Celebrity Reflection Completes the Fleet

| 12.07.12

Celebrity Reflection tops off the Solstice-class, and gives Celebrity time for new goals.

Celebrity Reflection Debuts

As the fifth and final new ship of the Solstice class enters service, the management at Celebrity Cruises breathes a collective sigh of relief. Now that the shipbuilding focus is finally over, it is time to return the focus to the things that had made the company strong in the first place - a reputation among picky cruisers for a high quality and high value cruising.

Along with a new fleet, Celebrity also now has a new CEO that for the first time has been given the same style of autonomy that Celebrity, a unique and popular cruise line originally, had before it was acquired by the much larger Royal Caribbean Cruise Line.

It is important to look at the history of Celebrity Cruises to understand where it started, to see how it has now come almost full circle.

Celebrity was first started by John Chandris, a Greek hospitality entrepreneur who envisioned a cruise line with a difference. At the time Carnival was the industry heavy-weight, with Kathie Lee Gifford marketing its "fun ships" by singing "If You Could See Me Now." The runner-ups were Royal Caribbean and Norwegian Cruise Line. All three of them sailed from Miami to the Caribbean on glittery ships with lots of neon, expansive casinos and utilitarian staterooms that provided the bare minimum of comfort.

Chandris decided to build a cruise line that specialized in modern luxury; good food and attentive service. He took his service cues from some of the grander names in the ocean liner business; Cunard and P & O, but he added nouvelle cuisine designed by the Michelin-starred culinary icon Michel Roux, and he hired good looking European waiters to serve it. His shipboard wine and art collections were the envy of Bob Dickinson, the CEO of Carnival. All of the artwork was hand selected by Chandris' wife.

Soon, Celebrity was a popular cruise line solely by word of mouth - revered by regular east coast cruisers although many west coast dwellers and average Americans had hardly ever heard of them. They were in the same position that a cruise line like Oceania now finds itself.

But by June, 1997, it had become obvious that Celebrity Cruises didn't have the deep pockets or economy of scale required to keep the cruise line profitable. What it needed was a partnership with another cruise line where it could share the cost of certain operations.

At the time Celebrity only had four ships with another scheduled for delivery. Royal Caribbean paid $230 million in cash and some $270 million in stock for Celebrity shares, and assumed $800 million in debt. It issued 7.4 million shares of Royal Caribbean common stock as part of the deal, and said it might issue additional common stock before the close of the transaction to pay for the cash portion of the purchase price.

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Now Celebrity had someone to share the cost of provisioning, reservation management, distribution, etc. But while the economy of scale presented by its affiliation with Royal Caribbean proved positive on a cash-flow basis, the unique identity of Celebrity was usurped by the larger Royal Caribbean, especially after the sales and marketing of Celebrity became shared by Royal Caribbean. After many years it got to the point where customers were no longer specifically identified as Celebrity customers, but rather they were Royal Caribbean customers that were pushed into Celebrity as a more upscale version of the same company.

The New Celebrity Cruises

Now that Celebrity has finally completed the building program it started with Celebrity Solstice almost eight years ago, it is time for Celebrity to start focusing purely on brand image again.

Significantly - Celebrity now has a brand new CEO and President, Michael Bayley, who took over from Dan Hanrahan who came into the cruise business from outside the industry. Dan was considered a marketing and sales pro - but Celebrity has actually put a pretty significant drag on the stock performance of Royal Caribbean with decisions to place most of the fleet, especially four of the Solstice-class ships, in Europe in 2011 nd 2012. Strangely, that decision will be repeated in 2013 even though the situation there, if anything, has been deteriorating.

Michael Bayley mentioned aboard Reflection last week that it was too late to change that deployment since nearly half the cruises have already been sold. But he did suggest two things of significance, that he came from within the cruise industry, in operations at Royal caribbean for almost 30 years now, and because of that he believed Celebrity would become a more autonomous cruise line.

The good news is that Celebrity is about to begin planning for the second half of 2013 and beyond, and the new focus will be on a wider variety of seven day but open-jaw cruises. This means there will be a series of combinable itineraries world-wide. This is much more in keeping with what the top luxury cruise lines do.

Also expect to see a lot more bundling of options like drink and dinner packages, along with airfare, hotel and tour packages. If I had to guess, I would say that the new model for Celebrity marketing is the younger professional who enjoys cruise lines like Oceania.

Celebrity Reflection - A Name that Resonates

Now let's look more closely at the new ship. When the original Celebrity Solstice debuted in late 2008 it wowed us with its opulence and grandeur. But as the four planned sisters inevitably followed each one became even more beautiful and engaging. Naturally, it follows that number five, Reflection, has the best of everything the Solstice-class can offer. This was no accident; it was done by design by Celebrity Cruises. And in many cases the new and better features have been subsequently "rolled back" to the preceding ships.

Reflecting on the Solstice Class

As the best ships of a premium cruise line; Celebrity's Solstice-class is an important franchise in the cruise industry - among the most beautiful and capacious cruise ships ever built, with gourmet cuisine, sophisticated interiors, plush accommodations and quality entertainment, it's hard to pick a better cruises, especially with constantly varying itineraries in Europe, Asia, South America and the Caribbean.

