Want to cash in your Starwood Preferred Guest and Marriott points for a yacht cruise? That may soon be possible, as Ritz-Carlton, Marriott International Inc.’s flagship luxury brand, announced a seafaring expansion in June.

As part of the newly-minted Ritz-Carlton Yacht Collection, the five-star hotel brand will launch three small, ultra-luxury ships with laid-back itineraries and spacious, open-concept design schemes that flip the traditional cruise experience on its head. The maiden vessel will pull out of the shipyard late in 2019, with bookings opening next May—marking the first time that a hotel company hits the high seas.

“You have to diversify your business," Ritz-Carlton chief executive Hervé Humler says. After successful expansions into branded residences and six-star resorts, Humler says there was ample data to support a cruise venture. The cruise sector has expanded by an average of 8.5% each year since 1981, yet there have been few new ships on the ultra-premium spectrum.

This, combined with company-supplied data claiming that 400,000 Ritz-Carlton guests are cruisers, means there’s both a built-in customer base and a solid marketing opportunity at play. “We only need 12,000 passengers to fill up a ship (each year), so if we don’t exceed (capacity), we’ll be pretty close to it."

So how will Humler compete with established ultra-luxury players such as Crystal Cruises, Seabourn, Silversea and Regent Seven Seas? By building the anti-cruise ship, he says—with an emphasis on space, privacy and flexibility.

The Maserati effect

Fredrik Johansson, owner and executive project director of Tillberg Design of Sweden, has designed quite a few ships: Viking, Norwegian, Costa, Cunard…the list goes on. But this is the first time he’s designing a cruise line’s maiden ship and creating design standards from scratch, “a groundbreaking opportunity", he says. “We’re designing these ships to turn heads."

To that end, he drew inspiration from superyachts such as Azzam, Eclipse and Nauta—as well as Maserati—rather than from his competitors.

“We wanted a look that was very slender, long and elegant," says Johansson. “Most ships in port look the same—but this won’t."

He thinks of the 623-foot vessels as hybrids between ultra-luxury small ships and yachts. If small cruisers carry about 650 passengers on average and a typical superyacht can hold a couple of dozen, these are right in between, with 298 passengers in 149 suites—comparable only to Ponant’s 132-room ships.

Compared with Ponant, though, Ritz-Carlton’s ships are about 200ft longer. The end product will offer more choices, more places to hide away (both public and private), and the utmost flexibility in your day-to-day schedule.

Johansson is confident that these factors will put his ships in a class of their own. “We tried to design the ship to be everything that a traditional, large cruise ship is not," he says. “It’s a place where you go with no queues, no crowds, no disturbances—just a beautiful backdrop for beautiful people."

A Radical Cruise Redesign

Due to fire and safety regulations, most cruise ships’ common spaces are subdivided and sectioned off, with walls dividing restaurants from bars and lounges and casinos. Johansson is pioneering an open-concept floor plan that will “break down the traditional boundaries". And no, there won’t be casinos.

Dining and drinking venues will be small and intimate, perhaps seating only a couple of dozen passengers at a time, and stay open around the clock, without the assigned seats or prescribed dining times—or buffets—so common in the cruise industry.

“Everything will be like a yacht experience," says Johansson. “The service will appear from nowhere, seamlessly, as opposed to traditional show cooking that’s loud and noisy."

Accommodation will be called suites, and each will have verandas and above-average ceiling heights. Not all of them lend themselves to a cruise ship, though. Double sinks? They’re a Ritz-Carlton bathroom mandate—but they had never been installed in a standard cruise stateroom before now.

An alley in Saint-Tropez, France. Photo: iStockphoto
An alley in Saint-Tropez, France. Photo: iStockphoto

The Destinations

Most small luxury ocean liners are being built as expedition ships or reconfigured to meet the demand of a burgeoning adventure cruise sector. They’re largely heading to the polar regions of Antarctica and Greenland and the Scandinavian fjords.

So Ritz-Carlton saw an opening in the market: small-ship cruising along the Mediterranean, the Caribbean, and New England. They’re classic destinations that are popular with cruisers—yet they’re almost exclusively serviced by mega-ships that overwhelm the regions’ biggest ports.

“I don’t want to stop in Marseilles—it’s a huge commercial port. Instead I can stop in St Tropez," he says, pointing to the type of small berths that his ships will be able to slip into.

Douglas Prothero, managing director of the Ritz-Carlton Yacht Collection, says the pace of the itineraries is another differentiator: It’ll be slower, with less time at sea and more time to explore. “We’ll do four ports in seven days, not seven ports in seven days." With each new destination, local chefs, artists, dignitaries and guest lecturers will come aboard for a rotating roster of talent and entertainment options.

Why It’s a Game Changer

In many ways Ritz-Carlton is building on existing trends—most luxury cruise companies are extending hours in port and are bringing in guest lecturers from relevant destinations to entertain their crowds. But by enlisting unpaid consultants, such as Valerie Wilson, whose namesake company is among the 30 largest travel agencies in the US and moves more than $300 million (around Rs2,000 crore) in travel inventory, they are ensuring that all the small details add up to something truly unique. “Its suites will be larger than anything its competitors can offer," says Wilson, “and it’s almost mind-boggling that they’ll have five restaurants for less than 300 people."

From an industry perspective, though, this will be the first time guests can combine cruise and land vacations with a single operator, by booking pre- and post-hotel stays with Ritz-Carltons in port cities. And more than likely, Marriott Rewards will be a perk of sailing with the Ritz-Carlton Yacht Collection.

Room for Growth

Ritz-Carlton’s investment in the yacht collection is undisclosed, and much of it is financed by Oaktree Capital, a global investment manager with experience in the hospitality and maritime sector. But there are indications—based on Spanish shipyard reports that match the first yacht’s description and name Ritz-Carlton—that each vessel is costing €180 million (around Rs1,400 crore) to build. And that doesn’t include the cost of drawing top executives, such as Silversea’s ex-chief financial officer, Victor Cai, from competitors.

With occupancy on cruise ships averaging 86-90% industry-wide, compared to 78% occupancy across Ritz-Carlton hotels last year, Humler and Prothero are confident. “We think it can go to five ships," says Prothero. And with the third ship sailing the Pacific Rim, the pair hopes to target Chinese and Japanese travellers too.

Don’t expect yachts to be the last word in Ritz-Carlton’s brand evolution either. “With the yachts, we wanted to think about where else we could take our customers," says Humler. “In the next few months, I will work on taking our customer to air too." Bloomberg

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