The launch of Oasis of the Seas in late 2009 heralded a new era in cruising, with increasingly large facilities required to accommodate the 225,000t ship. Ports and terminals favoured by the company have adapted their infrastructure to better accommodate its vast dimensions, but while the ship has proved immensely popular, other passengers prefer smaller vessels, giving operators the chance to create a point of difference with a more personal, luxury experience.

Unsurprisingly, port facilities are critical for Royal Caribbean. The space needed to accommodate Oasis and its sister ship, the 5,400-passenger Allure of the Seas, is considerable, which means the company has specific requirements.

“It comes down to the port’s ability to have a dock,” says Juan Trescastro, vice-president of port operations with Royal Caribbean. “We talked to the ports about three years before the arrival of Oasis to make sure they would have the facilities we need.”

Smooth operations

The presence of a dock enables the operator to guide passengers through several different entrances, ensuring that the check-in process is carried out as smoothly as possible.

“We talked to ports three years before the arrival of Oasis to make sure they would have the facilities we need.”

“If there are sufficient access points, then the arrival experience becomes more pleasurable,” says Trescastro. “It enables us to ensure that guests are able to embark and debark in a timely manner, with minimal inconvenience.”

Terminals have changed in order to handle the large numbers of passengers onboard, with modern-day security measures resulting in key design changes.

“Terminals have evolved into very spacious areas,” says Trescastro. “They are large, empty spaces that allow individual cruise lines to adapt their operations accordingly. At Fort Lauderdale, for example, we have introduced ten security checkpoints, which is something we didn’t have space for previously.

“This enables us to adhere to all the relevant security requirements, as well as to fulfil our own administrative procedures.”

On turnaround day, larger terminals provide Royal Caribbean with an appropriate base from which to handle luggage and guest processing.

“The space is critical, and we promise that our guests will travel from kerb to gangway in just 15 minutes,” he adds.

Something different

For smaller operators, arrival at port can be a good opportunity to demonstrate a more personal touch. Matt Grimes, director of planning for Fred.Olsen Cruises, thinks many passengers appreciate a more intimate experience when embarking on a voyage.

“It is certainly a way in which we can differentiate ourselves,” he explains. “Many of our guests are older and they don’t necessarily want lots of facilities. What they do want is a more personalised, friendly experience where your table waiter knows your name, and the bar steward remembers your favourite tipple from night to night, or even between cruises.”

In practical terms, one of Grimes’s greatest challenges is managing passenger flow.

“Small ships can visit ports that larger vessels can’t get into.”

“We have a target of 20 minutes from kerb to cabin, including security and check-in,” he says.

“What frustrates us, though, is the rate at which passengers arrive at the terminal – we have busy and quiet periods. Unlike some cruise lines, we don’t have the luxury of controlling the journey to the port, which means it can be a challenge to handle peak periods without hundreds of staff standing idle when things go quiet.”

Fred.Olsen’s four ships carry between 800 and 1,300 passengers, and Grimes thinks their comparatively small size gives them another advantage, namely the ability to visit ports that larger vessels can’t get into. Once there, the operator likes to boost its reputation as a friendly cruise line by fostering links with the local community.

“We like people to come and say hello,” he says. “We want to ensure that shopkeepers understand the importance of keeping their stores open for our passengers and we also like to make sure that the port authority is on side.”

Vital criteria

Unsurprisingly, cost is also a key requirement for the company.

“It’s as close to the bone as we can get it,” adds Grimes. “It’s not our only criteria, but it can formulate some of our decisions.”

Royal Caribbean now has more than 400 ports of call around the world, and lists infrastructure as its most important consideration when selecting a new location.

“We need a port that understands our business and is willing to work with us to develop the proper infrastructure in order to make the guest experience a good one,” says Trescastro. “On top of that, we look for good, marketable destinations that are capable of adapting to the size of our vessels.”

With better-than-expected 2010 results and an encouraging number of bookings so far this year, the success of the company’s giant ships looks set to continue.