With the launch of the Norwegian Epic in June, Norwegian Cruise Lines (NCL) will join Royal Caribbean and Carnival as members of the ‘mega-class’ elite. With at least 60% more passenger space than any member of NCL’s existing fleet, the 4,200-capacity vessel promises to reinvent the cruise experience, introducing the next generation of the Freestyle Cruising concept pioneered by the operator over the past decade.

There is genuine excitement within NCL around the benefits the Epic will bring to a brand already famed for its innovative culture, but the build process has not proved completely smooth sailing. The initial order, made in late- 2006, was for two F3-class ships.

However, a dispute between NCL and shipbuilders STX in September 2008, with construction of the first vessel already well underway, saw the deal fall into jeopardy.

“The hip, somewhat urban feel of the ship’s cabins feels like a departure from traditional notions of maritime design.”

Reports suggested that the 50% acquisition of NCL by private equity group Apollo Management the previous August had led to design changes being made, prompting a disagreement over revised costs. Eventually a deal was reached, but it arrived with the caveat that NCL would now only be taking delivery of the one ship.

When broaching what might be a delicate subject with NCL president and COO Roberto Martinoli, however, he makes no effort to duck the question.

“Yes, there were issues with the yard and I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t a difficult eight months or so,” he acknowledges. “But we came to an understanding and it’s no exaggeration to say that the relationship today is excellent. We moved from what was a challenging situation to a place where it really works for both sides; things are progressing very well.”

Martinoli may have only joined NCL in April of last year, but his first experience of the Epic came earlier, having become an advisor to Apollo Management in March 2008. “It was one of the first things I was told to do for them,” he recalls, “being sent out to have a look at the project and see how it was progressing. It’s a huge undertaking and a significant investment, so clearly Apollo wanted to keep a close eye on its evolution.

“That was my involvement initially, but upon becoming COO one of my areas of responsibility is for new building. Needless to say, this is one of the biggest things going on within the company, not just from a long-term perspective, but on a day-to-day basis. It requires constant monitoring.”

Speaking on the eve of yet another trip to the Chantiers de l’Atlantique shipyard on the west coat of France to check up on the latest progress, the cruise veteran, whose previous roles include executive VP, operations at Carnival Cruise Lines, senior VP, operations at Costa Crociere and managing partner at Martinoli Group, is clearly excited by the thought that the Norwegian Epic is so close to completion.

“We finished loading all the cabins towards the end of the year, the steelwork is completed and all major aspects of the project are in place,” he explains. “Systems preparation is also up and running, so it’s really just interior decoration and the finishing touches that need doing between now and delivery.

“The overall design is fantastic – I can say that as it was all confirmed before my arrival. From an architectural standpoint they’ve done a great job; the whole thing feels so dynamic and new.”

Work on interiors has been shared between two practices with whom NCL enjoys a longstanding relationship, SMC and Tillberg Design, and a team of in-house designers have focused on the crew areas and behind-the-scenes logistics. The hip, somewhat urban feel of the ship’s cabins feels like a departure from traditional notions of maritime design, but it is the scale and span of the entertainment amenities on board that really excite.

“When NCL launched the Freestyle Cruising concept back in 2000 it was mainly centred around the dining experience, placing an emphasis on choice and flexibility,” Martinoli explains. “What the Epic represents is a further step forward through applying similar principles to entertainment. Instead of one big show with two sittings of 3,000, you have several different locations, smaller capacities and the opportunity for people not to feel obliged to be at a certain place at a certain time. This is quite a significant change to the cruise experience.”

“We’ve put a lot of focus into the ‘urbanistics’ of the design and extended our on-board reservation system.”

Having already confirmed acts such as Blue Man Group and Legends in Concert, the COO believes the Epic’s output will be more akin to Vegas or Broadway than anything found on the high seas. These claims will surely attract a wide audience, but the scale on which this new level of Freestyle Cruising will be conducted might also pose problems.

Sometimes being able to dictate guest behaviour in a more dictatorial manner does have its benefits, and with at least 60% more passenger space than any of the existing fleet, a lot of work is being put into minimising congestion.

“There are certainly challenges that arise around ensuring people are flowing through the ship and no bottlenecks arecreated,” Martinoli acknowledges. “We’ve put a lot of focus into the ‘urbanistics’ of the design and extended our on-board reservation system. Part of that was working with external consultants, using a simulation programme that encourages us to take lessons from existing passenger behaviour and apply it to the Epic. We believe we’ve done a good job, but only time will tell. That’s the thing with prototypes: you never know until you see them in operation.”

But all the planning in the world will not guide passenger behaviour alone. The success of a project on this scale, initially at least, will rest with the quality of crew on board. The Epic will boast 1,730 crew members in total, a recruitment challenge Martinoli and his team began tackling more than a year ago.

“The priority has always been to ensure that the vast majority of people joining the crew are already fully trained and up to speed,” he reveals. “This has required a lot of work well ahead of time. We’ve gone through our fleet schedule, having people overlapping across our ships and balancing the process so that the percentage of newcomers is spread evenly across all our ships and the balance on each is the right mix of experienced crew and first-timers.”

Experience cocktail

Finding the right cocktail of experience and new talent is an ambition not confined to frontline service. Martinoli cites the variety found in the executive echelons at NCL as a key driver of its success and it is something he has tapped regularly throughout the construction process. “When you look at the people running the company today it’s a good mix of those who’ve spent a lot of time in the industry and others that have been brought in from the outside,” he says.

“Time is your enemy when building a big ship and regular contact is key: you don’t want anybody being surprised by anything.”

“That’s very beneficial and the opportunities for learning from one another are immense. With the Epic it’s not only a question of applying the lessons we’ve learnt before; new approaches also need to be adopted in order to meet what for us is a new challenge. Direct experience, external help and new eyes are all required to make a project of this scale work.”

A concerted effort has also been made to involve people from across all levels of the organisation, through open forums, steering committees and regular update reports – “it’s been a real team effort,” says Martinoli. As the end looms into sight, however, the COO can start making concrete plans as to what his early role in its launch will be.

“I’ll certainly be spending plenty of time on the ship at the beginning,” he says excitedly. “It’s far preferable to being on the phone five hours a day. I’ll attend the first few cruises and keep an eye on things, but the team we’ve assembled is highly focused and motivated – they don’t really need my help.”

After all the work that has been put in already, no one would resent Martinoli taking a break. With initial problems overcome and everything on track for delivery, it is also a good time to reflect on the knowledge gained from NCL’s first experiences of a mega-class project.

“The core lesson is that these builds are extremely tight in terms of timing,” he says. “It is imperative that you have fast and efficient decision processes in place. Sometimes, it can even be better to make a bad decision than do nothing at all. Time is your enemy when building a big ship and regular contact is key: you don’t want anybody being surprised by anything.”

Fingers crossed, but the general sense of optimism emanating from NCL these days would suggest that any nasty surprises are well behind them. It looks as though Freestyle Cruising is about to become bigger than ever.