Larry Pimentel - Cruise Chief Extraordinaire

| May 17, 2010

The new president of Azamara Club Cruises, Larry Pimentel, shares his philosophy and stories.

One of the highlight cruise industry events every year is the "State of the Industry" conference at the annual Seatrade cruise shipping convention in Miami. It's a chance for cruise line executives to show us why they deserve to head up these mega-billion dollar corporations. Over my years as a cruise reporter I have discovered a wide cross section of cruise line executive personalities, but a rare few stand out as vastly original thinkers - people who not only see beyond the surface to distill reality, but they aren't afraid to speak their minds about what they see.

One of these rare people is Larry Pimentel, currently the president of Azamara Club Cruises, a subsidiary of Royal Caribbean International. Larry has already had a distinguished career in the cruise industry, even if it is not as long as many other cruise executives, most likely because he is not afraid to speak up when he sees something that isn't right. And so I was delighted to have the chance to interview him last week.

Larry is a "stream of consciousness" thinker and talker, and so the rest of this article is in Larry's own words, as I heard him say them to me:

Larry Pimentel:

I was drawn into the cruise business by Bob Dickinson (prior president of Carnival Cruise Lines for over 20 years, retired in 2007). Bob sat on some of the same travel industry panels as I did, such as ICTA and AFTA; basically venues for suppliers to educate travel agents on their products.

Year after year Bob would say to me, "Larry, you have one of the most fertile minds in the travel industry, but you're in the wrong business." Now, I didn't take him seriously because I was already deeply involved as a partner in a large luxury travel specialist, Classic Custom Vacations, eventually acquired by Expedia.

But Bob was indefatigable; it was obvious he wanted to recruit me. One day (1992) Bob called and said "I have the perfect position for you." I really was not interested in making the kind of major lifestyle changes I expected his offer to entail, but he wanted me to meet with Micky Arison and a Norwegian named Atle Byrnestad.

"We are buying Seabourn Cruises," Dickinson continued, "and we want you as our president ."

[In fact, Carnival was only buying a 25% stake, but they would eventually buy the entire company.]

"But I don't know anything about cruising," I told Bob, even though I was living in San Francisco at the time and my first wife worked for Royal Viking, the original luxury cruise line.

"I can teach you cruising," Bob replied, "what we need is a luxury expert, Carnival is a mainstream cruise line and we have never been in this area before."

So I agreed to meet with Bob, Micky Arison and Atle Byrnestad on a Seabourn cruise and I saw things I never realized a cruise could offer, like inclusiveness and very individualized service. I realized that the challenge was in making travel agents understand how Seabourn was unique. They had to be educated in how to differentiate it from other cruise experiences.

As I met the guests onboard I realized it was more like a family. When I asked where they had heard about Seabourn the common answer was almost "word of mouth." Many of them mentioned clubs they belonged to - country clubs, yachting clubs, etc. I felt like I knew exactly how to sell this idea, and so I took the job - which involved a move to Miami, by the way.

Six years later, 1998, Carnival decided to acquire Cunard Line. By now I was ensconced in the world of cruising and I loved everything about it, so to be involved with Cunard - with one of the most significant histories in the world of passenger ships - was a real joy for me.

I found the tradition of ocean liners to be a real inspiration - I loved everything about the history of these vessels. I was made president of the line and I was in awe just thinking that my parents were humble immigrants who had come to America on a Cunard vessel. Now here was I, president of the same company.

A number of unusual ships came with the Cunard purchase including the Vistafjord and the old Royal Viking Sun. These were classic ships when they were built, but they were getting older. In addition, they were crewed by their original Norwegian officers. So, at the time we had Greek ships, Norwegian ships and British ships. We also had global offices.

Much of my job had to do with consolidating the cruise line and putting all the operations under the Carnival Corp. umbrella. But the most striking thing about Cunard was my first exposure to the "class system" they had onboard the Queen Elizabeth 2.

Observing the class system taught me how the perception of a single vessel can be completely different for guests experiencing a different set of circumstances. This is where I really started to understand the nuance of cruise ship service.

The greatest honor, though, was to play a part in designing the Queen Mary 2, the biggest ocean liner ever and one of the most significant passenger vessels in world history.

Unfortunately, certain life events unfolded right at this time and in 2000 I found myself needing to take personal time so I left the Cunard position in February 2001 - before the QM2 was launched.

Soon I was contacted by Arthur Taulk, of Taulk Tours, who was thinking about buying the famous yacht once owned by Aristotle Onassis, the Christina O, named after Ari's daughter. Onassis had purchased it for $34,000 but put $4,000,000 into refurbishing it. We spent quite awhile looking her over and thinking about it, but it only held 20 guests, so it did not seem practical as a business.

