How brands are setting new standards in luxury cruising

Rebecca Gibson asks six cruise executives how they are combining innovative ships, personalised services and exclusive experiences to ensure they remain at the forefront of the luxury sector

How brands are setting new standards in luxury cruising
Swan Hellenic, for example, aims to give guests a taste of adventure, while enabling them to relax in comfort and enjoy fine dining

Once the preserve of the wealthy, luxury cruises are becoming popular with a younger and wider demographic of travellers who want to explore the world’s most exclusive destinations and participate in unique experiences, all while sailing on upscale vessels staffed by crew members who will cater to their every need.

A growing number of cruise brands have entered both the luxury ocean and expedition cruise markets to satisfy this demand, but as competition grows, how can they differentiate themselves and position themselves as segment leaders? Six presidents and CEOs from some of the world’s most renowned luxury cruise brands share their insights in the following pages. 

Many brands describe their cruise product as luxurious, but what defines  
a true ‘luxury’ cruise experience? 

Michael Goh, president of Resorts World Cruises: To provide guests with a truly luxurious and memorable experience, our ‘software’ and ‘hardware’ offerings must equally complement one another. Hardware, such as accommodation, public spaces and dining venues, must be high-quality and exclusive. However, it’s a cruise line’s ability to understand guests on a personal level and offer a high degree of hospitality by paying attention to little details that will essentially create the overall luxurious cruise experience. 

Josh Leibowitz, president of Seabourn: Luxury clients want smaller ships with less people, no crowds, open tables (outside), and space to relax and enjoy themselves. However, a true luxury cruise is about so much more than just offering incredible accommodation and impeccable service, it’s also about developing an emotional connection with guests.  

Roberto Martinoli, president and CEO of Silversea Cruises: The term luxury is ever evolving and is essentially defined by those that are seeking it, so we must listen and respond to travellers’ needs and requirements as they change. Travellers in this segment now value experiences over commodities, and authenticity is the true currency of luxury. Consequently, it’s crucial to deliver convenient, highly personalised services and a comprehensive all-inclusive offering to ensure guests can focus on enjoying the experience and destination immersion. Nowadays, luxury also means having a broad variety of choices – from destinations to onboard restaurants and even a selection of pillows in suites.  

In terms of hardware and design, luxury is, in part, defined by quality and includes spacious accommodation, onboard facilities that enhance the journey, and design that connects travellers with the destination.  

Christopher Prelog, president of Windstar Cruises: For some guests, luxury is having the time, space and freedom to immerse themselves in a destination accessed via a well-appointed ship. For others, luxury is black tie dress codes and ballroom dancing. Windstar walks a fine line; we offer an upscale luxury experience on all six small ships, but we don’t provide formal nights or what some would describe as luxury elements. The biggest difference is that Windstar operates true small-ship cruises with 342 or fewer guests and delivers amazing food, a highly personalised and intuitive service from genuinely caring crew members who remember guest names and preferences, and a relaxed social ambience with like-minded travellers. Our sailings target customers who are seeking customisable, high-end experiences that allow local immersion. To us, that’s luxury.  

Douglas Prothero, CEO of The Ritz-Carlton Yacht Collection: A true luxury experience is centered around the customer and The Ritz-Carlton Yacht Collection focuses on three key elements: anticipatory service, product innovation, and highly customised voyages. Our goal was to create an experience that did not otherwise exist within the luxury cruising category. For Evrima, that means spacious all-suite accommodations, Michelin star-level dining, thoughtfully designed experiences both onboard and ashore, and the unparalleled service of The Ritz-Carlton brand. We’re uniquely positioned to stand out because of our intimate and modern ship design and itineraries designed with the yachting lifestyle in mind. 

Andrea Zito, CEO of Swan Hellenic: Luxury expedition cruise experiences should be authentic and truly enriching. Vessels should be of a high standard and have elegant indoor spaces with expansive panoramic windows and enormous open decks to enable people to fully immerse themselves in the destinations they’re visiting and capitalise on wildlife-spotting opportunities throughout their cruise.  

Why does your brand fit perfectly within this space?  

