There's a lot of synergy between the hospitality business and cruise ships, which offer practically everything full-service hotels do, and more.
With a captive client base that has no other possibilities besides what's offered on shipboard, F & B planning is simplified.
Also, like the hotel sector, the cruise product is being increasingly segmented.
The mass market ships are virtual factories with some like Royal Caribbean's Allure of the Seas carrying more than 7'000 passengers.
However, luxury in the cruise business means small ships with highly personalised service.
With this in mind, Marriott's luxury flag, Ritz-Carlton announced its new cruise offering in June, the Ritz-Carlton Yacht Collection.
This is not the first time a luxury hotel brand has attempted to run cruises.
The Asian-based luxury chain Regent used to have Regent Seven Seas Cruises, which was sold off separately in 2008. Also, chains like Mövenpick and the luxury group, Belmond (formerly Orient Express) both operate river cruises.
An existing customer base
Ritz-Carlton Yacht Collection plans to launch three small, ultra-luxury ships with flexible itineraries and spacious, open designs that are a far cry from the traditional cruise ship configuration.
The first vessel will leave the shipyard in late 2019, with bookings opening in May 2018. Two more are planned to enter into service in 2021 and 2022.
Ritz-Carlton has already pursued diversification through its forays into branded residences and six-star resorts (which Ritz-Carlton operates under its ultra-premium Reserve emblem).
Ritz's decision to enter the cruise business is backed up by some hard data. First of all, ocean cruise passenger numbers continue to grow – rising by 45% since 2009.
In spite of this steady rise in demand, there have been few new ships in the ultra-premium segment.
The crucial statistic for Ritz-Carlton, however, is that 400'000 of the chain's guests have gone on a cruise, according to Ritz's chief executive, Hervé Humler, which means that there’s an existing customer base. “We only need 12'000 passengers to fill up a ship [each year]”, he notes.
How to compete with luxury cruise operators?
Though there are currently no other luxury hotel brands offering ocean cruises, there is plenty of competition from luxury cruise operators like Crystal Cruises, Seabourn, Silversea, and Regent Seven Seas.
Ritz-Carlton is counting on what they term their new 'anti-cruise ship' design that emphasises space, privacy, and flexibility to differentiate their offering.
The 'Maserati effect'
The ship's design is a radical departure from traditional cruise ships, both inside and out.
The vessel's designer, Fredrik Johansson, owner and executive project director of Tillberg Design of Sweden, has drawn inspiration from super yachts such as Azzam, Eclipse, and Nauta—as well as Maserati—rather than from competing cruise ship builders.
“We wanted a look that was very slender, long, and elegant,” notes Johansson, who adds that, “Most ships in port look the same—but this [one] won’t. I’m looking for the 'Maserati effect'. I want people to see it and wonder how stunning it is on the inside.”
Johansson considers the 190m (623-ft) vessels to be hybrids – somewhere between ultra-luxury small cruise ships and yachts.
If small cruisers carry about 650 passengers, on average, and a typical super yacht can hold a couple dozen, these are in between, with 298 passengers in 149 suites.
'Suites', not 'staterooms'
On board accommodation will be referred to as 'suites', not 'staterooms', and all will feature verandas and ceilings of an above-average height.
Certain aspects will reflect Ritz-Carlton design standards, which specify a host of details, going from how big the writing desks should be to how many cushions should be on the beds.
Flexible F & B
The Marina Bar, a feature planned for all Ritz-Carlton ships, is the type of space not to be found on other cruise ships.
Most cruise ships’ common areas are subdivided with walls separating restaurants from bars and lounges.
For Ritz-Carlton ships, Johansson is planning an open floor plan that will be “fluid and transparent” and will “break down the traditional boundaries between dining and drinking areas.”
Dining and drinking venues will be small and intimate, perhaps seating only a couple of dozen passengers at a time, and all will be open around the clock, without the assigned seats or prescribed dining times—or buffets—so common in the cruise industry.
St. Tropez not Marseilles
Most small luxury ocean liners, such as the Silversea Muse, the Regent Explorer, Seabourn’s Encore, Ponant’s Le Lyrial yacht, are being built as expedition ships or reconfigured to meet the demand of the fast-expanding adventure cruise sector. These ships are designed for trips to the polar regions of Antarctica and Greenland and the Scandinavian fjords.
However, Ritz-Carlton has spotted an opening in the market, which is to operate small ships cruising along the Mediterranean, in the Caribbean, and in New England.
These classic cruise itineraries are almost exclusively served 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,” notes Johansson, pointing to the type of small berths that his ships will be able to slip into—and that larger cruise ships cannot.
“Commercial boats cannot go to places like Mykonos, to Portofino, to St. Barths,” he added. But his are small enough to do so."