said. “The key for their success is how they differentiate their onboard product.”

McAlpin agreed, saying the “different programmatic elements” will set Virgin apart.

He said the ships are still in the design phase and urged potential passengers to weigh in on Virgin’s website to say what they would want to see and do on a Virgin vessel.

But McAlpin also said that if the ship is smaller than its competitors, that will make it different too.

“If everyone out there is building ships of one size and you have a different size, it does provide a level of differentiation,” he said.

McAlpin cited consumer research as the main factor in deciding how big to build. He said those surveyed expressed concerns about being on a mega ship with thousands of fellow passengers.

“We believe a slightly smaller ship gives us a good platform,” McAlpin said. “It’s big enough to provide us with a variety of experiences but small enough to provide a more intimate atmosphere.”

Princess Cruises to deploy another ship to China

Golden Princess.

The Golden Princess will sail seasonal cruises from Tianjin in 2016, joining the Sapphire Princess in China.

The Sapphire Princess has been sailing seasonally from Shanghai since 2014 and will start sailing year-round from the port in 2016. Both ships carry about 2,600 passengers.

In addition, Princess Cruises will deploy a new 3,600-passenger ship to China in 2017, the cruise line said in May.

Another Carnival Corp. brand, Costa Cruises, will base four ships in China in 2016: the Fortuna, Serena, Atlantica and Victoria. Carnival Corp. announced in April that the Fortuna would be added to its China fleet.

“Our Costa and Princess brands are performing extremely well in China, and these new ship deployments will strengthen our growth position and enable us to carry nearly 1 million passengers in 2016,” said Alan Buckelew, Carnival Corp.’s chief operations officer.