Inside Crystal's St. Petersburg Awards Gala

Crystal Cruises' top producing travel agents and consortia executives were treated to an exclusive evening ashore at the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg last Thursday night. // Photo courtesy of Dave Spinelli(Photo courtesy of Dave Spinelli (Edit Only)

In grand fashion, Crystal Cruises’ top producing travel partners arrived on the red carpet for cocktails and a private event at the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia, on Thusday night.

“It was spectacular,” Edie Rodriguez, the luxury line's president and CEO, told Luxury Travel Advisor, stressing the exclusivity angle: “The Hermitage closed just for our guests.” Attending the “after hours” event were the crème de la crème of luxury sellers.

“These were clearly the top producing agents that have exceeded their sales goals in order to attend the gala,” Rodriguez said. The top sellers, along with Crystal executives and trade partners, were treated to a cocktail party on the red carpet and then led in small, private groups of about 10 through the Hermitage's art-filled rooms. 

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The highlight was a 30-minute private concert in the Large Italian Skylight Hall. Conductor Pavel Petrenko led the State Symphony of St. Petersburg in an array of classical music selections – overtures from the Barber of Seville, Marriage of Figaro and Tsar’s Bridge. Other program tunes included Dawn over the Moscow River, Waltz Fantasy and more. The program concluded with “An der schonen baluen Donau” or the Blue Danube Waltz. 

"Our event at the Hermitage was exceptional," said Tom Baker, president of the Houston-based CruiseCenter. "Imagine having only 200 people in the vast art halls versus 10,000 on a given day." Baker said the trade visitors could "enjoy the old masters" without the crowds and after the tour, the musical concert was "simply divine."

Top Crystal Achievers

Crystal Symphony's gala cruise sailed roundtrip from Copenhagen a week ago, with some sales achievers also joining the ship in Helsinki, Finland.

"This trade gala was well-organized and exceeded my expectations," said Tom Kruszewski, chief financial officer and co-owner, Cruise Planners, an American Express Travel Representative, Coral Springs, FL. 

Trade participants tapped to attend the gala had all reached the mark of $500,000 in Crystal sales for the latest annual period. While Crystal no longer identifies those over the $1 million mark, of the 80 listed below (60 from North America and 20 international), 53 of those did go over the million-dollar level.

Crystal provided Luxury Travel Advisor with its list of top achievers:

* Ellen Falkensammer, Prestige Travel; Bob Kunikoff, Tzell Travel Group; Bobbi Felsot, Worldwide Golf & Travel, Inc.; Lilliana Rosete, Turismo Exmar; Paul Largay, Largay Travel; Christine Aguilera, ICE Gallery; Shane LeFeber, Montecito Village Travel; Marc Kazlauskas, Frosch International Travel, New York; Steve Shulem, Strictly Vacations; Greg Shirey, Montrose Travel; Elaine Lerner, National Discount Cruise Company; Wendy Hathorn, Bon Voyage Travel; Les Kertes, Hartford Holidays Travel.

* Carol Levy, Travel Planners; Lynda Sinclair, Vision Travel Solutions; Hans Allgeier, Outrigger International Travel, Inc.; Harriet Moore, Tri-Crown Vacations; Leslie Fambrini, Personalized Travel Consultants; Olga Placeres, Preferred Travel of Naples; David Fredericks, Forest Travel Agency Inc.; Gary Silverstein, Frosch International Travel, New York; Leah Bergner, Coastline Travel Advisors; Steve Orens, Plaza Travel; Chee Tong, Lim, Jebsen Travel & Tours; Joni De Crisce, Protravel International, Beverly Hills; Joann Bell and Emily Gustafson, Road Scholar; and Ruth Turpin, Cruises Etc.

* Jaci Samedy, Buy the Sea; Kruszewski of Cruise Planners; Sally and Daniel Goldwasser, Unique Travel; Oded Battat, Traveland; Jennifer Pollard, Ambassador Tours; James Donley, Camelback Odyssey Travel; Doug and Bonnie Crosby, Holiday Cruises and Tours; Phyllis Corliss, The Corliss Group; Stuart Rothenberg, Alice Travel, Inc.; Dan Ilves, TravelStore, Eric Maryanov, All-Travel; and Sharon Fake, Travel Experts.

