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Designers Stay Flexible

1 March 2005




The cruise industry has to be agile to cater to the needs of today’s market. Interior design is no different, Kelly Gonzalez, director of fleet design and newbuilds for Royal Caribbean, tells World Cruise Industry Review. In fact, flexibility is the key ingredient.


All cruise line operators know the main factors that combine to give their guests a pleasurable experience – food, service, comfort, itinerary and on-board entertainment. Equally important are the facilities, staterooms and venues in which guests experience their cruise.

Creating the right atmosphere through the diverse range of spaces on board a cruise ship is largely a function of interior design, which can be crucial in determining customer satisfaction and brand identity.

"Interior design is an important factor in combination with business and operational needs," says Kelly Gonzalez, director of fleet design and newbuilds for Royal Caribbean. "First impressions of a ship carry weight. The look and design of the ship form part of the memories guests carry from the cruise."

Over its lifetime, a vessel has to reflect the changing perceptions of its guests and the kind of memories they are looking for. In the last decade, there has been a significant shift in the types of entertainment guests are looking for, as the cruise industry as a whole has adapted to a new set of demographics.

Target passenger groups are changing, which means that cruise line operators must constantly revisit their brand proposition and reassess their choice of facilities and ship design regularly. This applies to major changes, such as venue redesign or the addition of innovative features, and can also applied to the particular colour scheme and layout of key on-board spaces.

"Interior design has changed a lot in recent years, particularly in terms of venue types, and we are always looking at new concepts for the future," says Gonzalez. "You need to look for new ideas that evolve as the types of vacation people take evolve."

One of the major changes that operators have had to accommodate in terms of redesigning major on-board spaces has been with regard to the main entertainment venue. Whereas in previous years a design resembling a cocktail lounge has been preferable, the new trend is towards providing entertainment in a venue that more closely resembles a traditional theatre.

Another area where there have been significant changes to interior design requirements is the health suite. Traditional hair and beauty areas with sauna facilities are now seeing growing demand for spa services and equipment. Health is now a more important ingredient in the mix, so spaces have had to be redesigned in order to accommodate expanded treatment areas.

"Cruise line operators must constantly revisit their brand proposition and reassess their choice of facilities and ship design."

"It is more about the concept of wellness," says Gonzalez. "We devote more real estate on the ship to health and beauty, and this allocation of space is important. There are definitely a lot of changes, and we have to look at how individual guests’ needs are changing when we are refitting and when we are designing newbuilds."

As well as monitoring and refining existing facilities, there are also occasions when entirely new concepts find a place among the traditional elements of entertainment. There have been a number of new ideas implemented on Royal Caribbean’s vessels.

The most significant of these is the rock climbing wall, which proved so successful in trials on one vessel that the innovative idea was soon scheduled for fitting on all Royal Caribbean ships. Similarly, the sunken floors in casinos have been well received and are now an important feature.

"There are new things that can affect the design, such as the rock climbing wall, which was important to bring in," says Gonzalez. "It is a successful concept and there is high demand for it."

CHANGING WITH THE TIMES

Deciding on new concepts such as the climbing wall or the redesign of a major venue is all well and good, but putting such plans into practice can involve significant amounts of time and money. In a market where guests’ needs are changing fast, such projects cannot be implemented, nor can the major areas on a ship be kept looking smart and contemporary without factoring in a cost-effective means of revamping a vessel’s interior design.

At Royal Caribbean, instilling as much flexibility as possible into the interior design renovation process was seen as crucial. Some of this flexibility is provided by its existing rota of refitting.

Firstly, refurbishment is carried out on a yearly basis on each ship. This allows surface changes and a limited reworking of a ship’s look while it is in service. More fundamental changes can be carried out when ships come into drydock, once every three years.

Secondly, for ships in mid-life – such as Royal Caribbean’s Monarch, Sovereign and Empress of the Seas – and high-demand younger ships, there is a revitalisation programme that allows for a more aggressive approach to new concepts, such as the installation of the climbing wall or the conversion of the cocktail lounge into a theatre venue.

Simultaneously, of course, the newbuilds programme is constantly informed by the assessment of facilities and designs – both traditional and innovative – that are in place on existing vessels.

At whichever stage of refurbishment or revitalisation new concepts are put in place, it is important for cruise line operators to be able to change the make up of facilities and design concepts in the future at a reasonable cost and within an efficient time frame. Responsiveness to changing guest preferences can have a strong impact on an operator’s competitive advantage.

Recognising this, Royal Caribbean has recently looked at the interior design from a new angle, to find a way in which it can simplify and reduce the cost of refitting. "We are starting to simplify structural aspects of the design, so that we can focus on the surface complexity," says Gonzalez. "Ten years ago, the dining rooms on cruise ships had a lot of built-up steel platforms. Now, we want to focus on the surface so that it is easier to change a room design years down the road."

Some aspects of the interior design of Royal Caribbean’s ships look set to remain unchanged, no matter how long the vessel’s lifespan. The nine deck-high centrums, for example, never seem to go out of fashion. Similarly, the Royal Promenade is a strong architectural feature. Elsewhere on the ships, however, there is a growing need to have a design that can be quickly and easily altered to suit the times.

"Flexibility is becoming exponentially more important as the fleet gets larger," notes Gonzalez. "This is true for both state room and interior design. The lifespan of a vessel is long, but the lifespan of a venue is perhaps only five to seven years. In high traffic areas, where there is carpet, for instance, the lifespan is very short – maybe two or three years."

UNDERSTANDING THE MARKET

Royal Caribbean realises the importance of flexibility, as it has seen for itself the changes that are taking place in the market. It has seen the profile of its guests shift significantly, giving it new target groups and placing greater emphasis on interior design and the advantages of changing it. For instance, the growing popularity of cruises among families has placed much greater emphasis on providing appropriate areas and facilities for the cross-generational groups that must be catered for.

"We have seen a decrease in the younger, more energetic population choosing the Royal Caribbean brand, and a rise in the number of families taking our cruises," says Gonzalez. "This has affected our revitalisation and refurbishment plans. On the Monarch of the Seas and the Sovereign, for example, we have doubled the size of the youth areas. You have to constantly rethink who your guests are."

To some extent, analysing guest target groups, and thereby getting a clear idea of the kind of design features that are appropriate for those markets, can be achieved by looking at demographics. Changes in population, wealth and predominant age groups will affect the appeal of certain facilities to potential guests. However, raw demographics alone are not a solid foundation on which to base all interior design decisions.

"Changes in population, wealth and predominant age groups will affect the appeal of certain facilities to potential guests."

Gonzalez feels there is more to understanding guests’ needs than mere statistical data. Factors such as age group or race do have some bearing, but for Royal Caribbean there is also a strong desire to understand the market in a wider cultural sense. "The ethnic complexity has changed and is more blended now," says Gonzalez. "But we must find things that appeal to mindsets, not just a particular age or racial group."

This is the approach that Royal Caribbean has taken on its newbuild projects – notably the UltraVoyager I and UltraVoyager II, due in 2006. Both vessels feature a number of innovations, details of which are being closely guarded for now.

However, we do know that both vessels will put into practice the credo of flexibility that has emerged. From the start of their serviceable life, they will be prepared for numerous changes to interior design and facilities allocation, as determined by the changing market.

The look and design of the ship form part of the memories guests carry from the cruise.
The dining room is a major factor in any guest experience.
There has been a rise in the number of families going on cruises.