Sailing in the lap of luxury

Azamara Club Cruises’ Larry Pimentel has built up over two decades of experience in the cruise industry, mostly at the luxury end. Here, he talks to Sandra Speares

Sailing in the lap of luxury
Azamara Quest berthed in Monte Carlo, one of the many luxury destinations on its itineraries (Image: Azamara Club Cruises)
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.

Before being appointed as chief executive of Azamara Club Cruises in 2009, Larry Pimentel co-owned SeaDream Yacht Club, which is designed to provide an intimate luxury yachting experience primarily in the Caribbean and Mediterranean. Previously, he served as president and CEO of Cunard Line and Seabourn Cruise Line, and held the same role at Classic Hawaii.

Still at the luxury end of the cruise spectrum, Pimentel manages Azamara and its two 686-passenger ships – Azamara Journey and Azamara Quest – both of which were extensively refitted last year to ensure they offer a more intimate cruise experience to discerning travellers. While Azamara is part of the wider Royal Caribbean Cruise Ltd. group, the brand’s emphasis is very much on offering passengers a wide range of cruises to less frequented destinations that can be linked to an onshore segment.

At a time when other cruise lines are heading to the shipyards with more orders for new tonnage, Azamara looks to be concentrating on improving the experience, and facilities on its existing ships.

So, what does Pimentel feel are the challenges of only operating two vessels in the increasingly competitive luxury ocean cruise market?

“Small is beautiful in our space, but being small also lacks economy of scale – so the size of our fleet is both an upside and a downside,” he comments. “Having said that, sensible growth is a positive, but for the sector, too much growth too quickly has many negative implications including market saturation.”

When considering how the luxury market and consumer demand may evolve over the coming year, Pimentel says: “Today’s luxury is all about experiential, exclusive, authentic and localised experiences. It’s also about the ‘human connection’, experiencing destinations as a local, finding those hidden gems only known to those who live there – such as where to see the perfect sunrise or sunset, or where to get the best fresh local produce and wines.”

Pimentel believes that the luxury market is big and growing. “According to studies we’ve done, globally the number of core and aspirational luxury consumers is expected to grow from 380 million to 440 million between 2013 and 2020,” he explains. “The same survey showed that travel is the third-highest spend category among luxury consumers after second homes and automobiles. More than 30% of luxury consumers plan to increase travel spending in the next year, greater than in any other product category. I see 2017 as directionally positive for most luxury market segments, including travel.”

This view appears to echo that of chief executives at other cruise lines who have suggested that passengers are now seeking new destinations and experiences. Considerable attention is being paid to give passengers a more intimate view of the places they visit and experience them as a local would.

No further upgrades are planned for this year following the dry docks in 2016. “We completed bow-to-stern renovations of both Azamara Journey and Azamara Quest in the first quarter of 2016, so there is no need for further upgrades this year,” comments Pimentel. “The 2016 upgrades are the most significant since the ships were reconstructed and were designed to reinvigorate the onboard guest experience. They were outfitted with new venues, public spaces and technologies to bring fresh services and amenities to guests. The upgrades included all staterooms and suites, dining, spa and entertainment areas.”

Pimentel says that while Azamara is best known for its land and Destination Immersion programmes – which have enabled it to boast an unprecedented number of repeat guest bookings – the company also wanted to ensure the onboard experience was modernised to meet guests’ every need. “The ships now have a new look and feel, setting a brighter, more contemporary ambience, while the new venues are bringing guests fresh experiences and we’ve had some fantastic guest feedback from those who have recently sailed with Azamara.”

Turning to Azamara’s itinerary planning strategies for 2017-2018, Pimentel reveals that the shore excursion and destination programmes have been expanded. “Towards the end of January, we announced a significant development of our shore excursion programme,” says Pimentel. “In 2010, we launched Azamara Club Cruises as the cruise line that champions Destination Immersion – meaning longer stays, more overnights and night touring. To enhance this, and exceed the demands of today’s affluent travellers, we are evolving our brand to offer even better destination experiences, which we call ‘Stay Longer. Experience More’.”

One element that Azamara has improved is the one-to-one human connection. “Our excursions will be curated to ensure guests get to connect in a personalised and unique way with the people of the destinations they visit,” Pimentel explains. “This may be through cultural experiences, spending time with families, enjoying local food and beverages, music or events, but the focus will always be on authentic experiences. We will deliver this experience in more than 200 ports worldwide in 2017 and 2018, 35 of which we will be visiting for the first time. In addition, more than 50% of the ports we’ll visit are ports that larger ships can’t visit, and we’ll continue to give guests plenty of opportunity to visit the destinations at night when they come alive.”

Pimentel’s other top priorities for 2017 include continuing to focus on enhancing guest satisfaction and greater shareholder profitability. Azamara will continue to build upon the Destination Immersion offering, with the aim of ensuring that passengers can enjoy authentic experiences all over the world.

As for the International Maritime Organization’s new international regulations limiting global sulphur limits to 0.5% from 2020, the company will either install exhaust gas cleaning technology to ensure compliance, or use compliant marine gas oil or low sulphur fuel on its ships.

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