[Note: the refurbishments Onassis added include a swimming pool with a mosaic floor that rises to become a dance floor, a helipad and barstools in Ari's Bar upholstered with the very soft, fine leather foreskin of a minke whale.]

But I was once again intrigued by the yacht concept and right then I was contacted by Atle Byrnestad once again. His new idea was to purchase two of the smaller 100-passenger yachts of Seabourn, the Sea Goddess I and Sea Goddess II, and start a new company. I joined him as a co-owner in SeaDream Yacht Club and stayed until January 2009.

It was just three months later that I got a phone call from Richard Fain, CEO of Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd, the parent company of Royal Caribbean, Celebrity, Azamara and some European cruise lines. He asked me to come aboard as the president of Azamara Cruises which was just a piece of Celebrity Cruises at the time. I told Richard I wanted to take a look at the ships before I decided. "Fine, I'll get you aboard one of them right away," Richard offered.

"No, I am going to book the cruise and pay for it myself. I am going to see how the agents present it to me, and I am going to sail anonymously to really experience it. Then I will let you know what I think."

When I boarded for my Venice to Rome cruise I found that things had not changed much since it was a Renaissance R-ship. I noticed some things that just didn't add up; for example, nearly half the clientele was European but the gym lockers required quarters. No one carries quarters on a cruise ship, especially not Europeans. To summarize, I would just say there seemed to be a lack of awareness on the ship, no real focus or identity on what they were trying to offer.

So I took the job, and I decided my goal was to create an Azamara identity, where people would leave with a distinct and cohesive impression of the cruise, enough to generate a word of mouth reputation - very similar to what I saw with my first Seabourn experience.

To create that inclusive feeling I decided we needed a new level of service - to really make people feel special.

I decided to add the gratuities into the tariff. I don't want people to worry about tipping their servers. I also wanted the servers to know they will be paid for every cruiser and step up their service efforts.

We have added shuttle busses. I had noticed that almost every passenger wanted to go to the same place at most ports of call, so I thought, "We should make this a seamless part of the experience."

We added drinks to the cruise package; bottled water, soda and wine with dinner. For the wine we decided to seek out unusual "boutique" wines that you can't buy at your local store. We now feature them with a different wine experience every night - pairing with the dinner entrees, of course.

And I realized most of the people onboard were there for the destinations, so I decided to give them more in terms of port experiences. Differentiating ports is tricky because they are similar no matter what vessel you arrive upon, but we decided to give our passengers longer stays so they can experience the nightlife.

[A look at the June 2011 Black Sea cruise shows departures in Odessa, Ukraine at midnight; Sevastopol at 10:00 pm and Mykonos at 9:00 pm. The Baltic cruise shows three full days in St Petersburg, Russia, arriving at 8:00 am Friday morning and sailing Sunday night at 5:00 pm. The Warnemunde stop for Berlin includes an overnight stay arriving Sunday at 7:00 am and leaving Monday at 8:00 pm. This will allow you to go the Berlin and spend the night for two full days of touring. This is the stay in Berlin I have ever seen a cruise offer. - ed.]

And, as you know, we changed the name to Azamara "Club" Cruises. This is to reinforce the idea of belonging to the experience of sailing on our cruise line. Richard Fain was a little puzzled by the idea at first, but he went along and said "If that is what you think we need to do, then we will do it."

What is the result? Fantastic. Of course word of mouth takes time, but because the changes are all in place we can already gauge the results and our guests are giving us far higher ratings than we ever had before. In a recent survey Azamara registered the biggest increase in satisfaction ratings of any cruise line, and we rated nearly at the top of all cruise lines for satisfaction; where 300 is perfect we hit 288 to 291.

Our demographic has gotten younger as we added more trips. We discovered that while younger people have the desire to travel they often don't have the time, so we have more seven day cruises, but we don't repeat itineraries back to back so you can stay on longer if you want.

While you would think our competition is the other former R-ships, in fact we are seeing people coming from the luxury lines like Regent, Crystal and yes, Seabourn. Right now our passenger mix is largely European and we expect that will continue although this economy is a bit unpredictable in Europe right now.

By the way - the happiest people are the travel agents. Because we have included so much in the cruise tariffs they now get a commission on everything we include; gratuities, wine, shuttle busses, etc. We can also offer great air service through the Royal Caribbean Choice Air program.

Here are the offers from Azamara, good through June 30th, 2010:

  • Book your 2010 European Voyage by June 30, 2010 to Enjoy these Special Offers:
  • $500 Onboard Spending Credit per booking
  • $500 ChoiceAir Credit per person
  • 2-for-1 Fares on all sailings through March 2011 regardless of booking date

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