Up Close with Larry Pimentel

For Larry Pimentel, Transforming Azamara is a Project of Passion...

 

Larry Pimentel
Larry Pimentel joined Azamara Club Cruises as CEO in 2009. “It wasn’t a brand that I necessarily thought about,” Pimental says of the time when Richard Fain, CEO of Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd., approached him about the position.
 

Azamara Club Cruises

Chairman and CEO: Richard Fain

President & CEO: Larry Pimentel

Vice President, Sales and Marketing: Edie Bornstein

Fleet: Azamara Journey and Azamara Quest; each carry 694 passengers

Parent Company: Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd.

Website: www.azamaraclubcruises.com

 


 

 

An elderly British couple stands in front of their Azamara Journey cabin door trying to figure out which end of their electronic keycard should go into the lock. They’ve clearly just checked in and haven’t familiarized themselves with the workings of the 694-passenger ship.

“No, no, give me that!” the exasperated woman says to her husband. She’s about to give the keycard a try when Larry Pimentel, president and CEO of Azamara Club Cruises, who happens to be walking by, steps in. “May I help you with that?” he asks, gently taking the keycard and unlocking the door instantly.

“Now, here’s an expert!” the woman says, gazing up at Pimentel with a relieved grin.

It’s a magic moment for the couple, who delightedly spill inside their room, but one suspects Pimentel creates as many magic moments for his guests as he can, being so clearly in love with good hospitality, and with the Azamara Journey and Azamara Quest, as well.

Indeed, Pimentel, who joined Azamara in July 2009, calls this latest career move, “a project of passion.”

Just how he got here has an interesting twist. Azamara was launched after its parent company Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. bought two Renaissance R-class ships and invested about $20 million in each. Azamara was launched in 2007 as a deluxe product under the Celebrity Cruises’ umbrella. To many, it was a surprise when Richard Fain, chairman and CEO of RCCL, decided to separate Azamara from Celebrity and hired Pimentel to head the line. Fain’s intentions for Azamara were clearly to bring it up a few notches, since Pimentel’s entire professional travel career had focused on luxury; in fact, the corporations listed on his résumé can be considered some of the top picks in the affluent arena: Classic Hawaii, Cunard Line, Seabourn and Seadream Yacht Club.

Michael’s Club
Michael’s Club, aboard both Azamara ships, is known as the spot to enjoy a nightcap and some music.

Pimentel’s decision to head the brand was one he'd carefully thought out. “When Richard first spoke to me about it, my notion was almost, like, ‘what is this brand?’’’ Pimentel tells Luxury Travel Advisor. “It wasn’t a brand that I necessarily thought about, although, in all fairness, it was relatively new.” Pimentel decided to go on an Azamara cruise on his own, not as a VIP, to see what he’d be dealing with. “I wanted it to be a live laboratory,” he says.

He was trying to find out what would make Azamara stand out in the marketplace. Being distinct is vital to Pimentel’s formula for success.

“The essence of marketing is differentiation. What you are doing that’s different from what somebody else is doing is what gives you a reason to go on, or gives a travel seller a reason to sell you,” he says.

His conclusion was that the size of Azamara’s small ships allows them to deliver unique cruising and land experiences.

“The No. 1 reason for travel is destination and culture. It’s an ability to connect and see things you don’t have at your own home,” says Pimentel. “So the light bulb came on in my head to say, ‘bingo, why don’t we slow the ships down and stay two and three nights in key ports?’ Why not create a notion that’s so simple that everybody will get it—longer stays and more overnights?”

 

Learning Luxury

While Larry Pimentel’s professional endeavors have always put him at the helm of luxury companies, his childhood in Hawaii was much different.

“I grew up in a very impoverished environment, but I really didn’t know I was impoverished,” he tells Luxury Travel Advisor. “The culture was all about family. It was matrilineal, female-based, but it was also all about gathering—eating and playing together.”

At the same time, Pimentel relates that he was always fascinated with things he thought were extraordinary, “whether it was a Rolls-Royce or a private jet. I was fascinated that such things even existed.”

His college studies focused on marketing, which gave him the chance to delve more into the concept of luxury. “I started studying anything and everything about luxury, about quality and style, and I came to the notion that luxury was about style and style was different for all of us,” he says.

As a young man, he joined up with Classic Hawaii, an operator that provided FIT travel, which was unusual in those days, since most travel was packaged. “I went into all the hotels in Hawaii and looked at all of the presidential suites as well as the oceanfront rooms. Either they met our standards or they didn’t,” recalls Pimentel.

