By Paul Motter
In January I will have my first chance to try out the Azamara Quest - one of the original R-ships now part the of Azamara Cruises fleet, a subsidiary cruise line of Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd.
Azamara's vessels came from a small cruise line founded in 1989; Renaissance Cruises, that in the late 1990s agreed to build eight identical vessels in the Chantiers de L'Atlantique shipyard in St. Nazaire, France (now an STX shipyard) in a short two-year period financed by the French shipbuilder Alstom. R-One entered service in 1998 and R-Eight arrived in 2000.
In 1998 Renaissance was the first cruise line to focus hard on a new direct marketing option called "The Internet" which was so new that none of the major cruise lines even had a web site. I personally recall that CruiseMates was up and running before Carnival Cruises had its own web site, and other cruise lines as well.
Renaissance broke new ground by bringing the Internet into cruise sales and marketing. The line was CruiseMates' first advertiser in 1999. They even compiled a huge email list and sent out email offers regularly most cruise lines even considered this.
But many travel agents saw this direct sales approach as competitive to their own business, and they boycotted Renaissance. At the time they were strong enough to have an impact and Renaissance suffered. Today, every cruise line has a direct Internet sales strategy and there is next to nothing travel agents can do about it.
Renaissance innovated in other ways as well - some that were ingenious. One was to include transportation from the airport to the ship as part of the cruise package. This not only seemed like a brilliant service to the passengers, but it had practical applications to the cruise line. Each bus had a host who turned the "transfer" into a guided tour of the city. I still recall arriving in Istanbul and having the proverbial "Renaissance Man" at the airport. He made sure we all got our visas (at that time you could by Turkish visas right at the airport - $35 and good for 90 days), then he guided us through Turkish immigration and even carried all of our bags to the bus.
Once onboard he gave us a tour of Istanbul - guiding us past the Hagia Sophia and the Topkapi Palace. I later learned from a friend, (one of the original Renaissance Cruises executive board members, Richard Kirby) that this was his idea, and there were several unseen benefits.
First - it is rare for a cruiser to see the cruise departure city because most people arrive just in time to catch the ship before it sails. In our case it would have meant flying all the way to Istanbul and missing all of this famous city's attractions.
But the system also allowed the ship to coordinate the arrival times of passengers at the terminal. The guide would check in by radio, and bring the guests when the gangway was all clear. We were able to walk straight onto the ship. I still wonder now why more cruise lines don't do this.
Unfortunately, things did not end well for Renaissance Cruises. The line was forced into bankruptcy soon after the 9/11 tragedy, which scared many people from traveling - especially by air, which the line needed for its exotic itineraries. The line also owed a lot of money for the eight brand new ships.
Of the eight ships - three were eventually acquired by the former president of Renaissance, Frank Del Rio, who started Oceania Cruises. But it is important to note that Frank was not Chairman of the Board - the head decision maker at Renaissance. Frank learned from the mistakes of Renaissance, and started Oceania with a very different attitude towards travel agents.
Meanwhile - Royal Caribbean acquired two of the R-Ships and eventually created a new cruise line - Azamara Club Cruises - which I will be trying next month. The truth is that the success of Oceania has been the inspiration for Azamara Club Cruises, and comparisons are inevitable. Azamara has been recently reinvented by cruise industry veteran Larry Pimentel. It will be interesting to see where he has taken the line.
Finally, the last three R-ships now belong to Princess Cruise Line, remodeled to reflect the Princess fleet with their signature restaurants and staterooms, but sailing on more exotic itineraries.
Discuss Oceania Cruises - and Azamara Club Cruises.