Azamara Cruises’ new CEO eyes fleet growth

LATTE chats exclusively with Dondra Ritzenthaler

Azamara Cruises’ new CEO will evaluate new-build ships or acquisitions in order to further raise the profile of the boutique cruise line. Speaking exclusively with LATTE this morning from Miami, Dondra Ritzenthaler says Azamara’s parent company, Sycamore Partners, remains receptive to the brand’s expansion.

With 40 years and 2 days industry experience – the last 20 years and 1 day with Celebrity Cruises – Ritzenthaler had all but retired from the workforce this time last year.

“I really thought I was done but I found myself completely missing the energy and insanity,” she says of making her comeback into the cruise arena.

Azamara's fleet of four sister-ships

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Ritzenthaler has spent her entire career after graduating college in travel and tourism. Before joining Celebrity Cruises she had been with American Airlines. Also for 20 years and one day.

Her name seemingly came out of nowhere in November last year when Ritzenthaler was announced as the new CEO of Azamara, after former CEO, Carol Cabezas, had stepped down. Due to a non-compete clause in her Celebrity Cruises’ contract, she was unable to officially commence her time with Azamara until last month.

“But it feels really good to be back in the saddle. It really does,” Ritzenthaler tells LATTE after three weeks with Azamara, and only her third day in the office.

Ritzenthaler has hit the ground running, having already been on board (briefly) three of Azamara’s four ships to meet her customer-facing and behind-the-scenes teams. That has included a trip to the French Riviera to sail on Azamara Quest for a few days (meeting Phil and Alison Hoffman from Phil Hoffman Travel in the process), and a trip to Texas for last week’s ASTA (American Society of Travel Advisors) Global Convention in Dallas.

Dondra Ritzenthaler, CEO Azamara Cruises with Phil and Alison Hoffmann of Phil Hoffman Travel and Captain Johannes Tysse

20 years at Celebrity exposed Ritzenthaler to the Azamara brand. In fact, she was involved with the naming of the company and Azamara’s value proposition when Journey and Quest originally joined the wider Royal Caribbean Group family, initially intended for the Celebrity fleet, she said.

Trade-centric focus, now and the future

Azamara is very much a trade-centric cruise line with an incredible 85% of global business coming from travel advisors. Remove US sales from the equation and that figure rises to 90%.

While the US is the core source market for Azamara’s sales the UK & Ireland and Australia/New Zealand markets are neck-in-neck for second and third.

“So we’re clearly going to be a trade brand and I think we’re going to be a trade brand for years to come,” she says with confidence.

“Our strategy is to be easy to do business with. We want to listen to them, we want to know what do

Dondra Ritzenthaler, CEO, Azamara Cruises

they think, we want to know what did their consumers tell them, and I think when I combine listening to the crew, the guests and our travel advisors, I’ll be in a sound position to decide on the next step.”

“I’ve given myself 90 days. 30 days to listen, 30 days to learn, and 30 days to act so by the time I get to 90 days and really listening to other people and learning, I think that that will give me and the team here in Miami a great opportunity to create a short and long term strategy that I think will be successful. That’s the first part.”

Azamara Onward, Monaco | Credit: Guy Dundas/LATTE

Growth, fleet expansion

“The second part is that I very much want to grow the brand,” she said.

Ritzenthaler says that Azamara’s four small ships, which accommodate around 695 guests “are beautiful and sail in many wonderful places, but we’re primarily in Europe in the summertime.”

“I’d like to build new ships so that I can keep that presence in Europe in the summertime but then also go do other things.”

She says Sycamore, the private equity firm that owns Azamara, are open to her thoughts.

“I’ve been very vocal with them to say I would love to see us grow, and of course they say right back to me that this is 100% in my control.”

“I do have plans and aspirations and goals to actually add additional ships as well.”

Questioned if fleet expansion could extend beyond the ocean, to river or expedition, Ritzentheler told LATTE,”I would be open to anything, but I really like maniacally focusing on something, and to me our sweet spot is that we are small ships.”

“I would focus primarily on, lets build a ship somewhere in that region of 700 to 900 guests, that really taps into our differentiator – destination immersion. I don’t want to lose that focus.”

“But I’m open minded to growing in different ways,” she said.

Owning ‘destination immersion’

“Here we are. A small brand in this huge cruise industry, but we own destination immersion.”

She continues, explaining: “We’re the global leader in small ship destination immersion because we have the highest percentage of late nights and overnights in the industry, whether its luxury or upper premium. We have the highest percentage, so we feel very fortunate that we can back up that fact.”

“We know that others are starting to think about that space, but right now, I can still say the difference is night-and-day with how much we’re in late-nights and overnights than others. Coupled with our AzAmazing Evenings ashore, I think that we are very fortunate that we’re in a position that we own that space.”

Concluding our interview, her first with Australian media, Ritzenthaler tells LATTE that she’s excited for the prospect to come to Australia to meet the local trade, having never made the journey across the Pacific, despite 40 years (and two days) in travel.

Ritzenthaler has her eyes fixed on a possible visit in February when two of Azamara’s ships are in Sydney, but will look at other opportunities before then. That could potentially include Cruise360 Australasia, scheduled for 30 August 2024.

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