Interview with Chris Theophilides – CEO of Celestyal Cruises

Cruises News Media Group: Who could imagine a situation like this. Can any company be prepared for such a long stop?

Chris Theophilides: Yes, this is quite true, nobody could imagine or even predict the unprecedented effect of this pandemic. I believe that there is not a single company that could have prepared for such a long pause in operation. For us, 2020 is unfortunately a year to forget as we took the very difficult yet responsible decision to cancel all cruises and resume operations in March 2021. Celestyal Cruises has endured other difficult times and crises, and while this pandemic is unprecedented, we are confident that we will preserve business continuity.

All the steps we have taken and the benefit programs that we have implemented are designed to retain our existing shoreside teams, to preserve cash flow and to prepare us to swiftly resume operations from where we left off once the time is right.

The company has recently recorded two successful fiscal years exceeding its goals, both in volume of passengers and revenue generated and was therefore in a very healthy financial condition entering into this challenging year. It is also worth mentioning that Celestyal Cruises is part of a larger, publicly listed group of companies with over 85 years of successful operation in the travel and hospitality sectors. The company therefore has the necessary support from its shareholder to sustain a prolonged period of no operations.

How has it been for Celestyal Cruises during this unprecedented pause in operations?

We have taken this opportunity to focus on 2021 and beyond. As part of our growth strategy and fleet rejuvenation program, which has been in place long before the pandemic, we have been actively pursuing the acquisition of vessels. Once the time was right, we were able to proceed with the acquisition of a new ship which is an excellent fit to our strategy and cruising philosophy to provide lifetime experiences onboard and ashore. The addition of the Celestyal Experience in our fleet embodies Celestyal Cruises’ commitment to an intimate, authentically Greek experience onboard a contemporary, well-appointed, mid-sized cruise vessel. She will undoubtedly be instrumental in driving our continued growth.

We remain extremely optimistic about the future of cruising which is reflected in the investment in our fleet. We see this acquisition as a positive way forward, not only for Celestyal Cruises, but also towards helping to accelerate the overall rebound in the cruise and tourism industries.

Where are your ships now?  Did you have difficulties with the crew as reported from other companies?

All of our ships are docked in port of Piraeus and are under safe manning operation. Since we took the very early and prompt decision to suspend our operations, we were in a much better position compared with other companies, so we were able to safely repatriate the majority of our crew members swiftly at the company’s expense. Where necessary, a very small number of our crew members were accommodated on our ships and, when travel restrictions were lifted, they were also repatriated. Upon resolution of this global situation, Celestyal Cruises looks forward to welcoming our onboard colleagues back onboard. 

Why did you decided to announce the stop until March 2021 when all the companies have been making announcements month by month?

As I said, it was a difficult decision, but it was the right thing to do for two main reasons. Firstly, our priority is the health of passengers, crew and local communities and until August 2020, protocols were not yet in place to ensure the safe restart of cruising.  Secondly, most of our passengers come from long haul countries such as North and South America, Asia, Japan and Australia, and these countries are still facing restrictive and prohibitive measures for travelling, making it difficult for them to plan a cruise for the second half of 2020. It therefore made more sense for our business to concentrate on 2021.

Can you tell us about the future? Are you changing the strategy for the next couple of years? What about the Spanish and Latin American market?

We are optimistic about the future and our primary goal  to continue expanding our operating season as well as our operational footprint remains unaltered. We were on a very positive trajectory to achieve these goals entering into 2020 but now we need to persist and rebuild the momentum. In addition, given the outbreak of the pandemic we are also working hard to be ready to accommodate our passengers with even higher standards of hygiene and safety, always consistent with the relevant EU protocols and CLIA guidelines.

Spain and Latin America have always been priority markets for Celestyal. It is not surprising therefore that the top five nationalities onboard our ships include both Spain and Latin America. We will continue our strategy to grow and enhance our presence in these markets as it is clear that our destinations, as well as the Celestyal Cruises product resonate well with these markets.

Celestyal is a company focused on the destination. Is there any new itinerary in the horizon?

We have recently announced details of our 2021 and 2022 deployment featuring new ports of call in Syros, Agios Nikolaos (Crete) and Thessaloniki, additional seven-night Steps of Paul sailings due popular demand and amended itineraries to ensure guests enjoy as much time ashore as possible with the new three- and four-night ‘Iconic Discovery’ sailings on Celestyal Olympia.

