A refreshing change for Azamara’s twin sisters

We speak to Francesca Bucci, Bert Van Middendorp and other members of the project team
A refreshing change for Azamara’s twin sisters
The Grand Staircase

By Jon Ingleton |

This article was first published in the Autumn/Winter 2016 Cruise & Ferry Interiors. All information was correct at the time of printing, but may since have changed.

“As we continue to evolve our ‘Destination Immersion’ offerings, we also want to ensure our onboard experience is modernised to meet guests’ every need,” said Larry Pimentel, president and CEO of Azamara Club Cruises, in advance of sister ships Journey and Quest entering drydock, respectively in The Bahamas in January and Singapore in April. “We really are redefining our onboard experience in every way.”

The project had been eagerly anticipated for some time and Bert Van Middendorp, AVP of hotel operations at Azamara Club Cruises, rationalised the brief: “We started planning the project 18 months before the start of the drydock with a clear vision about what we wanted to do, but the biggest challenge was to ensure that we had a decent return on investment. The original objective was to reimagine the Azamara ships. They were built in 2000 and well maintained but considering that the design planning for the original R-ships probably started in 1995, it was about time to update the 20-year old design with a fresh new look.”

With the project funds secured and the yards selected, the next step was to assemble the team. Van Middendorp name-checks key members: “The new build team from Royal Caribbean was instrumental in this project, led by Kevin Douglas, VP technical new build. A strong design team was equally important – led by Kelly Gonzales, VP architectural, and including Diane Stratton and Perla Soto.” BG Studio’s appointment appears to have been an inspired choice. Van Middendorp outlines how they got this prestigious interior design job: “We actually started working with BG Studio in 2011 for the planning of the 2012 drydock. We selected them out of a shortlist of three companies because we felt that BG Studio better understood what we wanted to create.” The relationship flourished and Francesca Bucci, principal of BG Studio, described the 2016 drydock project scope and challenges: “The two ships were renovated more than 10 years ago and had a classic and traditional aesthetic that needed to be refreshed and transformed. This project needed an extraordinary amount of coordination – some areas have been completely remodelled while other areas just needed to be updated. Creating a design that would bridge the existing and the new in a seamless way is an art in cruise ship design. BG Studio’s scope covered 90% of the refurbishment and the goal was to create a modern sophisticated yet relaxed experience by designing new venues as well as integrating new design in the existing areas. We wanted the guests to have a seamless experience.”

Like Van Middendorp, Bucci recognised the importance of experience in managing such a project: “Renovations of this size are very complex operations. Our extensive experience in drydocking enabled us to facilitate the needs of the contractors onboard and the unforeseen site and weather conditions. We are very used to solving design problems on the spot and accommodate conditions that were not apparent during the design phase. My team and I have been doing this for 20 years, and while problems always arise there is no situation that we can’t resolve and very few we haven’t seen before. I’m not blasé, it’s just the confidence that comes with experience.” But Bucci is also eager to reference other companies who contributed to the success of the project. “Architema did an amazing job in the public spaces, their furniture had perfect proportions; FZ Collection provided a very high quality of furniture for the owner’s suites with exquisitely curated details; I can’t speak highly enough about how well Brintons have been able to realise our very intricate design with superb quality. The outfitters, Trimline and Danish Decoration, did a great job in the finishes and all of the architectural application – they were both very collaborative.”

With such a keen affinity for exceeding guest expectations, did Bucci believe that passenger opinion influenced the project? “The guest point of view influences our design as much as our design influences their view. Our design needs to be very focused on guest satisfaction and personal memories. We need to understand the guests, so we can create design that gives them new and exciting experiences.” Van Middendorp agreed, citing an example of passenger power: “We originally planned to re-purpose one area into a high-end Asian restaurant. When we announced our intentions this area was not well received by our guests and we ended up scrapping this project.” So what elements of the design particularly stand out for Middendorp? Which rooms does he think will particularly appeal to Azamara guests? “We believe our new colour schemes, furniture and fabrics are very organic and contemporary. Through these features three areas stand out: The Living Room, the Patio and the Spa. These three areas get the most accolades from our guests.” Rob Veluz, director of interiors at BG Studio, shared his perspective: “I particularly loved working on the new carpet designs for the public areas and spa suites. Coming from a hotel design background I understand the importance of great carpet design and its impact to add texture, revitalise a space and make a big statement.”

So has the team had to make any compromises? “I think our biggest was the non-suite stateroom that have a small bathroom,” says Van Middendorp. “We tried to make it larger, but the footprint did not allow us to change the size of the room. As a compromise we put in a new floor, wall covering and other details to give it a whole new fresh look.” Veluz turned the question around somewhat, preferring to highlight how retained features were blended with the new look: “Azamara Journey and Azamara Quest’s revitalisation was select, so certain aspects of the ship were left unchanged. For instance, the ornate railings of the Grand Staircase and the overhead lobby’s ceiling details remained. In our design we didn’t want to lose the essence of the ship and its classic features that have made it so iconic – instead, we embraced and balanced these elements with modern large-scale carpet patterns, contemporary furniture and fabric selections, and fresh accent colouring to complement each space. A rich colour arrangement of champagne, golds, taupes and greys paired with accent colours of wine and burgundy helped to tie in the contemporary design with the traditional bones of the ship.” Bucci didn’t volunteer any compromises either but surely they had to find balances between the sometimes conflicting demands of form and function? “This is the quintessential architect’s dilemma! The reality is that form does not always follow function or vice versa. It is like a little dance between the two, where at times one leads the others and then it changes again. The Spa Suites are a perfect example of this – the design of these two suites demanded a strong connection with nature and an overall sense of relaxation and well‐being. We wanted to express this idea through light, soft coloured materials and a beautiful large spa bathroom with a big Jacuzzi and lots of amenities. Traditionally cabins and suites would have a bathroom located inboard so that the suite would use the full extent of the glass and balcony. In this case we decided to change this relationship because it was fundamental that the spa bathroom received natural light as well as the bedroom. The result was that both the bedroom and the bathroom had been designed to receive natural light, and we managed to locate a great round Jacuzzi tub on the balcony!”

With the project completed and boasting an energised and contemporary new look, has the team managed to effectively capture the essence of the Azamara brand in the finished result? Van Middendorp is quick to respond: “Absolutely. We are best known for Destination Immersion, which is all about spending more time in port and immersive land discoveries. As we continue to evolve our offerings we also want to ensure that our onboard experience is modernised to meet guests’ every need.” Bucci agrees: “The vessels stay in port much longer than other ships, providing guests with a more authentic experience of the place being visited. This is an aspect of the guest experience that we needed to keep in mind throughout the entire design process. The ship needed to have an overall design that says private and exclusive, like the destinations the two ships visit, but warm and accessible at the same time, like a beautiful member’s club. The overall tones used are neutrals with soft changes of gold and silver. The carpet designs are timeless with accents of modern classic. The architectural materials exquisitely crafted. Overall the ships have a sophisticated, curated, luxurious and comfortable feel that sets them apart.”

The positive impact of this project is already delivering a return on investment with repeat passengers clearly enjoying the new life given to their favourite sisters, and first-timers wondering what took them so long to book a Destination Immersion cruise. Azamara’s place in the luxury segment is assured and BG Studio’s reputation is significantly enhanced – Bucci must be thrilled, “Our team at BG Studio is very proud of the design achievements on this particular project. Our client offered us a great design challenge that gave us the opportunity to express our talent at its best. We can’t thank Azamara Club Cruises enough!”

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