This article was first published in the Spring/Summer 2017 issue of International Cruise & Ferry Review. All information was correct at the time of printing, but may since have changed.
The feedback for our river yachts? It has been extraordinary,” begins Edie Rodriguez, the self-effacing president and CEO of luxury juggernaut Crystal Cruises. “We only launched in July but have already won awards in the US and the UK. We are selling out – the success has been monumental.”
For anyone familiar with the Crystal story, it’s hard to think of a more apt adjective than monumental to describe what has happened to the company. For years Crystal Cruises worked hard to carve out a sector of the ultra-luxury cruise market with its fleet of just two ships: Crystal Serenity and Crystal Symphony, which launched in 2003 and 1995 respectively. While the company has constantly delivered for its loyal guests; there was only so far it could go with its limited hardware. Especially when competitors such as Carnival Corporation’s Seabourn Cruise Line boasts twice as many ships, the oldest of which was only launched in 2009.
Rodriguez, who joined the company in 2013, is as assertive as Crystal itself. When Genting Hong Kong bought Crystal for US$550 million in 2015, few doubted whether the woman nicknamed Speedy Edie would stay on.
Shortly after the purchase, announcements about river ships, aircraft and an expedition fleet were made. Residencies at sea will follow on an entirely new class of ship.
Rodriguez, who is famous for sleeping just four hours a night, is now working double time to oversee one of the most startling expansions in the history of the cruise industry.
“Only about 50% of our guests on Crystal Mozart have cruised with us before,” she says. “The other half are not only new to river cruising, they’re new to cruise entirely. That is because we are no longer just Crystal Cruises, we are now simply Crystal – the world’s most luxurious lifestyle and hospitality brand portfolio.”
Crystal’s diversification beyond a pure ocean cruise product has seen the company grab column inches in a “myriad of different titles, in a myriad of different ways”. That in turn has led the brand to crack the much-coveted new-to-cruise market. However, that’s just part of the story.
“We are now appealing to an international wealthy global traveller,” Rodriguez comments. “Not only that, but we are appealing to different demographics – on our new expedition fleet with Crystal Esprit, the average age is just 35.”
It’s little wonder that other companies are paying attention to the Crystal story – even if they don’t like what they’re hearing. Under Rodriguez’s stewardship, Crystal’s portfolio will see wealthy individuals enter the Crystal funnel at 35 with the Endeavor expedition fleet (complete with submarine, jet skis and zodiacs) before graduating onto the air, ocean and river products. It’s the perfect formula, not that Rodriguez believes that the company has any rivals.
“Take Crystal Mozart,” she says when asked that very question. “We offer the only true a la minute dining experience, we are the only line with real open seating. We have Toto toilets, iPads that can call your butler or order room service. The list of accoutrements to this brand explains why we are the only true luxury experience on the Danube and the rivers of Europe. We don’t have any true competitors. This is not your grandfather’s river boat.”
Among the many highlights of the past year for Crystal, one could perhaps be said to rank above even the dazzling investments and announcements: the record-breaking journey through the Northwest Passage in September and October. The chance to be onboard the biggest vessel to ever undertake the Northwest Passage proved to be a huge draw for a lot of people. The 32-day voyage was so successful that Crystal will be doing it again in August.
“It was beyond phenomenal,” Rodriguez says. “In my 35-year history, I have never had guest satisfaction scores like that cruise. Our guests were surprised and delighted every day. They saw polar bears and the Northern Lights. They made history.”
The voyage did a lot to draw global media attention to the cruise industry, leaving no place to hide on potentially thorny environmental issues within the fragile polar region. For Crystal, which has been meticulous in its green policy planning, it was plain sailing.
In a statement the company said: “Crystal Symphony and Crystal Serenity will shift to full time use of lower sulfur fuel, which we currently use now inside the internationally designated Emission Control Areas. It will likely be marine gas oil (which is 0.1% sulfur content) unless there is heavier fuel available which is under the 0.5% cap. Crystal Esprit already uses marine gas oil all the time and the Endeavor class newbuilds are being built as full time marine gas oil vessels.”
For a long time, exploits like the Northwest Passage have been what Crystal does best: reinventing itself within the narrow framework of its existing hardware. The cruise was one of the most triumphant achievements of 2016 because it reinforced what Crystal is so good at – and why they got the investment in the first place.
“In terms of how we are going to maintain the quality of Crystal Serenity and Crystal Symphony across our new fleet, the answer lies in our staff,” Rodriguez explains. “Many people have left us over the years, simply because in the past they didn’t think they could grow within our company. Now, with the investment, they are coming back. Half of all the people we have hired for Crystal Mozart have worked for the company before.”
For 2017, the company will be launching its first river newbuilds – Bach and Mahler. Rodriguez’s main focus is going to be on ensuring the launch dates of other newbuilds stay on track.
“We pushed a couple of our launches back,” she admits. “But the reason was that we saw how successful the yacht and expedition segment were. We opted to build three more and make them the priority. I need to keep focused on our own brand and setting our own sail.”