‘Spotless ships’: High standards drive new Norwegian Cruise Line CEO

By Gene Sloan for USA Today

 

ABOARD THE NORWEGIAN ESCAPE — The last executive to run Norwegian Cruise Line, Kevin Sheehan, often talked about pushing the brand from good to great. But it takes just a few minutes with the new boss, Frank Del Rio, to get the sense that the goal post has been moved even further. Perfection just might be the new mantra.

“I insist on spotless ships,” Del Rio says as one example when asked about things he’s changing at Norwegian since taking over nine months ago. “So there’s a whole newfound appreciation for clean ships at Norwegian.”

 

Cuisine also is an area when Del Rio is setting a higher bar. He hints that he wasn’t entirely happy with what he found in the food department upon arrival.

“I’ve never met anyone who said, ‘no, I like my food bad.’ Everybody loves good food,” he quips during an exclusive interview aboard Norwegian’s new ship, the Norwegian Escape. “We’re going to bring good food on board. Whether it’s Asian or Italian or steakhouses, it’s going to be the best it possibly can be.”

 

From Del Rio, that’s no idle boast. As the founder of upscale line Oceania Cruises, he’s responsible for one of the Cruise World’s best-known brands for foodies, and in recent years he added a second line known for gourmet eats to his portfolio, luxury operator Regent Seven Seas Cruises. Mainstream brand Norwegian became the third and by far the biggest line under his control in January when he became CEO of the holding company that controls all three cruise operators.

Already, the food on Norwegian ships is changing. Several of the signature Norwegian restaurants on Escape feature revamped menus, and there are several new outlets that take cuisine to a higher level than what typically has been found at the line.

“I guarantee to you that prior to us having arrived at Norwegian you wouldn’t have had the lunch that you had on the ship (today),” Del Rio declares, referring to an eatery called Food Republic where earlier in the day he had spotted this reporter sampling an array of elegant and inspired tapas-like dishes. The a la carte outlet was created in partnership with the Pubbelly Boys, the culinary team that has reinvented the dining scene in Miami’s South Beach in recent years.

 

“That came from the heritage that (Oceania and Regent) bring to the table in terms of food,” Del Rio says.

The longtime cruise industry executive is chatting in a lounge in The Haven, Escape’s exclusive retreat for passengers in top suites. It’s another area where he’s making changes.

A signature of Norwegian ships, The Haven boasts its own pool, sun deck, restaurant and bar, and it comes with personal butler and concierge service. But Del Rio suggests it wasn’t quite living up to its billing as the ultimate in luxury at sea.

“If you’re going to play in the luxury game, you don’t cut corners. You give it all you got,” he says. “We’re going to elevate The Haven. The bones are here to have a heck of a product, and we’re going to fill it in with the level of service, the cuisine at the restaurant and the attention to detail.”

Del Rio is known among cruise industry executives for an almost obsessive focus on even the littlest things when building new ships. He and another executive, Bob Binder, personally picked out much of the art hanging in Oceania’s newest vessels.

 

Escape already was well along in construction when Del Rio took the helm at Norwegian, and many key decisions on the design already had been made. Even so, he says he was able to make some tweaks to the ship’s decor that he thinks improved the look.

“We didn’t change any steel,” he notes, referring to the sort of big changes in design that require already-underway public spaces to be reconfigured. “It was too late. (But) the next vessels will have my finger prints all over them.”

Norwegian currently has three more ships on order, all of the same class as Escape.

Still, it’s not just Norwegian’s new ships that are getting Del Rio’s attention. He says he’s pouring money into the line’s 10 oldest vessels over the next two years to upgrade them to a level he says will be even better than when they debuted. Already, the line’s five-year-old Norwegian Epic has emerged from a massive makeover as has the eight-year-old Norwegian Gem.

“We spent a lot of money on them, and Epic today is better than she was the day she left (the shipyard) five years ago,” he says.

The upgrades should result in higher demand for the vessels, which in turn will boost pricing and return on investment.

It’s a “spend money to make money” strategy Del Rio has used at Oceania and Regent over the years — one that is in contrast to the always-be-cutting-costs mantra at some lines. Big overhauls of older ships at Oceania and Regent have boosted demand and allowed for higher pricing.

“As long as you maintain your vessels to the highest possible standards (and) continually update them, there is no reason an older vessel can’t be as popular in the marketplace as a new one,” Del Rio says.

Regent’s oldest and smallest ship, the Seven Seas Navigator, is the line’s most profitable, he notes.

Over 2016 and 2017, all but one of Norwegian’s 10 oldest vessels will undergo a major overhaul in dry dock, Del Rio says. He throws around numbers like $50 million in upgrades per ship, which is several times the amount that some of Norwegian’s competitors spend on overhauls.

“This is a capital intensive business. If you’re going to stay in it for the long run, you have to be willing to commit capital, and not just to build new ships,” he says. “I don’t know why others don’t do it.”

The bottom line, says Del Rio: “In two short years, this fleet will be brand new.”

 

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