More specifically, our ‘Iconic Discovery’ itinerary, which includes winter sailings round trip from Athens, takes into account the shorter daylight hours and areas of interest during the time of the season that these departures are offered. On both the three-night and four-night itineraries, Syros is introduced as a new destination well worth discovering and a full day in Santorini is also included in all departures. Syros is the administrative capital of the Cyclades and is one of the smallest islands with rich in history and culture and provides visitors with a slice of Greek perfection without the crowds.

Additionally on the seven-night ‘Idyllic Aegean’ itinerary round trip from Athens, Heraklion (Crete) is replaced with Agios Nikolaos (Crete) which is a beautiful harbor town situated on the north eastern side of Crete overlooking the peaceful Mirabello Bay and the ‘bottomless’ Lake Voulismeni. This charming, upmarket town has plenty to offer in the way of shopping and dining and is undoubtedly one of the most delightful destinations in Crete.

Finally, Celestyal Cruises has amended the ‘Eclectic Aegean’ itinerary to maximize time ashore and to enable a new embarkation/disembarkation port for the added convenience of drive markets from the Balkans and additional airlift from Western and Northern Europe. Thessaloniki has replaced Heraklion and there is now a full day in Santorini, guaranteeing ‘sunsets’ on all departures, even in the spring, autumn and winter. Thessaloniki is the second largest city in Greece with a rich cultural and culinary heritage being the gateway to the land of Alexander the Great, stellar nightlife, and laid-back authenticity. With late evening departures from Thessaloniki, guests will have the whole day to enjoy everything the city has to offer. Known as Greece’s ‘hippest city’, Thessaloniki boasts 15 UNESCO World Heritage Sites and 29 museums as well as a spectacular waterfront featuring a series of themed gardens, statues, and sculptures.

You have now acquired a new ship. Tell us about your plan for the ship.

Yes, I’m really delighted with the addition of this mid-size cruise vessel to our fleet. She is ideally suited to our business model and is very well appointed following her significant transformation in 2012. I’m confident that she will prove to be a very popular choice amongst our valued guests and will allow us to continue providing truly unique experiences for years to come.

The 1,800-guest Celestyal Experience, which was built in 1993 and extensively refurbished in 2012, has 789 cabins, 166 of which feature balconies and verandas. One of the stand-out features of the Celestyal Experience is its expansive 4.300 square metre panoramic, duplex Spa complete with a fully-equipped gym with ocean views, treatment rooms, solarium, thermal suites including sauna and Turkish baths, as well as a bi-level thalassotherapy pool.

The Celestyal Experience will go into service when Celestyal resumes operations next March. The first sailing of the 2021 season will be on March 06 with the seven-night “Three Continents” itinerary calling in Greece (Athens and Rhodes), Turkey (Kusadasi),  Israel (Ashdod), Egypt (Port Said) and Cyprus (Limassol).  Beginning on April 03, the Celestyal Experience will set sail on the seven-night “Idyllic Aegean” itinerary round trip from Athens visiting Rhodes, Agios Nikolaos, Santorini, Milos, Kusadasi and Mykonos.

While slightly larger than Celestyal’s other vessels and with a higher percentage of balcony cabins and suites, the Celestyal Experience continues in the company’s longstanding tradition of offering an intimate guest experience combined with the warm Greek hospitality. The mid-sized, contemporary European-designed vessel is also well-suited for visiting smaller ports, a key differentiator for Celestyal and an option that remains off limits to the larger ships that have become prevalent today.

Are you going to keep the three ships in the fleet?

When we commenced our search for suitable vessels for our fleet in 2019, the intention was to add a third vessel. However, with the COVID pandemic still affecting the travel industry it may be more prudent to delay a significant increase in capacity. Hence, our fleet development is currently under evaluation and will be determined in the coming months.

What’s next for Celestyal Cruises?

While Covid-19 has brought a temporary pause to our operations, it is important that we look to the future with optimism and continue to deliver on our strategic plan to grow the business and enhance the award winning Celestyal experience. We are doing this through substantial investment in our fleet and look forward to continuing our successful journey to expand our seasons as well as our operational footprint. Despite the current implications of the COVID pandemic, we continue our development work to become the cruise line of choice when it comes to cruising in the East Mediterranean.