Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Windstar Cruises' Star Breeze Inaugural Cruise - Part II - The Transformation of A Cruise Line

I just returned from the Inaugural Cruise of the Windstar Star Breeze, which was quite enjoyable not only from the cruise product standpoint, but Windstar's highlighting its new philosophies including smaller ports and longer stays.  While I normally focus on the service, cuisine and ports as I experience them, in this particular instance they are actually secondary to the larger story.  

Windstar Cruises' Star Breeze in Portoferrario, Elba, Italy
This Inaugural was, to my mind, more about the significant transformation coming to Windstar Cruises and less about the transformation of the Star Breeze (formerly the Seabourn Spirit) and all of the changes made to her.  There was a lot of thought as to what improvements to make to her and each one, at least to my mind, are excellent ideas that appear have been executed quite well.  

Raising the Flag on a New Windstar Cruises!
First, some background!  Windstar Cruises' past has had a few identity and ownership crisis.  But that is no longer the case, with it now being owned by Xanterra Parks & Resorts, which also owns a number of entities ranging from the beautiful and luxurious Broadmoor Hotel in Colorado Springs, Colorado to national park lodges to train, bicycle and walking tour companies and more.  Clearly, as things progress I (and others) can see a synergy between these different travel-related companies. Things like a European biking tour combined with a Windstar cruise or a Broadmoor golfing-focused Windstar cruise come to mind.

The owners of the Xanterra, billionaires Mr. and Mrs. Phillip Anschutz, were onboard, very friendly and had an agenda to let it be known there was more to the Inaugural than the christening of the Star Breeze:  Windstar Cruises wants it to be known that it is not stopping at the acquisition of the Seabourn triplets, but creating a 12 ship or more small ship cruise line in only a few years and making sure it gets the word out; not only about its new ships, but it’s future.

The Inauguration of the Star Breeze was beautiful.
And with that is the beginning of Windstar Cruises beginning its transformation from a somewhat funky and fun boutique line where sails and being "180 Degrees From Ordinary" were its hallmarks to a small ship, near luxury, full fledged, cruise line.  And also, quite interestingly, while the Windstar Pride, Breeze and Legend were sold using the technique, "Its about the software; not the hardware", Windstar is making a huge investment in the hardware as it looks to the future.  

Remember the pool on the Seabourn Triplets?   It is gone!
In its place is a beautiful terrace area which expands the seating in the Veranda
and provides al fresco dining even during inclement weather.
Why?  The answer is actually three-fold at least.  
  1. It is very difficult to make a profit with three small ships for a variety of reasons, so expansion works much to Windstar's financial advantage;
  2. It is very difficult to attract new guests if you are only offering older ships without many features; and,
  3. It is very difficult to attract new guests if you are not offering diverse itineraries that can comfortably delivered.

Windstar has replaced the two small hot tubs and the pool
on the Star Breeze with a larger hot tub and a cross-current pool
where you can
swim against the current
A yacht pool.  Look familiar?
Because it takes years to build new cruise ships (even smaller ones) and there is limited shipyard capacity, expanding Windstar via new ships is probably an effort in futility.  But knowing small ship cruise lines are generally financially precarious...or at least not hugely profitable, Windstar's flexing its owner’s financial muscle can make acquisition of those lines (or some of their ships) possible. Windstar is not the first to do this.  Other recent examples are Lindblad Expeditions' acquisition of Orion Expeditions and Paul Gauguin Cruises' acquisition of the Tere Moana.

But in most instances, as I noted above, there is more need make these newly acquired ships attractive to the consumer, so there must also be sufficient funding to refit these older small ships (Refit yards have much more capacity at present.)  If the plan works, there clearly will be a consolidation in the true small ship cruise market…not of ships, but of ownership and brands.   (I am not going to get into possible acquisitions, but there are a number…and each one presently has a different style and different challenges.)