* Baker and Ellen Kalish of CruiseCenter; Jeanne Sibley, Frosch International Travel, Larkspur; Susan Mackey, MoneyShow; Linda Nilsen, Blue Ribbon Cruises & Travel, Inc.; Jay and Dawn Shapiro; Five Star Travel, Inc.; Bill Knight, All Cruise Travel; Faith Kuczaj, Nexion; Joe and Stevie Friedman, Protravel International, Sherman Oaks; Deborah Deming, Frosch Classic Cruise & Travel; and Gina Morovati, NorthStar Cruises.

* Peter Lloyd and Gene Lashley, Century Travel; Ricci Zukerman, Worldview Travel; Joe Small, Alumni Holidays; Joseph, Cheng and Julian Hang, NASA Cruises; Liz Nixon, Cadence; Arnold and Roberta Salob, Bridge Holidays; Brad and Michael Anderson, Avoya Travel; Richard Leibman, Frosch; Sorrell Warren,  Vacations To Go; and Mary Jean Tully, Tully Luxury Travel.

Expansion for Crystal

In trade gala meetings, educational sessions and presentations by Crystal executives, the line's top luxury sellers learned more about Crystal's planned new products. Agents can read our story detailing that initial announcement in July here:

"Everything has been phenomenally received,” Rodriguez emphasized, citing the example of the new Crystal Esprit mega-yacht product. It will give top producers a different type of inventory to sell, with voyages starting on December 23.

Crystal Esprit serves 62 guests with 77 crew members, so higher than one-to-one in terms of a crew ratio,” she said. “Really, she’s been so well-received by agencies, it's now open for our Crystal Society members, and we’ve done charters." It’s wait listed and opens up for reservations by other consumers on September 1.

Another new product is Crystal Luxury Air; Crystal will acquire its own Boeing 787 Dreamliner. Rodriguez said the new exclusive jet option delights agents because now they can sell a luxury trip to their top-end clients that leaves every month on a 28-day, around-the world itinerary.

In turn, luxury advisors can earn high-powered revenue. And jet itinerary guests may book another Crystal product during the year as well. That's highly appealing to high-end clients who simply can’t take 128 days from their schedule to sail a World Cruise. Yet they want that over-the-top luxury experience in the pampering, service-focused Crystal style.  

Rodriguez told Luxury Travel Advisor a few weeks ago that another Boeing 787 Dreamliner could be added, if demand was sufficient. Advisors learned at the gala that when Genting Hong Kong reported earnings this week, its ownership publicly shared information on the purchase of two planes for Crystal (at least one the Dreamliner).

The second airplane could, it's thought, be a different type and used for shorter 14-day air itineraries. The line, however, is not disclosing more at this time. 

Crystal has also signed a letter of intent with Germany's Lloyd Werft to build three new oceangoing vessels. They'll have all-suite accommodations (twice the space of those on other luxury ships) plus have such razzle-dazzle features as submarines and helicopters. They will also have some "owned" residences.

Most intriguing for many agents is the line's new initiative to launch a new luxury river line in Europe, starting in March 2017. While more details are yet to come Crystal expects the river line to sail initially to six countries on two new 70-passenger vessels. The product is expected to "sell out" quickly.

Sally Goldwasser, president, Unique Travel of Palm Beach, FL, who listened to Rodriguez and other Crystal executives at the gala's onboard sessions, said the river boats [throughout the industry] are so popular that "we can use more...and for clients who have sailed on Crystal and want to try river boats, it will be a 'no brainer,' especially with the all-inclusive feature."

Crystal's Claudius Dockeral provided advisors with a sample of what river itineraries could possibly look like -- showing a river vessel on the Rhine and another on the Seine. However, a Crystal official stressed that was simply a "sample" and, by no means, final. Full itinerary dates, fares and more will be shared on December 1.

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From Goldwasser's perspective, the new ships are the most important aspect of their expansion program. "The 'Residences' [ownership concept] is very interesting and I love The World so am hoping this will be a good alternative." Goldwasser also sees opportunities with the 31-cabin Crystal Esprit, as she believes it will be great for charters.

From Baker's perspective, "I am extremely bullish on the new growth planned for Crystal Cruises and its expansion into the yachts, river, luxury air and executive-class oceangoing vessels." He's been in the travel business for 32 years, but has "never seen such dedicated exponential growth by any true luxury operator."  

