Class warfare: The rise of luxury enclaves at sea

Several cruise lines employ butlers in their exclusive accommodations. Onboard Royal Caribbean International’s ships, they are called Royal Genies.As the co-owner and president of a Virtuoso-affiliated agency, Paul Largay never had much interest in Norwegian Cruise Line. The Waterbury, Conn., travel seller had cultivated a luxury clientele who preferred upscale lines such as Silversea Cruises, Regent Seven Seas Cruises and Seabourn.

But after Norwegian added the Haven to its ships, Largay began selling the line.

“It’s a very viable alternative,” he said.

The Haven, a secured enclave of luxury cabins around a courtyard, has re-engineered Norwegian into a line with both a mass-market and a luxury clientele, and its arrival on the scene has led almost every other operator of large cruise ships to tout some sort of exclusive accommodation.

Each has its own variation: MSC Cruises has the MSC Yacht Club, Royal Caribbean International and Celebrity Cruises have Suite Class, Disney has Concierge Level and Holland America Line offers the Neptune Lounge.

Even Carnival Cruise Line, the most egalitarian of the bunch, offers the Havana Cabana enclave on its newest ships.

The reasons that luxury enclaves have evolved on ships are many, but a common thread is the premium pricing that cruise lines can command by creating an aura of exclusivity to which guests can aspire.

Suites in the enclaves tend to be among the largest at sea, an attraction for some guests and yet another revenue enhancement.

In most cases, these cabins come with exclusive use of other areas, such as private pools, restaurants and lounges.

Guests with Suite Class accommodations aboard the Celebrity Silhouette have access to the exclusive Michael’s Club lounge.

 

Kimberly Wilson Wetty, co-president of Valerie Wilson Travel, said, “I think it has created the aspiration for people to say, ‘How do I get to that next level? I want that perk, that experience. What do I have to do to get there?'”

Several agents compared the rise of luxury enclaves at sea to similar choices in other hospitality sectors, such as a business class on international airlines or private luxury railcars added to trains.

Airlines have started opening unadvertised invitation-only dining venues in some airports for their best customers. And hotels-within-hotels are proliferating, especially in Las Vegas. At the Wynn Tower Suites, located in the 2,716-room Wynn Las Vegas, guests have a private entrance, a personal shopper, an exclusive restaurant and a private pool, with amenities.

Gaming also played a role in the creation of the Haven, which can trace its origins to large villa suites built for Star Cruises, an Asian line that shares common ownership interests with Norwegian through parent company Genting Group.

After acquiring Norwegian in 2000, Genting began to swap ships intended for Star Cruises into the Norwegian fleet. Ships such as Norwegian Dawn have a pair of three-bedroom, $25,000-a-week Garden Villas on the top deck. Those evolved into the Courtyard Villa, an enclave of 12 access-controlled suites when Norwegian launched its Jewel class of ships in 2005.

The exclusivity of the Courtyard Villas was one component of a package of extras that has continued to evolve. Rebranded as the Haven in 2011, the enclave cabins now come with access to a private restaurant, a private sun deck, private pool and a dedicated lounge and bar, all within the complex.

When Norwegian Cruise Line began offering the Courtyard Villa enclave in 2005, it opened the mass-market line to luxury clientele and prompted other cruise lines to follow suit. The Villa concept evolved into the Haven by 2011.
When Norwegian Cruise Line began offering the Courtyard Villa enclave in 2005, it opened the mass-market line to luxury clientele and prompted other cruise lines to follow suit. The Villa concept evolved into the Haven by 2011.

Other benefits include the services of a concierge and butler, priority embarkation, debarkation and tendering and preference for seating at shows and for shipwide dining reservations.

In-suite amenities include a cappuccino machine, white-tablecloth room-service dining and sparkling wine, fruit and bottled water on embarkation day.

Bathrobes, linens, bath products and mattresses are all top of the line.

Enclaves such as the Haven tend to be found on mass-market ships, or at least ships above a certain size. One reason is that smaller luxury ships have no need for a separate high-end product. Just as important, they don’t have the real estate.

