Fred Olsen’s cruise ships are having a growth spurt. In the past 12 months two of its fleet had their capacity increased by 650 rooms. It is an exciting time for the company as its expansion plans to raise the standard of quality for its passengers come to fruition.

“I think the extra length makes some wonderful ships even nicer,” says managing director Mike Rodwell, “the additional public rooms have improved the overall experience and our passengers have been positive about the results.”

Fred Olsen’s Braemar went into Hamburg’s Blohm + Voss shipyard in May 2008 and came out in July with an increased capacity of 977, up from 727. This followed the Balmoral, which sailed from the shipyard in February 2008 with a new 30m mid section and capacity for 400 more passengers.

“Additional public rooms have improved the overall experience and our passengers have been positive about the results.”

Scaling up

“The UK cruise market has been growing for the last 22 years and to protect our market share we needed to grow with it,” says Rodwell. “Our choices were to either buy second hand, buy new or stretch, and certainly stretching has its economic advantages. If we buy second hand then there are only a few vessels out there which match our requirements and we have already bought the ones that are suitable.”

“A new build takes time and resources and I think is something that is easier to achieve when the time is right. Because builder prices are costly and the euro is high it is a big ask.”

While Rodwell agrees new ships generate passenger excitement, stretched and refurbished ships offer travellers a sense of ‘newness’. Sorry, there are no polls available at the moment.

In fact the Braemar‘s new 31.2m mid section allowed for the introduction of an observatory lounge, the Grampian restaurant, a redesigned pool area with two swimming pools, and a bar. It also includes the Morning Light Pub on the lounge deck and an arts and crafts room for talks, lectures and tuition.

Fred Olsen’s latest ship, the Balmoral, was extended by 30.2m to create 186 passenger cabins, 60 new balconies and 53 crew cabins.

Marketing director Nigel Lingard says the aim was to retain its ‘small ship, friendly feeling’ while carrying more passengers in superior accommodation. “It’s important to generally refurbish the whole ship to keep the accommodation compatible,” he says. “We wanted to create more balcony cabins and restaurants so our regular clients can experience the same standards, but with more premium accommodation.”

On the Braemar, Fred Olsen was also able to add expand its range of balcony suites. “It was important for our existing passengers not to lose confidence in the ship. We wanted them to feel they were sailing out on something which had not changed but had greater benefits,” Lingard says.

The period spent in dock for the stretching also provided an opportunity for upgrades. “It’s very unusual for a ship to be out of service for two months so we took the chance to do things such as upgrade its water systems to significantly reduce its discharges and bring them up to the best standards in the industry,” Rodwell says.

“Stretched and refurbished ships offer travellers a sense of ‘newness’.”

Both engines were upgraded to ensure sufficient power to drive the lengthened ships, while Green Tube lighting was installed, which significantly reduces the energy consumption on board

The biggest challenge, in engineering terms, was to ensure the stability of the vessels was maintained. “The engineers and consultants had to do a lot of work to make sure they met international requirements,” Rodwell recalls.

The contract for the stretching went out to competitive tender, with Blohm + Voss chosen for its good overall package. “We have a long experience of working with them over the last 20 to 30 years on different projects,” says Rodwell. “Blohm + Voss lengthened the Black Watch and Boudecia in 2005 and we had a good experience with that overall. They had the know-how and experience of lengthening but also the common sense to subcontract when they needed to.”

Inching forward

The ship expansions included creating a section with the Schichau Seebeck Shipyard, in Bremerhaven, and floating it to Hamburg for the refit. Mathias Eschner, project manager at Blohm + Voss, says the time spent in dry dock was critical and that although they were complex projects, both ships were completed within a year from when the contracts were signed.

“The task was to organise the complete design, longitudinal strength and stability calculations, approvals, procurement of materials and production within this limited timeframe,” Eschner says. “This was made possible by a good working relationship with the ship owner and all the parties involved.”

“It’s important to generally refurbish the whole ship to keep the accommodation compatible.”

Mark Hilferty, managing director at SPACE the design practice, oversaw the interior design, working closely with Blohm + Voss engineers. “I think both the Balmoral and Braemar are much improved. One of the concerns was that the Braemar has a particular passenger base that loves the intimacy of the ship and we had to try and maintain that on a larger vessel,” he says.

“We’ve been pleased with the feedback from passengers so far, who are saying they loved the old Braemar but love the new Braemar even more.”

The design firm was responsible for coordinating the entire interior arrangement, while meeting the engineering requirements and providing the number of new cabins required.

“It was like doing a new build and a refit at the same time and working up a completely new concept within the constraints in line with the existing areas,” Hilferty says. “The corridors were the big exercise and achieving the right public spaces for passengers to flow through and wander around. Some spaces were given a new interpretation, such as the lounge, while some areas were given a more contemporary feel.”

Fred Olsen’s bill to purchase, lengthen and refurbish the Balmoral was in the region of $210m. The accountants have calculated that the cost of stretching will be recouped in less than ten years.

Nigel Lingard says bookings on the stretched ships are strong, with occupancy levels reaching 90%. “We are getting good capacity already and have the extra balcony accommodation for repeat passenger requests. It’s surprising how fast the ships are gettiing booked up.”

With the Balmoral sailing with 40% repeat passengers, the line hopes to hold its own in the current economic climate, with UK bookings up 15% in 2008. “We have capacity growth this year and a good proportion of our clientele are less affected by these current credit concerns,” Lingard notes. “We are continuing to look forward through these difficult times, but that’s not to say we are not vulnerable.”

“Fred Olsen’s bill to purchase, lengthen and refurbish the Balmoral was in the region of $210m.”

The cruise line targets a niche market of English middle class retirees, and sees itself as offering the vibe of a small country hotel or golf club, with its smaller size an asset. “Even our biggest ships are still relatively small by current industry standards,” Rodwell observes.

“When we started 20 years ago, the Balmoral, with its extra capacity, would have been a mega-ship but even now our whole fleet together is not as big as one Royal Caribbean ship. Yesterday’s ship is tomorrow’s notion of small.”

Small is indeed beautiful and as Fred Olsen launches it first 107-night northern hemisphere round the world cruise from Japan to Alaska, the stretch seems to be paying off.