ABOARD THE NORWEGIAN BREAKAWAY -- Call it a coming out party for the new Norwegian Cruise Line.
The 4,028-passenger Norwegian Breakaway, to be christened May 8 in New York, isn't just the biggest new cruise ship of the year. It's also a symbol of how much has changed in recent years at the 12-vessel company, Norwegian CEO Kevin Sheehan tells USA TODAY.
"It's a confirmation, an affirmation, of all the hard work," says Sheehan, who describes an operation "in chaos" five years ago when he took over. "This is the first ship that's been designed by the team that's in place today."
Hired in 2008 after private equity firm Apollo Management acquired a sizable stake in Norwegian, Sheehan quickly began a top-to-bottom overhaul that included replacing nearly all of the company's top executives, downsizing a failing Hawaii cruise operation, eliminating old vessels and reworking itineraries.
At the same time, Sheehan set the company on a path to growth that centered around a new class of ships that debuts with Breakaway. Including Breakaway, the line will be rolling out three new vessels between now and 2015, with the company likely to exercise an option for a fourth by July.
In a one-on-one interview this weekend aboard the Breakaway's first sailing with passengers, Sheehan tells USA TODAY the new ships are the result of a team effort that was rare at the company before he arrived. Ship design under previous management "was kind of like a little secret thing" done by the CEO without much consultation, and that led to problems, he says.
Sheehan already was CEO in 2010 when the line took delivery of the 4,100-passenger Norwegian Epic, a ship that was designed before his arrival that was widely criticized for obvious design mistakes such as poor lighting above cabin bathroom mirrors and stylish but non-functional sink faucets.
Sheehan says it took 15 months to fix the problems with Epic, which he now calls "a great ship."
Breakaway, by contrast, was done right the first time, thanks to input from around the company, he says.
"We're a team of 20,000 hard-working people, and when we all work together we're going to do much better things that if we work as individuals," he says.
Sheehan says the Norwegian Breakaway also is a symbol of the line's shift from competing on price with low-cost provider Carnival to being a brand designed to go head-to-head with Celebrity Cruises, Holland America and other lines that industry executives often refer to as "premium."
When he first arrived, Sheehan says he told executives that "when we get through this, our brand will be the top brand in the premium category, and I know a lot of people thought I was crazy. Maybe some of them still do, but when you look at this brand Norwegian Cruise Line (today) and you compare it to Holland America or Princess or Celebrity, it really stands up well."
Sheehan says he set a goal of turning Norwegian into the "hot brand" of the cruise industry, and it's a goal he says the company has achieved.
Indeed, stylish and lively, the Norwegian Breakaway has all the trappings of a hip resort in Las Vegas, including nightclubs, shows and more than a dozen restaurants. Among its innovations is an outdoor "waterfront" along the ship's eighth deck where half a dozen restaurant and bars have outdoor seating, and there's an "aqua park" on the top deck that boasts five major water slides. The ship's private Haven area of suites has its own pool area and restaurant in addition to personal concierge and butler service.
With three more ships expected between now and 2017, Norwegian also is on track to have the youngest fleet in the industry, Sheehan notes. The line's total capacity is growing by well over 50% in a four-year span. The company also recently went public with a well-received initial public offering on Wall Street.
For Sheehan, it all adds up to smooth sailing ahead for a line that has long been an underdog of the industry.
"From what I see, and the metrics I look at every day, we're very confident in our future," he says.
By Gene Sloan, USA Today
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