Upgraded Empress could become Royal Caribbean’s Cuba ship

FORT LAUDERDALE — Royal Caribbean International is spending millions of dollars to upgrade the Empress of the Seas, but that effort might be more about Cuba than launching short cruises from Florida.

The Empress, which launched in 1990 as the Nordic Express, will resume sailing for Royal at the end of March after spending eight years sailing for Pullmantur as the Empress. Pullmantur, the Spanish brand of Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. (RCCL), downsized to two ships, so the Empress of the Seas will return to Miami for a deployment of four- and five-day cruises.

Cruises have only been scheduled through July on the 1,602-passenger vessel, which starts its new itineraries with a five-night trip from Key West to Cozumel, Mexico, that departs March 30.

Comparable ships, such as the Majesty of the Seas, which does short Caribbean cruises from Miami, have voyages scheduled through April 2017. But there are different plans in mind for the Empress.

Vicki Freed, Royal’s senior vice president of sales, trade support and services, recently told a group of travel agents that inventory on the Empress will likely be parceled out month by month.

“We’re not going out too far, because we’re waiting for Cuba to open up,” Freed said at a CruiseOne/Cruises Inc. training seminar. “The minute Cuba opens up, we know this is the right-sized ship for Cuba.”

The short schedule for the Empress is another sign of how eager cruise lines are to launch service to Cuba and how they are marking time because of the lack of Cuban approvals.

“As of this moment, the Cuban government has not granted permission for any America-based cruise line to call to Cuba,” said Cynthia Martinez, a spokeswoman for RCCL.

Other cruise lines that have expressed an interest in going to Cuba once the nation’s officials give the green light include Norwegian Cruise Line and Crystal Cruises.

In the meantime, Royal is refurbishing the 26-year-old ship for the short-cruise market from Florida by redesigning the staterooms, remodeling the casino and adding Chops Grille, Royal’s specialty steak restaurant. A Boleros Latin Lounge is also being added.

Royal announced the transfer of the Empress from Pullmantur in mid-December, leaving little time to ramp up sales before the March departure. So it has taken some unusual marketing moves.

It offered low prices, $249 for four nights and $305 for five nights, in a promotion that lasted until Feb. 15. To help agents earn money on such low fares and aid in filling the ship, Royal applied a 20% commission to sales on the Empress, rather than the normal 10% to 15% rate. Freed said that it was the first time in her experience at Royal that the line had offered a separate commission structure for a single ship.

For groups, the promotion included a 1-for-8 tour-conductor credit, although Freed acknowledged at CruiseOne/Cruises Inc. that with such a short booking window, groups were a challenge.

Royal is positioning the Empress as an “endless weekend” experience. There will be a DJ-driven pool party called Plunge and brunch available every day with complimentary Bloody Mary cocktails or mimosas.

It is also touting the cruises as having longer-than-normal port stays, including overnights in Cozumel on departures leaving May 9 and 26 and June 6.

The 48,500-ton ship was the first to be designed for the three- and four-night market. Its name was changed from the Nordic Express to the Empress of the Seas in 2004 to conform to the “of the seas” nomenclature of the rest of Royal’s fleet.

Tom Stieghorst, Travel Weekly

March 13, 2016

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