By Doug Gollan, Contributor, Forbes
On the surface, at 168,028 gross tons, Norwegian Bliss, the third of four ships in Norwegian Cruise Line’s Breakaway Plus category may seem like just another behemoth vessel hitting the high seas. On Thursday it docked in New York City after making its way from the Meyer Werft shipyard in Germany where it was built. Dwarfing surrounding ships, including the Norwegian Gem at 93,500 gross tons, in fact, Bliss may more deeply reflect that the industry has bypassed the stigma that cruise vacations are more suited for grandma and grandpa. Last year over 25 million people took a cruise, according to Cruise Lines International Association.
While Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. led the way with ice skating rinks and surfing machines a decade ago, Bliss is again redefining cruising with a 1,000-foot go-kart race track where you can test your skills navigating eight hairpin turns at up to 35 miles per hour nearly 20 stories above the ocean. If that’s not enough, human colonizers have lost contact with Planet Earth. It’s up to you to find them while searching an abandoned spaceship, all during a game of laser tag. “The fate of the world is in your hands,” crows promotional copy on NCL’s website. Still not enough action? Challenge a friend to a race down the twin multi-story free fall waterslides, and if you are traveling with youngsters, there’s a water park especially for the kids.
You don’t want to mix with 4,000 other vacation goers? The Haven, a staple on NCL vessels, is a 5-star hotel within a floating megaresort akin to the Grand Floridian at Disney World or the Sky Suites at Aria in Las Vegas. It features its own private dining room serving breakfast, lunch and dinner, a marble bar, wood decked sun area with cabanas, pool, spa and a two-floor lounge with crow’s nest views spanning the 136-foot width of the ship. Andy Stuart, the brand’s president and CEO, says the luxury enclave is attracting both affluent families who want to make sure the kids are entertained and young professional couples who want the experience of a big ship while still indulging Four Seasons type service.
Of course, the appeal is much broader. With NCL’s itineraries from a few days with an entry price point at a coupled hundred bucks to cruises spanning over two weeks and suites in The Haven running well into five digits, there is a something for every budget. Ships now depart from more than a dozen cities in North America meaning consumers can avoid the expense and unpleasantness of having to fly to a distant port at the same time converting a day or two of travel into usable vacation time. Perhaps that’s why when asked who is the target for the brand, NCL’s Chief Marketing Officer Meg Lee says, “Anyone who is planning to take a vacation.”
Outside the well guarded but easy to miss door that provides entrance to The Haven are more than two dozen restaurants and bars. For foodies, there are more options than meal times ranging from signature steakhouse Cagney’s to Ocean Blue for fresh seafood, La Cucina, a salute to Tuscany, foie gras at Le Bistro, Los Lobos, a new Mexican option, a classic pub serving chicken pot pies and prime rib, and a teppanyaki restaurant where you can sip a wasabi martini as your chef cooks in front of you. There’s more. Q is a Texas smokehouse barbeque and a culinary risk. Stuart points out you can’t have open flames or smokers on a ship, so meats have to be prepped on land and finished onboard. There’s also a Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville with sandwiches almost as big as the ship. Food Republic serves global favorites ranging from Peruvian ceviche to sushi and Chinese noodles. A bakeshop offers macaroons, cupcakes and crepes, and there is also ice cream parlor. There is even a full service Starbucks, not to mention three main dining rooms plus the expansive Garden Café with a Las Vegas-style buffet.
Forget afternoon tea. From morning until morning, there are plentiful options for libations and partying from The District Brewhouse to a wine bar from Michael Mondavi, and a series of bars themed around whiskey, cigars, mojitos and martinis. And of course, there is entertainment. There’s a full production of Jersey Boys and NCL’s largest show ever, Havana, billed as a celebration of Cuba during the 1950s. Stuart thinks it could be the first time a show goes from a cruise ship to Broadway. Plus there’s a comedy club, dance clubs and lounges with all sorts of live musical performances and DJs and even an adults-only bar, Spice H2O, which at night mixes drinks, dancing and hot tubs under the stars.
Unlike ships of yesteryear where restaurants were in the bowels with limited views through portholes, many of the bars and restaurants on Bliss and this generation of ships have al fresco dining, part of what Stuart says has been a concerted change in design, giving venues an outward orientation so guests feel connected to the ocean. On Bliss, which will spend the summer in Alaska, Stuart said heaters have been added so even if it’s a bit chilly, you will still be able to enjoy a meal or cocktail out on the deck.
Nicole Mazza, the Chief Marketing Officer of TRAVELSAVERS, a network of travel agencies that sell over $20 billion in travel annually, says features like the go-karts and laser tag help highlight to clients the appeal of today’s cruise vacations. She adds NCL has been making a major investment not only in the diversity of eating options, but also quality, something that is noticeable and customers are responding to.
For health enthusiasts, there is a Mandara Spa with over 50 treatments and two dozen treatment rooms. There’s also a thermal suite, a vitality pool and salt room. The huge gym includes a variety of cardio and weight machines and offers yoga, Zumba classes and Pilates.
Lee says Millennials are coming aboard NCL ships en masse and are spreading the word via social media, showcasing the range of activities from food and fun to fitness and wellbeing as they post away on Instagram, Facebook and other social media. She calls it “word of mouth on steroids that’s scalable and can be monetized.” She and Stuart expect within a few years the brand’s customer base to be evenly divided between generational groups, perhaps a surprise to naysayers who believed being on a ship is too confining for younger folks.
Speaking to financial news channels last week after posting record first-quarter profits, Frank J. Del Rio, the CEO of parent Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings (other brands include Oceania Cruises and Regent Seven Seas Cruises) pointed out that his ships run an occupancy exceeding 100%, something possible by counting third and fourth guests sharing a single cabin. He also noted ships today provide more opportunities for you to spend money once onboard. In the past three years, onboard revenue increased from 28% to 30.5% of total revenue while money generated from passenger tickets dipped from 72% to 69.5%, all while sales jumped from $4.3 billion to $5.4 billion.
Customers are also booking farther in advance. Stuart says at the end of 2014, Norwegian had sold slightly less than 40% of its 2015 inventory whereas at the end of last year over 60% of cabins for 2018 had already been booked. Bliss is its best selling new ship ever, he says, adding, the jump is being driven by the company’s focus on providing value and selling experience instead of price. When booking a cruise, NCL offers options to buy various dining and drinks packages or book spa treatments and shore excursions in advance. Depending on the type of cabin being booked, you can choose perks such as free WiFi or dining in specialty restaurants at no extra charge. Stuart says the free booze is the top pick, perhaps a good indication that the industry’s biggest challenge is no longer the traditional misperception that cruising is a sedate vacation.
Del Rio said during his television interviews the biggest barrier to growth is lack of additional capacity. He told Mad Money’s Jim Cramer while there is a high barrier to entry compared to land-based resorts – starting a new cruise line can take the better part of a decade from idea to maiden voyage – the industry is well positioned against downturns in that it can move ships and switch itineraries based on consumer demand, something hotels can’t do. He also said shipyards have limited capacity to build new ships.
Despite its full ships and increasing profits, NCL is still pushing hard to convert non-cruisers. Its choice of Elvis Duran as the Bliss’s godfather was part of a strategy to gain attention with the radio personality’s 5.5 million weekly listeners who tune in every morning from over 100 markets nationwide on their way to work, school or at home, thinking about their next vacation. What’s next? The last of the Breakaway Plus vessels will launch in October 2019, however, Stuart and other executives are tight-lipped about how they will go about topping go-kart racing and laser tag in the middle of the ocean.