Enjoy the best cruises without being surrounded by crowds
By ERIC ROSEN | Bloomberg | Published: August 2, 2018
There’s a new way for the crowd-averse to set sail -- and it doesn’t require chartering your own yacht.
In an effort to woo 1 percenters from smaller luxury lines, a wide range of mainstream cruise companies are investing in all-suite cruise enclaves, creating a semiprivate ship-within-a-ship experience for the pickiest of premium passengers.
These VIP areas currently make up a tiny proportion of the overall stateroom count. On MSC Cruises, the Yacht Club comprises just 3 percent of the brand’s total inventory. On Princess, the Club Class Suites and so-called Mini-Suites make up 4 percent of all cabins. And on Celebrity, Suite Class accommodations tally 7 percent on the current fleet.
But the number is growing steadily, thanks to strong (and climbing) demand and better margins. Just this month, Celebrity announced a $500 million, four-year investment that covers, among other things, a fleetwide expansion and renovation of Suite Class staterooms and common spaces. And even mass-market brands such as Norwegian and Carnival are getting in on the trend, with exclusive areas that can lure passengers from pricier -- or even small-ship -- competitors.
Traditionally, the way to a crowd-free cruise has been via a luxury small-ship company such as Silversea or Ponant. On such trips, you might be surrounded by only 200 other passengers, making for less poolside jostling. The flip side: You might have access to only one restaurant for the entirety of your vacation.
Suite classes offer an intimate experience -- think private pool decks and butler service -- plus preferential access to a megaship-size lineup of restaurants and entertainment offerings. It’s like a hotel club floor, just at sea.
"Being on a small luxury cruise is a different experience," explains Gianni Onorato, chief executive officer of MSC Cruises. In his ships’ Yacht Clubs, he says, "passengers still have privacy and exclusivity when they want it, but they can take advantage of amenities that smaller ships cannot afford."
Booking into a cruise suite can cost two or three times as much as a standard stateroom on the same ship. Yet these accommodations tend to be the most popular product on the high seas. According to Onorato, "Our Yacht Club cabins are the first ones to be sold out no matter where the ship is positioned."
Brian Abel, Celebrity Cruises’ senior vice president for hotel operations, echoes that. "We have found that in every instance, regardless of itinerary, our bookings occur top-down, meaning Suite Class accommodations often book fast and first," he says.
Beyond extra square footage, guests who book into the suite levels are treated to a full array of privileged benefits, including access to special lounges, pools, sun decks, and dining venues. Butler services, expedited embarkation and debarkation, dedicated concierges, and priority reservation access throughout the ship are added bonuses. (Specific amenities vary by cruise line.)
On the new Celebrity Edge, whose maiden voyage is in December, the Suite Class will include an area called the Retreat designed by U.K.-based interiors maven Kelly Hoppen. It will have a lounge offering complimentary drinks and bites throughout the day, plus a private sun deck with loungers and cabanas. Add the private restaurant, Luminae, which changes its menus daily, and guests will never have to leave the Suite Class section if they don’t want to.
MSC Yacht Clubbers, similarly, are granted access to their own pool area and to the Top Sail Lounge, which has a buffet that changes throughout the day. They also enjoy the services of personal butlers who will unpack and pack for them and complimentary entry to the onboard MSC Aurea Spa throughout their cruise.
Even on ships traditionally seen as budget-friendly options, suite decks can be a plush way to travel.
On Norwegian Cruise Line’s 4,000-passenger Epic and Escape ships, the Haven includes a private lounge, restaurant, and outdoor space, plus dedicated butlers and concierges to make reservations and excursion bookings. And Carnival Cruises’ Vista and Horizon ships, which sail to Cuba, have a premium range of Havana-inspired cabins that come with private patios, Elemis bath amenities, and access to an exclusive pool.
As much as suites set up the temptation of cosseting you away from the rest of the cruise population, that’s not the point.
"We’re creating a best-of-both-worlds experience," says Celebrity’s Abel. Celebrity Edge will have 29 culinary venues, an enormous main pool deck, and a rooftop garden; its full-service spa will have a special thermal suite with eight different therapeutic areas including a hammam and a "crystalarium" for energy healing.
But it’s the suites, he says, that are helping to attract "new-to-cruise" travelers with high standards for service - a key target market for most industry executives. They’re also helping the average cruiser become a higher-paying one.
"Some people are looking to travel aboard a line they already know, and this concept allows them to do that in a whole new way," says Arnold Donald, global chair of Cruise Lines International Association.
"We attract passengers who have cruised in the past," says MSC’s Onorato, "and who want to bring their onboard experience to the next level."
That success means passengers will see more ships with more club-level accommodations and retreats sailing soon -- if not necessarily more suite cabins per ship. MSC Cruises will be adding Yacht Clubs with larger accommodations and expanded pool decks to its 13 forthcoming ships, which will be delivered from 2019 to 2026. And Celebrity’s fleetwide rollout will be complete in 2023. It will never have been easier to join the 1 percent (or the 3 percent) at sea.