It’s very easy to become blasé in our industry as we have the privilege of getting invited aboard loads of new ship builds so we always see them in their newest and shiniest state when they have the cruise equivalent of that ‘new car’ smell and everything is just perfect.
I recently had the immense pleasure of spending a couple of nights aboard Symphony of the Seas in Barcelona when Royal Caribbean’s latest mega ship was introduced to the world’s press and travel agents. Having previously enjoyed similar invites to Symphony’s predecessors — Oasis of the Seas, Allure of the Seas and Harmony of the Seas — you would think that I would have experienced a bit of a déjà vu moment since all are largely similar in terms of size, layout, facilities and attractions and yet I found myself marveling at the hardware as if I was seeing it all for the very first time. That’s the kind of effect that ships of this scale, quality and innovation tend to have on you!
Ship building, like any other major endeavour, tends to be an iterative process whereby things are constantly being tweaked to make them better, more user and eco-friendly and ultimately more cost effective as the running costs of such ‘floating cities’ would make even a Mughal emperor’s eyes water. During the ‘Common Ground’ session on the Friday morning, the ship’s captain explained how improvements in technology meant that the overall power consumption of Symphony of the Seas would be more than 20% more efficient than even its most recent predecessor Harmony of the Seas which was launched only two years ago.
Symphony of the Seas cost about $1.35 Billion to build and fit out which — to put it into some kind of context — is more than the gross annual output of 17 small countries around the world, according to the IMF. So, what exactly, does $1.35 Billion buy you nowadays?
For starters, it can carry nearly 9,000 people between customers and crew and if that sounds like a big number then you’d be right but bear in mind that Symphony is a huge ship which is divided into seven different ‘neighbourhoods’ so you never get the sense that it is overcrowded. Facilities include two climbing walls at the rear of the ship towards the end of a neighbourhood called Boardwalk which features a full-size, old-fashioned carousel; an outdoor amphitheatre where shows are performed each evening featuring former Olympic-class divers and swimmers and world-renowned entertainers. Boardwalk is also where users of the Ultimate Abyss, Symphony’s dry chute attraction come to rest after their 10-storey high plunge!
Like all cruise ships, Symphony has a large theatre which can accommodate around 3,000 guests at a time where Broadway-style shows like Hairspray are performed twice nightly and if that’s not your cup of tea then you can always be entertained by the spectacular ice show which features an industry-first, synchronised opening number performed by a swarm of drones! There’s also an adult comedy club and Jazz lovers are catered for in their own intimate club if the usual nightclub is not your thing. Add to all that, a central promenade that features traditional pubs, pizza bars, robotic bar tenders, live bands, shopping and dancing along with a separate bar that rises several stories up within the ships’ superstructure to deposit patrons into the middle of Central Park where they are spoilt for choice with an array of specialty dining options that include vintage wine bars, Jamie’s kitchen featuring authentic Italian cuisine along with yet more shopping outlets and let’s not forget the more than 9,000 plants, trees and other horticultural forms that make you forget that you’re actually sailing on the high seas and not in the foyer of some impossibly elegant 5-star hotel. And if that wasn’t all, there’s the surf simulator, zip line, swimming pools and Jacuzzis, mini-golf, laser tag, spa, gym, casino and around 40 restaurants and bars that cater for international, French, Italian, Japanese, seafood and Mexican cuisines, to name but a few.
You could be forgiven for assuming that a ship of this size (18 decks and 228,000 tonnes) would be the cruise ship equivalent of a Holiday Inn or some other mass market hotel but the reality is something far more impressive. The design, layout, fixtures and fittings of Symphony are 5-star all the way and easily compete with what I’ve experienced on the likes of Silversea, Oceania or even Royal Caribbean’s sister boutique brand — Azamara. Indeed, in some respects, Symphony is even better.
Consumers have a habit of comparing apples with oranges and looking only at price and not considering what bang they get for their buck. No one would ever compare the price of a Ford Mondeo with that of an equivalent model from either Audi or BMW as they know that the latter two are premium brands and that the price difference is invariably reflected in the quality of the user experience. Cruise brands and cruise ships are no different. Pricing for Symphony of the Seas will be more costly than other (superficially) comparable brands and indeed from within the Royal family of cruise ships itself but be under no illusion here; Symphony is the new gold standard against which all other cruise ships will inevitably be compared and in my opinion, is worth every single penny that it costs!