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NCL plans a premium-level upgrade with the new Prima class: Travel Weekly

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VENICE, Italy — “Heightened.” “Extraordinary.” “Elevated.” “Upscale.” A “bling-bling” feel. 

Those words floated through the air like confetti as Norwegian Cruise Line (NCL) executives whisked around travel writers and advisors during a sneak peek of the line’s newest ship, the Norwegian Prima, while still under construction near Venice.

The brand’s executives have reason to be excited. The Prima is the first ship in a new class of the same name, NCL’s first new ship class in a decade. There are six Prima ships on order, with the second, the Viva, due in 2023. 

New Zealand langoustines, a sample of the seafood that will be prepared on Norwegian Prima. Photo Credit: Andrea Zelinski

With the new class comes an effort to reposition the brand at the high end of the “contemporary” category. 

“We are definitely looking to make our ships more premium,” said Norwegian Cruise Line CEO Harry Sommer.

Executives showed off the three-story Penrose Atrium, topped with 7,300 pounds of glass in a constellation-inspired ceiling, during a tour at the Fincantieri shipyard. They offered samples of what they described as upscale fresh seafood, including New Zealand langoustines, and gushed over the $2 million collection of artwork that will ornament NCL’s first-ever outdoor sculpture garden. 

The shift comes at the hands of Frank Del Rio, CEO of NCL parent company Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings (NCLH). Del Rio, whose industry experience has been rooted in upscale lines ever since he co-founded Oceania Cruises in 2002, has sought to increase the quality of the NCL product since it came under his leadership in 2015.

At that time, he didn’t see the same “meticulous” attention to detail on the design, ship upkeep and service of NCLH’s upscale sister brands, Oceania and Regent Seven Seas, Sommer said. NCLH has since invested more than $2 billion in its fleet. 

Until that point, Sommer said, NCL hadn’t been given the tools, the money or “the passion and the vision to drive the brand forward,” he said. “That’s what Frank added.” 

The key components for elevating NCL are in its design, maintenance, investment, crew, food, activities and entertainment, Sommer said. 

“We are committed to making every one of them the absolute best within the contemporary market,” he said.

Food is a major focus on the Prima. 

“There aren’t 14 good ways to make beef and chicken,” Sommer contends, so Norwegian is doing away with its rotating menu on the Prima and will instead have permanent menu offerings. To offer fresher seafood, it will be delivered on the first day of the cruise and then again midway through the sailing.

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Guests staying in The Haven on Norwegian Prima will have access to Palomar, a Mediterranean seafood restaurant. Photo Credit: NCL

The brand spent four years coming up with new dining and beverage options, said Mark Kansley, senior vice president of hotel operations, including an “upscale” food hall with 11 different offerings. In total, the ship will house 18 restaurants, including the new high-end Palomar, which will prepare fresh seafood with a Mediterranean twist and be available only to guests in the upscale “ship-within-a-ship” Haven suite complex.

Other stylistic changes on the new 3,215-passenger ship include a 750-seat theater that can be transformed into a dance hall, a night club or a stage for a game show. Another difference on this ship is the $6 million investment in art — more than the line has ever spent on a single ship — including more than 700 pieces of commissioned originals.

Some of these original pieces will be in the outdoor sculpture garden, which will be part of a large outdoor space known as Ocean Boulevard, also a first for the NCL brand. 

There are also changes onboard in a nod to the pandemic, such as touchless faucets and doors. 

“One of the most important parts of this is it needs to be invisible to the guest,” said Andrew Brown, director of SMC Design, which helped conceptualize public spaces on the Prima, including the ship’s Infinity Beach. “You don’t want the guest going on a vacation and being reminded of these things. It needs to be seamless. It needs to be organic.”

What’s in a class category?

The NCL brand is evolving, said John Lovell, president of Travel Leaders Group. He pointed to the Haven concept as having already tilted the line toward a premium product when it was unveiled in 2011. 

“Nobody rests on their laurels in this industry, otherwise, somebody else is going to pass you by,” he said. “They’re raising the bar.”

Lovell dislikes product labels like “contemporary” and “premium.” He said, “You can find some of the most luxurious products on a contemporary brand.” 

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The Belvedere Bar will be a contemporary cocktail lounge on Norwegian Prima. Photo Credit: NCL

But Tom Baker, president of Cruise Center in Houston, said he found messaging about “elevating” the brand “peculiar” and wondered if it was “a gimmick.”

“I don’t know why they’re trying to push this as an upscale product,” said Baker, adding, “I love NCL, don’t get me wrong.” 

He said it may be seen as a way to increase stock yields as NCLH, like the rest of the cruise industry, tries to recover from the pandemic.

If NCL is making a real shift toward premium, he said, that just increases competition at that level. “They’re all jumping over their backs to grab the same customer.”

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