I’m successful, well-educated (go Tar Heels!), well-traveled, have fulfilled most of my dreams, parent two lovely children and enjoy a good lifestyle. But despite all of those trimmings of a happy life, I’ve decided that I no longer want to be me. No. I’m finished with this persona. From now on, I want to be Frank Del Rio.
FDR, of course, is the out-spoken Chairman and CEO of Prestige Cruise Holdings, parent of Oceania Cruises and Regent Seven Seas Cruises. I say outspoken because FDR, with all respect, has no filter. He says what’s on his mind, and most times that’s refreshing and insightful, as you’ll read in the Q&A below.
He has made a fortune, rising from the ashes of Renaissance Cruises, which, in failing financial health, ceased operations on September 25, 2001. Like the mythical Phoenix, FDR flapped his expansive wings (with two former Renaissance vessels tucked underneath) and launched the upper-premium brand Oceania Cruises in 2002. It was pure genius.
FDR and company had found an untapped niche tucked between the premium brands and the luxury brands. Oceania’s positioning of upper premium not only had marketing cachet, but also appealed to a whole lot of people, which is why eight years later, Oceania’s three vessels still have a huge and loyal following, and why the company is building not one, but two, new ships.
The reason I want to be FDR is not because he’s rich (though I wouldn’t mind having a bulging wallet) but because of his passion and commitment. FDR knows what his brand stands for, and equally important, what it does not. I only wish I had such clarity of focus.
Thinking about it, it’s probably a good thing I do not inhabit FDR’s persona, because let’s be frank (ha!), I would have done something really dumb, like positioning the company as “lower luxury” instead of “upper premium.” And that would have never worked. Or would it? Let’s leave that for contemplation and go have a chat with the chief.
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Ralph Grizzle: With Marina, you’re nearly doubling the capacity of your existing ships. What impact will that have on the guest experience?
Frank del Rio: There is an 80 percent increase in passenger capacity on Marina, but a 120 percent increase in the size of the ship, so the size makes for a more comfortable ship. The guest-to-space ratio is much higher on Marina than on our existing vessels.
[ Editor’s note: Oceania’s newest ship will have similar capacity to Holland America Line “S Class” vessels, such as Maasdam, but Marina will have 25 percent more space.]
Also, we will have a higher crew-to-passenger ratio than we have on our existing ships [800 crew to 1,258 guests]. We’re elevating the Oceania experience by improving everything that we can — entertainment, the number of restaurant offerings, the guest-to-space ratio and so forth.
Q.How involved are you in Marina’s design?
FDR: Short of having a hammer in my hand, I am involved. It’s Bob [Binder, Oceania’s president] and me. He’s been alongside every step of the way. We happen to have common tastes, so it’s not often that he wants green and I want blue. You can see our fingerprint in every room on the ship.
Q. Marina is the first ship to feature suites appoint with furniture and fabrics from Ralph Lauren’s Home Collection. How did that relationship come about?
FDR: We wanted a signature stateroom, and we thought about which American designer best represented what the Oceania brand stands for —casual, timeless elegance. Ralph Lauren was it.
Q. You pointed out in one of the walk-in closets there was no tie rack. Why not?
FDR: There’s no tie rack purposely. We make it a point that we offer a country club casual ambience where tuxedoes and suits are never required. I would be going against my own brand identity if I told you to bring a tie. I don’t want you to bring a tie. You’re on vacation. I want you to relax. I want you to be casual and comfortable.
Q. As we were looking at the space where the Terrace Cafe will be, you told me that one of your pet peeves is standing in line. How have you handled that on Marina?
FDR: We’ve eliminated it on all of our ships. If there is a line, we’ve failed miserably.
Q. The ship designers joke that you’re not building a ship, but a floating galley. How do you respond to that?
FDR: For fine cuisine you need three ingredients: a good chef, good natural products and a good galley, and you can see we’ve done that by creating a very large, well-built galley.
Q. Other cruise lines are sourcing passengers from Europe, but not Oceania. It seems to be a very American product. Why?
FDR: It’s not that we’re an American cruise line; it’s that there is so much demand for our product on our own shores. And it’s so efficient to source from the United States that up to now we have not needed to do a whole lot of sourcing offshore. However, about 15 percent of Oceania’s business comes from outside the U.S. and Canada, with Australia and New Zealand being our number-one, non-North American market.
