The small-ship operators that have survived and are successful have always done things differently from the big cruise companies. Renaissance Cruises set out on that course but gave up, and once it joined the mainstream operators, its fate was sealed.
The latest arrival is SeaDream Yacht Club, whose president Larry Pimentel promised that SeaDream would not be a cruise product and will not be sold or marketed as such. Rather, it will be a private yacht experience, he said.
Among the keys to the new company's potential success is its low overall cost structure. Pimentel, who is also a minority owner, said that SeaDream's break even point was at a 40 percent load factor.
SeaDream acquired the two Seabourn Goddess vessels from Carnival Corporation for a reported $10 million each. The two sister ships were originally built as the Sea Goddess I and II at a cost of $32 million each in 1984 and 1985, respectively.
Both of the ships will be partially redesigned with a new extended top deck and stern section so their profile will be different, while the hulls will be painted dark blue. Inside, the ships will also be totally redecorated. The SeaDream II is presently at Lloyd Werft Bremerhaven and will be introduced in Miami in late January, according to Pimentel. The SeaDream I will be redone in April.
Pimentel would not reveal how much the company is spending on the renovations only that Yran & Storbraaten is responsible for redesigning the two ships. The firm penned the original design as well.
"Instead of being the smallest ship in a big ocean, we will be the biggest yacht in the smallest pond," said Pimentel, adding that he identified an unfulfilled niche in the yacht market with no yachts available for more than 18 passengers due to regulations and requirements that come into play once the capacity exceeds 18.
"We have no competition," Pimentel said. "There are no other ships at our size level. Since the end of September, we have signed up and been paid for 31 full-ship charters for 2002," he added.
Pimentel's strategy is also to keep things simple. The two ships will operate in the Mediterranean and Caribbean only, sailing primarily seven-day cruises from Nice and St. Thomas. Several itineraries will be offered that can be combined into two- or three-week cruises.
"The cost structure is far less with just two homeports," Pimentel pointed out. ''We just ship one container to the same port for both ships. Short sailing distances between ports-of-call and some overnight stays also help to cut fuel costs. We have looked at every cost item," Pimentel said.
The low-cost profile continues ashore.
SeaDream's home office is staffed with only 10 people including two reservations agents. And if they are busy, Pimentel said that he might just as well answer calls and take bookings.
The company's Oslo office - where Atle Brynestad himself is based, who along with his wife are majority owners - has seven employees handling marine, technical and hotel operations. (Brynestad founded Seabourn Cruise Line, before selling to Carnival and eventually resigning from the Carnival board.) All ship operations and services are handled in house, including the spa, according to Pimentel.
Other expenses have been offloaded to a great degree. Bookings will primarily be done electronically and the company will have no air/sea department. Outside companies will sell all the components around the cruise, including air and transfers.
And, naturally, sales will be done differently too. Pimentel said that he planned to sell through distributorships. "Two hundred and fifty sellers will buy net from us," he said. "They have the ability to repackage our cruises for retail sale." Pimentel plans to do no advertising and instead rely on word-of-mouth, press coverage, and the contact network of his staff.
The pricing structure is simple too. In fact, very much like what Sea Goddess Cruises had back in 1984. There is one price for Caribbean and Mediterranean cruises, $2,200 and $3,500 per person, double occupancy, respectively. The weekly rates translate into per diems of $315 in the Caribbean and $500 in the Mediterranean. In addition are government fees, handling and service charges amounting to $215 per person in the Caribbean and $235 per person in the Mediterranean.
The two sister ships will accommodate from 47 to 55 couples based on how the staterooms are configured. The ships will have an owner's suite, eight combination (double) staterooms of 390 square feet, or 54 regular staterooms of 195 square feet.
A 10-week program sailing round-trip from Miami will be offered from November 2002 to January 2003, intended for those interested in a private chartering experience without having to fly.
"SeaDream is a personal product. It is casual. There will be no tuxes and no ties are required," Pimentel said. "We will have an open bridge and the itinerary will be flexible. The captain decides where to go and how long to stay, based on weather and events. Passengers may also be able to go touring with the captain," Pimentel continued, "or go ashore with the chef and search for local products.
Passengers will largely be from the U.S. - at least 80 percent. Pimentel said the balance would come mainly from the U.K. and Germany.