Windstar Cruises began its fleet expansion in early May in Barcelona when Star Pride (ex-Seabourn Pride) became the first ‘power’ yacht in the fleet. In May 2015 Star Breeze joins the three ‘sail’ yachts, to be shortly followed by Star Legend. At that stage Windstar Cruises will become a six-ship brand with 1,242 lower berths carrying about 60,000 passengers a year.
CEO Hans Birkholz is clearly upbeat about doubling the fleet and sees advantages in adding the new vessels. “The three ships mean we can broaden the places that we can go to. Also, because they do not have masts, it allows us to do itineraries that we could not before because of the bridges.” Here he refers to the example of the Venetian Passageways.
Generally it means the company can further expand in places like Asia, the North Sea, the Norwegian Coast and Iceland, but also go to new places. For example: “We can now do Tahiti without sacrificing capacity in the Greek isles.” An extra benefit is that the sail yachts can be deployed in the ECAs. “We put Wind Surf in the Baltic and have the power yachts out of other places.”
He is realistic but bullish about the company’s future. “We have had four years of double-digit growth in terms of revenue,” he says. “It is an exciting and growing product. We believe that the concept of an intimate yacht-style cruise has legs well beyond six ships. Not just 5-10% growth but bigger numbers.”
He adds that he will be developing the line’s operations prudently. “As we come up against capacity constraints, we will find ways of growing the business. It is a great product. Guests are responding by choosing Windstar. I think there is nothing but growth ahead of us.”
When asked about possible newbuildings, he says: “If it becomes economic to build our own yachts we will do it. It is all about revenue and profit per bed and at the moment the economics of that are not very positive when it comes to newbuilds of small yachts.”
As is the case with so many in the industry, it is all about reducing the cost of the ship or enhancing the product so that people are willing to pay higher prices for it. “Obviously we would like to provide a product where people pay more,” he says. “Our guests have a lot of choice. It is a very competitive market. We think we offer great value right now and I like to think we will do that next year.”
The environment is high on the agenda and continuous work is in progress. “We are always thinking green – how can we reduce our environmental footprint?” As all the yachts are small the footprint is not that big but marine gas oil is burned on the sail yachts. Birkholz comments: “Currently we know the sailing yachts better than we know power but as we get to know them we will be looking at ways to get more green. We have always been looking at – and will continue to look at – energy consumption.”
Expanding the fleet brings benefits. “From an operations perspective, the biggest thing is the enormous amount of opportunity for existing staff and that new people are joining the staff. We need to find great people to work at Windstar.” The company has its own recruiting efforts in the US, but also works with Viking Recruitment in Dover, UK, and manning agents in the Philippines and Indonesia.
“We recruit competent technical and nautical crew through Viking. We don’t really anticipate any issues in that respect,” he comments. “We have a lot of skilled folk already and some have moved to Star Pride, for example the captain and chief engineer. We have a very competent team at Windstar and the addition of Star Pride has not provided any technical challenges that we could not surmount.”
When a new vessel is introduced, 70% of the crew come from existing Windstar personnel. “We have a team that is experienced, that can go on a new vessel and quickly know how that particular ship operates,” he explains.
With the core of Windstar Cruises being a private-yacht experience, “genuine care from the staff” is just one of the tenets of the company’s philosophy. An intimate atmosphere and unique itineraries are others – the latter being the number one reason for guests choosing to cruise with the company.
For Birkholz the three new ships “fit perfectly into what Windstar Cruises is all about”. When it comes to how the new arrivals will sit with the brand’s iconic sailing vessels, he says: “Obviously the sails are very visible and a part of the experience but they are supporting the intimate yacht-style experience.”
The arrival of Star Pride is attracting bookings from Windstar repeaters as well as new-to-Windstar guests. “The reality is that whether the cruise is full of repeaters or first-timers, it is about the destination. On European itineraries there is a higher percentage of repeaters. It really depends on where the yachts are going.”
Bookings for the new ship are “absolutely terrific” and for the fleet “fabulous” according to Birkholz, who says: “One of the reasons we bought the three ships was because we were running out of space.” Of those sailing, 80% are North Americans with the UK, Australia and Brazil being the next-largest source markets. The focus is still North America and English-speaking markets with travel agency relationships developing globally.
The Windstar Academy is all about ensuring that travel agents are confident when talking about Windstar. “It is part of our ongoing support to travel agencies who are excited about selling Windstar,” says Birkholz. “The key reason is to give travel agencies a resource so they can become better representatives of the Windstar experience and provide correct information – and so guests can make informed choices.” The company is also running webinars, a familiarisation programme and one-on-one support if agents ask for it.
In all, taking on the three ships has breathed new life into the business, as Birkholz comments: “The team is energised, looking at opportunities. It is a vibrant can-do atmosphere which makes it a terrific place to be right now.”
This article appeared in the Autumn/Winter 2014 edition of International Cruise & Ferry Review. To read other articles, you can subscribe to the magazine in printed or digital formats.
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