Submarines and Jets May Well Be the Future of Cruising
“You either grow or die.”
To Edie Rodriguez, president and chief executive officer of Crystal Cruises, those words weren’t just lip service for the journalists and VIPs gathered in the Seychelles recently; they’re a rallying call for a brand that’s won a raft of travel magazine reader polls since its founding in 1988 but has never grown beyond two midsize cruise ships—until now.
It’s here, with warm winds blowing over the cerulean Indian Ocean, that I met with Rodriguez and her top executives at the christening and three-day maiden voyage of their new luxury yacht, the 270-ft. Crystal Esprit. After the company’s ownership changed hands in March 2015, she immediately set a new course with a dizzying array of new products and brand developments.
- Five new luxury river cruise boats in Europe (up from zero)—one revamp of an existing ship (Mozart) setting sail this summer on the Danube; four newly built ships (Debussy, Bach, Ravel, Mahler) to be delivered summer 2017.
- Three new massive 100,000-grosse-ton luxury cruise liners (that’s more than two times the size of the Titanic) with condos for sale on board to start hitting the water in 2019—another completely new class of ship for Crystal.
- Three new jets, which the company just purchased for airborne cruising. Two of them are wide-bodies (a Boeing 787 Dreamliner and a Boeing 777) that will go into service in 2017. A GlobalExpress charter plane is up and running now.
- A purchase option on the 1950s S.S. United States, once the world's fastest luxury liner, just announced today.
Then there’s the glamorous, elegant Esprit, the first in its new yacht line and straight out of the luxe playbook: It sleeps a maximum of 62 in spacious “suites,” each with a couch and sitting area, in-room iPads for newspapers and entertainment, a complimentary stocked bar, Etro Robes, satellite TV, butler service, and sizable two-sink marble bathrooms. The ship itself offers a casino, sauna, state-of-the-art gym, pool and Jacuzzi, piano bar (naturally), and a staff of 75 (that’s better than a 1:1 guest-passenger ratio, in case you’re counting). For active water sports, there are kayaks, water skis, snorkel gear, and the showstopper, its two-passenger James Bond-ish submersible. I’m not one for scuba diving, so for once I could actually take part in the “we saw the most amazing fish and reef” conversations over dinner. I even caught sight of a shark. And never got wet.
“We’re finally giving our loyal Crystal Cruises guests what they’ve always wanted,” said Rodriguez, “the opportunity to vacation with us in a myriad of ways, and with our new owners, we have the means to make that happen.”
Started in 1988 by Japanese shipping company NYK, Crystal has been a relatively cautious and minor, if extremely well-regarded, player in the luxury seas with the Crystal Symphony and Crystal Serenity. (Silversea has eight ships, by comparison.) The company garnered so many accolades from the readers of both Travel+Leisure and Condé Nast Traveler (20 and 22 reader’s poll wins, respectively) that they put the rest of the field to shame.
New owner Genting Hong Kong, which snapped up Crystal for $550 million in March 2015 and promoted Rodriguez from chief operating officer, seems determined to keep that going, with her aggressive expansionist mantra at its heart and the new rich in Asia, as well as a younger North American clientele, in their sights. Alibaba’s Jack Ma is rumored to be the first individual to charter the entire Esprit.
“I use the example of Lady Gaga and Tony Bennett,” said Rodriguez. “We’re merging many generations together beautifully. The Esprit yacht, for example, is attracting more active guests that want intense water sports like snorkeling, water skiing, trips in the submergible, and scuba diving … Silicon Valley types.”
In the past seven months, the new Crystal has started to take shape.
Genting CEO Tan Sri Lim Kok Thay finalized the purchase of the entire Lloyd Werft shipyard in Germany at the end of last year for $37 million. Crystal’s four new river boats and three condo-filled, polar-class ocean liners will be built here. During this maiden voyage, along with his family and advisors, Tan Sri (or "the Chairman," as the Crystal brass referred to him) was visibly delighted in discussing Rodriguez’s Crystal vision and what it brings to the larger Genting group.
(Way) Above Water
Over a champagne toast with caviar canapés on the Esprit’s Sunset (top) deck, recounting a "grueling" day of gourmet dining and speedboating around sandbars with a stop off at Curieuse island for a swim, hike, and hang with tortoises, it’s easy to see both how and why this brand is evolving further in the luxury market. The aim for the European river cruises is to have more moorings at night, with dinners at Michelin-starred restaurants, and in the daytime, hiking and biking excursions off the boat. The expansion, ultimately, is about choice—be it intimate yachting in the tropics or the Mediterranean, a more upscale, sophisticated, and active river cruise, to a home away from everywhere on a massive cruise ship.
Ultimately passengers will be able to dispense with water-borne trips altogether.
Crystal’s foray into the increasingly crowded world of air cruising makes up a big part of company’s growth in 2016 and beyond. The 13-passenger Bombardier GlobalExpress will be used for charters and to ferry clients to and from its various ships this year. When its two-aisle 777 (seating 88) and 787 Dreamliner (seating 52 ) jets are delivered in 2017, they'll start taking 14-day and 28-day journeys, such as “World’s Best Golf Courses,” which might start in Aberdeen and end in Hong Kong, or “World’s Best Restaurants” route starting in Copenhagen and ending in Sydney.
When asked about the difference between Crystal’s planned air cruises and that of Four Seasons, which introduced a $119,000 around-the-world trip on a 757 last year, Rodriguez said the prices would be comparable but pointed to Crystal’s flexibility to fly to any city, stay at any hotel. On top of that, Crystal owns its planes and creates the itineraries itself. Others, including Four Seasons and Robb Report, lease the planes and outsource some or all of the trips and their planning to third-party vendors, she says.
“It’s a lot different when you own [the] plane and every component of the experience,” says Rodriguez. “We are taking our Crystal butlers to train them as flight attendants so the phenomenal experience they have taking care of clients at sea can be brought to the air.”
So do they even call themselves a cruise line anymore? Rodriguez laughs, “I will tell you that we’ve only announced about 50 percent of what's to come.”