Holland America Line, whose largest ship is the 2,650-passenger Koningsdam, does not offer a luxury enclave but does have the Neptune Lounge, a midship social area with refreshments and concierge service. It is reserved for guests booking the top Neptune and Pinnacle suite categories, who also get exclusive access to the ship’s premier Pinnacle Grill for breakfast.

Sally Andrews, vice president of public relations for Holland America, said it’s a question of economics.

“Dedicating private space for a segment of guests related to their accommodations really comes down to [return on investment] on use of that space for a small versus a larger number of guests,” Andrews said.

A table in the Queens Grill on Cunard Line’s Queen Victoria, which offers a sweeping view. Photo Credit: TW photo by Tom Stieghorst

A table in the Queens Grill on Cunard Line’s Queen Victoria, which offers a sweeping view. Photo Credit: TW photo by Tom Stieghorst

It began with 20 penthouses

Some observers trace the origins of the enclave idea to Queen Elizabeth 2.

In 1972, a refurbishment of the Cunard Line ship resulted in the addition of 20 penthouses to the 70,000-ton ship. A nearby bar/nightclub was converted to an exclusive restaurant called the Queen’s Grill.

By the time Carnival Corp. commissioned a successor for the ship in 1998, the Queen’s Grill accommodations had become a status symbol, and Carnival incorporated them into the Queen Mary 2, as well as into later ships Queen Elizabeth and Queen Victoria.

Larry Pimentel, one-time president of Cunard and currently president and CEO of Azamara Club Cruises, said Cunard was a bridge between the transport era of passenger shipping and modern cruising.

Queen Elizabeth 2 was designed with separate classes in mind, with segregated spaces for each price level.

“They represented a bygone era of cruising, a bygone era of transport, actually,” Pimentel said.

Ships designed for cruising post-Queen Elizabeth 2 were one-class ships, Pimentel said. Only recently have separate classes crept back into the equation, in part to attract and keep a discerning type of customer.

The creation of a ship within a ship enables mass-market lines to pitch their cruises to more-affluent guests.

“While it is not strictly class-communicated, the reality is that there is a group of people who always want the best,” Pimentel said. “What’s happened in the industry is that there’s going to be a bigger and bigger play for these people who have these desires to have the most space, to have the most in elegance and luxury, have their own space, their own pools, their own restaurants, etc.”

The premium for staying in an enclave like the Haven can be five to 10 times the cost of an inside cabin, depending on deployment and time of year. MSC Cruises calculates that the per-person cost of staying in its Yacht Club enclave averages about $1,500 more than for a standard cabin.

One longtime observer of luxury cruising said it might or might not be worth the price.

“Theoretically, it’s good,” said Mark Conroy, managing director of the Americas for Silversea Cruises.

Conroy said one of the most appealing parts of the enclave idea is the ability to offer two ships in one. There’s an “uptown” sanctuary with refined furnishings and service and a “downtown” for energy, variety and scale. But to make it work, the “downtown” has to be worth going to, he said.

“The challenge is in the execution, and some companies have been better than others,” Conroy said.

Another way the uptown/downtown idea plays out is in attracting large family groups.

“It’s been wonderful for the multigen families,” said Valerie Wilson’s Wetty. “If you have a very luxury client, let’s say it’s grandparents, or mom and dad, but they might want to take the whole family, they’re not willing to compromise their standards.”

With an enclave, the luxury client can afford luxury accommodations without springing for a luxury ship for the entire group, she said.

A staircase embedded with Swarovski crystals connects two decks in MSC Cruises’ exclusive section, the MSC Yacht Club. Access to a concierge desk and the Top Sail Lounge are some of the perks for Yacht Club guests.
A staircase embedded with Swarovski crystals connects two decks in MSC Cruises’ exclusive section, the MSC Yacht Club. Access to a concierge desk and the Top Sail Lounge are some of the perks for Yacht Club guests.

MSC Cruises has earned a reputation for affordable family cruising with its kids-sail-free promotion. Its Miami-based ship, the MSC Divina, is one of five in its fleet equipped with an MSC Yacht Club enclave.

