The cruise industry seems to just keep growing and growing over time. Meanwhile, the hotel industry has enjoyed its waves of annual growth and is now facing challenges from the sharing economy where anyone can rent out their house or condo like a hotel room. The one spot in the economy that has seemed to hold up through thick and thin, even with some volatility of its own, has been the luxury market. Now comes news that Marriott International, Inc. (NYSE: MAR) is going to marry its luxury Ritz-Carlton hotels brand with the cruise industry for luxury smaller-format cruises.
The week of June 23 brought news from the Ritz-Carlton brand of Marriott that, starting in 2019, the company will offer cruises on 3 new luxury yachts via The Ritz-Carlton Yacht Collection. These are not the mega-cruise ships which carry thousands of your favorite strangers with cattle-call buffets and loud massive dining halls. The Ritz-Carlton luxury yachts are only about 620 feet long and will have space for just 298 guests in 149 suites. No steerage section or inner rooms here either. Each suite will have its own balcony, and each ship will also offer several luxurious duplex penthouses.
While some of the dining features will represent more of a luxury hotel restaurant feel rather than buffets and assigned seating, Ritz-Carlton noted that its luxury ships will still have destination-based activities with local chefs, artists and musicians. Each ship will be styled in modern luxury by combining Ritz-Carlton and Tillberg Design of Sweden, each ship will have a restaurant from Sven Elverfeld of Aqua, and each ship will of course have a Ritz-Carlton Spa.
Here is the big question: Will Ritz-Carlton be able to dominate, or even make a dent in, the luxury cruise industry?
It seems logical to think that this new effort from Ritz-Carlton might at a minimum up the game for other cruises catering to the wealthy. That being said, doing some simple math should calm most of the cruise industry’s immediate fears. Even if Ritz-Carlton managed to get 50 cruises out of each ship a year it would be less than 15,000 guests if every single room is booked. Data from rival Royal Caribbean shows that there were a total of about 24 million worldwide cruise guests for the entire industry in 2016, and of that almost 12.6 million were in the North America and just over 6.5 million were in Europe.
Ritz-Carlton voyages will range from 7 to 10 days and will include overnight and traditional daytime ports of call. The first yacht is currently scheduled to set sail in the fourth quarter of 2019. Luxury cruise-goers cannot book yet though. Reservations are set to open in May of 2018.
If being around less than 300 other guests is still too much for you, and if money is no object at all, or if you want a luxury reward package for a group or organization, Ritz-Carlton Yacht Collection ships will also be available for private charter.
Itineraries have not yet been set and the luxurious photo tour is of course a rendering. According to The Ritz-Carlton Yacht Collection, here is where you can expect to go:
The first ship will cruise a wide variety of destinations depending on the season, including the Mediterranean, Northern Europe, the Caribbean and Latin America. Due to the intimate size of the vessel, the yacht will call at unique locations typically not accessible to large cruise ships, from Capri and Portofino to St. Barths and the old town of Cartagena. With a relaxed pace, that includes both overnight and daytime ports of call, guests will be offered a uniquely curated destination experience.
As far as what this means for the major cruise lines, let’s think about what a maximum of 15,000 guests for three ships. Let’s also think about there being almost zero chance that they could even get 50 sailings each year, and let’s think about there being no way that every single room on every single cruise will be booked (at least at full fares).
There are three major cruise line operators outside of the Walt Disney Company (NYSE: DIS). It’s probably a safe bet that the Ritz-Carlton cruise line crowd might not exactly be Disney’s target market day in and day out, even if the Disney ships do have adult-only areas of their ships. Disney has 4 ships in the mid-sized and large ship category. The room count here is generally three to four times that of what is being proposed by Ritz-Carlton.
Carnival Corp. (NYSE: CCL) operates roughly 100 ships. Its brands are the namesake Carnival Cruise Line, as well Princess Cruises, Holland America Line, and Seabourn brands in North America. Overseas it has brand selections under Costa, AIDA, P&O Cruises (UK), Cunard, and P&O Cruises (Australia) in Europe, Australia, and Asia. Carnival itself notes that it is the largest cruise company in the world with a about 48% of the global cruise guest share. It also has 19 more ships scheduled for delivery between 2017 and 2022. As far as the tally of cruise guests, Carnival carried more than 11.5 million guests in 2016 and it claims more than 225,000 daily cruise guests.
Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. (NYSE: RCL) is the world’s second largest cruise line with over 123,000 berths.. It operates cruises under the namesake Royal Caribbean International brand, as well as Celebrity Cruises and Azamara Club Cruises brand names; and it also operates ships under the partner brands, such as TUI Cruises, Pullmantur, and SkySea Cruises. As of December 31, 2016, the company operated 49 ships with another 11 ships set for delivery from 2017 to 2022.
Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings Ltd. (NASDAQ: NCLH) operates a fleet of 25 ships with approximately 50,400 berths (May 2017 data) under the Norwegian Cruise Line, Oceania Cruises, and Regent Seven Seas Cruises brands. Norwegian also has 8 new ships set for delivery through 2025.
It seems easy enough to think that Ritz-Carlton will be able enter the luxury cruise market. After all, Marriott has deep pockets and already has many internal customers and a large pool of established luxury cruise line guests to pull from. It also has 6,000 properties under all of its brands combined, and the Ritz-Carlton brand already manages more than 100 properties globally.
The higher-end of rival luxury lines might be keeping their eyes on the coming Ritz-Carlton launches. That being said, it seems as though the Ritz-Carlton Yacht Collection poses very little threat to taking over even the luxury end of the cruise industry.