Classic’s strategy of offering high-quality service and product worked. “All of a sudden, we weren’t competing on price and that fascinated me,” he says. “Despite the fact that everybody looks for value, there was also a group of people who didn’t want a room unless it was an ocean-view. They weren’t interested in the view of the next hotel.”

Pimentel also recalls his days reading National Geographic as a child. “I was fascinated as I turned the pages and saw these cultures; it also became apparent to me that these were far-off destinations and they were costly to get to. I realized that there is an upmarket [segment] that wants to experience the uniqueness of Sulawesi, Borneo or of a different place.”

And, so, the fascination with travel and luxury melded for Pimentel, who became further intrigued with the concept of bespoke goods. “What makes something bespoke? If it has personality? If you look at the first Louis Vuitton trunks, they were designed by an artist for somebody who was looking for an elegant solution, which was way above what the norm would have been.”

These concepts have morphed into tried-and-true strategies for Pimentel.

“If I ask an agent what’s more upscale, Neiman Marcus or Macy’s, they can quickly tell me. [As for Azamara], we are not trying to offer you the most opulent room, but we are trying to give you an experience that’s second to no one’s and that occurs in the destination. The notion is to calibrate the right expectations.”

 

As a result, Pimentel and his team started creating “night tourism” experiences based on what Azamara Club Cruises’ guests can do in a destination after all those from other cruise lines had sailed away.

Case in point: On a recent late-night stop at Livorno, Italy, an Azamara Club Cruises’ land experience in Chianti started at 2:30 p.m., stopping at vineyards to taste balsamic vinegar and at Greve, “which is a charming little old-world bespoke place where we tasted fresh prosciutto,” says Pimentel. The cruise line had rented out two castles for the evening; Pimentel recalls the room in which he dined had an enormous 14-by-10-foot fireplace: “It was a cool evening, brisk but beautiful, and we surprised the guests with the three tenors from the Florence Opera. There was a minimum of eight standing ovations.”

The takeaway? The 388 guests who attended were not thinking about the ship, rather “about the experience: that they loved Italy and that we gave them an experience that was truly Tuscan.”

Fast forward to 2011, when Pimentel and his team have been able to implement their new “You’ll love where we take you” tagline even more intensely. Overnights will include Copenhagen, St. Petersburg and Bordeaux; Seville, St. Tropez, Monte Carlo; and Portofino, Venice and Sorrento. In Asia, Beijing (Tianjin), Hong Kong, Ho Chi Minh City, Singapore, Bangkok and Mumbai figure in the list of overnights. Other notable overnights are Dubai, Jerusalem, Rhodes, Yalta and Egypt’s Alexandria, Sharm el-Sheikh and Safaga.

Meanwhile, the Caribbean will be a bit less of a focus, as Azamara turns its eye on South America, where voyages were designed around local events, such as two nights at Punta del Este, Uruguay, during the Christmas holiday, and viewing New Year’s Eve fireworks off Copacabana Beach in Rio de Janeiro (there will also be two full days in Rio during Carnival in February).

Changes on Board

Pimentel’s plans for Azamara weren’t limited to the land experiences. He quickly decided to make the line more all-inclusive to include red and white wines from boutique vineyards at lunch and dinner; bottled water, sodas, specialty coffees and teas, whether in public venues or in staterooms and suites; housekeeping, dining and bar staff gratuities, plus shuttle bus service to and from the port communities. Also included is Triple S-trained English butler service in suites, self-service laundry and concierge services. Cuisine was upgraded and refined under a new executive chef, Robert van Rijsbergen.

These additions were made after Pimentel had noted, for example, that it bothered suite guests that they’d have to pay for a cappuccino at Mosaic Cafe but if they went back to their suite they could order one for free. In the past, self-service laundry required U.S. coinage, which international guests did not have. Gratuities vary from culture to culture, which seemed unfair to the crew.

Lifelong Strategy

Pimentel has joined other companies that needed tweaking, so Luxury Travel Advisor asked him if he has a set of best practices that he executes when he starts at a new company.

And indeed he does. “The first thing you do is you listen, to try to understand before you are understood,” he says. “That’s a key point. To walk in and say, ‘we are going to do this, this and this’ is completely wrong. So you ask people questions.”

In the case of relaunching Azamara, Pimentel called travel agents and asked them questions about the brand. He researched articles that were written after the line had launched and called the writers for feedback, regardless if their reports had been favorable or not. He asked the most frequent travelers on the line what they liked and didn’t like. He spoke to those who appeared to have sailed with Azamara only once, but hadn’t returned.

