Azamara president Carol Cabezas on what it’s like to be an independent cruise line

Author: Kaye Holland

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Once part of the Royal Caribbean portfolio, Azamara was sold to Sycamore Partners for $201 million in January 2021 and quickly grew its fleet to four: Pacific Princess was bought from Princess Cruises, refurbished and renamed Azamara Onward and christened in Monaco in May 2022. President Carol Cabezas spoke to Kaye Holland about the brand’s plans for the future.

You were appointed president of Azamara in 2021 at the very height of the coronavirus crisis – what a time to accept the position!
Yes, I took over in March 2021 and it’s been quite an experience from the very beginning! It [the pandemic] taught us a tremendous amount of resilience and forced everyone to learn how to be adaptable and pivot. You have to – and we’re better for that. Especially coming into a new environment where we are now an independent company and have to develop things from scratch.

It’s been very exciting to have a blank slate. We’ve been able to build the business better and stronger because of that mentality. We’ve had the courage to look at how the product delivers.

Our investors are brilliant business people but they have never been involved in travel so come in with a fresh perspective that we wouldn’t have had if we stayed in a traditional cruise business.

They aren’t timid about asking basic questions or limited by a cruise way of thinking. They are smart guys, and they have been all in, since day one and shown so much support by doubling the shoreside team and adding a fourth ship. And we communicate and collaborate with them daily.

Azamara Onward is the boutique line's fourth ship. Credit: Azamara

How would you describe the Azamara experience?
Best way to look at it is this: Azamara allows a much fuller picture of the destination because of the amount of time we spend in destinations.

The longer stays, the overnights, the night times experiences we offer… It's very different from other cruise lines. Imagine you went to Barcelona and had to leave by 4pm? That’s half the story, you miss out entirely. Or Greece – you hit a couple of marquee points like Athens and Santorini but don’t see the wonderful, charming places you get to island hop on our ships.

Azamara is a cruise line for someone more independently minded; for people who might not otherwise cruise. We appeal to curious explorers – who want to learn what people eat, how they live, and what is the best place to have dinner so that they can eat some of the local food. We take them to places that others can’t go.

The age of our passengers is irrelevant. It’s not about age, it’s a mindset. The onboard compliments this – less formal and intrusive than other lines. Your cruise, your way, is what we like to say.

Credit: Azamara

How do you define your role and what are your key areas of focus at Azamara?
I’m all about making sure we have very clear direction and alignment. What are we doing? Why are we doing this? Which priorities should we be focused on? We need a cohesive set of priorities as a company so that we are working toward the same goals.

We got back in the water successfully with a full fleet. We’ve got our teams set up – don’t forget we are starting from scratch – and we are beginning to get back on track to our previous performance. All this has been done with no disruption to our customers or trade partners.

Azamara's ships spend more time in port so that passengers can get a proper feel for places such as Marseilles. Credit: Azamara

Were you always drawn to the cruise sector?
I was originally a forensic accountant at PricewaterhouseCoopers (PWC). However I quickly found out that, while I loved my job and found it fascinating, I needed a career that allowed me to build roots in a city rather than travel 90 percent of the time.

Being based in Miami, the cruise capital of the world, it made sense to consider the cruise industry. And, when I did interviews with Royal Caribbean it felt like the right fit and it was – I’ve been in the industry for 22 years now! Cruise enriches lives in a way that is so meaningful and that’s what makes it so special for me.

The 702-passenger Azamara Pursuit offers an elegant all-inclusive experience. Credit: Azamara

What can guests look forward to?
We have so many big releases coming which will take us well into 2025, and focus on people going big with their vacation plans.

You know when you really really want to explore a region? We’ve put a lot of attention into that. [Since we spoke, it has been announced that Azamara Journey will return to Africa. Azamara Pursuit will return to South America and offer special excursions such as the chance to experience Rio’s world-famous Carnival in February, while Azamara Quest will journey to Australia and New Zealand as well as Japan during the land of the rising sun’s legendary cherry blossom season.]

Lastly, if you could invite one person, dead or alive, onto an Azamara ship, who would it be and why?
Anthony Bourdain would have made such an interesting dinner guest. He explored it in a different way, a real way – it wasn’t just glossy. He really deep-dived into who people are, what makes them who they are and special, and what motivates them. So yes, I think he would have made a great guest.

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About Kaye Holland

Kaye is a London-based wordsmith who has written for a range of publications including The Times, The Independent, The I, Culture Trip, The Sun, and ABTA among others. In June 2022, Kaye joined the Real Response Media where she looks – together with Lucy Abbott – after the World of Cruising website. Want to get in touch? Kaye can be reached at: [email protected]