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31 Aug 2018

BY Tom Parry

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The TTG Interview: The new gem in Crystal Cruises' fleet

Crystal Cruises laid the keel for its first expedition yacht, Crystal Endeavor, in Germany last week. In his first UK interview, president and chief executive Tom Wolber speaks to Tom Parry about beating the competition, a new ship class and getting Angela Merkel into cruise

Tom Wolber .png

Angela Merkel fancies a cruise – and can you blame her? When the monotonous merry-go round of Brexit is finally over, you’d suspect even Europe’s most powerful politician might be itching for a change of scenery.

 

Her apparent vessel of choice for that getaway? Crystal Endeavor. “I’ve seen all the images and wish I could take a voyage,” the German chancellor announced wistfully during a visit to the MV Werften shipyard in the German town of Stralsund last week.

 

Most ship keel-layings aren’t typically attended by a country’s top politician, but the area happens to be Merkel’s political backyard (and the chancellor clearly happened to fancy a cruise). “We can build container ships, but Crystal Endeavor… an ice-going vessel that will take people to the most remote sites… I wish I could take a voyage on that vessel,” she announced to press and dignitaries via a translator.

 

Merkel’s appearance was brief – she arrived and was gone followed by her security entourage within minutes – but notable. The building of Crystal Cruises’ latest innovation, a 200-passenger expedition yacht, is big news for the north German shipyard, recently purchased by Crystal’s owner Genting Hong Kong.

 

 

World’s ‘most spacious’ expedition ship

World’s ‘most spacious’ expedition ship

It’s also big news for the line itself. The 100-suite Endeavor, set to explore the Russian Far East, the Great Barrier Reef and Antarctica from August 2020, is billed by the line as “the world’s largest and most spacious” purpose-built Polar-class ship, and new president and chief executive Tom Wolber is clearly relishing the challenge of introducing the new yacht brand to the market.

 

We meet post-ceremony for his first UK interview, feet away from the freshly laid keel of Crystal’s newest enterprise, which Wolber confidently tells me will take expedition cruising to “levels of luxury that aren’t yet available”.

 

No wonder the chancellor wants to secure her suite early. It’s a statement that’s also a less-than-subtle dig at the numerous competitor lines in the current crowded luxury expedition cruise space, many of which – including Scenic, Seabourn, Ponant and Celebrity Cruises – are also planning expansion and are set to debut new hardware in the coming years.

 

Wolber, who took the helm of Crystal Cruises last September, is frank in his analysis of the burgeoning marketplace. “Is it getting crowded? In the overall expedition sector, yes,” he muses, but he remains confident Crystal’s new vessel will stand out.

 

“If you compare us to the likes of Scenic and the others – yes, they are showing beautiful pictures. But if you go by the data, Endeavor will have by far the highest space-to-passenger ratio of any expedition ship. Look at the product onboard some of those more traditional vessels,” he adds. “That doesn’t come close to Crystal.”

 

To Wolber, the shipbuilding milestone for Endeavor heralds the “closing of a chapter” for Crystal, as well as the opening of “the next volume of the book”.

 

The chapter he refers to began in 2015 following Crystal’s acquisition by Genting. The $550 million deal fuelled a headline-stealing stage of expansion under Wolber’s predecessor Edie Rodriguez.

 

Multiple brands were launched in quick succession: Crystal Yacht Expedition Cruises (within which Endeavor will sit), a charter jet service, Crystal AirCruises and Crystal River Cruises.

 

Since then, some well-publicised deployment delays and Rodriguez’s departure has led to a change of course for Crystal towards a policy of “stabilisation”, steered by Wolber, a Dutchman who describes himself as “a pragmatist”. “That’s just my nature and how I have dealt with my entire career,” he explains.

 

Period of growth Crystal’s growth means the line now boasts five river ships, and more ocean vessels – including its “game-changing” Diamond class ship – are coming in 2022. Growth came “for a number of good strategic reasons” Wolber insists. However, he concedes the way it was rolled out “caused some anxiety and problems here and there”.

 

“When I came in, there were a lot of things in play and they were beautiful products – we just needed to figure them out and integrate them, and do that well,” he says.

 

Wolber, who spent almost 30 years in executive roles with the Walt Disney Company, including 10 as senior vice-president of operations at Disney Cruise Line, wasted no time in implementing his own, more conservative vision for Crystal, quickly decreasing the capacity for the Diamond-class ship – previously named Exclusive-class – from 1,000 to 800 passengers.

 

His self-assured demeanour suggests a quiet confidence. And a safe hand at the wheel is necessary, considering the waves being made in the luxury cruise sector over the past year – and not just by Crystal.

 

The most eye-catching move, I suggest, was Ritz-Carlton entering the cruise market – the brand announced plans for a fleet of yachts last summer. To my surprise, Wolber admits he is expecting to lose guests to the hotel group’s new venture.

 

“I’m not worried about [relinquishing guests to Ritz-Carlton] because it will happen,” he says frankly. “We have seen that before, with Silversea, with Regent – when they bring out new ships, we always lose a bunch of guests and they go and try the other lines. Let them go and try it – I dare them,” he adds with a smile. “I’m confident they will come back.

 

“More times than not, we see them come back to Crystal, and conversely we will bring out some new product, and cruisers from Silversea or Seabourn will [say], ‘We have got to try that.’ Then hopefully we will convert them. But if not, at least we got a cruise out of them,” he grins.

 

Wolber is similarly considered when it comes to Royal Caribbean Cruise Ltd’s surprise decision in June to take a majority stake in Silversea – a deal worth $1 billion – prompting a promise by Royal chairman Richard Fain to “accelerate” the luxury line’s fleet expansion.

 

In typical European fashion, Wolber merely shrugs when I ask if he is concerned by the move. “I wasn’t surprised,” he declares. “We’ve seen more and more of the independent players being consolidated into larger brands. It doesn’t make me nervous.”

 

He also seems sceptical of the Royal/Silversea merger, adding: “Take the hotel industry – you can be bought by a big player and all of a sudden start building 50 more Four Seasons properties, but you still need to fill them and you’re still not going to get the people who like to go to a W instead.”

Blue-water cruising

Blue-water cruising

With Endeavor on the way, it seems the line’s attention is on its traditional seafaring products. In addition to Crystal Endeavor and its two planned sister yachts, Crystal is also focused on its new Diamond-class vessels. “We are truly shifting it back to the blue-water cruising where it all started,” he says.

 

Wolber remains characteristically tight-lipped, though, on details of what Diamond-class will look like, revealing only that there are likely to be several ships built within it. “We designed Diamond-class to be a series, [so] there is going to be more than one, but we’re going to decide the timing based on the demand. The studies show the demand is there.

 

“We’ve got more people wanting to cruise with us than we have space for,” he adds, smiling, and apparently they include Europe’s most powerful leader. Better book quickly, Angela.

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