Thursday, 15 March 2012

Cruise Shipping Miami - Day Three

The best laid plans of mice and men…(are all filed away somewhere, as some wag once added). Yes, that preamble should alert readers to the fact that things didn’t quite work out as planned on the third day of the big annual cruise shindig here in Miami.

With an extra-early start thanks to the 8.30am press conference with Norwegian Cruise Line, our alarm went off not long after 6 and we were en route to Miami Beach Convention Center by 7.30. But it was worth it.

Norwegian were in fine form, led by their distinctive CEO Kevin Sheehan – who could not be less CEO-like if he tried, with his tie-less dress style and disarmingly direct approach – as they went through a range of exciting new design details of their forthcoming Norwegian Breakaway ship for 2013 (and sister Norwegian Getaway a year later).

Having already revealed several key features of the new vessel (notably the accommodations and enhancements to The Haven area), this was the turn of some key design innovations.

As a quick aside, this has now become the norm with cruise lines and their big, new ships – a constant drip-feed process of news and tidbits that is at once tantalizing and infuriating! It would be nice to get things in one, complete picture sometimes (albeit, that could induce indigestion in the case of the biggest ships as there is just SO much to discuss).

But back to Breakaway, which will also sail innovatively year-round from New York when she arrives.

The really fascinating aspect of this 140,000-ton vessel will be what they call 678 Ocean Drive, a complete makeover of the public decks 6, 7 and 8 to incorporate a major re-focus to connect passengers with the sea itself (the one thing which we felt was lacking on our recent Norwegian Epic cruise).

Instead of keeping those three decks focused entirely inwardly, Deck 8 will now have a complete inside/outside character, with the outside forming a new concept called The Waterfront (below) that provides a proper exterior promenade that links the interior features (bars, restaurants and lounges) with the outside deck.

This way, the likes of Maltings bar, the Cagney’s and Moderno restaurants, Shaker’s lounge and a new Gelato bar will all have an outside facet to their interior look, along with a brand new seafood-oriented restaurant, Ocean Blu, which will also have a Raw Bar and Sushi Bar.

As well as creating cruising’s first genuine exterior promenade for many years, this should give Breakaway an enhanced flow and energy, as well as a direct connection with the sea that many new-builds sorely lack. It is a bold and imaginative design, and it will need good weather to make it properly viable, but it should give Norwegian another unique feature to their big-ship style.

At the same time, this 678 Ocean Drive area will be a more coherent interior entertainment and relaxation space, featuring a unified vertical and horizontal design approach over the three decks.

The Manhattan Room – one of the two main dining rooms on Epic – will be a two-storey affair on Breakaway, while the Taste dining room will be split into two contrasting sections, Taste and Savor, with the new Mix Bar in the middle.

Knowing how vibrant and dramatic this space already is on Epic, it will definitely be exciting to see it enhanced in this way for the new vessel.

It was a good start to the day. We went straight from the press conference to a meeting with Nigel Lingard, the former Fred Olsen marketing supremo who is now a private consultant and working part-time for AD Cruising, specifically to help with the launch of their new MV Voyager for their Voyages of Discovery brand later this year.

The wonderfully personable long-time British cruise proponent was retired for all of three minutes (we reckon) before the entrepreneurial Roger Allard tempted him aboard, and he is also putting in a weekly shift for the Reader Offers group, ensuring his wealth of knowledge in the cruise business is not lost just yet.

Nigel admits he doesn’t miss the day-to-day stresses of booking loads and personnel worries (which are being made ever more burdensome by EU diktats), but is happy to still be involved with projects like bringing the newer sister ship to the MV Discovery into the market and giving the niche cruise line a significant boost in capacity.

The new Voyager will  give Voyages of Discovery a ship with single-seating dining for the first time and a slightly newer feel (she is currently the Alexander von Humbolt) and will give them chance to put Discovery in for a full dry-dock this winter.

Having caught up with a wealth of AD Cruising news (we also talked about the newly-refurbished Minerva of Swan Hellenic, with initial customer feedback “off the charts,” according to Nigel, and the unique Hebridean Princess), we suddenly found it was gone 10am, which meant we had missed the start of the day’s workshop forum on Luxury Cruising.

Bearing in mind we had been without internet the previous evening and this morning at our hotel, we deemed it prudent to get online for a little while and catch up with the inevitable email and Twitter work, which always seems to pile up at the drop of a hat.

We had hoped to be much more active on Twitter during the Conference, and we still hadn’t uploaded Day 2 of the blog, so we spent the next hour or so hammering away at our laptops (Cruise Shipping Miami is a two-person job, by the way, with so much to cover in just 4 days), and ensuring our online profiles were suitably updated.

By then it was almost mid-day and time for the latest round of press conferences. Susan was off to meet with Venice, the Falklands and Taiwan, while I had a rather promising – and rather exclusive – lunch date with Pierfrancesco Vago and the US sales team for MSC Cruises at the nearby Casa Tua restaurant.

The swanky setting of a genuine – and upscale – Italian restaurant was ideal for almost two hours of amicable banter with the MSC CEO and his team, including Rick Sasso, the former Celebrity Cruises marketing chief, who I hadn’t met for about 15 years!

It was also a great opportunity to get some more detail on this week’s news about the order for a fourth ship in their Fantasia class, which had originally been ordered from STX in France by a Libyan concern but had fallen into a buyer’s abyss only to be picked up (at a real bargain price) by MSC on Monday.

With MSC Divina due out in May, this will give the go-ahead line a remarkably modern and capacious fleet, and four vessels all with the distinctive MSC Yacht Club ship-within-a-ship design. We hope to see more of this in due course. Vago also let the cat out of the bag (slightly) by saying that one of the Fantasia class will be positioned to Florida for winter 2013. We can’t wait!

We also discussed how the booming Brazilian market is attracting more and more cruise traffic (including no less than five ships from MSC), how some proposed European tax regulations are a major red flag to all cruise operators – and how New Yorker Sasso is actually more Italian than his Italian colleagues with his ability to talk so passionately and enthusiastically about his subject.

By now it was almost 3pm (those Italians do know how to how a good lunch!) and Susan was seriously wondering where I had got to as she patrolled the exhibition floor. Thankfully, we hooked up straight away and made a concerted charge on a number of exhibitors, including the wonderful discovery of the Canadian port of Gaspe.

This small former fishing town at the mouth of the St Lawrence Seaway is rapidly becoming the ‘not-so-secret’ destination for autumn cruises in Canada/New England as it offers a convenient stopping point between Quebec City and Halifax, Nova Scotia. It is impossibly scenic and charmingly small-scale but offers great wildlife, scenery and activities, and, at long last, an alternative to the dull two-day cruising between Quebec and Halifax. Expect to read more in the magazine soon.

Other ‘destinations of interest’ included St Kitts, the Turks & Caicos Islands, Korea, Alaska and Malta/Valletta, and we plan more destination visits tomorrow.

Stay tuned now….