The enclave includes 66 suites arrayed over two decks connected by spiral staircases with embedded Swarovski crystals. There is a private lounge, a library and butler service for all Yacht Club guests. They also get an adjacent private pool, access to a VIP area of the disco and special access to the spa.

Bernard Stacher, vice president of hotel operations for MSC, said guests are paying for more than exclusivity.

“That’s a portion of it, but it’s not the majority,” Stacher said. “It also comes down to the personalized, tailored service, to really unique and fast access to the ship on and off, the choice of the finishings we choose and the no-questions-asked attitude from the staff in the Yacht Club. I think that plays a big part.

“Yes, you are away from the crowds, you have your own private pool, but it’s the sum of all the parts that make the Yacht Club so exciting,” Stacher said. “It’s not one thing.”

In marketing the enclaves, cruise executives walk a fine line between appealing to discriminating customers and coming off as elitist.

Wetty said exclusivity inevitably rubs some people the wrong way.

“There was a pushback in the industry of saying, ‘Hey, that doesn’t feel fair or right,'” she said. “How can you create a ship that you pay a certain price and you only get access to a certain part of the ship?”

Wetty said the key for lines that have made an enclave product successful was positioning it as an extra to an already handsome package.

“Those lines are creating a consistent experience for everybody, so nobody feels they got less than somebody else,” Wetty said. “But then if you pay more, you get something a little extra special.”

The Royal Loft Suite on the Anthem of the Seas.
The Royal Loft Suite on the Anthem of the Seas.
Not every line offering exclusive luxury accommodations has gone the route of building a full enclave.

Celebrity Cruises and Royal Caribbean International, both brands owned by Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd., offer guests a Suite Class package of benefits that includes a separate lounge and restaurant, among other perks.

Suites are in different areas depending on which of Royal’s eight ship sizes they are sailing.

On Celebrity, Suite Class guests have the Luminae restaurant and Michael’s Club to themselves. On Royal, Suite Class includes a suite lounge and sun deck and the Coastal Kitchen restaurant on some ships.

Top suites come with Royal Genies, a name for what other cruise lines call butlers.

“We thought it was a fun twist on this idea of a butler,” Royal Caribbean president Michael Bayley said. “We think part of our success is not taking ourselves too seriously.”Bayley said that Royal has the same package of amenities that competitors do, but “we just haven’t put them in one place.”  Royal guests, he said, “want to be engaging with the world around them.” Still, he said, he wouldn’t rule out building a dedicated luxury enclave area on future ships.

Even Carnival Cruise Line, which prides itself on being unpretentious, has cosied up to the enclave concept. On its latest ship, the Carnival Vista, it has created the Havana Cabana, an area of 61 cabins with a lounge and pool area with a tropical-leisure theme.

Most of the cabins are on deck five and feature a sliding door that opens to a 100-square-foot patio with a swing chair. A key-card gate keeps the aft part of the promenade that encircles Deck Five closed during the day. Also behind the gate is the aft pool and hot tub area. A few Havana cabins are located on decks six and seven and have enlarged balconies rather than patios; these cabins also include access to the pool.

In the Havana Cabana section onboard the Carnival Vista, guests have exclusive access to an aft pool area and a promenade. Carnival is expanding the 61-cabin exclusive section on the Horizon, due next year. Photo Credit: TW photo by Tom Stieghorst
In the Havana Cabana section onboard the Carnival Vista, guests have exclusive access to an aft pool area and a promenade. Carnival is expanding the 61-cabin exclusive section on the Horizon, due next year. Photo Credit: TW photo by Tom Stieghorst

Carnival Cruise Line president Christine Duffy said that limiting access to the pool hasn’t caused any issues. The Havana Cabana is the only area on Carnival’s 25 ships that aren’t open to all passengers.

“We really haven’t had any complaints, as there are so many other options on the Carnival Vista,” Duffy said.

