(Article originally published in Jan/Feb 2016 edition.)
Long the world’s premier cruise brand, Crystal has a grander goal under new owner Genting Hong Kong and CEO Edie Rodriguez: To build the world’s premier hospitality portfolio – on land and sea and in the air.
By Tony Munoz
For twenty-five years Crystal Cruises was the crown jewel of NYK Lines before it sold the brand to Genting Hong Kong for $550 million last May. Founded in 1988, Crystal was known for its two midsize ships and luxurious service and was named by Conde Nast Traveler for twenty-one consecutive years and by Travel+Leisure magazine for twenty consecutive years as the world’s best luxury cruise line.
So when Edie Rodriguez, a thirty-four veteran of the travel industry, became President and CEO in October 2013, it looked like a match made in heaven or, put another way, a “perfect storm” of opportunity. Because Rodriguez, who had been in senior management positions at luxury brands Cunard, Seabourn and Azamara previously, was ready to look beyond the limitations of a two-ship cruise line and take the company to the next level, all the while building on its stellar brand equity.
She had made it clear to the NYK chairman who hired her and again to the Genting Hong Kong chairman that Crystal had to grow or it would perish. So when NYK ran into financial difficulties and was unable to fund Crystal’s growth, she lobbied hard for its sale. A bidding war ensued, and Rodriguez played a key role in finding a new owner who was willing to pay a premium price for a premium brand and had the resources to grow it as well.
She found it in Genting, the Malaysian-based hospitality and gaming giant with holdings in Star Cruises, Norwegian Cruise Lines and Resorts World Bimini, to name a few.
Genting’s purchase of Crystal was destiny for the resolute Rodriguez who, on her first meeting with Chairman Tan Sri Lim Kok Thay, said, “‘Speedy Edie’ is in a rush here. We have a lot of work to do and we need new ships.” The chairman agreed and promised her “seven ships for seven seas” and challenged her to develop other luxury venues such as yacht and river cruises.
To ensure that the new additions to the fleet would provide a uniform standard of luxury and were properly “Crystallized,” he subsequently went out and bought a shipyard – Germany’s Lloyd Werft, which had built vessels for other Genting affiliates. Crystal’s river cruise and “Exclusive Class” ocean cruise ships will all be built by Lloyd Werft.
It was a dream come true for Rodriguez, who now had everything she had asked for and more. With the purse strings wide open, it was up to her to deliver. And deliver she has. The last 10 months have been a whirlwind of nonstop activity as she builds her team and the brand with new hires, new orders, and new goals.
“It was time for this stellar brand to grow,” she says, “and the chairman understood my whole on-the-water strategy, and he wanted more. He wanted planes for Crystal Luxury Air, and that is already in the works. Our new goal is to be the world’s most luxurious and premier luxury hospitality lifestyle and brand portfolio. And to win all the awards in each of our brand extension segments. Crystal Cruises will, of course, remain the anchor and guide for our growth.”
Rodriguez’s passion for travel and to be the best goes way back. When she was six years old her aunt went to Japan and brought her back a porcelain Geisha doll, and the flame was lit. She dreamed of traveling the world, of seeing all those strange new customs and places. When she took her first trip at age 18, it was to Japan. She has been to more than 100 countries since, and the list – and the passion – keep growing.
Building on Excellence
The Crystal reputation for luxury and service excellence has been built on its two prime assets, the Crystal Symphony (51,044 GT) and the Crystal Serenity (68,870 GT).
The Symphony, which can handle 922 passengers and was christened by actress Angela Lansbury in 1995, was retrofitted in 2006 at BAE Systems in Norfolk for $23 million and in 2009 underwent another retrofit at Boston’s Ship Repair for $25 million. Then the vessel had an extreme makeover at Blohn+Voss docks in Germany in 2012. She also underwent a drydock in 2013.
The Serenity, which can accommodate 1,070 passengers, was christened by Dame Julie Andrews in Southampton in 2003. In January 2004 the vessel embarked on its first 106-day world voyage, departing from Los Angeles and ending in New York City. In August the Serenity will sail on a unique 32-day Northwest Passage voyage from Seward, Alaska to New York City.