MG: Resorts World Cruises’ more than 50 years of affiliated experience in the hospitality and cruising industries and deep Asian heritage enables us to deliver a perfect balance of both elements for our guests at The Palace – a luxury ship-within-a ship private enclave. Palace guests enjoy a seamless experience throughout the entire voyage, as well as various all-suite accommodations, a 24-hour butler service and exclusive access to onboard dining experiences and restaurants, a private sundeck, gym, spa, pool and other facilities and amenities. What distinguishes us is that we offer a personalised lifestyle cruising experience, enhanced by our renowned Asian hospitality and service.  

JL: What sets Seabourn apart is how far we go to connect and provide special moments. We really want to care for, inspire and surprise those who travel with us, and we do that throughout the whole journey, whether that’s via our ‘Book With Confidence’ reassurance, or the incredible onshore and onboard experiences. The personal connection we can provide guests due to our generous staff ratios means that everything from a personalised kayak tour in the northernmost settlement on Earth to a cocktail party in a guest’s ocean-front suite is possible. It’s all about creating moments that enable our guests to live their best possible lives. That’s what true luxury travel means today. 

RM: Silversea offers an unrivalled level of comfort and luxury through our ships’ ocean-view suites, which boast one of the highest space-per-guest ratios, as well as our trademark hospitality, uncompromising service, around-the-clock dedicated butlers, and exquisite international cuisine. We excel at unlocking authentic and culturally enriching experiences in more than 900 destinations across all seven continents. For example, our S.A.L.T. programme enables guests to understand the soul of a destination through lectures, workshops, cooking classes in S.A.L.T. Lab, and locally inspired dishes and cocktails in the S.A.L.T. Kitchen and S.A.L.T. Bar. Meanwhile, our Otium wellness programme, which debuted on the new Silver Dawn, extends from guests’ suites to the spa and beyond, focusing on pampering and pleasure. 

CP: Three of our all-suite Star Class yachts – Star Breeze, Star Legend and Star Pride – fit very well within the luxury space. We recently lengthened and renovated these vessels, which now each have 50 new suites (bringing capacity to 312 guests), two speciality restaurants, a spa and fitness centre, more efficient engines, new suite bathrooms, and more. Luxury is a choice, so we also have traditional ships that offer a true sailing experience with both their own unique amenities and many of the same luxuries as our Star Class. 

DP: The Ritz-Carlton Yacht Collection is carving out its own space within the industry. Building our yachts from the ground up means we can truly tailor every element of the experience with our customers front of mind. The result includes some of the most spacious accommodations at sea, such as our two-storey Loft Suite, and thoughtful superyacht features, like our marina-style platform to provide easy access to various watersports while at anchor. We’ve placed significant emphasis on creating unique programming, such as our range of culinary experiences and our speciality restaurant S.E.A., designed by Chef Sven Elverfeld of Aqua, the three-Michelin-star restaurant at The Ritz-Carlton in Wolfsburg. We’re also focused on delivering extraordinary itineraries that provide an intimate look at each destination and its culture through one-of-a-kind onshore experiences.  

AZ: Swan Hellenic has intimate ships with elegant interiors and high-quality amenities, but it’s the personal touch our crew members provide that elevates the guest experience to a new level of luxury. Our crew befriend our guests, greeting them by name, remembering their favourite food and drinks, and providing customised services. Similarly, our onboard experts and expedition leaders work hard to create immersive and educational experiences that enable guests to gain deep insights into the history, nature or culture of the destinations they’re visiting. 

The small size of our ships also helps us to deliver a luxurious experience by allowing us to have one of the industry’s highest crew-to-guest ratios and the freedom to offer exclusive onshore experiences that would not be possible with larger groups. For example, we can land in restricted sites in Antarctica, which helps us to deliver once-in-a-lifetime moments to guests.  

How are guest expectations regarding luxury cruising changing? 

MG: Luxury cruising has changed, and we can’t apply one rule for all guests. Their expectations are becoming increasingly personalised and to truly capture the essence of a luxurious experience, we must get to know both our first-time and repeat guests. Luxurious hardware is expected but it’s the software (our hospitality service) that will have a lasting impression. Resorts World Cruises thrives on building that human connection with our guests and anticipating their needs.  

JL: Travel is still recovering after the pandemic and many of our guests are choosing to sail with Seabourn because they trust that we’ll put their safety first without compromising their experiences or comfort. Many guests want to make up for lost time and satisfy a craving for adventure, so they desire a deeper connection with nature and more intimate shore experiences. Our unique combination of ocean and expedition ships – the youngest in the industry – enable these experiences in a way that creates loyal guests and gives travel agents confidence to recommend Seabourn.  

