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Ship Within a Ship

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The trend in mass market cruising these days seems to be going back to the old-style class system of cruising, where the passengers onboard the same ship can receive entirely different cruise experiences based upon what they are willing to pay. 

In the days of ocean liners, the more you paid for a stateroom, the higher the quality of your shipboard experience.  Cunard, for its 140-year history, has always divided its dining venues by  “class,” with only the most expensive staterooms having the privilege of dining in the famed Queen’s Grill.  While “lesser” passengers dined in the traditional fixed seating dining room, passengers qualifying for dining in the Queen’s Grill enjoyed tableside food preparation, a much wider variety of dining choices, higher quality food and far more personalized service. For the record, the newer “Princess Grill” restaurant category was not created until the newer Cunard ships were built, beginning with Queen Mary 2.

While Cunard has been at the forefront of this class system of ocean vessels for years, it seems that especially as of late, other cruise lines are jumping on the bandwagon.  Celebrity Solstice, for example, offers the separate dining venue, “Blu,” exclusively for those booked in the AquaClass cabin category. Other cruise lines have recently added “exclusive access” areas onboard ships that are only open to those who either book a certain category of cabin category or are willing to pay a premium for access.  

Examples of this include NCL’s Garden Villas that come with access to a special outdoor deck area that contains a variety of special pool and sundeck amenities and services.  Also, Holland America has long been known for their Neptune Lounge, a special enclave open only to the highest level suite categories on the ship.  Guests staying in those suites have access to concierge service and a host of other exclusive “perks.” These include priority embarkation and tender service, as well as first dibs on those often coveted tables for two in the dining room.

Spa decks, too, have been created on several mass market lines.  On Holland America’s first Signature Class vessel, the m.s. Eurodam, a group of “spa” level cabins entitle the guest to various perks such as a spacious cabin in a relaxing color scheme, complete with use of a yoga mat, iPod docking station and flavored waters.  They also can use a special “spa concierge” who can assist them with bookingpriority access  spa appointments. 

Princess has long had its “Serenity,” adults only retreat area, which passengers in any cabin category can access if they are willing to pay the daily fee.  Holland America does something similar with their hydrotherapy pool by offering both daily and cruise-long rates.

Are these special access perks the beginning of something bigger?  Are they a good trend or a bad one?  Do they represent a move to set apart certain passengers from the flock, giving them exclusive access to certain areas of the ship that were once the province of all?  Well, I don’t know.  You tell me.

Proponents of the “ship within a ship” concept think it offers greater flexibility in customizing the cruise experience.  Maybe they are healthy lifestyle addicts who want to ensure they keep up their healthy lifestyle while onboard.  offered there.  They have priority for booking Spa appointments which ensures they will get serviced no matter what happens.  Their access to a spa-type deck allows them unimpeded access to all the various treatments, healthy snacks and fruit drinks, while also serving to provide a relaxing environment away from all the hustle and bustle of a crowded ship.

Detractors say that the “ship within a ship” concept only serves to take things away from passengers not willing or able to pay top dollar for their accommodations.  While they enjoyed the use of certain facilities, such as open decks, those same areas are now being done away with in order to make room for the exclusive ones.  While those same passengers never had a problem before getting a spa appointment on a sea day, now they are often being forced to take their treatments at less desirable times.  Why?  Because the spa deck passengers have booked up all of the preferred ones.  While those passengers never had much of a problem before getting a deck chair reasonably close to the pool, today it is impossible because there are far less loungers.  The space many of them have formerly occupied has been taken up with private deck cabanas, such as on Holland America’s Eurodam.  Want a cabana?  Pay the price.  Otherwise, fight everyone else, including the “chair hogs” for what few loungers remain.

And the critics point out other problems too.  Let’s take dining for example.  Passengers staying in full service suites on some cruise lines, such as Holland America, have first choice for the most desired dining arrangements.  Where in the past you could book your cruise a year or so in advance and be reasonably assured of getting your preference; i.e., a table for two, fixed versus flexible dining, etc., now booking early offers no guarantees.  If the passengers in suites on your sailing happen to all favor smaller tables in traditional dining, you’re going to either have to take a dining time not to your liking, a larger group table, or maybe even switch from traditional to flexible dining — something you’d rather not do.

