Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Azamara Club Cruises- Changes Are Coming...And I Like It Alot!

I have always struggled with Azamara Cruises because it had a pretty solid product, but no direction and nothing that made it distinguishable.  Honestly, I have said to its parent, Celebrity Cruises, that with Oceania Cruises having such a solid product with consistently excellent delivery of cuisine, service and itineraries, there was little motivation to select the lesser marketed and unknown Azamara.

That has all changed...and I preface it by stating that Larry Pimental and his staff have picked over Oceania, Regent, Seabourn, Silversea, Crystal and SeaDream and pulled elements from each, tweaking their selected concepts in ways that they believe will provide a far improved cruise experience which touches upon, but does not pretend to be, luxury.

First Azamara is now Azamara Club Cruises.  This is obviously a play off of the "country club" marketing of Oceania and the recent emphasis on "country club casual" by many lines.

Second, they have taken the approach of making the product more inclusive....something I have said was essential to distinguish it from Oceania - who operates identical ships.  So now

1.  Gratuities are included. 
2.  Wines with meals complimentary.
3.  Bottled water, specialty coffees and teas are included.
4.  Shuttle buses will be provided (where available) between the port and town at no charge. 5.  Self-service laundries are complimentary.
6.  Specialty restaurant dining will be complimentary for suite passengers.

These are pretty much the things that Oceania makes money on and (as you know I have told you) can make an Oceania cruise more expensive than a Seabourn cruise if you are traveling in an sort of suite accommodation.

Third, while Azamara has always had solid cuisine, it is, ala SeaDream, incorporating more of the cuisine of where the ship is visiting in its dining menus.  Complimenting that is its emphasis on local wines - some of which are not readily available elsewhere because the vinters either do not have sufficient qualities or simply do not market for foreign distribution.  (The other night I enjoyed a bottle of Slovenian wine I purchased on my last cruise.  It was bittersweet because I know I cannot purchase it here in the U.S. and I want more of it...and it has great memories associated with it.)

Fourth, there will be many more overnight stays.  This, to me, is a tricky one.  For me, other than say Barcelona, Venice or Istanbul, there are not many ports that I - as a seasoned traveler - want to overnight in when embarking or disembarking.  I may be in the overall minority, but there is great value for many knowing that if their flight is late they can still make the ship...and the need to purchase a pre- or post-cruise hotel or a very early private car to the airport on disembarkation becomes a real cost savings.  Also, there will be a beefing up of shore excursions as the additional time will permit more unique and in depth experiences.  (These will be at extra cost, however.)

What is refreshing is the Fifth point:  Prices are going to be higher.  All of this luxury comes at a cost.  While higher prices may make Azamara Club unaffordable to many, the average target passengers are  aged 45 to 60 with a household income of approximately $300,000 per year.  One thing to keep in mind is that the vast majority of the accommodations are cabins with very small bathrooms (and tiny showers).  As with SeaDream (Pimental's former baby), I am sure the focus is on making the rest of the onboard experience at a sufficiently high level as to reduce the impact of this shortcoming.  Note:  I firmly believe that being honest with the market and saying you are raising the prices to make this a more inclusive product is the way to go.  The concept of "free, free, free" added to high prices, ala Regent Seven Seas Cruises, is to many offensive; especially the astute.

There is, alas, a Sixth point:  Children.  As with Oceania, Azamara Club specifically does not encourage children and touts that it has no facilities for children.  However, children are welcome to book and, in a very significant difference, if there are a sufficient number of children on board, Azamara Club will provide youth counselors.  This, to me is huge.  Not only does this open up Azamara Club to many of the demographically targeted folks who have children, it provides a bit of protection for those who do not want to have children onboard with nothing to do disturbing their cruise.

Here is something to think about:  December 14th is the day prices are going to increase.  If you act quickly, you can lock in some really spectacular cruises in 2010 and 2011 that will have all these added amenities...and you can do so at the present lower prices.  It is like receiving a very significant discount for doing today that which you might well do later.