Strong market support provides the ability to expand and reduces the risk, according to Cruise West President and COO Jeff Krida. The line's recent acquisition of the 102-passenger Nantucket Clipper and the 138-passenger Yorktown Clipper, for $16.5 million from First Choice, will boost its capacity by some 33 percent.
Krida said Cruise West has been looking at the Clipper Cruise ships "for years" before being able to strike the deal, following First Choice's acquisition of the small-ship cruise line.
The two ships were built in 1984 and 1988, respectively.
Cruise West also owns a sister ship, the Spirit of Endeavour, the former Newport Clipper.
With 10 small ships, Cruise West expects to carry 20,000 passengers in 2006, according to Krida, and reach nearly $100 million in revenues.
The Clipper crew on the two ships has been 100 percent converted to Cruise West employees, Krida said, adding that Cruise West will maintain the pubhshed itineraries for 2006. "The East Coast is new to us," he said, "but otherwise, they (the Clipper ships) largely duplicate what we aheady do.
"Our plan is to keep the East Coast program going as well as the cruises on the Great Lakes and in the U.S. Virgin Islands - maybe just tweak a little," Krida said. Craise West did not only acquire the ships, but also the bookings.
"It would not be well served to change what Clipper has been doing so well," Krida continued. "Their F&B operations, for instance, is very good. We can probably learn from them. But we also want to add a larger educational component.
"We are up close and personal," Krida continued, describing Cruise West's craise experience. "Our passengers want to participate and not just be spectators. The curiosity factor is high.
"Our ships offer small environments, nobody dresses up and the officers mingle with the passengers. We have speakers and lecturers and more often than not, they are interesting characters too."
Other changes in 2006 include the year-round operation of the Spirit of Oceanus. "We bought the ship (file former Renaissance V) in 2000 and expected to sail year round in the Pacific," Krida said. "Instead, after 9/11, we ended up operating the ship for only 100 days out of the year. Now, however, having gone back to our original plan, we sold all the capacity through spring of 2007 in three-and-a-half months; 40 percent are repeat cruisers."
Eight of the Cruise West ships, which sail in domestic waters, feature American crew, while the Oceanus and the Pacific Explorer, which both sail outside of the U.S., have international crews. Marine and hotel operations are handled in-house by the Seattle-based company, which has some 140 people ashore, including reservations agents, and about 650 on the ships and in Alaska.
"We have always been a travel-agent oriented conqtany," Krida said. "Ninety-two percent of our passengers are independent travelers. Clipper, on the other hand, built its business on association and group travel. Going forward, we will continue to emphasize oin sales approach.
"More agents are becoming proactive and more realize that they can make $2,000 in commissions selling one of our craises compared to $70 for a regular craise.
"We also guarantee that we will not discount prices closer to sailings so there will not be a lower price for those who wait. Hence, price is becoming a secondary issue. We are successfully selling life experiences at full prices."
According to Krida, the per diem ranges from $350 to $700, depending on the program, and averages somewhere "north of $400."
"We are a natural- and cultural-history destination company," he said. "People choose us because of the in-depth destination experience. The fare includes one shore excursion in every port, and in 2005 we also went to a no-tipping environment."
Krida said that Cruise West plans to contmue to expand in the Pacific Rim as well as in Central and South America and the Galapagos.