ABOARD THE CELEBRITY ASCENT — Celebrity Cruises will enter 2024 with a new deployment strategy aimed at attracting more newbies to the brand, as the line has no plans to put the brakes on its aggressive growth.
While new ship orders at other premium cruise lines slow, Celebrity has introduced three new vessels in four years, with the last of the Edge class still to come, and is already brainstorming concepts for its next ship class.
To help fill all that capacity, Celebrity is betting on a new deployment strategy: For the first time, the line will sail year-round in the Caribbean, offering a mix of long and short itineraries on two ships in 2024.
The strategy offers guests a chance to sail on one of Celebrity’s newest vessels, the Celebrity Beyond, on six- and eight-day sailings, or take shorter cruises on the Celebrity Reflection, which Celebrity president Laura Hodges Bethge described as an “on-ramp” for first-time cruisers.
The line is growing the ranks of new cruisers as well as those new to the line, she said. “We have a tremendously loyal base, but redeploying Beyond into the Caribbean was an absolute home run in terms of being able to attract those new-to-cruise and new-to-brand.” (Hodges Bethge is On the Record with her thoughts on the line’s direction.)
Cruise lines’ orders cool
Cruise lines have debuted a flood of new ships in recent years, but some brands have slowed their orders. Carnival Corp. has its smallest order book in decades, reflected at its two premium brands: Princess Cruises has two ships due out by 2025, but Holland America Line has none.
Celebrity Cruises parent Royal Caribbean Group isn’t slowing its growth. Royal Caribbean International will launch two ships next year. Celebrity just debuted its fourth Edge-class ship, the Celebrity Ascent, and work has begun on the Celebrity Xcel, the final ship of the class, expected to launch in November 2025 from Fort Lauderdale.
The Edge-class ships were designed by firms that work mostly on land-based projects, and they are built to feel more like resorts than cruise ships. Their modern design encourages more people to consider a cruise vacation, said Hodges Bethge.
The Xcel will offer seven products and experiences that are new to Celebrity, some that will be woven into a modernization plan for Celebrity’s five-ship Solstice class, which just turned 15 years old, to add more continuity through the fleet.
The line is already “dreaming” up plans for its next class, Hodges Bethge said, which will come out in four to five years. She gave no details on what they are planning for the ships or when production may begin.
Focus on the U.S. drive market
While Celebrity has ships in Europe, Alaska, Australia and the Caribbean, its new strategy is to increase its presence in the American drive market.
That’s a change from this summer, when the line based all three of its Edge-class ships in Europe.
While Europe remains popular, some guests are looking for what Hodges Bethge called an “incremental vacation” that is more convenient to get to. To build on that, the line will homeport a ship in Port Canaveral for the first time next year, with the Celebrity Equinox sailing seven-day cruises in winter.
Placing ships in a drive market reduces friction and costs from plane travel and hotel stays, said Jason Liberty, CEO of Royal Caribbean Group.
But it also meets guests where they are, he said. “We want to make sure that we’re bringing the product and meeting them where they want to be,” he said.
Some of that, Liberty said, is the new opportunity for Celebrity to call at Royal Caribbean private island Perfect Day at CocoCay; Celebrity has 50 calls scheduled there in 2024. Hodges Bethge hinted that the line is considering ways to use the island in a way that is distinctive to Celebrity, but declined to provide details.
Advisors onboard the new Ascent praised Celebrity’s deployment and growth strategies.
Ellen Foreman-Elkins, manager and travel advisor for Central Travel in Holland, Ohio, said that offering close-to-home sailings on an Edge-class ship gives her clients the “adult” experience that Celebrity offers “right in their backyard so that they don’t have to travel to the Med or Alaska.”
And Mike Estill, COO of the Western Association of Travel Agencies, said that Celebrity’s bet that its young fleet and new features will trump loyalty to other brands, especially if their competition has slowed its pace of new ships, could be a good one.
“The thing that’s actually demanding premium pricing right now is brand-new ships with new features,” he said. “If you stop making new ships, are you as a fleet starting to lose some traction?”
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