“I always start with trying to understand first,” says Pimentel. “Once I do that and I have copious data, things are revealed that people do not like at all, that people would like to see modified and then people make suggestions about what might make it better. So you look at what you can refine, what you should drop entirely and what you should do that you are not doing.”

Providing the right tone on board from the top down is also vital, says Pimentel.

“I want a captain who walks into the dining room and says, ‘How are you tonight? How was your day?’ I want a captain who invites people to the bridge under the right security arrangements. I want a captain who is personable, outgoing and, outside of safety, is a seller.”

The crew is also engaged: conversations Luxury Travel Advisor had with the Journey crew indicated that they were quite pleased with the constant improvements taking place onboard.

“The crew in this case loves the fact that the chairman of the company made a decision to separate us and to say Celebrity is here, Royal Caribbean is here and now we have got Azamara, our baby boutique. Our baby boutique is now spreading the bandwidth of the type of product that we are presenting,” says Pimentel.

Seven months into his efforts, Pimentel notes internal analysis called “OCE” (Overall Cruise Experience) indicates Azamara has been averaging 285 to 295 where 300 is perfection. 
With numbers like that, one would think Pimentel would be able to lie back and relax. Mission accomplished, no? Not so fast.

Today, the biggest challenge in Azamara’s transformation is getting the news out about what he’s done. Pimentel says that at Luxury Travel Expo in December, one travel advisor commented to him that his personal brand is more known than the brand he’s running.

“That’s not good from my perspective,” says Pimentel.

At the same time, it is good, since the success of Pimentel’s personal brand is based in large part on some of the members of the Azamara team, who have worked with Pimentel in the past at lines including Seabourn, Cunard and SeaDream. These include: Bert van Middendorp, associate vice president of hotel operations; Bruce Setloff, strategic business development director for chartering; Danny Becker, strategic business development director for southern U.S.; Bill Leiber, chief blogging officer; Nils Lindstad, manager of sales administration; Ernest Beyl, public relations consultant, Captain Johannes Tysse, master of Azamara Journey; Claudius Docekal, manager of deployment and destinations; and Edie Bornstein, Azamara’s vice president of sales and marketing, who works very closely with luxury travel advisors.

“As they tell you in the financial markets, before you invest, look at who is running things,” Pimentel says. “What are they doing? How have they performed? If they have been consistently successful, there is good chance that it could happen again. I think that indeed is happening here.”

He has another colleague he’s worked with before: Vicki Freed, Royal Caribbean International’s senior vice president of sales. Pimentel and Freed both worked for Carnival Corporation when he was heading up Seabourn and she was leading sales for Carnival Cruise Lines.

The windows café
The windows café offers alfresco dining during the day.
At night, it transforms into Breeza.

During that time, Pimentel asked Freed if her team could sell Seabourn as well. “Within about 18 months, Vicki’s group sold 41 percent of Seabourn because they were calling on 100 percent of the agency community,” says Pimentel. This practice is one that the two are continuing now at Royal Caribbean.

“This is the advantage of being [at Royal Caribbean]. All of a sudden I have her 60 people plus our 10, so now I have 70 people talking to agents,” he notes. “So this is a project of joy, it’s a project of passion. It’s a small line within a very large mechanism.”

For his part, Pimentel finds it exciting to be a part of Royal Caribbean Cruises, particularly because of its newest class of ships. “It’s mind-boggling to me to go to 150 Central Park [on Genesis-class ships] and have the essence of a two- or three-star Michelin restaurant,” he says. “If I go to the Comedy Club, there are fewer than 100 people. I don’t know where the other 5,000 people are.”

Azamara Journey’s Club Ocean Suite
Azamara Journey’s Club Ocean Suite has touches such as floor-to-ceiling glass doors and butler service.

While Pimentel has always been thought of as a maverick in the industry, he says
being part of RCCL gives him the best of both worlds.

“I think I am back in the same place I’ve been. I just happen to be a tiny entity within a huge machine,” he says.

Will Azamara build new ships? “I think we have to prove, as I had to prove in past lives, you can do things really well that provide you enough resource to give a board the ability to say, ‘let’s build more for this brand,’” says Pimentel. “So, yes, that’s my desire, that’s my hope and I am optimistic about that. But our first goal is to fill these two ships to an extent that the agents are saying, ‘I can’t get my clients on it.’”

That would create a buzz, which is not so easy in a world that’s filled with buzz, says Pimentel. “It’s not so simple,” he adds. “I like to hope that our little destination concept will prove to be successful, and in general, I am optimistic.”

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