How MJM Group is helping Azamara reshape its fleet

Azamara Club Cruises is to welcome Azamara Pursuit after a major refit by MJM Group in Northern Ireland. Jon Ingleton speaks with both companies’ leaders Larry Pimentel and Brian McConville to learn more

How MJM Group is helping Azamara reshape its fleet
Azamara Pursuit will offer itineraries in the Mediterranean and South America following her christening (Image: Azamara Club Cruises)
This article was first published in the Spring/Summer 2018 issue of the International Cruise & Ferry Review. All information was correct at the time of printing, but may since have changed.

For many in the cruise industry, the arrival of a third vessel to sail in Azamara Club Cruises’ fleet alongside sister ships Azamara Journey and Azamara Quest has been long overdue. I was in Norway with Mike Pawlus, Azamara’s director of strategic itinerary and destination planning, and other company executives last September when the news broke that the former P&O Cruises Adonia would be joining the Azamara fleet. His pure delight was infectious and in the following months, others at the company have expressed the same familial joy at celebrating the forthcoming arrival of their new ‘baby’.

What has engendered such passion across the whole company? CEO Larry Pimentel says: “It’s actually a very insightful question.” And there’s the answer – a great leader is generous with praise.

“Our staff, whether land-based or on our ships, love what they do,” Pimentel says. “I think it’s about building a culture around a certain value set, which for us, is to ensure that we satisfy guests profitably. If we find people doing the right things we thank them, rather than just looking out for the things that are being done incorrectly.”

It’s difficult to convey the tone of a conversation in written word, but when talking about the impending arrival of Azamara Pursuit, Pimentel’s ebullient mood is palpable. “To us Azamara Pursuit is a new ship and after she’s refurbished, she will definitely be a new ship.”

Azamara Pursuit started life 17 years ago with Renaissance Cruises as R Eight and has since spent time sailing for Swan Hellenic, Princess Cruises, P&O Cruises (twice) and Fathom. When she joins Azamara, she will finally be reunited with her sisters, R Six and R Seven, now Azamara Journey and Quest.

The big outfitting buzz came in January 2018 when Azamara awarded Northern Ireland based firm MJM Group total responsibility for the refurbishment of Azamara Pursuit, including the opportunity to select the shipyard. The project marks the first time a cruise brand has awarded complete project management responsibility to an individual organisation. MJM Group’s choice of Harland & Wolff in Belfast as the shipyard also makes it the first time a cruise ship has been refurbished in a UK dry dock for many years.

So, whose idea was it? “It wasn’t mine,” Pimentel admits.

Brian McConville, chairman and founder of MJM Group, can take a good chunk of the credit. “We’ve been broadly talking with Azamara’s parent brand Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. about this concept for three years,” he says. “It all started with the refits on Royal Caribbean’s Oasis and Allure ships – at the peak of these jobs we had 1,100 employees onboard the vessels. They were hugely successful projects for the Royal Caribbean refurbishment and revitalisation teams and the start of the drive towards this new challenge.”

McConville adds: “We’ve been going to Seatrade Cruise Global knocking on this door for six or seven years and then all of a sudden, for this concept, the door starts to open and here we are. It’s been a big step forward for the Royal Caribbean project team, and Larry too, for the company to say “yes, we are going to trust you with the entire job.

Azamara Cruises set a high quality benchmark with the 2016 refurbishment of Azamara Journey and Azamara Quest, so MJM Group will be obliged to maintain this standard of outfitting.

“Yes, it’s a big task,” says Pimentel. “In 30 years I’d say that Azamara Quest and Azamara Journey were perhaps the best outcome I’ve seen. I think that we have a very good plan and a magnificent outfitter – the best in the UK and one of the best in the world. I’ve seen a lot of MJM’s work and what the company produces is fantastic. Frankly my prediction is that the project will be ahead of schedule.”

McConville is equally confident in his team. “We are well organised and it’s a very manageable project,” he says. “We’re used to working on very tight timelines – we’ve worked on almost 50% of the cruise ships that are currently at sea, we’re very good at it.”

Pimentel expects the contract to be a game-changer. “This may be an historic pivot in the industry where all eyes are watching to see if this project succeeds,” he comments. “Normally as a brand CEO, I would tend towards internal newbuild and revitalisation teams, particularly because we have very sophisticated teams. So, this is a pivot towards an outfitter and what makes this interesting is not only the success that this will produce, but also that the pivot may be an opportunity for UK revitalisations to be a very big part of the future.”

When she comes out of Harland & Wolff in July following a landmark MJM Group-inspired revitalisation project, Azamara Pursuit will likely look forward to her best years in service – satisfying guests profitably. She will certainly be unconditionally loved by everyone at Azamara Cruises.

When Azamara’s guests start trying Azamara Pursuit out, Pimentel will be the first to know if adding a third ship was a successful business move. “We do studies of every cruise and between 44 and about 49% of guests respond – that’s a pretty good sample size,” he says. “I spend as much time on that as I do the monthly finances and it’s phenomenal how many guests say: “this is a happy crew”. What I look for is officer and crew engagement with our guests. If that score isn’t in the high 90s, I’m all over it because success is all about relationships between a customer and a client.”

Passenger ratings showing repeat percentages in the high 60s justify such scrutiny. “Our guests come for the destinations and they leave loving the crew,” says Pimentel. “That’s the secret sauce that makes the whole thing work.”

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Jon Ingleton
By Jon Ingleton
Tuesday, March 27, 2018