Windstar's Star Breeze has removed the old staircase which
really opens up the Veranda...as does the addition of
an automatic sliding door and a power-assisted entry door
For me, this is where it gets really interesting:  With a diversity of ships Windstar will have the ability to no only offer a number of itineraries attractive to different guests, but a number of styles. Knowing that being a little bit of everything can result in confusion rather than a market identity Windstar Cruises is taking a bit of what might seem to be a backwards approach, but one which I think just might be genius:  Look at itineraries and then put the right ships in its livery in those locations.  But carry just enough of a consistent theme such as its 1492 sail-away, deck barbecue, Private Events, Yacht Club, Compass Rose Lounge and Star Bar, as examples, to tie this diverse fleet together.

For example, a cruise in French Polynesia, the Caribbean or the Greek Isles would seem to be perfect for one of its sailing "yachts" while a cruise around the French Riviera or Italy or Asia would seem more appropriate for one of its power "yachts".  The former focusing on barefoot breezes and the latter on French wines and cheeses...so to speak.


The Star Breeze suites have been refreshed
and have larger televisions
The Star Breeze marble bathrooms remain
as they were, function well and are attractive.


Windstar has put some attention into the details like removing the
Bose docking stations (so 2000) and adding Bose bluetooth speakers



But with the exotic itineraries and many suites comes a price point that attracts different guests than a seven day Caribbean cruise.  And that is where the upgrading of the Windstar yachts is essential because a level of functionality and finish will be demanded as the price point rises.  While seven day cruises may work for many itineraries, I believe the triplets will thrive with 10-12 day cruises that are also presented as longer voyages.  These ships, as opposed to the Windstar sailing yachts, are truly designed for longer yacht-like voyages and those options should be easy for its potential guests to find.  In my opinion, Athens to Istanbul and then Istanbul to Athens does not do these ships, especially as upgraded, justice nor will they attract the more sophisticated traveler.

And this is where what I call "The Waltz" comes in.  Windstar took possession of the Pride far earlier than it wanted to, so pretty much all of the Star Breeze upgrades shown here are not yet on the Star Pride.  But they will be on the Star Legend which will be making her debut in just a few weeks...benefiting from the lessons learned during the refit of the Star Breeze.  And then it will be the Star Pride's turn to receive all the upgrades later this year.

The Star Breeze's Card Room now has a Big Screen Viewing Area
The Star Breeze's Card Room also retains its card room function
As with most Inaugurals, this one was not without a few misses; but I expected there to be some.  For no matter how well you plan a refit there are always surprises, delays and OMG's.  Windstar and the Star Breeze crew truly worked tirelessly and many of the misses were corrected in the few days I was aboard.  That is a true testament to the staff and crew.

Speaking of crew (the "software") even being exhausted and trying to learn a new ship (and some being new hires as well) Windstar really has a fantastically friendly and enthusiastic crew.  It makes a difference!  Yes, there is a need for more training, but I believe that will come and in a few months - after all three of the triplets have been in service for a while - there will be more consistency.  As such, I would not hesitate to book a cruise on any of the triplets understanding that right now it is a premium product working its way into the near luxury market.

The cuisine was quite good (save the late night room service), with it ranging from "That was good" to "Those were the best lamb chops (veal chops) every!"  My poached and sunny side up eggs were perfectly prepared as well.  I would like to see more in the way of hamburgers and hot dogs (yes, those are very important when you want some comfort food!)  With only five nights onboard and some meals eaten on shore, I really could not sample all I wanted to, but I did not hear a complaint from anyone.

So for me the Inaugural was pretty exciting, but what Windstar has in mind for its future is even more so.  Will 2015 see yet more ships added to its fleet?  Will longer itineraries (or better presented existing itineraries) and cross-marketing with other Xanterra companies be rolled out?  Lots of questions, but not as much as there is enthusiasm at Windstar Cruises!

To me this is like reading a really good book.  Alas, Windstar Cruises has to finish this page in its history, before it can turn to the next chapter. I can't wait.

In Part III I will talk more about my travel experience during the Inaugural cruise of the Star Breeze.

If you are interested in booking a Windstar or other premium or luxury cruise, please give me a call at (877) 2GO-LUXURY in the US, in the UK:   020 8133 3450, in Australia:  (07) 3102 4685 and Everywhere Else: +1 732 578 8585 or email me at eric@goldringtravel.com.