Another area of concern regarding dining is the move toward lots of premium dining venues onboard many mass market cruise ships.  NCL is a pioneer in this area, with a wide variety of dining choices being offered to their passengers.  While a limited number of them will be no-extra-charge venues, most of them are not.  While the premium dining venues are open to any passenger willing to pay the extra charge to dine there, where does that leave the passenger who either can’t or won’t pay an extra tariff for dining.  “Hey, I thought food was included in the cost of my cruise!”  Well, yes, it is … to a point.  Does the addition of premium restaurants onboard lead to a decline in the quality of the food offered without extra charge?  Some people feel it does and several reviews of NCL ships, on both CruiseMates and other cruise sites, point out this fact, often loudly.  One woman claimed that the lines to get into the included restaurants often forced them to opt for an extra charge one.  Another reviewer lamented that if she and her family of four wanted a decent meal onboard, they were forced to dine in one of the premium restaurants at a charge of a hundred dollars or more for the four of them.  The reviewer claimed that the food in the regular restaurants was almost inedible.  Another reviewer told of spending $400 over the course of the week, just on premium dining venues.  So, it appears these people certainly have a point.

Other public areas of the ship can be affected, too.  If a cruise line has decided to set aside more space for the spa, a traditionally high revenue producer onboard most ships, they’ve got to take that space from someplace else.  Usually that place will be the gym or perhaps another public venue high atop the ship.  This means that a favorite viewing area once very popular for sailaway parties is now much smaller, though having to accommodate the same number of passengers.  Folks wanting to enjoy their daily workout will find longer waits for the various pieces of equipment in the gym because the smaller gym cannot accommodate the quantity of equipment that was once there.

Do these drawbacks mean that the “ship within a ship” concept cannot work?  Can cruise lines only offer customized experiences to the guests willing to pay for them — at the expense of the passenger who just want a relaxing cruise with no extra charges?  I guess it depends on the cruise line and on the ship.  When cruise lines build a new ship, they can design for all of these areas.  If they do it right, there is plenty of room to house all of the extra venues, while keeping public space available to all at an acceptable level.  But when they are trying to “retrofit” an existing ship, there is only so much space to play with.  Add ten luxury cabins here and you have to take the space from somewhere.  Expand the spa, and something else will have to give.  Even with new builds, there can be problems.  Fail to take into account an emerging trend, such as a new style of restaurant that is becoming very popular, and adding it towards the end of the build process can result in the space being taken from somewhere else.  Cruise line executives almost need to be psychic to project everything they need to include in a new ship that won’t be built for several years yet.

Cruise lines need to stay competitive, but can  the “ship within a ship” concept work without angering the folks who just want a relaxing and fun getaway at a reasonable price?  I think it can, but you may feel differently.

How about offering customized “experiences” instead?  Customized entertainment, lecture series offerings, learning experiences and the like?  Of course these would all be at extra charge, but would be offered in addition to what’s currently available.  How about “theming” cruises with popular offerings and then charging a package price for the passenger wishing to participate.  Maybe a series of lectures on a popular topic such as scrapbooking, supplemented with hands-on classes where the participants can get one-on-one help in preparing their scrapbook pages.  Or, for the chamber music enthusiast, how about bringing aboard some well-known artists and offering a series of caberet-style shows using a lounge venue that can easily be closed off without impacting the rest of the passengers?  The shows would be offered exclusively for participants, who would perhaps be issued badges for the themed events.  Not only would they have their shows, but perhaps a lecture series about the genre as well.

The list could go on and on.  Some of these things have been done on the luxury cruise lines for years.  On the mass market ones they would come at an extra price, but would be far, far superior to what’s traditionally been offered in the way of “enrichment.”  Golf-themed cruises taking place on a ship having the facilities to run golf clinics.  Participants would pay an “all inclusive” fee.  This fee would cover onboard clinics and practice sessions, as well as a lecture series and pre-reserved escorted golfing excursions in the ports of call.  The same sorts of programs could be offered for diving enthusiasts as well as a whole range of other popular pursuits such as photography, computers, and other hobbies.

These things too can be great revenue producers for the cruise lines if the cruise lines jumped on the bandwagon by creating high quality interesting, fun and educational programs to offer their passengers.  These are things that are not offered today and would never be considered inclusive with one’s basic fare.  Done properly, utilizing space and resources not otherwise allocated for other shipboard use during certain time periods, they can be offered without impacting those passengers not choosing to participate, while still provided a value-added service to those passengers who want to “customize” their cruise experience.

To me, this is what the “ship within a ship” concept should entail.  What do you think?

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