From his humble Hawaiian beginnings to his now 10th year as Azamara’s president and chief executive, Larry Pimentel tells Tom Parry how he became known to the cruise world as “Luxury Larry”
Five-year-old Larry Pimentel would each month embark on far-flung journeys to some of the world’s most exotic destinations. From the endless Serengeti plains and the jungles of Borneo to the sapphire seas of the Seychelles, he was always accompanied by his doting grandmother.
It was from the family’s home on the island of Maui, Hawaii, that young Larry would explore the world, his eyes wide open with wonder as he watched his grandmother read National Geographic, every turn of the page a new destination for his imagination to play with.
“She loved it. I was too young to understand the articles but, my word, the pictures were amazing – big game in Africa, leopards and rhinos; I would always think to myself, ‘I need to go there’,” he smiles fondly.
With these earliest of memories, it is little wonder Pimentel has spent his time at the helm of Azamara – a decade as president and chief executive this month – striving to bring cruisers and non-cruisers “deeper” into the destinations they visit.
Last month, the line revealed the next step of its plans to “voyage beyond the sea”, debuting a new brand purpose, logo and name, shedding its “Club Cruises” moniker, while unveiling what Azamara claims to be the industry’s largest collection of pre- and post-cruise land experiences – comprising some 1,700 options.
It is a plan, given Pimentel’s passion, you suspect may have been more than 60 years in the making. Ahead of the announcement, we sit down to chat in a suite at the Ritz Carlton Central Park in New York, our lavish surroundings providing sweeping views of the city on a humid morning.
Pimentel, affectionately known as “Luxury Larry” among some in the trade, appreciates the finer things in travel after heading up some of the industry’s most high-end companies during his near 30-year cruise career – from Seabourn and Cunard to SeaDream Yacht Club, which he co-founded.
A world far away then from his childhood growing up among a “large, impoverished” family of Portuguese immigrants; his maternal grandmother had 14 children and paternal, 16. The humble family business consisted of farming Maui onions – sweeter than regular onions, without bringing a tear to your eye, Pimentel notes.
The family’s formative holidays during the 50s were taken “just down the road”, usually modest hiking trips. “The whole family couldn’t fit in the car to go anywhere further,” he explains.
His grandfather had sailed to Hawaii from Portugal on a Cunard liner, no less – “now that’s a fascinating story in itself” – later sending for his wife and settling in Maui.
Her influence on Pimentel’s outlook on life and interest in travel was “undeniable”, he reflects. “I was the baby of the family and, in Hawaiian culture, you spend a lot time on your grandmother’s knee.”
His grandmother would “talk story” to young Larry, the Hawaiian method of passing on teachings to their youth through spoken lessons. Her approach and Maui’s array of cultures – despite its size – saw his curiosity about the world grow.
“That love of diversity has enticed me my entire life – travel really is as a gift,” he says passionately. “With Azamara, we created a brand with a purpose. Yes, we have to make a profit, but that purpose of connecting people with other people, and people to places – that goes right back to my childhood.”
After moving with his parents and brother to California in his teens, Pimentel, inspired by his grandmother, became a teacher. But it was while heading up a high school history department in 1975 his business acumen shone through, organising summer tours to Europe for students using Laker Airways’ charter flights.
“I wanted to get the kids out of the classroom,” says Pimentel. “We went out to the entire school district with the idea. Every child the teachers booked would get them 10% off their own trip – get 10 kids and it was free a trip. We had hundreds of kids – seeing them light up in amazement everywhere we went was wonderful.
“All of a sudden, the whole thing became so massive I thought I better get into the travel industry – connecting people with places – that’s what got me on this journey.”
After spending the 80s in tour operating, Pimentel was approached by Carnival in the early 90s.
“They said: ‘We know you’re a tours guy but there’s this company called Seabourn and we think you’d be a great fit’, and I said: ‘What do I know about shipping?’,” Pimentel recalls.
As it transpired, a lack of cruise knowledge didn’t harm his prospects. In fact, his love of basketball might even have clinched the job during his interview with Carnival boss Micky Arison – who would later own the Miami Heat NBA team.
“It was the weirdest interview ever,” he recalls. “We spoke for an hour just about basketball. Micky’s business partner [Norwegian industrialist and Seabourn founder] Atle Brynestad said,
‘Aren’t you going to ask him any questions about the job?’.
“Micky turned to me and said, ‘Can you make us a profit?’ and I said, ‘Yeah, I think I can’. He replied: ‘I’ll make you wealthy if you do and fire you if you don’t. Any questions?’.”
Pimentel ran Seabourn from April 1992 and, when Carnival took over Cunard in 1998, he led both lines among other umbrella brands until leaving the company in 2001.
He recalls one of his “more interesting episodes” with what he describes as the “distinctly British” Cunard when he was “summoned” by the Queen to discuss plans for the delivery of Queen Mary 2.
“A lot of my British colleagues were nervous but I was more concerned about how you actually get into the palace – I mean, where’s the front door?” he chuckles. “As an American businessman, I couldn’t really understand why, as Cunard’s owners, we couldn’t do what we wanted, but my Brit colleagues said her majesty’s blessing would make things going forward easier. Plus, I could also ask her majesty to be the godmother, to which she agreed.”
It was during this period with Cunard the “Luxury Larry” title was bestowed by the UK travel trade, borne from Pimentel’s penchant for imparting tips to agents on how to sell to affluent clients. “I don’t have that nickname in any other part of the world which is fun – it feels very British.”
After leaving Carnival, Pimentel partnered with Brynestad to launch SeaDream in 2002. Together, he recalls, they had “the world’s smallest cruise ship” so instead branded themselves as having “the world’s largest yacht”. It was establishing this product that informed Pimentel’s love of small-ship cruising.
After seven years running SeaDream, and approaching 60, you might imagine he was ready to soon sail off into the sunset, but Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd boss Richard Fain had other ideas.
Azamara was launched in 2007 after RCCL acquired two 30,277-ton Renaissance R-class ships (Azamara Journey and Azamara Quest). Pimentel was brought onboard two years later to head up the line.
From trademarking his “Destination Immersion” concept – staying longer in port, more overnights and night touring – to growing Azamara to a three-ship fleet with the arrival
of Pursuit last August, and now boasting the “industry’s largest land offering”, Pimentel has been influential and, despite his decade-long tenure, feels like he is at the height of his powers.
So, could another decade be on the cards for Pimentel? “I have often thought ‘is it time to pass over the mantle?’,” he admits before changing tack. “But it’s too much fun. I enjoy watching us innovate and I do feel like a child constantly exploring.
“I think [the new land programme] is the most important announcement in our history. We are giving agents the opportunity to bring land lovers to a ship and give them the best of sea and land – that is one of the biggest opportunities.”
After all these years, Pimentel is clearly still as excited by travel’s possibilities as he was as a young boy, and has yet more journeys to make and destinations to discover.