Anne Kalosh | July 16, 2013 11:45 PM ET
The Return of Royal Caribbean’s Grandeur of the Seas
Travel agents welcomed Grandeur of the Seas back to Baltimore on Thursday, July 11, after it was out six weeks for repairs following a May 27 mooring deck fire. Indeed, the agents I spoke with -- among the 1,600 Royal Caribbean International invited to sail overnight -- seemed focused on the additions in last year's $48 million revitalization, not the fire.
That’s probably because Royal Caribbean handled the incident so well. The ship’s crew quickly put out the fire and there were no injuries. Passengers later asked to meet the first responders and applauded them. The Grandeur did not lose power or become a media spectacle. The company gave frequent updates, even taking the unusual step of posting a photo of the damage. It wasn't pretty, but it suggested Royal Caribbean had nothing to hide.
What came out on the Grandeur overnight from Baltimore was a sense of trust between agents and the brand, personified by Vicki Freed, senior vice president of sales, trade support and services. She was everywhere, talking with agents and media. I saw Freed stopping for pictures numerous times and one agent called her his “icon.”
“I want to put in a plug for Royal Caribbean,” said Cathy Johnson of AAA Mid-Atlantic in Brandywine, Md., one of the other agents onboard. “They always promote being loyal to agents, and this event proves they go out of their way to make agents feel appreciated.”
Johnson's comment capped a lengthy chat we had about the fire, including how Royal Caribbean reacted and what she thought of the revitalization. She had clients onboard the aborted cruise, including some first-timers. All of her clients told her they would sail again. One came to Johnson’s agency and reported on “how fabulous the crew members were.” It also made a big impression that Royal Caribbean CEO Adam Goldstein met the ship in the Bahamas just hours after the fire.
“They felt the company took care of them,” Johnson said. “One of the reasons we haven't heard so much about Grandeur is [Royal Caribbean] took care of everything and that was the end of the news about it.”
While the ship was out of service “none of our clients asked for a refund,” Johnson said. “They just wanted to book a future cruise on this ship or another ship at the same time.” The cruises after Grandeur resumed sailing are sold out, and Johnson said she has clients on board. First-timer cruisers do question safety now, and Johnson answers that by pointing out nobody who was affected by the fire sought a refund.
The fire on Grandeur started in the middle of the night in the Deck 3 aft mooring area, which contains ropes for securing the ship, and spread to a Deck 2 crew lounge. What sparked the blaze is still under an investigation by the Bahamas government (the ship’s flag state), the U.S. Coast Guard and the National Transportation Safety Board. Petty Officer David Marin of U.S. Coast Guard Sector Baltimore told me such investigations usually take a long time – from one to two years -- and there is nothing specific regarding the cause of the fire so far.
The Coast Guard inspected the ship again last Wednesday when it arrived in Baltimore, and it was cleared to sail with passengers. Lisa Lutoff-Perlo, Royal Caribbean’s executive vice president of operations, told me there had been no electrical malfunction. Nor is foul play suspected, according to a Royal Caribbean spokesman.
Repairs to some steel structural damage and the aft sections of several decks were carried out at Grand Bahama Shipyard. On Deck 6, the secondary South Pacific Lounge and the Diamond Club for Crown & Anchor Society members were still being fixed last week and will open for the July 19 cruise. Meanwhile, Diamond members are meeting in the Viking Crown Lounge, and South Pacific Lounge activities were moved to other venues.
During Thursday's overnight sailing, technicians were discreetly working in aft areas. There was no noise or smoky smell. My stewardess told me the crew had stayed aboard during the repairs.
Jeff Nickerson of Mann Travels in Charlotte, N.C., told me he had “no concerns” about the ship. “Royal Caribbean has always been committed to safety...They handled [the fire] professionally,” he said.
Like Johnson, Nickerson touted Royal Caribbean's trade relations and said the line deals with issues head on. “Vicki [Freed] is like your best friend who is also a senior cruise executive,” he said. “To me, she's the face of the cruise industry. She's the right person to be out front and center talking about our industry.”
Freed herself praised the reaction of travel agents to the Grandeur fire. “Travel agents are so supportive of us,” she told me. “Loyalty is not something you buy. You earn it.”
Freed said inviting agents on board in Baltimore was an effort to give them the confidence to sell Grandeur, but also to see last year's upgrades to the 1996-built vessel. These include six additional dining options, from the casual Park Cafe to Chops Grille steak house. Also new are a giant poolside movie screen and a Royal Babies and Tots Nursery. Among the technology updates are touch-screen guides to the ship, ship-wide Wi-Fi and flat-screen televisions. The Centrum gained a trendy retro bar. “The ship was beautiful before, but now she's even more beautiful, fresh and new,” Freed said.
I've been reporting on the cruise industry long enough to remember when Grandeur of the Seas debuted in Miami in 1996 as the latest and greatest ship. Now, since the ship’s revitalization and the return to Baltimore, there’s that sensation of novelty once again.
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