A 24-hour receptionist. A multilingual concierge who can make dinner reservations for passengers in a foreign port. Waiters to whom waitering is an honorable profession and not a step to something else.
These are what RVL's President Joe Watters calls "over delivering" and what keep RVL on top in the upscale market. They are also the types of things he believes other cruise lines hoping to get a piece of this market will have to do.
"They are the little things, but they set RVL apart," said Watters. "And for our passenger, who is used to the kind of service provided at, say, the Oriental Hotel in Bangkok, they are a must," he said.
Who is the upscale market? They are older - 50 plus with many being retired - and make over $50,000, or in the case of an RVL passenger, over $70,000, said Watters. They have traveled extensively, and demand interesting itineraries and expect service beyond top notch.
They are not sedate old fuddy duddies sitting in deck chairs with blankets either, said Watters. They are an adventurous group of individuals who seek itineraries in South America, the Orient, or Europe.
Their numbers are growing. They may be a small percentage of the overall population of people over 50, but that age group is rapidly becoming the largest in the country.
With this group getting larger and the number of its affluent members rising accordingly, new lines are being formed and ships built to cater to them. Coming soon to the upscale market: Signet Cruises, Sea Venture, Windsor/Navtol, Goliath Group. Watters welcomes the new entries, but says it's not easy being number one.
"All we can do at RVL is to stay the product that all others are measured against," said Watters. "It's a challenge. It's a matter of constantly improving," he said, adding that RVL is always in the process of bettering its menus, dining room service, itineraries, and all aspects of the cruise experience. "The newcomers will have to overdeliver to make it in this discriminating market."
Advertising and marketing to this group, while important, takes a back seat to positive word of mouth, said Watters. Good or bad, the word gets out and "Good advertising can kill you if you don't deliver the super product promised," he said.
Watters believes many of the words used to describe cruises these days no longer mean anything. Brochures and ads using words like sumptuous and impeccable are many times touting mass market operations that cannot compare with RVL and its immediate competitors, Cunard/NAC's Sagafjord and Vistafjord, said Watters.
"There's a danger that the upscale people who have never taken cruises will believe these words and be disappointed by trying something not up to their standards," he said. The standards should be very high when using such words it all goes back to delivering, said Watters.
Delivering can be as picayune an item as lighting in a ship's stateroom according to Watters. He mentioned that RVL's new Royal Viking Sun, due at the end of 1988, would have lighting especially designed to facilitate the application of ladies' makeup, adding that women have tested the lighting in the half-completed cruise liner.
Watters said this type of careful improvement is what keeps over 50% of the passengers on RVL coming back and perpetuates the line's 98% to 99% passenger satisfaction record.
Living up to words like impeccable is expensive but worth it, according to Watters, who says putting money into delivery instead of into discounting is highly advisable, especially for the newcomers.
"The real upscale market feels value is the criterion, not pricing. You have to give them more than they pay for," he said. "You don't just give them the typical cruise ship entertainment and port lecturers, you give them top talent and former ambassadors," said Watters.
When the Royal Viking Sun is complete, said Watters, almost 40% of its cabins will have private verandas and walk-in closets along with other first-class items. There will be a wood-burning fireplace in a special lounge outfitted with leather chairs. Small out-of-the-way areas will be available for comfortable, intimate conversation. Whereas other ships her size (36,000 grt) usually carry in excess of 1,000 passengers, the Royal Viking Sun will carry 740.
"If we had a thousand passengers, we wouldn't be RVL," said Watters.
Another word of advice about what upscalers appreciate is to maintain a sense of tradition said Watters. "Ships are ships, and not glitzy hotels," he said, acknowledging that some of the newer ships are beginning to more closely resemble hotels than ships. "We use a lot of brass and teak and maintain a nautical look on all of our ships," he said, adding that RVL's sleek "clipper bow" also helps to affect the classic ship look.
Other Upscale Lines
Watters believes the recent entries in the upscale market, namely Sea Goddess and Windstar, are not really competing with RVL. They are a highly specialized experience different than RVL that appeals to a younger passenger looking for something different, said Watters. These passengers are not looking for the plush surroundings, big shows and lots of facilities you get on RVL, he said. They will expand the upscale market, however, which will help RVL in the long run. "There is room for success in this market and they should do well," Watters speculated. When their passengers get older, or for their next cruise, they might come to RVL, said Watters.
A final word for newcomers to the upscale market: "Give them class, not mass," said Watters.