Cruising operations: a luxury experience20 February 2018
When Edie Rodriguez resigned as CEO of Crystal Cruises last year, many assumed that retirement naturally beckoned. Instead, her immediate hiring by Ponant to crack the US market for the operator heralds a new phase in the industry veteran’s career. She tells Greg Noone about the challenges facing the line’s expansion, her gruelling schedule and the enduring appeal of luxury cruising.
It’s 7am in Phoenix, Arizona, but Edie Rodriguez is wide awake and ready to talk about her new role as Ponant’s new Americas brand chairman and corporate special adviser. Just four days after arriving in the city, Rodriguez’s schedule has been filled to the brim with endless meetings with members of the press, public relations executives and, most importantly, travel agents. It’s a lifestyle that regularly involves waking up before dawn, and one that most would find all too punishing. Rodriguez, however, would have it no other way.
“It’s just my DNA,” she says. “I’ve always been a workaholic, but not one moment, not one day does it feel like work, because I’m as passionate today, if not more [so], as the day my career started.” Certainly, Rodriguez has her work cut out for her at Ponant. It is her job to promote the French cruise line, which specialises in the luxury yacht expedition segment, to a yet-unknowing US public. A few observers regard her acceptance of the job as a demotion from her previous role as CEO of Crystal Cruises – a job she left last September. Rodriguez views it differently, seeing vast potential in her new position.
“I love luxury – true luxury – and I want to do things that really come off as [being that],” she says. “And when you look at that, who better – and knows luxury – than Ponant and its parent company.”
That business is Groupe Artemis, which, in addition to buying Ponant in 2015, owns a stable of luxury brands. These include Christie’s and Kering, the umbrella company for Gucci, Saint Laurent, Stella McCartney, Brioni, Balenciaga and Bottega Veneta.
“They are the crème de la crème of the luxury goods space,” says Rodriguez of Groupe Artemis. They’re also rich. “Their market cap is something like three times Royal Caribbean Cruise Line [now Royal Caribbean International], [and] one and a half times Carnival Corporation. [It is] a very well financially backed owner that is as passionate as I am about true luxury.”
It’s a passion that Rodriguez has held since she was a child, one accompanied by an all-consuming sense of ambition that has seen her progressively climb the ranks of the cruise sector over her 36-year career. Ostensibly, it was an ascent crowned by her appointment as CEO of Crystal Cruises in May 2015, after engineering its takeover by Genting Hong Kong (GHK) in her previous role as Crystal’s president and chief operating officer.
According to Rodriguez, the need to do so was as clear as day. “You had a brand with the oldest tonnage, at that point, in the luxury space,” she explains. “And no new tonnage on order when, [in] the direct competitive landscape, all three of its competitors were ordering and building new [vessels].”
And grow Crystal did. In 2015, the operator announced that it would launch a new river cruising arm, a luxury yacht, three new 1,000-passenger ships and a specially modified Boeing 787. It would also conduct a feasibility study into restoring the SS United States, a relic of 1950s transatlantic crossings, for service in the operator’s expanded fleet.
“I’m very proud of what I, leading the team there, achieved,” says Rodriguez. “First of all, when I came there, it was a 23-year-old brand that sadly, in my humble opinion, was dying. It was going nowhere.”
But there were teething problems. Launch dates for several new builds were repeatedly pushed back, thanks to delays at GHK-owned German yards. A feasibility study into the restoration of the SS United States also concluded that such a project was not cost-effective. Even so, Rodriguez has no regrets. “Brands either grow or die,” she adds. “What I’m most proud of there is the growth: orchestrating the deal that [Crystal] was acquired by a new owner, at the time of acquisition, who had the funds and was filling to invest in the growth of the brand.”
It was for these reasons that she thinks Ponant hired her: a positive reputation within the sector, experience in the aggressive expansion of a well-known cruising brand and an understanding of the US cruise market. “They saw me as the perfect person to help achieve their goals, which [lies] in doubling the fleet,” says Rodriguez. “And in doubling the fleet, you need the US market.”