Unique Reflection Attributes from the Top Down

As the fifth and final ship in the Solstice-class, Reflection has the best features. For example, Solstice was the first cruise ship to ever have a lawn of growing grass onboard, but somehow it felt superfluous - as if even the designers were not sure why it was there.

But the lawn on Reflection is integral to the experience. It is now surrounded by eight private cabanas available for private use any morning, afternoon or any entire day. You and your guests can enjoy the warm, tropical sun in comfy chairs and hammocks, add an iPad to enjoy pre-programmed music or surf the web, and order a picnic basket filled with "artisan" food items created by your choice of onboard restaurants, with a specially paired bottle of wine.

Nearby is the Lawn Club Grill, where guests select their own cuts of raw meat or vegetables and grill on their own, under the stars, and the supervision of an expert chef, of course. The food here is not only delicious, but the sounds and smell of the hot grill in the sea air make an unforgettable experience.

Around the corner is The Porch, a new bistro-style café with sandwiches and pastries, perfect for a fast but quiet al fresco lunch or nosh.

Inside Reflection

See the Celebrity Reflection photo album here.

As with all Solstice-class ships, the atrium is an open and soaring for the full height of 10 decks. A ride in one of the glass elevators from top to bottom has you passing through a series of rooms that appear like life-size diorama vignettes.

At the bottom is the three deck tall Atrium Lounge where the focal point is a stage for live music; soothing string quartets by day and South Beach-inspired DJ dance music at night. Moving up to deck six comes the Celebrity iLounge, essentially an Internet center but also as an Apple Store at sea where you can use the provided computers or buy an iPad or MacBook to access the ship-wide wireless Internet.

Next up, decks six and seven, give us The Hideaway, featuring two winsome wooden treehouse-like spheres each containing a cozy couch perfect for snuggling.

Deck eight brings "Game On," a brand new "card room" where all of the games are played on any of six "virtual" game tables.

Decks 10 and 11 comprise the Library, Deck 12 is the Spa Deck and the Pool Deck is at the top.

In the middle of this atrium on all five Solstice-class ships is an emblematic live tree that appears to be growing out of thin air, although there is actually a tiny conical planter to hold and feed it. Appropriately, only on Reflection does the bottom of this tiny planter have "roots" coming out of the bottom but they are not real. They are sculpted works of art that represent the "reflection" of the tree.

See the Celebrity Reflection photo album here.

New Suites on Reflection Only

Reflection has an added deck 14 for a larger spa and a collection of new suites behind a private access door. Most beautiful is the singular 1636-square foot "Reflections Suite" located in the forward port-side corner. It has the most conspicuously placed shower in the world, built like a lantern on a lighthouse to stick out of the front, topmost, left-hand corner with nothing but seawater below. On the inside the walls are clear glass - floor to ceiling - but from the outside they are opaque so no one can see in. Although I won't speculate on who will find this appealing, the illusion will be like taking a shower in full view of thousands of people.

Next door is a row of five Signature Suites, also new to the class, each one 441 square feet with a 118 square foot veranda. All suites come with an iPad to control the lights, television, stereo, etc. There is complimentary espresso coffee service and 24-hour in-suite dining upon request, plus bottles of vodka, scotch and mixers.

Another entirely new category of suites on Reflection only is the AquaClass Suites at 301 square feet, with a 79-square foot veranda. These suites come with access to the signature restaurant called "Blu," same as the AquaClass staterooms on all Solstice-class ships.

New Entertainment

While other cruise lines' newest ships now have real Broadway book shows (Royal Caribbean) or branded entertainment like Norwegian Epic's Blue Man Group or Carnival's "Hasbro Game Shows," Celebrity still shows more traditional cruise ship productions, but they are not cliché by any means.

The show format will appeal to many generations; "cirque" flying acrobats and contortionists set largely to music of the '80s and beyond. The band members are in fluorescent makeup and costumes and plays live rock and roll quite capably. The singers and dancers have costumes reminiscent of Kiss, Lady Gaga or Madonna.

See the Celebrity Reflection photo album here.

Other Notable Attractions

Some Reflection features are not new to the Solstice-class, but have been improved. Michael's Pub was originally themed as a "man's cigar bar" but now it's a "craft beer emporium" for everyone. It offers a huge selection of imported brews from France, Belgium, Britain, Germany and anywhere with a notable brand.

Another bar on every Solstice ship, but which was never more outstanding, is the Molecular Bar (Deck Five) featuring cocktails fashioned with liquid nitrogen so normally liquid or viscous ingredients can be frozen into place for an unusual taste sensation.

What Will No Longer Be

Finally, there is no more Quasar (Disco) on Reflection. That room on Solstice had huge white sofas and hanging egg-shell chairs. It is now a conference center with banquet facilities. Additionally, the formerly huge Observation Lounge is half the size on Reflection, with the other half given over to the new suites mentioned above.

Final Thoughts

Over the last few years Celebrity and its parent company (Royal Caribbean) has focused on replicating the best elements of individual ships on other ships. But it is always easiest to add features to a new design rather than to an existing structure, so while we have seen many of the announced "upgrade" programs to existing ships by several cruise lines moving forward more slowly than originally announced - Celebrity Reflection already has the best the Solstice-class has to offer.

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