As Royal Caribbean buys a stake in Silversea and Ritz-Carlton prepare to enter the market, Jane Archer looks at the unlikely growth of ultra-luxury cruise
It seems only yesterday that the industry was pondering Seabourn’s decision to build three new ships – one each year from 2009 to 2011, each giving the cruise line an extra 458 berths to sell in the ultra-luxury sector.
At the time they were ordered, the 2008 financial crash had yet to happen but, even so, many questioned if there would actually be enough demand to fill them.
Fast-forward almost a decade and the ultra-luxury cruise landscape has changed beyond all recognition. More than 10 ships are due to be built in the next four years, with two new vessels from Crystal Cruises and one from Regent Seven Seas Cruises in the mix, while river cruise giant Scenic and hotel group Ritz-Carlton are poised to enter – and shake-up – the market with superlative new yacht-styled craft.
And in a shake-up all of its own, Silversea, one of the best-known names in the ultra-luxury sector, has just been acquired by Royal Caribbean Cruises, overnight giving it the resources to take its six-star product to a new level.
It was already on the expansion trail, having launched its first new ship for eight years in 2017 and placing orders for another two – Silver Moon in 2020, Silver Dawn in 2021 – but we can now expect more growth with the new ownership.
What is also different now from a decade ago is a recognition that there is an ever-growing demand for luxury cruises from both past passengers and affluent yet-to-cruise travellers who demand the very best.
“Luxury is back and once again seen as a reward for success,” said Frank Del Rio, president and chief executive officer of Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings, which owns Regent Seven Seas.
These travellers are excited by the fixtures, fittings and features being added to ships that rival anything offered on land – Michelin-starred restaurants, personal concierge services and the like – and sometimes go beyond what even the best hotels can offer.
Sybarites on Scenic’s new Scenic Eclipse, for instance, will be able to dive beneath the waves on the ship’s seven-man submarine or sight-see from on high in its helicopter. The vessel launches in September and will be followed by a second, Scenic Eclipse II, in 2020.
Echoing the best hotels, where guests can choose from various restaurants, the Eclipse duo will have so many places to eat that passengers can dine in a different one every night of a seven-night cruise and still not have tried everywhere, as well as numerous bars, lounges and stunning spas.
Mundy Cruising director of sales and marketing Alex Loizou said: “Luxury cruise lines are catering to the demands of today’s luxury travellers with more dining venues and an increase in small-group and special-interest tours. All this helps those considering a cruise to recognise the value that luxury cruising offers.”
Seabourn’s new Seabourn Encore and Ovation, which have been given a “sexy curvaceous” look by acclaimed hotel designer Adam Tihany, feature the line’s first full-size speciality restaurant, The Grill, devised in partnership with three Michelin-star chef Thomas Keller, and cabanas where luxury lovers can luxuriate in their own private space while imbibing Bollinger Champagne and dining on caviar.
That might seem extravagant on a ship that accommodates just 600 people, but Regent’s Del Rio said cruise lines must offer personal space if they are to persuade luxury clients to try a holiday at sea. “Luxury is not being on top of others; it is the most expensive luxury element on a cruise ship,” he added.
Luxury is back and once again seen as a reward for success
That no doubt not only explains why the gigantic Regent Suite on Regent’s Seven Seas Explorer, which will be repeated on Seven Seas Splendor when that launches in February 2020, not only costs an average $10,000 a night, but is always sold out.
The room, which would not look out of place in Claridge’s Hotel in London, has a private spa with its own steam room and sauna, gold leaf finish and a $150,000 bed. Explorer itself is adorned with enough marble to cover an American football pitch, leather flooring and hand-crafted chandeliers.
Ritz-Carlton’s move into the luxury cruise space is possibly the clearest case of the blurring of lines between staying in upscale resorts and ultra-luxury ships. It has three 298-passenger yachts on order for delivery between 2020 and 2022 and promises a Ritz-Carlton level of personal service and long days and overnights in many ports, which it hopes will attract Marriott loyalty members who have never even considered a cruise. The ships will have a Michelin-starred restaurant and all-balcony accommodation, while any kind of formal dress code is out.
Global brand leader Lisa Holladay said: “Every aspect of the voyage has been carefully created to embody the signature service and casual luxury of a Ritz-Carlton resort.”