This week's commentary by TravelPage.com's European Cruise Editor, Malcolm Oliver looks at recent announcements by Celebrity Cruises to build three new ships.
Quantity and Quality?
July 18, 2006: Celebrity Cruises announces that it has ordered a third 118,000 gross-registered-ton Solstice-class ship, significantly reinforcing the company's commitment to the growth and innovative development of the Celebrity brand.
German shipbuilder Meyer Werft will build the new tonnage, with delivery of Celebrity Solstice planned for Fall 2008, Celebrity Equinox in Summer 2009, and the third in June 2010. Each of the three ships will be 2,850-guest vessels measuring 1,033 feet in length and 121 feet in width, with larger standard staterooms, a higher percentage of balconies and an exceptional range of guest-inspired services and amenities.
Celebrity Cruises has built a very strong reputation as a high-end cruise line by operating attractive ships and offering quality food and service. But it may come as a surprise to some cruisers that this premium cruise line is actually owned by Royal Caribbean - a company that made its mark by offering cruises to the masses.
Traveling back in time, I recall that Celebrity's original ships: Horizon and Zenith, and then Century, Galaxy and Mercury (1992-1999) were all very well received. Their unique names, 'yacht like' external design, black and white livery (or is it navy blue?) internal décor and spaciousness all proved very popular with travelers looking for a refined cruise experience. The ship's gross tonnage, the biggest being 78,000 gt, was seen by many as the maximum size a vessel could be and still be able to deliver a premium service. I personally enjoyed a very good cruise on the 'Mercury' in 1998. Although these vessels are no longer 'new' they are still rated quite highly.
Here are a couple of interesting facts: Century was the first ship to have the now ubiquitous interactive television in each cabin. These allowed passengers to check their onboard account, buy shore excursions and book alternative dining. In addition to the televisions in each cabin, Century also had a video-wall of them in the foyer. Galaxy was the ship where now popular British singer Jane McDonald gained UK fame, as a result of staring in a documentary called 'The Cruise' which was filmed onboard.
Celebrity launched their 'Millennium Class' in 2000 with the introduction of the not surprisingly named 'Millennium'. Even amongst the other increasingly box-like exteriors. The Millennium's profile took some getting used to. I recall one commentator saying that she looked like "a barge with a superstructure slapped onto it". At 91, 000 gt this new class of vessel was significantly larger than her existing fleet mates. Interestingly, she shares a hull design with Royal Caribbean's 'Radiance Class', although they have very different internal layouts and external appearances. Millennium was followed by three sister ships, Infinity, Summit and Constellation,
At the time, some commentators regarded the step-up to 91,000 gt as simply being too big a platform to be able to maintain a premium experience. However, the 'Millennium' class only carried eighty extra passengers in her lower berths more the 'Galaxy' and 'Mercury', and actually had a slightly higher space ratio. Interestingly, soon after Millennium entered service we began to receive feedback from readers about a general drop in the quality of the food and service across the Celebrity fleet and on the new ships in particular. Some commentators blamed this on the change of ownership, as the line had recently been acquired by Royal Caribbean. Despite the perceived problems with the onboard product, the external design seemed to be growing on people, as did the décor of the ship's interiors.
Apparently, Celebrity management was listening to the passenger feedback about the decline in the quality of the food and service and initiated an aggressive program designed to address the roots of the problem. After a few adjustments, the program began to gain traction and today, Celebrity's reputation has rebounded and the line is once again considered a strong player in the premium market.
So back in the present: here we are again; Celebrity has announced three newbuilds each at around 30,000 gt bigger than the 'Millennium Class'. To date, we have only seen some rough concept drawings of what the new ships will look like and surprisingly the design seems to feature two funnels.
The reaction to the 'Solstice Class' ships so far has been very similar to the reaction with the 'Millennium Class' was announced. Once again, there are concerns about whether Celebrity can maintain their usually high standards of food and service with an additional 900 passengers on board. While the overall space ratio of the 'Solstice Class' ships will be slightly lower that on the 'Millennium Class' ships, the staterooms will be some of the largest available on any ship. Although this sounds like a mathematical contradiction, maybe the public spaces are generally smaller at the benefit of the cabins?
So the question is can Celebrity pull it off (…again)?
From personal experience, it is clear that Cunard's Queen Mary 2 is able to offer excellent food and service in their Britannia lounge, to 2,620 passengers divided between the two sittings. Even though 'Solstice Class' ships will carry an additional 230 more passengers than Queen Mary 2, I believe that Celebrity should be able to again rise to the challenge. Only time will tell though, and I will be watching the TravelPage.com reader reviews with great interest over the coming years.