On Jan. 19, Royal Caribbean Group announced that it was selling Azamara in a $200 million deal to praivate equity firm Sycamore Partners. The agreement ended Azamara’s run as part of Royal Caribbean Group, a place it had occupied since it lanched as Azamara Club Cruises in 2009.
Carol Cabezas, the brand’s COO, spoke to Travel Market Report this week about what changes will be coming for Azamara and what travel advisors will need to know about the brand moving forward.
Cabezas spent more than 20 years at Royal Caribbean (she took the position as COO at Azamara in 2017 while the brand was still part of Royal) before the Azamara news was announced in January, news that marked not only a departure of Azmara from its parent company, but a new challenge for Cabezas.
“Royal Caribbean is a fantastic company,” she said. “Richard Fain has taken this corporation to really spectacular levels considering where it started in a little trailer decades ago. It created an environment that has high ethical standards, a really inclusionary environment, and all those things are what makes Royal Cairbbean special.”
“Certainly having been there for over 20 years, it’s bittersweet leaving, but this is a fantastic opportunity for the brand and for the team. It’s really exciting.”
What is to come for Azamara?
Azamara had long been the cruise line for destination experiences, and that’s not changing anytime soon, Cabezas said.
“One of the wonderful things about Azamara is that it has a very well defined identity and mission – it’s connecting people to people and people to cultures through destination immersion and none of that is going to change,” Cabezas said. “It has been what has made the brand very much respected. We know what we are. We deliver it beautifully and we intend to continue doing it into the future.”
Azamara will remain an upmarket brand; though not a luxury brand, Cabezas said, as it offers a wider value proposition than the typical luxury line.
“We have a much broader value proposition because we have interior rooms, ocean view rooms, plenty of veranda staterooms as well as suites. We cater to a broader brush of travelers. That makes a big difference as to who is going to come to Azamara,” she said.
Will the ideal audience for Azamara change?
Azamara is a boutique brand and will continue to be a boutique brand even after the acquisition.
“Guests looking for smaller ships that go to out of the way ports” who want a “casual, comfortable atmosphere,” has long been the sweet spot for Azamara (60% of the ports Azamara visits cannot be accessed by bigger ships) and it will continue to be in the future, Cabezas said.
“The way I look at it, it’s a mindset. It’s a traveler who has done a lot of the very basic going to Rome, going to Venice, going to all of the typical places that people want to see. The traveler on Azamara has already done that and they want to explore much more deeply in these destinations. Azamara has the most creative deployment out in the marketplace,” she added.
“I don’t like to put it into the boxes of an age or something else – it’s more about how does someone like to travel and are they looking for something a lot more inspiring than the standard.”
Are there changes coming to the fleet?
Azamara came into the year with a three-ship fleet—Azamara Pursuit, Azamara Journey, and Azamara Quest. After the announcement about the deal that Azamara would leave Royal and go to Sycamore, it was revealed Azamara would add a fourth ship, a sister-ship to the rest of the Azamara fleet.
The ship is expected to sail a simlair amoung of passengers (somewhere around 690) to the fleet. The big thing about the addition, Cabezas said, is it allows Azamara to serve even more guests moving foward.
“The idea is to be able to broaden our portfolio and to allow for a little more frequency for our guests. It gives us a lot more flexibility to provide many of those things that our guests our looking for and gives a lot more relevance to the brand. You have a presence but adding another third of capacity is meaningful,” she said.
“When a travel partner is thinking about ‘Who am I going to invest time and learning with?’ they are going to do so on brands who have enough to offer. Adding another ship to the fleet makes it that much more relevant for travel partners saying ‘let me learn about Azamara.’”
What about the crew onboard?
For the guests and travel advisors who have fallen in love with Azamara’s crewmembers onboard, which has always been one of the strengths of the brand, there is no reason to worry. According to Cabezas, those crewmembers will remain part of the Azamara family.
“We intend to bring over our really passionate and motived crew members, who are the ones who are called out by loyal guests all the time on social media and in the wonderful feedback that we get. We recognize that they are the ones that are bringing the product to life onboard,” she said. “We very much intend to keep them happy and onboard with us.”
Are there other changes coming?
“We plan to talk about changes in the future,” Cabezas said, adding that “at the moment, we are really quite focused on transition and getting a new ship revitalized. There are some opportunities that we touched on at a high level, that we’re really excited about,” but are not ready just yet to be unveiled, she said.
What will the team will look like?
Aside from the news about the fourth ship, Azamara also recently announced that Orlando Ashford, the former president of Holland America Line, who led that cruise line for five-and-a-half years before departing at the end of May 2020, would join Azamara as the new executive chairman.
“Orlando will be working with us, he’s got experience in the cruise industry. He’s someone who has innovative ideas, so it’s great to have another industry veteran adding his thoughts and contirbutions to help guide our upcoming growth,” Cabezas said.
What changes are coming for travel advisors?
According to Cabezas, commission levels will not be impacted by the move, and neither with FCCs or any other agreements that are already in place with Azamara.
“None of that is going to be impacted, we plan on keeping all of our agreements in place. Everything we have commited we will continue to honor” she said.
The sales team, the names that advisors have built relationships with, will also remain in place even as the brand leaves Royal.
“The entire sales team is very much energized and in place and ready to go. All of the travel partenrs will continue to have that support they’ve had day-to-day. Sycamore has been very supportive about not just the produt but also of the team because they recognize that this team that has made this product the reality. They don’t want to change any aspect of that.”
Over the next few months Azmara will continue the process of leaving Royal Caribbean with some of its back office processes. However, the advisors’ experience won’t be impacted.
“There is, of course, support that Royal Caribbean has provided as being part of a corporation,” she said. “We are now in the process of implementing transition plans that not only include Royal Caribbean for some time to come but also enable us to stand up our own infrastructure in a nice orderly way so over the coming months we’ll be able to roll off that support.”
What else should travel adivors know about?
“For the travel partners who already know and love Azamara. I would say do not worry, it is going to be more of the same for the product. The only thing you have to look out for is all the great new deployment we’ll be announcing,” Cabezas said.
For those who may not be familiar, Azamara has a learning resource center on its travel advisor portal, called Azamara Connect.
“We have plenty of materials that they can use to learn about Azamara,” Cabezas said, adding that the sales team “is happy to get new advisors up and running.”