Veteran cruise executive Gregg Michel, who has been with Crystal Cruises since its inception and President since 2001, is overseeing its course through the economy’s troubled waters. Just before flying to New York to add yet another award to the line’s trophy case, Michel met with Elite Traveler Editor-in-Chief Douglas Gollan at the company’s Century City, California headquarters. He discussed recent and future enhancements to products and services, the benefits of having a high-profile parent company, some of the interesting people who sail with the line and how it has become a favorite for multi-generational vacations as well as corporate incentives.
ET: How are things going?
Gregg Michel: Crystal Cruises is celebrating our 20th year of operations catering to a very upscale market. We’ve been awarded top cruise line as well as best large ship luxury cruise line more than any other cruise line, hotel, spa or resort. We are committed to this position and our capital expenditure on improvements continued through the downturn, and now is the time to win market share.
ET: Your parent company is quite large.
Gregg Michel: We are a wholly-owned subsidiary of NYK, a large Japanese shipping company operating over 600 commercial vessels. We are certainly the highest consumer profile business. NYK is over 120 years old, so they know their way around shipping and the worldwide network of shipping. From a financial perspective, we don’t have the financial challenges that a smaller, independent company might have. And in terms of purchasing for things like fuel, we certainly have economies of scale.
ET: Was Crystal impacted by the recession?
Gregg Michel: For Crystal, we consider ourselves to be in the luxury services business. I am just happy 2009 is over. We were affected, we saw it in our revenues. We had to work harder to get where we got in 2009. [But] things have improved in 2010, and in fact we have seen a nice turnaround [because] we have been very aggressive and very retail-oriented.
ET: Many luxury providers cut back services and amenities during the recession.
Gregg Michel: We kept those and added some in 2009; service is our core competency. It is really what sets us apart. We maintained training of crew and staff, and as I said, we invested instead of cutting back. The marketplace is very value-oriented. We have added credits onboard of up to $2,000 per couple per cruise that can be spent in any way—shore excursions, spa, etc.—as we said, “as you wish.” We dry-docked Crystal Symphony last November and spent $25 million on restoration and redesign in public areas and suites. We completely redesigned our Lido Café and were able to get rid of all the lines. We redesigned our entire Lido Deck and built a completely new Jacuzzi, as well as new furniture with sofa beds. We added color. We completely tore out and rebuilt our Crystal Penthouses and expanded out to the skin of the ship so the Jacuzzis look right out to the ocean from the bathroom and the dining rooms have amazing views. We put in oil rubbed walnut floors, custom bar and cabinetry. Everything was specifically made for the suites, including heated floors in the bathrooms and floor-to-ceiling marble windows in the bedrooms. [The suites] are 1,000 square feet. People are giving us great feedback, saying it is a brand new ship.
ET: How many of these suites?
Gregg Michel: On Symphony there are two, on Serenity there are four. People love them!
ET: Research has shown multi-generational travel has become more popular with elite travelers during the recession.
Gregg Michel: It’s a real opportunity for that segment of the market because there is always something to do for every generation. We have in-depth lecture circuits. We have full shore excursions appealing to different generations. We have junior activity directors, including classes during the day. We are large for a luxury cruise ship, so we have lots to offer, [including] a full casino. For dinner, everyone can get together, then afterwards there are different things for different generations. Adults don’t have to step down to do this vacation. There is Nobu aboard, a fine wine cellar and an amazing spa. Our clientele is international and so there are always interesting people to meet. Our guests are very sophisticated so they appreciate having a nice mix of international guests.
ET: What’s a typical day like?
Gregg Michel: It totally depends on what you want to do. You can start at sunrise at the gym with weights, cardio, Pilates, yoga, personal training, even diet consulting. Or you can sleep late and wake up to champagne with banana walnut pancakes from room service. We have more and more overnights in ports so people can spend more time shoreside if they want. Every year 25 percent of our shore excursions are new, and we can completely customize those excursions. It’s all about choice aboard or ashore. We have a creative learning institute with more than a dozen types of computer classes, from digital photo editing to Excel, all complimentary. We have PGA golf pros and golf clinics, we have paddle tennis courts and tournaments, we have Berlitz language classes and we have art classes. We have sushi making classes and Yamaha music classes. We are now also having mixologists teach classes aboard if you want to be able to make a good drink! There are tons of movies and tons of lectures. Our World Cruise will have everyone from Wayne Newton to Dara Torres and Dorothy Hamill. We’ve had Hank Aaron and Johnny Bench. We just had General Hugh Shelton, who served under Presidents Clinton and [George W.] Bush. We had Peter Bergen, the CNN journalist who interviewed Osama bin Laden. Impromptu, Peter Bergen ended up interviewing Hugh Shelton. It packed the house and was an amazing experience. We’ve had Barbara Walters, Ken Blanchard and Don Shula.
ET: The ship seems like a good venue for incentives.
Gregg Michel: We’re very interested in the incentive market. We have seven-day cruises and because we have larger luxury ships we can accommodate larger groups. We have a number of companies and individuals who have taken the full ship, but we also do a great job for smaller groups. Porsche chartered Crystal Serenity for comprehensive training of more than 1,800 worldwide dealers. [The new Panamera automobile is Porsche’s first four-door, four-seat luxury sports car.] Hundreds of subcontractors completely emptied Crystal Serenity’s deck areas and public rooms to make way for five cars and thousands of pounds of special equipment, furniture and exhibits for the intensive training in July. Together with Porsche and its event organizers, [we] planned three-day itineraries roundtrip from Barcelona for five groups of 350 to 400 international Porsche dealers. Crystal Serenity’s public rooms were converted to training centers where dealers could absorb all of the car’s specifications, including rooms devoted to its engine, brakes and sound system. Dealers then disembarked Crystal Serenity in Marseilles for hours of test-driving to St. Tropez.
ET: What’s the cost to charter the entire ship for a week?
Gregg Michel: [In the] ballpark of $3.5 million for the week.
ET: Anything new for 2011?
Gregg Michel: For 2011, we are introducing open seating by reservation in the main dining room, in addition to of course our a la carte restaurants. We are returning to Alaska for the first time on a regular basis since 2005, from San Francisco. It is great for families. We get quite a few yacht owners who have their yachts in the Caribbean but like our itineraries. I don’t have the exact statistics but I run into a lot of yacht owners on our ships.