It is easy to say that cruising is all about the destination, but all too often passengers travel halfway across the world to spend just a few hours in a beautiful, exotic or historically significant city. This just does not make sense, at least according to Larry Pimentel, president and CEO Azamara Club Cruises.

"The destination counts. The destination and the local culture are the main reasons for travelling," he proclaims.

Pimentel has seen it all in the cruise industry having been CEO of Seabourn, Sea Dream Yacht Club and Cunard. In 2009, he was lured out of retirement to launch RCI’s boutique brand Azamara Club Cruises on the condition that he was given free rein to create a cruise line with a very different approach to port operations. He wanted to create a business model centred on longer stays, more overnight stops and unusual itineraries that take passengers to destinations other cruise ships ignore.

In daring to do something different, Pimentel refined the idea of destination immersion, which puts the focus more on passengers’ experience in the ports they visit rather than onboard activities.

"Destination immersion has evolved considerably, but it is not a new idea," he says. "Exploration shipping companies have been exploring exotic destinations for years, but we have given it a more precise focus. It is what differentiates Azamara Club Cruises and is the reason people choose to travel with us.

"It relies on a lot of research on our part to enable longer stays, more overnight stays and night touring. The idea sits well with guests who really want to see more of a destination. For us, it means that there is a great deal of emphasis on the choice of destination and itinerary planning. We have to look at destination deliverables – what attractions a destination might offer – and more than any other cruise line we look at evening activities," he adds.

Though it has only two ships, Azamara will visit 67 countries in 2014, taking passengers not only to popular destinations in the Mediterranean, Northern Europe and Asia, but also to unique locations in South America such as Baja California, where few cruise ships venture.

The game-changer

Destination immersion has proven popular not only among passengers familiar with cruising, but also a new section of the travelling public. It appeals to more adventurous travellers, notably the ‘baby boomers’, whose tastes are less conservative than their predecessors. Many of Azamara’s guests are taking a cruise for the first time.

"Around 22% of our guests have never been on a cruise ship before in their life, so we have found that there is a corner of the market that is ready to be explored," Pimentel explains. "These people are coming to us because they want longer stays. Our passenger profile is also getting younger because we offer more activities. Most of our passengers are couples between 45 and 65 who are active, social and curious.

"Also, only around 48% of our passengers are from the US. Around 25% are from the UK, though we have guests from all over the world. Our fastest-growing market segment is passengers from Australia. Part of our charm is the fact that we offer the ability for passengers to meet people from lots of different countries."

"Our passengers like new or unknown destinations because they know that we have a track record of destination deliverables, so they trust us to choose well."

The evening excursions that are among Azamara’s unique offerings allow guests to explore the richness of local culture in a way that would not be possible with other cruise lines. The experiences on offer at AzAmazing Evenings are powerful differentiators for a small cruise line that is competing against bigger brands that have been around for much longer.

Among the AzAmazing Evenings that will feature on the itinerary this spring has been named Springtime in Seville. It comprises a visit to the Andalusian capital during the holy week of Semana Santa, as well as an excursion to the Rock Of Gibraltar to watch the renowned Royal Gibraltar Regiment Band play at the famous St Michael’s Cave.

Another example is the Western Mediterranean Highlights evening, at which Pimentel and his wife Sandi join guests to watch the ancient sport of water jousting along the picturesque Royal Canal in Sete, France. The sport of Sete Joutes has been played since 1666, with ten oarsmen in two boats – one jousting for the bachelors and the other the married men – competing. It is this type of unique and local cultural event, featuring traditional music and cuisine, not to mention French wines from the region, which embodies the fundamental principles of destination immersion.

Pimentel is particularly proud of an AzAmazing evening held in Tuscany that includes a visit to a local castle in the evening, with stops on the way for vinegar tasting and perusing the unique handmade luxury goods from local craftsmen. Dinner is taken in a room where Michelangelo carved some of his famous works, and where three tenors from the opera house in Florence make a surprise appearance to entertain diners. The intention is clear – to ensure that passenger do more than tick off a destination on their ‘to do’ list and instead allow them to truly get a feel for the places they visit.

Implementing a strategy of destination immersion was not straightforward, as it required a radical rethink of the traditional business model in the cruise industry, which relies so much on generating on-board revenues.

"Other business models require ships to leave in the evening, but we look at a destination as a getaway – somewhere to spend two or even three days," says Pimentel. "Over the last 50 years a lot of big, beautiful ships have been made and the industry has come to rely heavily on the on-board revenue, but we are saying that you must not neglect the destinations."

The strategy requires a different approach to relationships with ports and agents.

"Our concept will always be fashionable. In fact, it has always been fashionable as far back as Captain Cook."

"We have had to reinvent the relationship between the cruise line, the port and the local agents," remarks Pimentel. "Operators are now delivering amazing evening programmes, which means the relationship with the port is very different to the way a destination will deal with a cruise line bringing in a ship that stays for just a few hours."

The approach Pimentel has adopted has been welcomed by ports, many of which approach Azamara with ideas for onshore itineraries that might attract one of the line’s ships. Pimentel is always keen to add new places to the itinerary and is looking to combine well-known destinations with, for example, some of the lesser known Greek islands, Sri Lanka or Myanmar.

"Our passengers like new or unknown destinations because they know that we have a track record of destination deliverables, so they trust us to choose well," he says.

The ripple effect

The success of destination immersion has led other cruise lines to take note of what Azamara has achieved in a short time and with a small fleet.

"Our model is influencing the industry and we see other lines coming out to say that in 2014 they will be offering overnight stays. So, our line has a big footprint in terms of its focus on destinations. We only started in 2010, so our idea is still very new, and the rest of the industry has a long way to go to catch up with destination immersion," says Pimentel.

"At the moment, other brands still have to work hard to protect on-board revenue and it will be a long time before bigger cruise lines can change their business model. Our concept will always be fashionable. In fact, it has always been fashionable as far back as Captain Cook."

Pimentel admires the cruise industry’s ability to overcome challenges, and remains optimistic about how it will grow, despite global economic challenges and the negative media coverage that events such as the sinking of the Costa Concordia generate.

"The industry has seen a lot of pressures but has handled them. More ships are being ordered, which shows that the industry has a lot of faith in the future. The cruise business is a very small part of global travel, so there is still a big upside to be had. Occupancy rates are still healthy, despite the events that have brought the eye of the media to the industry," he says.

"With the economic situation and with events like the Arab Spring, which took Egypt off the map as a destination, the industry is seeing a bigger confluence of challenges than it has face in my time in the business.

"But the statistics show that we do well on safety and that that industry continues to grow. It offers real deliverables and real value, so the future looks good even if there is a bump in the road."