In the UK, booking a ‘Saga holiday’ is hardly synonymous with the taking of risks. Since 1959, the company – specialising in cosy archaeology jaunts and beach holidays for the over-50s – has been a byword for a comfortable, gentle, grown-up kind of tourism. Adventure is generally limited to a few laps round the hotel pool or maybe one too many Sherries after dinner.

If its customers have a reputation for keeping things safe, the Saga Group has proved more willing to embrace new challenges. Punters can buy the Saga magazine – circulation 627,000 – and open a Saga bank account. If your dog gets sick, you can save money with Saga pet insurance. And in 1996, long before the explosion in European cruising, Saga started its own eponymous cruise line.

But the current fleet, like the clientele, is getting old. The current ships in service, Saga Sapphire and Saga Pearl II, were built in 1981 and acquired by the group in 2010 and 2012 respectively.

Meanwhile, with the UK’s cruise industry flourishing, demand has never been higher. Figures show 1.9 million Brits set sail in 2017, compared with 1.0 million in 2005. With demographics also falling right into Saga’s sweet spot – the average age of a UK cruise passenger sits squarely in the mid-50s – it comes as little surprise that the group has finally decided to enter the new-build game for the first time.

Classic hospitality

Heading the project is David Pickett, Saga’s new-build director and formerly head of new builds at Carnival UK, where he successfully helped deliver a number of ships, including Aurora and Britannia for subsidiary P&O. Leading an operator into the construction arena, however, represents an entirely new and exciting challenge.

“I think it makes a lot of sense to build a new ship,” Pickett says. “We have a strong customer base: a lot of repeat customers, who are very loyal and enjoy our products. We see the area that we are serving in the UK market as a growth area. The current ships are much loved but there’s no doubt that they’re getting older and they cost a lot to run. On the one hand, we have good growth in our market and we also see the opportunity to reduce our unit operating costs.”

We recognise that Saga’s customers are largely retired. We’re considering those people in some of the everyday aspects of the design, such as not having unnecessary changes of level.

At 234m and 55,000t, Spirit of Discovery isn’t a match for the megaships being launched by industry giants. Then again, the nature of Saga’s business model means it was always going to go for a more boutique approach. The ship will carry fewer than 1,000 guests and each of the 540 guest cabins enjoys its own balcony, with more than 100 cabins tailored for solo passengers.

“We recognise that Saga’s customers are largely retired,” Pickett says. “Clearly, we recognise some people’s limitations in mobility. We’re considering those people in some of the everyday aspects of the design, such as not having necessary changes of level. We also have door handles that you can easily grip and good lighting in proper places, like bathrooms.” Overall, Pickett hopes that guests will find Spirit of Discovery to have the “appearance of a well-designed hotel”.

The ship’s communal spaces are being developed just as carefully. The grand dining room will be framed by delicate columns, while the main staircase sweeps up to greet guests as they arrive. The vessel will also have a spa, and a theatre with 400 seats. Marco Ciraulo, the ship’s hospitality consultant, has worked at top hotels like Claridge’s – a fact that will appeal to Saga travellers who want a bit of classic UK hospitality on the high seas. Spirit of Discovery will also reflect Saga’s special popularity with UK holidaymakers in other ways. Guests can enjoy tea and cake in the library, and fresh seafood from coast to coast.

Shipyard technology

The ship also impresses technically. Spirit of Discovery will be fitted with four MAN 9L 32/44 CR engines, each capable of producing 5,400kW. To optimise fuel efficiency and minimise smoke production, the engines will be fitted with electronically controlled common rail injection systems. Environmental protection is being emphasised elsewhere, too. To control emissions, the engines will have selective catalytic reactors that prevent harmful nitrogen oxide from entering the exhaust stream.

Green technology is also being used in other parts of the vessel. Its eSiPOD propeller, which is developed by Siemens, will allow Spirit of Discovery to turn smoothly and save energy. “The ship will also have a scalable IT system with high bandwidth on board that allows us to grow our systems and develop our technology,” Pickett explains. “We’re also using hermetically sealed chillers from a company called Engie that give us a great deal of efficiency improvements over conventional chillers. We hope to substantially improve our fuel efficiency with measures like this.”

In part, Pickett and his team have been able to pick and choose ‘best in class’ solutions thanks to Saga’s recent arrival on the shipbuilding scene.

“In more established cruise lines, the product is very much predetermined,” Pickett says. “You are applying that product, and some ways of working and management structures, to a new design. And while there is great scope for creative input, you are working to a pattern. Within Saga, we’re obviously going through a lot of change and – while making sure that we’re delivering the best – there’s a great opportunity to do things even better on a new platform, and to revisit the customer and the crew experience to take that forward.”

Pickett’s relationship with Meyer Werft helps too. He knows the shipyard well from his time working with Carnival UK. “It’s coming back to a place that I’m very familiar with, and have got great respect for,” he says.

Size challenge

Though these partnerships are exciting, they have also proved challenging. Saga is completely new to shipbuilding, while Meyer Werft hasn’t built such a small vessel in several years. “We’ve certainly had to look very closely at the design of each space and the space planning on board,” says Pickett. “With a large ship, as most of them are now – ones of over 100,000t – space planning is of less importance, and the need to coordinate and integrate equipment is rather easier. We need to coordinate smaller spaces than is conventional for them to make sure that we can conduct our operations as we would wish to. We are learning together with the shipyard and therefore work very closely with them to meet those challenges.”

Saga is trialling its new ‘Explore Ashore’ scheme where guests will be able to organise private tours of their destinations, from Spanish markets to Italian art galleries.

More broadly, Pickett is able to draw on plenty of experience to get his latest project out on time. “It’s definitely helpful to have been through this a number of times,” he says. “That’s not just in terms of the design. That’s also for bringing the right people into the team, developing our budgets, our owner/builder supply, training, and the conditioning and the bringing on-stream of the ship. All of that helps to face the new challenges.

“You have different owners with different requirements, different levels of experience, different passengers’ needs, so the experience helps to meet each of those challenges, by referring back to something you may have done in the past – but nothing’s ever the same. From project to project, there isn’t a cookie-cutter approach that you can apply uniformly.”

With Spirit of Discovery scheduled to set sail in 2019, Saga also has the option for a sister ship to follow. Pickett is obviously eager to get started. “I feel very lucky to be in a role that changes from day to day and is constantly offering up new challenges, new design problems,” he says. “And as an engineer, as a project manager, you couldn’t wish for something more diverse and interesting to be involved with. There’s also the fact that in shipbuilding you have a very tangible result at the end of it, which goes on to live as a ship going forward.”

For its part, Spirit of Discovery already has a packed itinerary ahead. Saga is trialling its new ‘Explore Ashore’ scheme, where guests will be able to organise private tours of their destinations, from Spanish markets to Italian art galleries. Even in the midst of all this excitement, some things at Saga remain reassuringly recognisable.