Crystal Symphony and Crystal Serenity, the line's two existing vessels, are expected to remain in the fleet for possibly up to 35 years (total lifespan), the agents learned during the onboard trade gala meetings. Crystal plans to continually upgrade them and keep them in immaculate shape to meet the needs of luxury travelers.

New Owner, Deep Pockets

With a mind-boggling number of new products on the horizon, Crystal is poised to grab even a bigger piece of the luxury marketplace, thanks to the deep pockets of new owner Genting Hong Kong (GKH).  

Prior to the sale, Rodriguez talked with some of those interested in purchasing the line, including Genting Hong Kong, and told them: “Please don’t bid on this if you’re not willing to spend the investment to grow this brand.”

She said Genting Hong Kong is clearly ready to do that. “They’re getting a dream line and they’re very bullish on the brand,” said Rodriguez. 

"An incredibly cerebral visionary” is how she describes Tan Sri Lim Kok Thay, chairman, CEO and acting president of GHK. “He’s just amazing, and will allow us to grow our brand in the way we feel is necessary.

Goldwasser concurred: "With the new owners, it seems there is no end to what they can do. I am glad they have lots of experience in the travel industry so it seems they are well aware of what they are doing."

Look for more announcements in the next six months, noted Rodriguez. That said, she added “I’m not at liberty to disclose” when Luxury Travel Advisor asked about the potential for any new Crystal hotel product.

New Guest Features and Trade Support 

One new product enhancement introduced at the trade gala? Crystal has made the decision to give every guest – not only its Crystal Society guests – one free hour of Internet per person daily, with unused minutes rolling over from day to day. Plus, the line is instituting a higher bandwidth product to help speed communications.

Packages are available for extra minutes, plus Crystal Society members and Penthouse guests will still receive 90 complimentary Internet minutes a day. By limiting the free time a bit, though, Baker says it "ensures the signals do not get jammed -- a problem on other brands touting unlimited Internet; guests often fail to sign out, thus slowing access for other guests trying to connect."

Also during the gala, Thomas Mazloum, Crystal's chief operating officer, and Barbara Gilliam, the line's vice president of guest services, gave presentations on how they plan on new growth and putting the right people into place now in anticipation of the new yacht and river products' arrival.

Among the moves? Donna Cook, a former regional sales director for Crystal, has been promoted to vice president of quality control and communications, freeing up Tony Neumeister to tackle expansion planning. 

According to Baker, Gilliam spoke to increasing call center quality in Los Angeles, adding call centers in Miami and in Hong Kong as well as improving the customer experience across the board to improve ratings by the trade which now sells 96 percent of Crystal's cruise products.  

When would those call centers open? In May, Crystal had announced that it would open a branch office in Miami, with a reservations center as part of that. "As for Hong Kong, over time the plan is to have a reservations center as well," said Crystal spokesperson Paul Garcia, but he indicated no specific timetables have been given on either new call center as yet.

Opening the Bubbly

On Friday night, Crystal treated the top producing agents to a bubbly treat. Twenty-five bottles of vintage 1990 Cristal Champagne awaited those luxury sellers who have reached or exceeded their Crystal sales goals during each of the 25 years of Crystal Cruises' operations. 

That notable group includes: Harriet Moore, Ruth Turpin, Jennifer Pollard, Doug and Bonnie Crosby, Phyllis Corliss, Eric Maryanov, Tom Baker and Ellen Kalish, Jay Shapiro, Bill Knight, Joe and Stevie Friedman, Gina Morovati, Peter Lloyd and Gene Lashley, Annie Scrivanich, Ricci Zukerman, Joe  Small, Arnold and Roberta Salob, Brad and Michael Anderson, Richard Leibman, Sorrell Warren and Mary Jean Tully.

International honorees included Yoko Endo and Yuko Komatsyzaki, Diane and James Patrick, Edwina and Matthew Lonsdale, Beatriz Portilla and Martha Koszutski. 

Having attended the Crystal gala for 20 years, Baker said it was his most enthusiastic meeting ever: "I think the trade is excited and nervous as change is abundant but Crystal is also planning on how it will evolve and keep -- as well as build -- its brand equity. He says that luxury standard will go even higher."

Goldwasser's "take"?: "It is all very exciting and -- with all the very talented people they are hiring -- I wish them well." 

From Rodriguez's standpoint, "there’s much, much more to come."

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