While I was in Europe last week, floating down the Rhine, one piece of cruise news came across my virtual desk that nearly resulted in my morning coffee being ejected from my mouth: Royal Caribbean’s decision to homeport the forthcoming Quantum of the Seas in Shanghai, only months after entering service out of New York (Bayonne).
That’s right, kids: beginning in June of next year, Quantum of the Seas – which doesn’t even launch until this fall – will trade New Jersey for Asia, sailing three-to-eight night itineraries that call on ports in China, Japan and Korea. It’s not seasonal, either: she’s there to stay. It’s a move that probably wouldn’t have been as surprising had Royal Caribbean not tied New York so closely to Quantum of the Seas at every opportunity. Even recent press conferences announcing the new dining options were held in the Big Apple.
The official line from Royal Caribbean, according to Chief Operating Officer Adam Goldstein, is this: “Consumers in China have grown to expect the best the world has to offer, and Quantum of the Seas meets that standard like no other ship. We are ready to accelerate the growth of this vital market with a ship that will capture the imagination of travelers looking for a one-of-a-kind vacation experience.”
“Every trend we are seeing in China tells us we can achieve real long-term competitive advantage and appealing returns on our investments in this fast-growing market by accelerating our presence there,” Goldstein said. “We will have to be nimble, but the ability to move fast is one of our strengths.”
There’s a lot of buzzwords in there: competitive advantage, vital market, fast-growing market, return-on-investment. It says a lot about Royal Caribbean’s confidence in the Chinese market, but does very little to assure its primarily North American passenger base that they remain equally important.
Now, admittedly, the East Coast of the United States – notably New York and Florida – have been spoiled. They’ve been the de-facto launching grounds for the vast majority of new ships for decades, and they’re used to having the latest-and-greatest homeport in cities like Miami, Fort Lauderdale and New York. Their disappointment is understandable, particularly when lines like Carnival, MSC and Princess have organized some pretty high-profile launches there in recent months.
The reason that Royal Caribbean’s move surprised me is twofold. One, I would have thought the ship was so Americanized (bumper cars, circus classes…) that the Chinese market would have blanched at the product. Not so, apparently. Two, Quantum of the Seas is straight out of the shipyard, more or less, and will have to undergo additional tweaks to menus, signage, and other amenities in order to better cater to the Chinese market. That’s an additional cost. Not to mention, having to re-crew the ship to some degree to ensure that crew members fluent in Mandarin are installed in key positions.
Then, there’s the issue of getting her there. Operational sailings around the tip of South America rarely sail full for mainstream lines, and transpacific crossings aren’t much better, regardless of how many ports you throw at them. Royal Caribbean’s passenger base is predominantly American to this day, and American’s just don’t get the three weeks of holidays needed to do one of those sailings. So sailing the ship over there is likely to be a loss-leader.
Of course, that’s if they even market the crossing. Yesterday, Travel Pulse quoted Executive VP of Operations, Lisa Lutoff-Perlo as saying the line intended to use the 50-day voyage to make enhancements to Quantum‘s retail spaces and galleys in order to better cater to the Chinese market. That, in turn, makes it increasingly implausible that they ‘always’ intended to send Quantum over to Asia.
Personally, I like that Royal Caribbean is taking a chance with Quantum of the Seas. I’m absolutely baffled by it, and would have put my money on Southampton or Barcelona for an alternate summer homeport, but it’s a lot more creative than the ho-hum Caribbean sailings she was supposed to be doing. For Royal Caribbean fans that don’t mind a few long-haul flights, Quantum of the Seas in Asia could be just what the doctor ordered.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like many people will feel that way. If you have a read over on the Royal Caribbean boards on Cruise Critic, the reaction from many North American Royal Loyalists is this: now that Quantum will be homeporting in China, they just won’t sail aboard her. Not even the promise of bumper cars and skydiving simulators are enough to lure customers all the way overseas. All the hoopla that has surrounded this ship since she was announced almost evaporated overnight.
It’s that lack of goodwill towards the line’s existing passengers – and increasing attention from a confused North American media – that has me wondering whether there’s something else at play behind their decision. Sending a brand-new ship to an unproven market when they’ve spent over a year whipping their most loyal, North American-based cruisers into a Quantum frenzy isn’t just bizarre; it simply isn’t done.
The most common comments on the Cruise Critic Message boards: people barely want to pay to fly to Florida, let alone leave the United States. It’s a trend that seems to be increasing: recently, Norwegian Cruise Line announced it was expanding its East Coast Bus-Cruise program as more cruisers look to avoid flying altogether.
This last revelation seems to fit in well with what I’ve been hearing from other cruise lines. Despite all the buzz surrounding Asia, I don’t know a single line operating in the Asian market that is jumping up and down with joy, or collecting money hand-over-fist. The vast majority of operators are barely able to sell their berths in the region, and are having to offer increasingly extravagant incentives in order to do so.
Royal Caribbean has the unique task now of filling Quantum of the Seas on a weekly basis from Shanghai. They already have two ships in the region, Mariner of the Seas and Voyager of the Seas, so no doubt they’ve studied the metrics of such an increase in capacity carefully.
Still, I can’t help but wonder if it’s going to turn out the way things did when Mariner of the Seas repositioned to Los Angeles in 2009: a 23-month long experiment that ends in disappointment.
From the Deck Chair returns tomorrow.
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