RM: Ultra-luxury guests expect personalisation, seek transformative and immersive experiences, and desire rare and thought-provoking encounters in new and often remote destinations, but they don’t want to compromise on creature comforts. That’s why Silversea has invested in our industry-leading Antarctica cruise offering by acquiring Silver Endeavour, the most luxurious ship purpose built for polar exploration. It perfectly fulfils luxury travellers’ expectations, with technology that immerses them deep into the destination.  

We’re also recording a growing interest in extended voyages – our world cruises have virtually sold out until 2025.  

CP: All-inclusive vacations are now a luxury, so we let guests choose whether to go all-inclusive when they book their cruise or pay à la carte for items like cocktails and wine.  

Luxury guests also expect grander and longer cruises, so we’re offering an epic new 85-day ‘Grand European Bucket List’ cruise spanning 22 countries in the Baltic, Northern Atlantic, Mediterranean and Black Sea. It’s part of Windstar’s push to offer more luxury-focused experiences and satiate a travel-starved cruise audience ready to book a once-in-a-lifetime trip.  

DP: Today’s luxury customer aspires to collect meaningful stories and embraces travel as an opportunity to reconnect and be inspired. More value has been placed on thoughtful experiences that they cannot find anywhere else over material luxuries. We have this incredible opportunity to elevate the guest experience and provide our guests with transformational, personally fulfilling journeys. One way that we do this is through our Patron of the Arts programme, which welcomes artists, speakers and cultural contributors who reside in each destination to share their talents and insights onboard Evrima. We also offer a selection of exclusive experiences ashore within our Shore Collection programme, or guests can customise their own private tours with our Concierge Ashore.  

AZ: Once upon a time, luxury cruising was associated with the older generation who enjoyed gala dinners and traditional entertainment, but this perception is changing, especially on expedition ships as experiences and destinations become more innovative. We’re seeing increasing interest from younger passengers who want to explore destinations, cultures and our planet more deeply than ever before. Today’s luxury guests want to enjoy relaxed, yet high-quality, experiences, and they expect more choice, particularly when it comes to the dining experience. That’s why we’ve included three dining venues onboard our new SH Vega, all of which enable guests to enjoy different culinary experiences during their cruise.  

What initiatives have you implemented to ensure your brand remains a top choice for guests? 

MG: We’ll continue with what we do best, capitalising on our vast affiliated experience in Asian hospitality to enhance luxurious guest experience in The Palace on our ship Genting Dream. Our strategy is to position ourselves as the go-to brand for luxury cruising in Asia. We’ll also continue to work with our affiliated partners under the Resorts World brand, as well relevant travel and commercial partners to expand our database reach across the different markets in Asia.  

JL: Our new purpose-built expedition ships, Seabourn Venture and Seabourn Pursuit, will offer an unparalleled active luxury experience. The onboard amenities and innovations – including two submarines – are redefining the future of travel, not just cruise. These ships are designed to go anywhere in the world, with reinforced steel hulls to allow them to sail through ice 1.5 metres thick. However, the real measure of luxury service is that each ship will have 26 expedition teams members to serve just 264 guests in 132 suites – nearly one for every 10 guests. Each vessel will also have 24 Zodiacs so guests can experience landings wherever we sail, as well as kayaks, snorkelling and more. There are eight dining options and facilities such as the Bow Lounge, where live feeds of wildlife up to four nautical miles away can be projected on a big screen for the ultimate wildlife experience.  

RM: We’re observed growth in both segments, and we continue to innovate to remain at the forefront of these sectors. We’ve introduced four new ships since 2020 to enhance the range of options and experiences for our guests and invested heavily to strengthen our destination leadership. For example, we introduced our fly-cruise programme to provide the fastest, most direct route to Antarctica. Our guests can now fly over the Drake Passage in European business-class comfort, saving four days at sea on the roundtrip. This gives guests the luxury of choice, making it the most diverse offering in ultra-luxury Antarctica cruising.  

