This week's commentary by TravelPage.com's European Cruise Editor, Malcolm Oliver takes a closer look at Norwegian Cruise Line and their stratgey for growth.
NCL a Serious Contender?
If someone had asked me five years ago what the general opinion of Cruise Talk forum members was regarding Norwegian Cruise Line, I would have said: "good value, but their uninspiring ships do not compete with the big two (i.e. Carnival's fun fleet or Royal Caribbean's amazing floating resorts)". In addition some aspects of the NCL onboard experience were arguably below the standard of that offered by Carnival and RCI.
Since that time, NCL has gone through a series of dramatic changes, not the least of which was being purchased by Star Cruises, the Asian cruise giant. Probably the biggest contribution of the Star acquisition was the addition of much needed capital, which has allowed NCL to embark on an aggressive new-build programme. Their current fleet of twelve vessels seems to be expanding almost on a yearly basis and is scheduled to continue doing so for a while. Another big change was the creation of NCL America. NCL America is a dedicated brand that allows NCL to provide unique itineraries of the Hawaiian Islands on three American crewed ships: Pride of America, Hawaii and Aloha. Although early customer feedback was mixed, NCL America seems to be finding its stride and an increasing number of cruisers are starting to consider a Hawaiian Islands cruise as a fresh alternative to an increasingly over exploited Caribbean itinerary.
NCL's new Libra class vessels are externally very different from all other cruise ships. For one, they all feature NCL's unique Hull Art, which looks a bit like a graffiti artist has tagged the ship. These painted designs on the bow of each ship incorporates a variety of themes, including: dolphins, the Statue of Liberty, a large Hawaiian Lei and the Star Spangle Banner, to name just a few.. Love it or hate it, it certainly does make their brand look very distinctive.
Internally their new ships are modern, lively and very colourful, without being over the top. They also feature NCL's innovations such as private Garden Villas, which are a bit reminiscent of the SS France's patio cabins.
Perhaps the most significant innovation is Freestyle dinning. In short the ships feature a multitude of dining venues, unlike more traditional ships with one large main dining room and two set evening meal times. The freestyle restaurants offer a range of different cuisines and flexibility. Passengers can choose to eat when they like (between core hours) in which dining room they like, and sit with who they like, subject to table availability. They can choose to be formal or un-formal. Although many traditionalists were rather sceptical of this system at first, those that have actually tried it, tend to love it.
That said, I do have some issues with NCL. I find it rather sad that NCL's legendary SS Norway (the ex ss France) is almost certainly destined for the scrap heap. NCL are clearly investing in their future, rather than reflecting on the past. A couple of years ago made the dramatic announcement that it had purchased the one-time fastest liner afloat, ss United States, and announced plans to restore and return her to service. In the opinion of many, myself included, this would be the jewel in their crown. However with each passing day it becomes harder to see how this historic ship would fit into their young freestyle fleet.
All things considered though, I feel quite justified in saying that for the most part NCL really have been "thinking outside the box". They have become an exciting and innovative cruise line with a state-of-the-art fleet. They may still be in third place, but they now have the market leaders firmly in their sight.