Carnival is expanding the area on the Horizon, due in April, by 18 cabins. Other luxury enclaves are also growing. The Yacht Club on MSC Seaside, which will be christened in Miami in December, will have 80 suites, the most ever.

In the future, cruise executives said, the enclave concept could be expanded to include more dedicated entertainment. MSC has a piano player in its Yacht Club, and it will rotate a violin duo into the mix on the Seaside.

Pimentel said that other ideas will percolate for small musical ensembles.

“I think it is possible that some of the units that have a lot of space begin to have venues for that space that could be a small, tiny jazz club,” Pimentel said. “I think the industry’s just going to push the edges on that one.”

Why Pick a Luxury Cruise?

Thinking about making the leap from a mainstream mega-ship to a more intimate luxury vessel? With so many new ships of all kinds sailing the world’s waters, competition is fierce. Every cruise line is looking to entice new passengers — sometimes with exceedingly low prices. And while a luxury cruise is certainly no small investment, the per-person cruise fare can represent a very good value when you consider everything that may be included.

Before you book on your usual cruise line, do some calculations. Figure the cruise fare, plus any extras like beverage packages, specialty restaurant fees, entrance to the adults-only pool, laundry services, etc. Now, compare that with the base fare of the luxury cruise lines on your wish list. Try to compare apples to apples. For example, if Regent Seven Seas Cruises is on your list, remember that the cruise fare includes shore excursions. You might be shocked to find what you’re paying on a mega-ship isn’t all that less than what you’d pay for a sailing on a high-end vessel.

It’s not all about the money, though. If you’re planning a special getaway, you might want to spend a few extra dollars to splurge on an experience you won’t soon forget. Luxury ships are generally smaller than their mainstream contemporaries, and great pride is taken in the level of personalized service provided. Lines like SeaDream Yacht Club, Seabourn Cruise Line, Silversea Cruises, Crystal Cruises, Regent Seven Seas Cruises, Compagnie du Ponant, Paul Gauguin Cruises,Oceania Cruises and Azamara Club Cruises all deserve a look.

To jump-start your luxury cruise planning, consider 10 compelling reasons to make the switch.

 

1. Pre- and Post-Cruise Pampering

Champagne Welcome - photo courtsey of SilverSea

Every traveler wants convenient ground transportation from the airport to port and back. Unlike mass-market lines that generally offer bus transportation, high-end lines feature a range of options — from taxis, private cars, shared vans and buses.

Luxury lines also tend to have robust pre- and post-cruise land packages so you can make the most of your vacation experience.Silversea in particular offers fantastic options with its “Silver Shore Land Adventures” to places like Australia’s Outback, Southern Africa’s game reserves, Peru’s Machu Picchu and India’s Taj Mahal — among other destinations.

2. Accommodations

Verandah view of the sea - photo courtsey of Crystal Cruises

Here’s something to love about luxury ships: most offer all-suite accommodations with ocean views (no inside cabins!), and a majority of staterooms have a balcony. Easy access to the outdoors is especially important when you’re sailing Alaska, Hawaii, the Caribbean, Chile, Norway, French Polynesia, or anywhere where you just can’t get enough of the spectacular views. (Psst! Look in the dresser drawer in your cabin and you’ll probably find a pair of binoculars to use throughout your voyage. It’s just a tiny example of how high-end lines try to exceed your expectations.)

Luxury staterooms and suites tend to be quite spacious and feature niceties like a dressing table with magnifying mirror, a full tub and shower in the bathroom that’s generally decked out in granite or marble, black-out curtains and high-end toiletries from purveyors like Bulgari, L’Occitane, Ferragamo and Molton Brown. Flat-screen TVs, en-suite Wi-Fi and iPod docking stations are also very common.

3. Service

Waiter on Deck - photo courtsey of SilverSea

Luxe lines like Regent Seven Seas, Seabourn and Silversea take pride in their crew. In fact, these lines have rigorous training programs for crewmembers like butlers and stewardesses. OnSeaDream yachts, cabin stewards, bartenders and waiters seem to magically know your name from the moment you set foot onboard. Need those sunglasses cleaned or your luggage polished? These tasks are proactively tended to — no need to ask.