In 2012 Crystal began offering all-inclusive packages with amenities including round-trip airfare, dining in the ship’s restaurants, complimentary wines and spirts, non-alcoholic beverages and all gratuities for housekeeping, dining and staff. Distancing itself from the competition, the company’s mantra became “Where All-Inclusive Means All-Exclusive.” Crystal is renowned for its service excellence, and Rodriguez says it is because they “hire for the personality and train for the job.”
Now the company is adding three new “Exclusive Class” ships, which she calls “the triplets,” for delivery beginning in late 2018. Each will accommodate 1,000 guests and 1,000 crew, giving them the highest crew-to-guest ratio in the industry. They will also have the highest guest-to-space ratio in both the private suites and public spaces. In an industry first, the vessels will offer private residences, the Crystal Residences, which guests can buy and lease out or use for themselves.
“And so what will that do?” she asks. “It will add to the camaraderie. Because if you own one of those private residences, just like today people might own a private residence at the Baccarat Hotel in New York, you’ll go up in your private elevator and have all the privacy you want in your own condo at sea. You’ll even have your own concierge in your own dining room. But then when you want the action of seeing new faces, you can visit one of the onboard restaurants or go to the gym or the casino or take in the evening entertainment and meet and greet as many of the 1,000 other guests as you want.”
The new ships will also feature “enrichment programs” with world-class speakers discussing not only the ship’s destinations but world events as well. They will have the Yamaha Music School where you can learn to play an instrument and the USC Film School where you can learn to make a movie on your iPad.
Brand-extension Crystal Yachts is already a reality. Rodriguez tells the story of how, while visiting the Genting chairman in Singapore, he took her out to see one of his yachts and asked if she could sell vacations on it. And in typical Edie fashion she replied, “Of course I can. But first you have to let me ‘Crystallize’ it.”
The result was the Crystal Esprit, christened last December in an elegant ceremony in the Seychelles. The chairman’s yacht was transformed into a 62-passenger luxury vessel designed for a more intimate experience than modern cruise ships could offer. The all-suite vessel features high-end lavish finishes and features extras like a two-passenger submarine, four ten-passenger zodiacs for special excursions, and a twelve-passenger yacht tender. The vessel will sail around the Seychelles for part of the year and the Adriatic – between Dubrovnik and Venice – for the rest of the year.
“The demand for the yacht has been extraordinary with everyone from wealthy families to corporations chartering the vessel without us spending a dime on advertising,” says Rodriguez. “The Esprit marks the beginning of the most significant brand expansion in the company’s history.”
Crystal also announced last year that it was entering the river cruise sector in 2017. But the demand was so overwhelming that the Crystal Mozart was purchased for immediate refurbishment and will start river service in July 2016 from Vienna. Four newly built vessels will begin river service in 2017 as the Crystal Debussy and Crystal Bach sail in June and the Crystal Ravel and Crystal Mahler begin sailing in August.
Rodriguez says the river cruises will navigate through France, Switzerland, Holland, Belgium and Austria as well as central and eastern Europe. The boats will deviate from the traditional routes and emphasis daylight sailing, and the itineraries will avoid the congestion of busy ports.
Crystal has redesigned its river boats in order to enhance the guest experience, and each new vessel will feature 205-square-foot suites for only about one hundred and forty guests. The suites will have full-size king beds and walk-in closets and bathrooms with double vanities. Most importantly, Rodriguez says the boats will have a yacht-like feel and offer “Six Star Service.”
As if building new ocean liners, elegant river boats and the world’s most splendid passenger yacht weren’t enough, Rodriguez beams when she talks about Crystal Luxury Air. The company already owns two jets, a Boeing 777 and a Boeing 787-8 Dreamliner and recently added an ACJ 319 jet and Bombardier Global Express XRS jet. The fleet of jets will be used to service private charters and transport customers on 14 or 28-day itineraries to destinations around the world.
“Surprise and Delight”
The sky would seem to be the limit for Edie Rodriguez and Crystal Cruises, but who knows? She says her objective in everything is to “surprise and delight” – the way she wants to be surprised and delighted when she travels. And that’s why she makes sure everything Crystal does is first-class.
From the time she was a little girl, Edie Rodriguez has known that her passion was to travel the world in the most luxurious manner. Now she’s embarked on a new journey – to rebrand Crystal on the high seas, the riverways of Europe and up in the air. Some people just know how to travel. – MarEx
Tony Munoz is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of The Maritime Executive.
The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.