Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Goldring Travel Experiences Azamara Club Cruises in Asia - Is it Amazing? Part IV (Upscale Meets ????)

This is an unusual article for me because I am usually focused on the pluses and minuses of a cruise line or ship; not the cruise guest.  However, I have now been onboard the Azamara Quest for a week and find myself both impressed and frustrated. 


 Why? 

Because I work hard to be sure my clients are on the right ship, no less right cruise line, for their lifestyle and desires.  But on this cruise there is clearly a mismatch. You see, although Azamara Club Cruises offers many upscale and luxury options, and you can tell the staff really enjoy their jobs and treat you well, and the ship is well maintained (though the Azamara Quest will be going through a major refit in September 2015)...a significant number of the passengers (I can’t call them guests) onboard have no interest in enjoying the upscale experience.  

Seriously!  And I don’t get it…other than they chose this cruise solely based upon price and, to be sure, were looking for a big ship experience on a smaller ship and brought that attitude with them!

Now don’t think that the Azamara Quest is not providing a very enjoyable upscale experience.  It most certainly is and, of course, it is not difficult to avoid the prototypical “Cruise Critic” crowd…because they don’t go where you will. 

As I anonymously wander this ship it is very clear that there are those who enjoy a more sophisticated experience, discuss their travels, have interest in your background, etc. while truly enjoying all that the Azamara Quest has to offer.  They speak of their experiences on Seabourn and Oceania (interestingly freely blasting Regent Seven Seas…again  - you can’t make this stuff up!) and their love of cruising. 

While there are a few onboard that cruise with Azamara Club Cruises for months at a time, and I can’t think of a single suite guest that is not content (while I hear the grumblings of some others), I do not hear the devout loyalty I hear while on other cruise lines…But at the same time the Upper Tier Past Guest Champagne Brunch this morning was extremely well attended.

Now, before I get into the “Why are they onboard?” analysis, I want to mention some of those upscale experiences that are being underutilized.

Azamara Quest's Thalasotherapy Pool Area Overlooking the Ship's Bow
(Note: The swinging chairs and comfortable lounges)
The Thalasotherapy pool area of the Spa is a great space available to all suite guests with a great view over the bow, creative seating from linen cabanas to swinging chairs…and bar service.  It is also available to all non-suite guests for a small charge…and well worth it.  But if you don’t ask about it (other than being told the use of this hidden gem is complimentary to all suite guests), you are never going to find it.  (Nor will you find the small, but good, sauna.)

By the way, a very cool evening, and one I would definitely do if my girlfriend was with me, is you can rent out the Thalassotherapy area for a very private Night Under The Stars, with a gourmet dinner prepared for you, with complimenting wines, candles everywhere and more.  It makes for an extremely romantic experience with views of the stars, the sound of the waves and… SeaDream Yacht Club offers the opportunity to spend the night on one of its Balinese beds, but this takes the concept to a whole ‘nuther – private, classier, amenity rich - level. 

Speaking of cool evenings, The Chef’s Table offers three gourmet wine-paired meals (French, Italian and Californian) once or twice a cruise (dependent on demand)  at a cost of $95 per person ($225 if you purchase all three) and, believe it or not, getting enough guests to sign up appears to be a challenge.  (I admit I did experience the same sort of resistance on a Crystal Cruise three years ago and that was for one dinner, but the cost was higher.)

Added to these options is the very exclusive “The Best of the Best” Evening with the Captain and Senior Management with a private dining experience in the Drawing Room. It is only offered to the very top ten suite guests and VIPs.  It is a wonderfully prepared special menu prepared by the chef and paired with some very nice wines.  And, ironically, a great way for those guests which are truly Azamara Club Cruises target market to meet each other.  (I was able to enjoy this evening sitting next to the hotel director, Philip Herbert, and across from Captain Carl Smith, both of whom are delightful men who are incredibly approachable to all of the guests and, of course, truly nice guys.)

The specialty restaurants, Prime C (steakhouse) and Aqualina (Mediterranean) are wonderful spaces with the former being a warm, cozy, wood venue and the latter being light and airy with static menus that offer a very good variety.  I have dined in Aqualina and Prime C twice and I can pretty much dine whenever I want because the demand for these restaurants, which are quite good, is so limited.  These dining experiences are included with your suite and is only $25 per person if you are not.  (The Main Dining Room is quite nice and the food, the one evening I dined there so far, was good, but not memorable. It was a nice change, but I will be dining in the specialty restaurants more often.)

Azamara Quest's Main Dining Room is beautiful,
but Prime C and Aqualina specialty restaurants are even nicer
Breakfast is offered in the main dining room every morning or in your suite (on proper linens) for those who wish a more upscale menu and/or do not wish to fight the buffet.  Lunch is also offered in the dining room on sea days.  While breakfast in the dining room eliminates a nice al fresco experience overlooking the stern of the ship, missing the chaos of the buffet is a more than fair trade off. (I will talk more about the buffet in a separate article.)
 
