Sam Ballard speaks to Larry Pimentel, president and CEO of Azamara Club Cruises, about how the increasingly popular line is dedicated to destination
Larry Pimentel is a man worth listening to. The president and CEO of Azamara Club Cruises has held the top job at luxury lines including SeaDream Yacht Club, Seabourn and Cunard making for a CV which is hard to beat. It also means that he offers a unique perspective when it comes to looking at the luxury sector and the wider travel industry.
During a recent conversation which covered everything from his views on the future of travel agencies (“they need to offer a return on life”) to the kind of company Azamara could become (“it’s conceivable we could offer land only holidays”), Pimentel’s comments were nothing but thoroughly insightful.
Azamara Club Cruises is on the verge of its most successful year ever. That comes down to a 50 per cent increase in capacity after the launch of Azamara Pursuit in Southampton last August. Pimentel has often said that if he could launch Azamara again he would make it a British company, such is the enthusiasm that Brits hold for it. British customers are more likely than any other nationality to rebook an Azamara cruise – 56 per cent compared to the company average of 41 per cent. In five years the UK business doubled, and net yield increased by 15 per cent last year. In January, on the day of Theresa May’s record-breaking Brexit vote defeat, Azamara enjoyed its biggest ever booking day in the UK. But why exactly is Azamara so popular with Britons?
“The destination is the number one reason that people book a cruise. That’s been the number one reason ever since I’ve been in the industry,” Pimentel explains. “Our entire product is designed around the destination. Our new brochure is called a Destination Guide, it doesn’t even have the word cruise on the cover. In 2020 we will have more than 441 late-night and overnight stays. Can you imagine calling at somewhere in the Mediterranean and leaving before evening? It’s when these destinations come to life.
“A lot of lines say they do overnights, but my question to them is what do you do overnight? They often don’t have much programming.”
With that exposure to destinations – across 2020, 47 per cent of cruises are down as being dedicated to one country (country intensive) plus the company has a burgeoning pre and post-cruise programme – the question arises whether Pimentel could foresee a time when Azamara could offer a holiday that is totally land-based?
“I see things like this [land offering] expanding a great deal. So, could we be a land operator? The answer is yes,” Pimentel explains. “We have a very comprehensive offering. Our AzAmazing evenings are products that cannot be Googled. It’s fascinating how we put bits and pieces together to create an event that culturally connects people. They’re now done in over 80 countries with local companies. This is a brand with a purpose. We are connecting people.
“A few years ago the ship went to the Middle East and we went to a Bedouin tented community and stayed overnight. I tasted vegetables and fruits that I have never tasted before. I heard instruments that I have never heard before. This was while on a ‘cruise’.
“In many ways we are a no-cruise cruise line. We’re every bit about the destination. People like the ship very much – it gets them there but we’re a hybrid product. Could we one day sell land? I think that’s highly conceivable.”
In May, Pimentel will be one of the keynote speakers at Clia’s flagship conference alongside fellow industry luminaries like Virgin Voyages CEO Tom McAlpin. Pimentel’s talk will cover future travel trends, including the next generation of consumer and travel seller.
“Technology is changing the speed of everything. The market will never be slower than it is today,” Pimentel says. “You will see the elimination of money in your lifetime. We used to carry a huge amount of cash on our ships. Now there is hardly any.
“We have technology with Royal Caribbean called Excalibur that uses Face recognition technology. We won’t need you to sign for anything, your bill will go straight to your cabin. We’ll know whether you prefer chicken or beef. You can even check-in to your cruise by just walking through the terminal.”
When it comes to travel agents, the future is also going in only one way, Pimentel adds.
“Agents will need to be value interpreters,” he says. “You want to go to Venice? There are three choices if you want the best. I think for you this one is perfect. A financial adviser offers a return on investment, a travel agent must offer a return on life.
“It’s not about reading the brochure upside down faster. It’s all about knowledge.
The future is not in being a generalist. That will be online. Pick and click. EasyJet flights between Manchester and Spain for £29. You don’t need an interpreter for that and the airline industry has developed the technology to handle it.”
When it came to his own company’s growth, Pimentel says he would be happy to add to his collection of R-class ships – Azamara Quest, Journey and Pursuit are all R-class – from the now defunct Renaissance Cruises. The rest of the eight ships are spread across the industry with four of them with Oceania Cruises (Insignia, Regatta, Sirena and Nautica) and the Pacific Princess, which is sailing with Princess Cruises.
“Let’s just say it’s not a secret to anybody that has an R-class ship I am quite happy to take it,” Pimentel adds. “They can say that it does not work but our numbers show it does work, but we change the product.
“I happen to love the ships. I hope that we can get [another].”
When it all comes down to it, why risk it by waiting?