CP: We are expanding to the Red Sea and Persian Gulf to attract more of our customers who want to cruise in luxurious destinations with impressive Unesco sites, beautiful beaches, unique wildlife, top-rated golf courses, amazing snorkelling/diving, and great shopping. We’re excited to introduce guests to this region with Star Legend’s new itineraries in Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt, Oman, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Qatar, which begin in November 2023. 

DP: Our competition may not necessarily be another luxury cruise or expedition line, but rather an alternate travel experience such as a remote luxury resort onshore. We’re seeing that the experience offered by The Ritz-Carlton Yacht Collection appeals to existing Ritz-Carlton and other customers who would not consider a cruise but would entertain a highly curated yacht-style experience with The Ritz-Carlton. Hence, The Ritz-Carlton Yacht Collection will continue to offer a breadth of truly singular programming, access to some of the world’s most coveted destinations that larger ships cannot visit, and the legendary service of The Ritz-Carlton brand. This will ensure we set a new bar in luxury cruising, placing our brand in a league of its own. 

AZ: To ensure success, you must have high-quality hardware and for expedition vessels, high safety standards. This is why we are one of the few building our vessels according to Polar Code Class 5 and voluntary Safe Return to Port notations. Also, our vessels are among the more advanced due to their environmentally friendly technology, innovative designs and onboard amenities, such as the multifunctional observation lounge, spa and marina with Zodiac boats on the lower deck. In addition, we have the best team of people in the market, many of whom have 20-30 years of industry experience. They continuously strive to find new destinations and collaborate with local partners to deliver unparalleled onshore experiences. 

How do you predict the luxury cruising sector will evolve in the coming years? 

MG: We’re optimistic that the luxury cruising sector will continue to develop, especially in Asia. The Asian luxury travel industry has been growing at an unprecedented rate due to increasing spending power, a growing middle class, and a demand for private and exclusive spaces while on vacation. As such, the launch of Resorts World Cruises in Asia is timely and we’re in the right market to spur the growth of the region’s luxury cruise sector.  

JL: We’ll continue to see a trend towards guests wanting to visit open-air, nature-rich places and do things that no one else has ever done. To accommodate this, Seabourn is shifting deployments to take guests to remote areas like hidden Alaska, the Arctic, Iceland and Greenland. We’ve introduced once-in-a-lifetime experiences such as Northwest and Northeast passage crossings. Guests also want to go beyond typical touring and be highly active on vacation, so we’ve created expedition experiences to get them closer to nature and expanded our marina day operations to offer increased access to Zodiacs, paddleboards and kayaks.  

RM: The ultra-luxury travel industry and expedition segment will continue to grow, with the appeal of unique experiences motivating travellers to journey further afield and for longer. New players continuing to enter this market will contribute to this growth. 

Luxury travellers increasingly want to positively impact the people and places they visit, so I have no doubt that sustainability is the future of luxury travel. Together with Royal Caribbean Group, we’ll continue our long-standing commitment to build a more sustainable industry. Our newest vessel, Silver Nova, will be the first cruise ship to operate using a trio of power sources, including a fuel cell system, battery technology, and dual-fuel engines powered primarily by LNG. This pioneering vessel will introduce a new era of luxury cruising that prioritises sustainability, while enhancing the guest experience.  

CP: Cruising will be even more attractive to luxury travellers. Consider the current rates of luxury hotels, then add the costs of airfare and restaurant bills – nothing competes with luxury cruising from a value for money perspective, or from a product delivery and destination immersion standpoint. I predict that luxury, and particularly small-ship cruising, that takes guests off the beaten path is the future.  

DP: We’ll see several lines increase their capacity while maintaining an intimate ambience to meet market demands. Affluent cruisers will expect a more intimate atmosphere onboard and spacious accommodation. 

AZ: Luxury expedition cruising is a niche segment that is still in its infancy, but it’s growing rapidly and more operators are entering this market, mainly with larger ships. However, we believe there will still be a space for small-ship brands like Swan Hellenic that can offer immersive and personalised experiences and calls at remote destinations that are otherwise inaccessible.  

This article was first published in the 2022 Autumn/Winter issue of Cruise & Ferry Review. All information was correct at the time of printing, but may since have changed.   

Subscribe to Cruise & Ferry Review for FREE here to get the next issue delivered directly to your inbox or your door.

Share this story

Rebecca Gibson
By Rebecca Gibson
05 September 2022

Theme picker