Q. One reporter said that the closest competitor that comes to mind for this size ship (1,258 passengers) and quality of product offered is Crystal. How do you respond to that?
FDR : We don’t target Crystal. We don’t target their product. We don’t target their guests. In reality, we don’t target any other cruise line. We are what we are. I believe the majority of our new customers that will come to Marina will not come from Crystal. They’ll come from Holland America, they’ll come from Celebrity, they’ll come from Princess. If you take the upper suites on board Princess, Celebrity, Holland America and Cunard, just the upper suites, do you know what percentage of those customers I need to fill Marina? 1.2 percent. So why bother targeting Crystal? 1.2 percent of the upper suites [on the premium lines] fills Marina.
Q. Tell me about some of the enrichment programs on Marina.
FDR: We’ll have the Bon Appetit Culinary Center, created in conjunction with Bon Appetit magazine. Unlike many cruise lines that have some sort of cooking demonstration, which is a look-but-don’t-touch experience, this is a hands-on cooking school. People will pay similar to what they would pay for a shore excursions to attend classes that are taught by top chefs who we’ll bring on board as guest chefs.
You’ll go ashore to a market, bring back fresh vegetables and meats and fish, and the chefs actually teach you how to cook. There’ll be 24 individual work stations with your own cook tops, your own ovens, your own pots and pans and knives to slice and dice, and you’ll actually learn to cook. You can take one course, or you can take a series of courses throughout the voyage, so that by the end of your voyage, you are a seasoned chef or at least you’ve learned how to boil water.
Across the hall from the Culinary Center is the Artist’s Loft. The idea is that we will always have a resident artist on board. On one cruise there could be a resident oil painter who will teach you to paint with oil. On the next cruise there could be someone who teaches you how to do sculpture or some kind of crafts.
Oceania has longer itineraries than most cruise lines, and people want to make sure they have plenty to do. We think the idea of the Culinary Center and the Artist’s loft resonates with our customers, who are into enriching themselves. They’re way past accumulating things. They’re into experiencing things. They want to learn.
Q. So Marina will not be offering a seven-day itinerary?
FDR: The shortest itinerary Marina will offer is 10 days. Her sweet spot is 10 to 14 days. Why would you want to leave the ship after seven days?
Q. What was the response on the opening sales day for Marina?
FDR: In the first 24 hours, all of the owner’s suites, all the vistas, all the oceania suites, all the penthouses went. In one day, 53 percent of the inventory sold [Marina’s inaugural season is sold out.]
Q. Will Marina offer open-seating dining?
FDR: Yes. Even if everybody decides to come to dinner at the same time we can handle it. The maximum guest count is 1,258. We have 1,577 seats in all of our dining rooms. The idea is that no dining room will ever fill crowded, the waiters won’t be rushed. Now obviously, not everybody can dine in Polo at the same time, because there are only 134 seats. But there will always be a seat for you at one of our restaurants at any time.
Q. When did the idea come about to build Marina?
FDR: During the inaugural of Nautica, November of 2005. It was obvious by that time. Oceania had three ships, the demand for the product was overwhelming, and there were no more R ships to be had. To grow the business, I had to order another ship. So we were planning everything — the design, the architects, the shipyard — and when we became associated with Apollo, we had the financial wherewithal to actually pull the trigger. Within 60 days of closing our transaction with Apollo, we placed the order.
Q. What was the first design element that went down on paper?
FDR: If you really drill down, the first thing we thought of in building the ship was the cabins. And the one thing in the cabins that we designed first, that we said everything had to be designed around, was the bathrooms.
The building of Marina has always been a collaboration between Bob [Binder] and I and Robin [Lindsay] and Franco [Semeraro, senior vice president hotel operations]. We’re very close. We’re not just colleagues, we’re friends. We sat around the campfire, and we asked when we build our next ship, what do you want? Everybody had a list. Maybe we’re boring, but we don’t have many disagreements. We all know what we want. We know what the brand stands for and what it doesn’t. One of the things I think we do well is that we know what we are and what we’re not. We don’t try to be everything to all. You can’t please everybody all the time.
Q. What does Oceania stand for?
FDR: We are primarily a destination-oriented, foody-lover’s cruise line, and if you can stay within those parameters and execute flawlessly, we think the market is huge.