Azamara Quest provides a properly served al fresco breakfast
on my suite's balcony
And there is High Tea served every day from 3:30 p.m. - 5:00 p.m. in your suite (you can reserve your time if you wish) serving a variety of teas, finger sandwiches, sweets and, of course, scones with jam and clotted cream.  I enjoy as an afternoon ritual on my balcony.  (A full High Tea is also offered in Aqualina once a week.)

High Tea served by my Azamara Quest butler on my balcony
When these luxury options are added to some very pretty and intimate spaces, such as the Drawing Room, there is every possibility of having a wonderfully upscale cruise experience on Azamara Club Cruises.

Azamara Quest's Drawing Room
A quiet and beautiful space which converts into
The Best of The Best Dining Room for the Top Suites
But then, with all of the foregoing from the attentive staff to the upscale venues, there are quite a number of passengers that appear to have a more “Don’t talk to me.  Don’t invade my space. Don’t have impact upon my cruise. And get the heck out of my way when I am at the buffet!” approach to the cruise.  They specify the “included vodka” when ordering a drink; finding a helpful bartender’s request if they have a vodka preference as an attempted upsell rather than a courteous acknowledgement that many onboard prefer the higher quality spirits (and may well have a beverage package). 

Azamara Quest's Bartender Michael
makes a great rum punch
There are “Cruise Critic” type comments complaining about small items and focused on how to get more for less money (whether it be a tour or a dinner) rather than assuring themselves the best experience possible.  I mean there are dozens of couples - who spent $8,000+ for their stateroom plus airfare refusing to spend $50 for an excellent steak in Prime C or for access to a wonderful private area of the spa.  (Some are, troublingly pay far less than that on last minute deals and actually take offense that suite guests have free access so, they assert, why should they have to pay. Uhhh, they paid significantly more than what you did for their cruise, for a start.)

While I can appreciate that not everyone is going to smile or say hello when waiting for the elevator (as I do) there are examples of more mass market conduct that one might want to avoid.  For example, the other day at lunch, as I was strolling through the buffet (researching, of course!), I saw sushi and sashimi…and then a woman literally wiped the display clean, stacking her dish as high as possible…and then didn’t even know how to pour the soy sauce (fighting to remove the cap when you just tip the bottle).  When she saw the look on the faces of those waiting as she selfishly proceeded, and then she said, “Don’t worry.  They replenish it very quickly.” 

Are these the guests that Azamara intends to provide its product to?  I don’t think so!  And there is the conundrum that I am feeling is Azamara Club Cruises.  But, as with any cruise product that offers accommodations ranging from extraordinary suites to inside staterooms, there are going to be techniques needed to avoid your nirvana from being interrupted.  The obvious, and easiest ones, is to utilize what upscale amenities Azamara Club Cruises offers and avoid the Buffet and Pool Grill Buffet.  (The Pool Grill, however, is quite nice and I highly recommend the Cuban pork sandwich.)

So how does this happen?  To me it is obvious:  Azamara Club Cruises has its eye on the ball, to wit:  The Upscale Guest.  Its parent, Royal Caribbean, has its eye on short term profits thus making sure the ship is full and then generating onboard revenue.  Onboard revenue you say?  Yes, but not upscale onboard revenue as discussed above.  It is through tables of cheap jewelry being displayed in the common areas near the Mosaic coffee bar, tours that are overpriced, etc.   Fortunately, they are easy to avoid and have almost no impact on my upscale experience.

Personally, I think that since Azamara is such a strong product quality-wise in the premium market, it would ultimately increase its overall revenue by essentially eliminating the pricing structure that encourages the mass market crowd.  How do you do that when you have inside and oceanview staterooms for those clearly on more limited budgets?  You stay firm on the price and, if necessary, let them sail empty for a while.  Eventually with the proper marketing the budget conscious “traveler”  or, hopefully, first or second time Millennial cruisers, versus the cruisefare-centric mass market “cruiser”, will – I believe - fill the space.

In the meantime, I shall continue to enjoy writing my articles from my suite’s balcony after my champagne brunch, take a soak in the Thalossotherapy Pool overlooking the bow, enjoy a light lunch in the main dining room, have a bit of a read, do some work and then dine in Aqualina while I contemplate what I will do when we reach Manila, Philippines tomorrow afternoon after departing the complimentary shuttle into town before the included Azamazing Evening of Filipino music at Fort Santiago (which I will write about more later).


If you are interested in taking an Azamara Club Cruise or have any questions, please email me at eric@goldringtravel.com or call me at (877) 2GO-LUXURY.