4. Gratuities Included

Tips are already covered - photo courtsey of karen roach/Shutterstock

Despite the high level of personalized service you’ll encounter, you are not required to tip on luxury lines such as Azamara, Crystal, Paul Gauguin, Regent, SeaDream, Seabourn and Silversea. Gratuities have already been built into the fare. Of course, if someone goes above and beyond, feel free to offer something extra by making a donation to the crew fund at Reception.

5. Free Beverages, Including Alcohol.

Champagne in Suite - photo courtsey of SilverSea

On most of the luxury lines — Azamara, Regent, Paul Gauguin, SeaDream, Seabourn and Silversea — there is no charge for alcoholic beverages — at the bar, in the restaurants and lounges, or even in your stateroom (your minibar will be stocked with a bottle of wine or champagne, beer and soft drinks). It’s true that if you have expensive tastes (the only thing you can drink is a Chateau Mouton Rothschild, for example, or an Opus One), you’ll pay extra. Maybe a lot extra, but most people don’t have that problem.

6. Fine Dining

Lobster dinner - photo courtsey of Regent Seven Seas

Many renowned chefs have teamed with luxury lines to develop memorable dining experiences. Chef Nobu Matsuhisa created the Japanese-centric Silk Road for Crystal Cruises. The luxury hotel and restaurant brand Relais & Chateaux created Le Champagne for Silversea ships. Parisian chef Jean-Pierre Vigato developed signature cuisine for Paul Gauguin Cruises, in L’Etoile aboard Moana and at La Veranda on Paul Gauguin.

Beyond famous chefs, you’ll find incredibly accommodating maitre d’s who are happy to fulfill your special requests. Just give the chef a bit of a heads-up, and he or she will create a magical meal to your specifications.

7. Itineraries

Wine excursion - photo courtsey of SilverSea

Smaller ships, including those in the luxury category, are able to visit places their bigger counterparts can’t or don’t. In Alaska, that means spots like Petersburg, Haines and Misty Fjords. In the Western Mediterranean, expect more exclusive ports such as Portofino and Capri. And exotic stops like Indonesia’s Komodo Island in southeast Asia. Another trick: Luxury ships often visit very popular ports, say Greece’s Santorini, on a day and time when the village isn’t overrun with tourists from the mega-ships.

In a growing trend, luxury lines also tend to overnight in popular ports so travelers can get a real sense of the place and enjoy both daytime and nighttime shore excursions.

8. Shore Excursions and Exclusive Events

Geiranger, Norway. - photo courtsey of Azamara Club Cruises

One of the most compelling things about the luxury cruise lines is the importance they place on developing special shore events for passengers.

In addition to regular excursions, lines such Azamara and Seabourn host complimentary outings, just for customers.Azamara takes passengers on an “AzAmazing Evening” once per cruise. Expect to visit the Mikhailovsky Theater in St. Petersburg, Russia, a polo match and reception in St. Tropez, France or a festive gala at the Titanic Belfast museum in Northern Ireland. One of Seabourn’s most famous complimentary excursions is a lovely evening of classical music at the Odeon theater at Ephesus in Turkey.

9. Fewer Announcements

Silence is golden - photo courtsey of mikute/Shutterstock

Because they don’t always offer a never-ending stream of onboard entertainment opportunities, these lines don’t need to have the cruise director constantly harping on the public address system (“Hey folks, in 15 minutes, we’ll be starting our jackpot bingo in the main show room, with a prize today standing at $600!”). There’s generally a morning announcement of the day’s events, maybe a lunchtime follow-up — and that’s it.

10. Getting to Know People

Formal evening onboard - photo courtsey of Regent Seven Seas

On big ships, especially those with freestyle dining and alternative restaurants, you often meet people once — and never see them again. On a smaller ship, you tend to be thrown together more easily, and more often. Many cruisers make friendships that last long after the journey.

These are just a few ways in which luxury cruise lines differ from the mass market options.

