Saturday, March 20, 2010

Azamara Club Cruises Focuses on Exotic Destinations

Sun Sentinel

Cruise line changes its name, raises fares to include certain beverages and services

Mega cruise ships carrying thousands of passengers and offering extreme sports are all the rage, but they are not everyone's idea of a good time.

Some passengers are turned off by big ships. They have no interest in exploring crowded Caribbean ports, surfing on a Flow rider or dining at an all-you-can-eat buffet.

Azamara Club Cruises is the latest company to go after older, affluent travelers who favor exotic port destinations and require all of the comforts of a boutique hotel.

"When you're a small ship you can get to places the big ships can't go," Azamara CEO Larry Pimentel said.

Other cruise lines, including Oceania Cruises, Regent Seven Seas Cruises and Silversea Cruises specialize in small-ship cruising with a high level of service, including a butler who will cater to passengers' personal tastes.

Started in 2007, Azamara has two ships — the Journey and the Quest. In December, the company changed its name from Azamara Cruises to reflect the club-like atmosphere passengers will find onboard, Pimentel said.

The company's new direction hinges on what Pimentel calls "destination immersion."

"We're doing more overnights and longer stays," in ports of call, he said. Giving guests two, sometimes even three, consecutive days to tour cities will position Azamara to rival land-based tour companies, Pimentel added.

There's also an increased focus on offering tour excursions that passengers may not find on other lines, such as a Ferrari driving tour in Italy.

And starting next month, many amenities will be included within cruise fares, such as a lunch and dinner wine selection, in-cabin dining, gratuities, and shuttle buses to city centers in port.

Cruise fares average about $250 per person per day, with most itineraries ranging from seven to 14 nights.

To adjust for the now-included products and services, Pimentel said the company raised cruise fares about 24 percent over a 12-week period, a move met with criticism from some passengers and travel agents.

"The new price increases do not equate with the extras offered," said a member, known as frontrow487, on an Internet message board. "We feel priced out and wish you had kept the status quo."

Pimentel responded to the complaint during a recent Question and Answer forum he hosted on, a website for passengers, saying, "We regularly look at the pricing offered by our competitive set, and think Azamara Club Cruises represents an excellent value, which we find vital to retaining our valued guests."

Azamara Cruise Lines differs from some of its established competitors. It has fewer ships in its fleet. In many cases, rival lines visit more obscure ports of call and offer world cruise itineraries that give passengers the option of sailing for months at a time.

Pimentel says there's enough room in the small-ship market for one more. "We don't all go to the same destinations at the same time," he said.

What makes Azamara different, he says, is that "It's a little bit of a secret, and it's a newer line."