The fifth and final member of Celebrity Cruise’s Solstice class will make its maiden voyage before the year is out. Elly Earls meets Celebrity’s Harri Kulovaara to find out why the latest technology, a close-knit team and decades of experience will make Celebrity Reflection the biggest and best in a distinguished class.
Characterised by cosmopolitan design, world-class amenities and the most up-to-date technology, Celebrity's Solstice class has come to define the cruise line's identity. Yet, while the brand's four top-of-the-range vessels, the first of which, Solstice, began service in November 2008, are all distinctly Celebrity, they are also unmistakeably one of a kind.
The latest addition to the class, Celebrity Reflection, which will take to the open seas by the end of 2012, is no different. In fact, while this final Solstice class member epitomises the 'modern luxury' that typifies its four predecessors, the highly anticipated ship has undergone further alterations than the others.
"It's an evolution of the previous designs, but it's a slightly bigger step than those we've taken in the past," says Harri Kulovaara, executive vice-president, maritime and newbuilding at Azamara Club Cruises, Celebrity Cruises and Royal Caribbean International. "We've taken all the best things from the Solstice class and built on what we believe is a very successful formula for Celebrity."
New additions include: Celebrity's first two-bedroom suite Reflection Suite, equipped with an all-glass shower, which extends over the edge of the ship and is, according to Kulovaara, the most exciting suite he has ever been part of creating; The Porch, designed for quick, casual dining and set against a backdrop of the onboard lawn and the sea; and an expanded version of the Lawn Club Grill, the brand's popular 'interactive' restaurant.
"We are always looking for opportunities to evolve and innovate, and for continuous improvement," Kulovaara says. "We're not very excited by just executing and copying the same thing."
But the most significant changes to the Solstice class's tried and tested formula are the widening of the hull and the addition of an extra deck, which will give the 126,000t Celebrity Reflection 16 rather than the usual 15 decks, an extra 72 cabins and the capacity to accommodate over 3,000 guests.
"This ship has required a more extensive design effort because we were making the hull 2ft wider," says Kulovaara. "Although it's only a minor change, it required going through all the drawings, all the pipes, all the outfitting, and so on."
Line and shipyard: shared passion
Celebrity's long-standing relationship with Meyer Werft, a shipyard renowned for the construction of highly sophisticated cruise vessels, proved invaluable during the design process.
"We have very much the same type of mentality; we're constantly looking for possibilities of doing things better and more efficiently, and creating a better experience for the guest," Kulovaara says of the partnership between the two organisations.
"Both companies have an open mind for new things, so it's always been a very collaborative effort and a transparent way of working. On top of that, Meyer Werft is the industry leader in the design and building process, clearly going beyond anything I've ever seen in other shipyards, and from that point of view, we've truly enjoyed working with them."
Celebrity's passion for innovation can also be seen in the line's latest vessel's pioneering propulsion units, manufactured by ABB.
"Something that is constantly on our mind is energy efficiency and how we can make ships more efficient using newer technology and thinking," Kulovaara explains. "We are using a new Azipod, the XO, which is a totally new design that we believe will provide us with better fuel efficiency and even more reliable operation. These kinds of changes are really the spice of our work. It's what gets us going every day."
Holistic approach to shipbuilding
It's not just the propulsion units that will be significantly greener than any other Celebrity cruise liner; Kulovaara and his team have been through every component on the ship, looking at where they can find efficiencies - from lighting points to fans and pumps.
"There are a large number of initiatives and although each one has a small impact, there are so many of them that we are expecting quite a significant fuel efficiency improvement on this vessel," he says. But the performance of the vessel is just the tip of the iceberg.
"Ships are very complex," Kulovaara explains. "We have the ultimate resort on top of a very sophisticated vessel, which generates its own power and cleans everything it does, so we need to make sure the design process is carried out in such a way that all the moving parts and the elements fit well together."
Celebrity therefore follows what Kulovaara calls a 'holistic design process'. Although the traditional method of putting ships together involved designing the vessel and fitting customer needs around the technical aspects later, Kulovaara, who has been involved in the cruise industry since the 1970s, feels that the customer experience, the technical requirements and the operational aspects need to fit holistically.
"Our design process is done through iterative design spirals," he explains. "We start with higher-level thinking and step by step move in closer. Each time we go through all the criteria and all the elements."
Although it sounds a complex way of approaching ship design, at Celebrity it has become increasingly easier over the years.
"We've worked for over ten years with more or less the same team, and each year we understand each other better," says Kulovaara. "We look at the ship as a total element and make sure that we do the work in sync."
This is largely facilitated by frequent team get-togethers - both within individual departments and as a larger group. Every month there is a review meeting for technical experts, an equivalent meeting for architects and interior designers, and a 'chief designers review' where the two sets of experts come together to ensure the architectural and technical elements slot seamlessly together. While these meetings are crucial for making sure that every element of the ship's design works as part of the whole, very few changes are made during the process.
"We have introduced a concept called 'front-loaded design'," Kulovaara explains. "We try to get all the ideas and the thinking to the table at an early stage because it is much more cost-effective."
With build times becoming shorter (Celebrity Reflection spent only 12 months under construction), there is little time for improvisation and changes made at a late stage can be challenging for any shipyard to handle. That's not to say things don't occasionally slip through the net.
"Sometimes, when a ship is built we notice a detail that we want to do differently," says Kulovaara. "Or there may be an element of technology that has evolved, something so remarkable that we might make a decision with the shipyard at a late stage."
Newbuild technology: continuous improvement
With technology developing at an ever-increasing pace, this is likely to become more frequent. For Kulovaara, the impact of technology on the newbuild process has been drastic.
"We don't do things with paper and pencil anymore," he explains. "Even ten years ago, we still did things on paper, used cardboard models and worked with full-scale mock-up prototypes. Today, we can do all this almost in real time on our CAD systems."
Over the past ten years, many other factors have also contributed to a significant reduction in the length of time it takes to bring a complex Celebrity cruise vessel from concept to completion. Not only is the building process more industrial; the staff, from architects to interior designers, project managers to equipment manufacturers, are more in tune with one another and have gained the benefit of more experience.
"Every ship generation - in one way or another - builds on the competence we've gained from the previous ship, either in terms of the design process, the operational aspects or from a guest experience point of view," says Kulovaara.
Yet in the future, it is likely that this experience will be applied in a slightly different way - to the company's many planned revitalisation projects.
"The pace of newbuilds will be somewhat slower and revitalisations will become an integral part of the business," says Kulovaara, adding that although the focus will increasingly shift towards retrofitting, it's an area in which Celebrity has been working for ten years.
"We have learnt a lot from our newbuilds that we can apply to existing ships, and we're always looking for possibilities to evolve our equipment to ensure that every ship is truly our best."
But whether it's revitalisations or all-new vessels, some things never change.
"It's the same team effort and I feel the same privilege to be part of this," says Kulovaara. "I truly enjoy every single day and I think tremendous opportunities lie ahead of us for improving designs, making ships even easier to operate, becoming more environmentally friendly and, ultimately, providing - in a safe and effective manner - a super vacation for our customers."