Norwegian Breakaway Offers a Range of Cabins

Norwegian Breakaway Offers a Range of Cabins

On the Norwegian Breakaway there are accommodations to suit just about every type of passengerBy: Marilyn Green

Cruise
The Haven has its own pool courtyard. // © 2013 Norwegian Cruise Line

The Haven has its own pool courtyard. // © 2013 Norwegian Cruise Line

Norwegian Breakaway, the new ship from Norwegian Cruise Line that features a New York City theme, is very much like the city itself when it comes to accommodations. Just like New York, the ship features a wide range of living arrangements that run from economical studios to luxurious staterooms boasting fabulous views.

The Haven
Breakaway’s Haven — with its 24-hour service from butlers trained by the International Institutes of Modern Butlers — follows the luxury enclave pattern of the previous ships, providing exclusivity and luxury with access to the bells and whistles of a large vessel. Passengers can choose to dine in their suites, served by their butlers, and call upon them for a variety of other services. The Haven’s private pool has a dedicated valet to cater to guests’ wishes, and there is a private fitness area and hot tub in the private courtyard as well. Haven guests also receive priority reservations in the ship’s specialty restaurants, as well as priority in the spa and at shows.

On a recent sailing, agents onboard Breakaway were particularly impressed by the Haven Spa Suite With Balcony, with its king-size bed, hot tub and oversize waterfall shower. Occupants have complimentary access to the thermal spa suite with 13 heated loungers, a sauna, a steam room, a solarium, a vitality pool and whirlpools at the 23,000-square-foot Mandara Spa. Outside The Haven’s confines but with access to the amenities, the spa suites run 309 square feet and are designed for two people. There was also considerable praise for the four Haven Deluxe Owner’s Suites With Large Balcony. These 932-square-foot rooms sleep up to four people and feature gorgeous ocean views, a wet bar and a large wraparound balcony, as well as a bath and a half.

Meanwhile, the Haven Aft-Facing Penthouses With Large Balcony have king-size beds and very attractive dining and sitting areas, along with access to the Haven’s features. At 655 to 824 square feet, they accommodate up to four guests. Within The Haven itself, Haven Courtyard Penthouses With Balcony include a king-size bed and a private balcony with a beautiful view; up to three guests can share, although generally two people book these 328- to 349-square-foot accommodations.

Family Accommodations
For families of up to six people, The Haven’s Two-Bedroom Family Villa With Balcony has a bedroom with a king-size bed and a second one with a double sofa bed, plus two bathrooms, with a total of 535 to 545 square feet of space. Another option: Four or five family members can be accommodated in the 218-square-foot Family Oceanview Stateroom With Large Picture Window. Most of these have a bathtub (there are no bathtubs in staterooms 5138, 5140, 5738 and 5740), and a number of them offer connecting rooms, providing options for dividing up family groups.

The 239-square-foot Family Mini-Suites With Balcony on Deck 12 sleep up to four and are located close to kids’ activities. In these rooms, the two lower beds convert to a king-size bed, and there’s an upper bed, sofa bed and bathtub.

Also located near the kids’ programs and aimed at families seeking maximum value, 135-square-foot Family Inside staterooms sleep up to four, with two lower beds that convert to a queen-size bed and two pull-down beds in a very snug living space.

At the same size, the mid-ship and fore and aft Inside Staterooms each has two lower beds that convert to a queen-size. The Studios on Decks 10 and 11 are another sort of inside stateroom — designed for just one passenger without charging a single supplement — and each have their own private lounge where singles can mingle. This restricted-access complex is made up of 100-square-foot rooms with a full-size bed and bathroom and one-way windows that face the corridor.

Staterooms on Breakaway have a number of thoughtful touches, including storage space and good-size bathrooms with showers that have sliding doors, not curtains.

New Yorkers have a particular view of space, and, as agents explored Breakaway, more than a few of them commented: “This is bigger than my whole apartment.”

Not something one often hears on a cruise ship.

Continuing its sailings roundtrip out of New York, Breakaway moves from Bermuda to seven-day Bahamas and Florida cruises at the beginning of October.