For decades, Ponant has been known as a tenacious, albeit small-scale, luxury cruise operator. Founded in 1988 by Jean-Emmanuel Sauvée, a former officer in the French Merchant Navy, the operator has historically specialised in the yacht expedition segment. Its ships are sleek statements of French style, taking passengers to a multitude of destinations, from the Adriatic and the Caribbean seas, to the Mediterranean, Pacific and both poles.
Up until its acquisition by Groupe Artemis in 2015, Ponant’s clientele remained overwhelmingly European. The operator quickly realised that if its ambitions for profitable growth were to be realised, it had to prise open the North American market.
Rodriguez elaborates on the cruise line’s relationship with European guests, saying that it prizes their custom, but there sadly aren’t enough of them.
“If you were to break out just the state of California, it would be the sixthlargest economy in the world. Think about that. We have one state that is bigger than their whole country. So, they can saturate their homeland, which would be great, and I love guests from all over the world, but no cruise brand, in my humble opinion, will succeed unless it conquers the US market.”
Rodriguez believes that the way to do this is to make the case for a cruise with Ponant directly to US travel agents, coupled with targeted social media and consumer marketing strategies.
“For me, what is paramount is that the travel industry in North America fully understands the Ponant brand – what we are about and how to sell it,” she explains. “They will drive the consumers to us.
“Our target guest is somebody who wants to see the world in a luxurious manner, not to have to unpack and repack, and is a bit adventurous and spirited. They want to get off the back of the ship’s marina on a Zodiac, or on a speedboat to go water-skiiing, or a kayak to go kayaking, or on another boat to go deep-sea fishing, or just get off the Zodiac and go on land, whether it’s in the Antarctic or, like I recently did this November, the Chilean fjords to do a bit of hiking.”
Rodriguez cites the boom in river cruising among US holidaymakers as a precedent for the kind of interest Ponant is trying to pique about yacht expeditions. “In 2001, travel agents and the general public really did not know what river cruising was,” she recalls. “Now, fastforward just 17 short years later [and], when you look at the whole cruise industry sector, river cruising is a big part of that today.”
Making something similar happen for yacht expeditions, and Ponant in particular, has led Rodriguez to impose upon herself a schedule that most other people would consider punishing. A few days before our interview, she rose at 3am to board a 5.45am flight from Miami to New York. After several meetings, Rodriguez spoke at a luxury marketing council before visiting a business dinner function at the Pierre Hotel. By the time she went to bed, it was 11.30pm.
Such days are typical for the cruise expert. “I don’t know how to not work, which is sad and a bit frustrating [for] my husband and son at times,” she says. “But I just love to work.”
Beyond the emphasis on work-life balance she has encountered in working for European operators – before becoming the CEO of Crystal, she previously worked for a 12-year stint at the Spanish travel technology firm Amadeus – Rodriguez is vague on the differences between working for Ponant and any US-based operators. Nevertheless, she is sure on one point: there is only one key difference between the kind of guest Ponant is marketing towards in Europe as opposed to North America.
“On the one hand, you have an international luxury consumer,” says Rodriguez. “They’re all looking for the same thing: the crème de la crème, typically curated in an authentic manner, whether they’re trying to buy a Gucci purse or a Ponant vacation experience. And all of that, today, can be bought online. But we feel, with a cruise – whether it’s an international guest or a North American guest – it’s really prudent to go to a travel agent.”
Within that dynamic, Ponant are happy to be market their luxury yacht expeditions to a broad segment of those ready to consider a cruise holiday. “Whether you are a family, a millennial, a baby-boomer couple, when you understand luxury yacht expeditions and you want to go on that adventure through the Chilean fjords, or to Antarctica, or to Cuba and the Caribbean, you want to come on Ponant.”
Whether Rodriguez will succeed in her goal of expanding Ponant’s guest roster remains to be seen. What is certain is that she has committed her all to the task at hand, and spares little thought for the past. “I always say there’s a reason why the rear-view mirror is so small and the front windshield is so large,” she says. “I am always about the future: going forward and moving forward. The only thing I ever look at the past for is what I can learn from and take forward.”