A four-hour drive into the Omani desert delivers guests to a Bedouin camp in the middle of nowhere. When they arrive, Bedouin chefs will cook them local dishes using vegetables they’ve never tasted, play instruments they’ve never heard, and spend time with them by a roaring fire late into the night. Then they’ll sleep under the stars in tents, amid a sea of undulating sand dunes.
It’s not what you’d expect of a typical night on a cruise. But shaking things up is exactly the point, according to Larry Pimentel, the president and CEO of Azamara Club Cruises.
“We specialize in destination immersion. That is our whole reason for existing,” Pimentel says. “Our one major goal is to connect guests to the places they visit.”
When Azamara Club Cruises launched in 2010, the cruise industry had a reputation for inauthentic travel and off-the-shelf excursions. Azamara Club Cruises offers smaller ships—two vessels carrying 690 passengers each—that can reach smaller ports, such as Bangkok or Bordeaux. Guests can also stay longer in those ports, where they enjoy exclusive, one-of-a-kind experiences: something as elaborate as dinner and an opera performance by a trio of tenors in Livorno, Italy, or as simple as a meal at the hole-in-the-wall that serves the best souvlaki in Athens, Greece. This formula has allowed Azamara, owned by Royal Caribbean, to attract a new clientele. Up to 22 percent of its guests have never been on a cruise ship before.
Pimentel is a longtime outlier: He didn’t even think he liked cruising when he joined the industry in 1989, having sold his successful Hawaii-based tour company to Expedia. “When I first got to the cruise world, my perception was that they were exceptional at food delivery and terrible at delivering the destination,” he says. “They were too hung up on material luxury such as fine china and high-thread-count sheets, and not focused enough on what the great value in travel was.”
Before joining Azamara, Pimentel cofounded SeaDream Yacht Club and served as president and CEO of Cunard Line. At Azamara Club Cruises, Pimentel has overseen the addition of more than 1,000 new experiences this year alone, and there are plans to further develop pre- and post-cruise offerings, such as a trip on the iconic Venice Simplon−Orient-Express train that travels between London and Venice.
“At the end of the day, we’re not selling cruises,” says Pimentel. “We are selling experiences that allow guests to evolve and grow, and that show the uniqueness of the world. They will become all the richer for it.”