A blank canvas can either inspire or inhibit. For Fredrik Johansson, director of Tillberg Design in Sweden, it imbues him with creative strength. “We are all extremely excited by the opportunity to design the Ritz-Carlton Yacht Collection,” he says, “Not least because we have been able to start from a blank piece of paper.”

The paper in question has been covered with scribbles and notes, ideas and hopes. Towards the end of 2019, these markings will manifest as the first of three 298-passenger luxury cruise yachts. Johansson and his team have been tasked with designing all three vessels, the first of which is worth an estimated $210 million.

So what do you design when you hold the creative reins? “Each suite is designed to optimise the use of space and maximise contact with the sea,” Johansson says. “Suites will have a higher ceiling than what is normal in a cruise ship. We want to create a high-quality yet casual setting, whether relaxing in bed, on a chaise longue or on the private balcony.”

Breathing the sea air on a private balcony is a moment Johansson believes every passenger should have.

“They create a private space for each guest to intimately experience being at sea,” he says. “The views will be unparalleled on these adventures and the balconies simply afford the most ideal way to capture these moments.”

Johansson has been part of the team at Tillberg Design for more than 20 years, during which time he has led projects including the new build of Queen Mary 2, as well as vessels for MSC, Hurtigruten and TUI. He has also completed multiple private yacht projects and is currently upgrading The World.

Premium suites

Most cruise ships have the bulk of their accommodation as standard rooms with only 20% of the space dedicated to premium suites. The Ritz-Carlton cruise yacht doubles its premium offering to 40%. Entry-level suites are 29m² – not including the private balcony – while two penthouse suites are 100m² and boast 50m² balconies.

Douglas Prothero is one of two managing directors of the Ritz-Carlton Yacht Collection, sharing the job with Lars Clasen. Prothero says the higher percentage of premium suites was a calculated distinguishing feature. There are also several duplex suites for guests wanting to entertain. These can be opened into larger rooms through soundproof doors, giving guests more flexibility.

“Recognising that some guests will choose to spend ample time in their suites, our aim is to provide them with a unique level of comfort aligned to the Ritz-Carlton tenets of luxury hospitality,” Prothero says. Given the yachts’ size and open design, he expects complete buyouts and charter services to be popular. “The ship layout can be modified to suit the purpose of each voyage,” he says.

One of the design perks, from Johansson’s perspective, is that there has been sufficient time to work on the project, revising plans until they are completely satisfactory. This has gifted his team the opportunity to work on a methodical design, which he describes as a “totally unique concept that optimises the exterior and interiors”.

In the past year alone, 405,000 Ritz-Carlton guests told us they had taken a cruise, which means there is huge opportunity.

Johansson says the Ritz-Carlton fleet of cruising yachts has been designed with exclusivity and privacy in mind, prioritising comfort and personal space within luxurious but casual surroundings. “The interior spaces are designed to offer guests the opportunity to be active or simply to disappear for a while. The challenge to ourselves so far has been to create the most serene ambience possible at sea,” he says.

The appeal of the yacht’s interior design is its spaciousness, while the smaller size of the vessel makes it better equipped to explore places that bigger cruise ships cannot. Projected itineraries include docking or anchoring in ports such as Portofino, Capri, Mykonos and St Barths. The yachts will also be able to sail through the Saint Lawrence river into the Great Lakes in the US.

Diversified offering

The highly regarded luxury hotel operator is taking to the seas to diversify its business, according to Ritz-Carlton president Hervé Humler in a recent interview. The numbers also point to a solid investment. Prothero says it is an exciting time to enter the luxury cruise market, which has shown an average of 8.5% annual growth since 1981. Based on current market trends, global cruise passengers should grow by 4% annually from 2017 to 2020.

Prothero has experience as a mariner, boat-builder and shipowner. He also understands the number-crunching game. He was partner at a boutique investment bank in Toronto, where he met co-managing director Clasen, then a client of the bank.

Sharing the leadership duties with Prothero and Clasen is a core team comprised of Ritz-Carlton staff, including finance director Victor Cai, formerly of Silversea Cruises in Monaco, and marine operations director Erik Bredhe, previously master of The World. Prothero’s team has partnered with luxury-market consultants and travel trade partners to “help perfect the detailed design of the yachts and to ensure a truly curated guest experience”.

“We saw a void in the luxury cruise market and feel we are uniquely positioned to stand out in the ultraluxury cruise space with top-of-theline service, intimate and modern ship design, and unique yacht-style itineraries,” Prothero says.

There are currently only four oceangoing luxury ships in operation that accommodate fewer than 300 passengers, and they are all more than 20 years old. “We saw this as a brand extension with meaningful potential in a market where we could have a real impact,” Prothero says. “As with any new launch, there is always risk, but we feel that we have done our homework and are ideally positioned to succeed.”

To extend the brand, it was necessary to create a visual link with some of the Ritz-Carlton properties. Design inspiration includes the crisp, contemporary look of the Ritz-Carlton Residences Sunny Isles, Miami Beach and Los Angeles. “We have melded the spacious, and almost residential, feel of those locations with the marine and innovative design qualities of some of the world’s most stylish yacht interiors,” Johansson says. “In a way, you can say the yachts will be hotels at sea, though uniquely adapted to suit the yacht lifestyle.”

On board, guests can expect an à la carte restaurant from Sven Elverfeld of Aqua, the three-Michelin-starred restaurant at the Ritz-Carlton in Wolfsburg. All the yachts will have spas designed and operated by the Ritz-Carlton. Entertainment offerings will also adhere to the theme of intimacy with classical music, jazz and performers from itinerary destinations.

Target market

“Existing top tier Ritz-Carlton customers that are familiar with the brand and its services will draw similarities to the experiences they find at Ritz-Carlton properties on land,” Johansson says. The new offering is aimed at a changing clientele who want more diversity. “In the past year alone, 405,000 Ritz-Carlton guests told us they had taken a cruise, which means there is huge opportunity with our current customer base,” Prothero says.

The Yacht Collection also wants to attract people new to cruising, guests who would never consider a mainstream cruise. Prothero says he and his team hope “a highly curated yacht-style experience” will be the offering to The team anticipates the bulk of its initial interest coming from the US and European markets but will also aim to attract guests from China and Japan. “Yachts evoke luxury, exclusivity and the freedom to explore as one desires,” Prothero says, noting the Ritz-Carlton Yacht Collection is “the next step for the brand’s evolution”.

The focus is very much on the first yacht at present but the design will be identical for the second. Johansson says the third vessel is set to change. It will have a few modifications to enable additional cruising in the Pacific Rim.

Our aim is to provide [guests] with a unique level of comfort aligned to the Ritz-Carlton tenets of luxury hospitality.

While Johansson’s team at Tillberg is designing the yachts, building them is another job entirely. Astillero Hijos de J Barreras (HJB) in Spain outbid 12 other shipbuilding yards to secure the project. It has built more than 1,600 vessels over the past 125 years, including passenger ferries, container ships and tankers. The management team chose HJB for its quality work, price, delivery time and financial stability. The Yacht Collection team has focused its offering on intimacy and luxury. Sophisticated design favouring space and privacy has been leveraged to offer guests something new in the cruising market. As Prothero says, there is always a risk but Ritz-Carlton has done the calculations and decided the odds are good. The maiden voyage will determine if it is right.