One look at the ships along the quayside of a major cruise destination will show the extent to which the cruise industry has embraced the Field of Dreams approach to attracting guests. “If you build it, they will come”, the ghosts tell Kevin Costner in his baseball movie. It’s a lesson cruise lines have taken to heart.

With seemingly the only barrier to cruise industry growth being the capacity of the ships themselves, the answer to expansion has never seemed more obvious: build more and bigger.

For many, Royal Caribbean Cruise Line’s (RCCL’s) Freedom series of vessels, Liberty of the Seas, Freedom of the Seas, and 2008’s Independence of the Seas, with their capacities of almost 4,000 passengers, represent something of a high water mark. But RCCL is not stopping there, as it pushes on with its next-generation Genesis project.

While the Freedom ships include spectacular, innovative onboard features, such as surf and water parks, and ice-skating rinks, the first Genesis-class ship, Genesis of the Seas, scheduled for delivery in 2009, will be 43% bigger.

PRESENT AND FUTURE DEMAND

It may seem like common sense, but when evaluating ship designs cruise companies face an intriguing dilemma. When designing a ship they have to stay ahead of their guests’ needs and desires, but once it is built they need to react to them.

Genesis of the Seas truly is a remarkable ship,” says Peter Fetten, vice-president of fleet design and new building at RCCL. “Its bold design, daring innovations and technological advances will delight our existing cruisers and help us draw in new ones”. Sorry, there are no polls available at the moment.

It is not easy to imagine, let alone realise such a project. “The design of a mega cruise ship is a monumental task requiring a highly skilled multifunctional team of designers, architects, naval architects, and marine, structural and electrical engineers to develop the project to completion, within a given time frame and on budget,” says Fetten.

There are certain fundamental preconditions that must be met, such as safety, security and environmental requirements. Fetten says: “For us, there is no compromise on safety. From a regulatory point of view, the structural limits are clearly defined: safe operation, adequate fire safety and proven escape times are main factors. There can be no wavering, however big the vessel or innovative the design.”

Once the basics are assured, it becomes a case of looking to squeeze the very best from the spaces available. “A bigger vessel means that more attractions and extra comfort can be provided,’ explains Fetten. ‘More space onboard means that the needs of all age groups can be met.”

A bigger ship also means greater economies of scale to keep pricing in line. Extra facilities also begin to shape the ship as the destination. “The trick is not to just build the biggest ship you can,” says Fetten. “The key is how you fill up the expanded space to make a better vessel. We, in effect, build the ship from the inside out.”

While obviously proud of its achievements to date, RCCL is not resting on its laurels. “We have always looked to outstrip the competition on the facilities we deliver, and the Genesis class represents yet another step forward,” says Fetten.

“Twenty years ago we would never have imagined ships this large, but we have received very favourable guest reaction from the Freedom class vessels,” he adds.

SPACE TO INNOVATE

Fetten says the move to build Genesis did not simply start with the desire to build the world’s largest cruise ships. “It was a natural challenge: we had many ideas, but were restricted by the traditional view, design and size of cruise ships,” he recalls. “So we decided to build bigger to accommodate all our ideas, and the desires of our guests. Something has to drive change, and for us, rather than being constrained by our fleet, our vision has shaped our vessels.”

The promises made to guests are ‘fundamental and natural drivers of our business’ he says. “Our objective is to continue to innovate, to surprise our guests and to get them excited about cruising.”

This brave new world of mega-shipping relies not just on the vision and faith of those commissioning the builds, but on the skills and capabilities of those charged with actually building them. At the forefront of these new builds is Aker Yards, and as the order book fills, many new challenges have to be met and overcome. The Genesis building contract, worth about €900 million ($1 billion), was awarded to Aker Yards in March 2006.

“Genesis is a big challenge for us, when it comes to the size and complexity of the numerous technical innovations,” says Yrjo Julin, president of Aker Yard cruise and ferries. “But we are well prepared and enthusiastic about the challenge.”

TOO BIG?

But the ship’s attraction is not just its size. Although many cruise passengers may be drawn to the greater number of amenities and entertainment facilities larger ships provide, there are others who do not necessarily want to share their vacation with thousands of others, who tire of waiting in long queues to embark and disembark from the vessel, and who find that the larger ships can overwhelm some of the smaller ports of call with visitors.

While RCCL counters any criticisms by offering passengers a variety of ship sizes across its extensive fleet. The trend towards bigger vessels seems to have polarized the industry. For every company intent on pushing the boundaries, there are niche providers, with smaller ships and a more intimate vision of cruising.

One such company is Seabourn Cruises. As it looks to increase the size of its vessels –its newbuilds will be 32,000T, compared with its 10,000T vessels Pride, Spirit and Legend –the company is faced with an interesting shift in its business. Lawrence Rapp, vice-president of fleet operations, does not necessarily view either the big or the boutique approach as the only answer. Rapp says: “We see no reason why the industry should not create an even wider range of products to appeal to a fuller spectrum of the holiday market.”

It is not simply a question of size, but one of service too. The success of Seabourn Cruises is, according to Rapp, “based on the ability of our onboard staff to provide a very personalised service style to our guests. Key to this, asside from management, recruiting and training, is the ratio of hospitality staff to guests onboard.”

FOCUS ON SERVICE

Seabourn’s new ships will be three times the size of its existing ships, yet they will carry only twice the number of guests and maintain the same proportions of hospitality staff and guests as on the smaller ships.

“We have always looked to outstrip the competition on the facilities we deliver, and the Genesis class represents yet another step forward.”

“Surveys of affluent travellers show they equate small and exclusive with luxury – in hotels, resorts and ships,” says Rapp. “It’s the way our staff serve them and pamper them that is exceptional in their eyes.”

In many ways the challenges of the smaller ships are no less daunting, and there is nowhere to hide as a cruise provider on these types of vessels. There are no flashy gimmicks, so the product has to be perfectly married to the desires of the guest.

To Rapp, this is at the very core of the Seabourn philosophy. “Everything we do, from recruiting and training to ongoing management, is based on the premise that exceptional service happens one guest at a time,” he says. “Seabourn is in the business of helping people make their dreams come true. That is a position of trust, and we have to earn it anew every day. It’s a trust that extends whatever the gross tonnage, length or beam.”

A QUESTION OF TASTE

While the new generation of super cruise ships is capturing the imagination of shipbuilders and designers, cruise lines and customers, there are clearly different views on the question of how large cruise ships should be. However, passengers have a range of tastes and requirements, and in a rapidly expanding sector, the market looks set to be able to support business models, based on varying service levels in both large and small vessels, for years to come.