It has now been a year and a half since the Duchess of Cambridge named the new Royal Princess. Much larger than the previous Princess ships, Royal Princess brought the Princess cruise experience forward by implementing new ideas and developing existing concepts. The fact that she did so with an impressive décor made her an instant critical success.
Since then the ship has crossed the Atlantic and spent a full season in the Caribbean and then crossed the Atlantic again back to Europe. After yet another crossing, she spent a brief season sailing out of New York to Canada and New England before returning to Florida for another Caribbean season.
We asked Hotel General Manager Martin Bristow to talk about how the ship has done in her first 18 months of service.
After her successful first Caribbean season, Royal Princess spent her first full summer in Northern Europe, doing Baltic cruises out of Copenhagen. “It was a good season and the ship managed very well. Very international demographic. [On a North American cruise] we are 85 per cent North American while there it could be completely the other way around. A lot of Australians, quite a good Asian mix and a lot of Europeans, of course. A nice international mix.”
“The ship has been very well received. There, it is more about the ports because it is very port intensive. People are up at seven or eight in the morning and gone all day long. They all come back in volume at five or six at night or even later sometimes. So their time onboard to use the facilities of the ship is quite limited. People liked the accommodations and were overwhelmed by the on-demand TV.”
“The entertainment ratings are really impressive. Especially in Europe with the demographic and nationality mix it is really hard, especially for comedians, which are [subject to] regional [tastes].”
Spending the summers in Europe and the winters in North America necessarily entails crossing the Atlantic. Although not designed as an ocean liner, Royal Princess performed well even during rough weather. “The crossing was great. The waves were coming up over the windows sometimes but you didn't even feel it. She really handles very well.”
One criticism that has been leveled is that there can be a wait for an elevator. “Midships can get challenging at times. It is not so bad when you have ports like the Caribbean where people are coming and going all day long. But if everyone is getting off at the same time and getting back at the same time it can become challenging. Most people realize that the aft elevators are a breeze all the time and it is a much easier. It doesn't take long to figure that out.”
Otherwise, the people flow on Royal Princess has been even better than expected. “I think that was probably a concern to start with but ever since the beginning that has worked out quite well. We spend a lot of time as onbaord management looking at the timing of events and things to make sure that you are not getting traffic all happening at the same time. Even with the volume of people onboard the ship you don't get that [crowded] sensation when you are going between lounges. We thought 'that is a lot of people to be moving around' and the fact that it has gone so well has been a good testament to the planning of lounges and events.”
When she entered service. Royal Princess presented a number of new features. While a new feature or service may look good on paper, sometimes it may not work out in practice. Therefore, I asked Mr. Bristow, how some of the new features that premiered on Royal Princess are working out.
Princess Live is an onboard television studio. Instead of filming the cruise director's morning show in various locations around the ship or in a conference room as is the common practice in the industry, the shows are taped in Princess Live. Also, instead of having game shows in the theater or in various bars, game shows are played in Princess Live. Guests can watch these performances live as part of the studio audience or in their staterooms on their televisions.
“It is working really well, especially during the sea days. People quite like that involvement. People feel part of it. On the sea days, you can film the Wake Show there live for the next day. The game shows work very well there too. It starts out with a few people but then by mid-cruise it is full up.”
Speaking of television, another innovation on Royal Princess was an advanced interactive television system. Guests can watch an array of complimentary movies and television shows on demand. They can also do such things as book shore excursions and check their onboard accounts.
“Every week people talk about that - - 'when are the other ships getting that?' It is a really good service, we are pleased with that. It has been enhanced since [the ship went into service]. Some new applications have been added and [Princess is] looking at other things all the time. It is quite a good platform to build other things on.”
Princess pioneered the concept of having a chef's table - - a multi-course feast with wine pairings in which there is also interaction with the people who prepare the meal. On Princess, these events are hosted by the top echelon of the culinary operation - - the ship's executive chef and the maitre d'. On Royal Princess, the line took the concept a step further by creating the Chef's Table Lumiere, a dedicated area in one of the main dining rooms with a spectacular glass table surrounded by a curtain of light.
“It is amazing how many people come on and go immediately to sign up for the Chef's Table. It really is a wow here with a dedicated beautiful table and luminet curtains. It is really quite wonderful.”
Despite its popularity, the Chef's Table is only done a few times a cruise. “We can't do them every night. To do the Chef's Table is a huge task for both the executive chef and the maitre d'. To take them out every single night to focus on that is not conducive to the [overall] operation because they need to be doing their jobs and be on top of things, especially with the number of [dining] outlets that we have aboard the ship. So we look at timings, we look at the itinerary and we choose nights where things have settled in and people have time.”
Some guests find the Winemakers event to be an alternative. Like the Chef's Table, it is a multi-course meal with wine pairings. It is held in a dedicated area of one of the other main dining rooms. However, the executive chef and the maitre d' do not host the event.
“The Winemakers is going well too. It is not dissimilar in that you have a dedicated area but you don't get the wow of the curtain. It has a special menu catered for them. You are not getting the executive chef and the maitre d' with you for the whole experience but the teams that take care of you are excellent. It is rather nice if you have a special occasion or if there is a group of you. Even if you don't [have a group], you meet new people as well. People are enjoying that.”
Another dining concept that has been taken a step further on Royal Princess is Alfredo's Pizzeria. (See review). This venue serves gourmet pizza that is made ala minute. It has the look of a specialty venue but is in fact complimentary. One consequence of this is that the restaurant becomes increasingly busy as each cruise progresses.
“People start talking about it then they realize. It takes people awhile to find it but it has been a real success.”
At the more casual end of the spectrum, Royal Princess' buffet restaurant is being used for two dining events. Fondues offers European-inspired fondue dishes while the Crab Shack is based on West Coast shellfish venues. (See Crab Shack review).
“One wing of the Horizon Court is taken out and morphs into the Crab Shack event or into the Fondue event with their own set up, their own uniforms, table clothes and so forth. It is table service and you sign up for it.”
In North America, the “Crab Shack is turning out to be very popular. But in the Baltic, for example, that was popular but so was the Fondues. Naturally, if it is cooler weather cruising people are interested in the fondues.”
“It is kind of a flexible idea for us. We can look at the passengers we have onboard the ship and see what they are preferring. We wouldn't just say tonight and tomorrow are going to be all Fondue or all Crab Shack. We would look at the sign ups and say this week there are going to be two Fondues and three Crab Shacks. It might be two and two or one and three.”
Royal Princess will not be resting on her laurels. “There are going to be some enhancements on product offerings but that is fleetwide. It is always happening.”
One such example is new regionalized menus for the main dining rooms reflecting the ship's itinerary. “It was popular years ago but then it wasn't anymore. Now people want that connectivity again. I have always been a big believer in that because it is nice to regionalize some of the experience. There will be a base menu still but then there will be enhancements based on the region.”
Cruise ship interview - - Princess Cruises - - Royal Princess - - Hotel General Manager