Full steam ahead?

P&O hopes to mimic boutique hotels and business-class airlines with its super cruiser Ventura, but the ship’s interiors are dated. Trish Lorenz suggests cruise lines should take a more modern approach to design to expand beyond the retiree market

P&O hopes to mimic boutique hotels and business-class airlines with its super cruiser Ventura, but the ship’s interiors are dated. Trish Lorenz suggests cruise lines should take a more modern approach to design to expand beyond the retiree market

The last time cruise ships were really glamorous, the Titanic was still afloat. For most of the past 60 years, the sector has been firmly the preserve of the retiree market, and design kudos and style have been in short supply. But all that may be about to change.

This week P&O launches its latest super cruiser, the Ventura, which the company has created specifically for the British market and which it hopes will attract affluent premium travellers, largely through a focus on design. P&O has appointed British designer Nick Munro as design consultant and invested £15m in upping the design credentials on board the ship. A partnership with Tate Britain has been initiated and the ship is home to more than 7000 original pieces of contemporary art – a collection worth more than £1m.

Munro has worked on the project for 18 months, a relatively short period in the context of the shipbuilding process, and his remit has effectively been limited to interior detailing. ‘The broader interior design was pretty much a done deal,’ says Munro. ‘We focused initially on detail changes, upgrading items like the in-room tea and coffee function, cutlery, crockery and glassware.’ His objective was to be ‘Malmaison-like’ in his attention to detail and he has worked with British manufacturers as far as possible. Cutlery, for example, is by Sheffield manufacturer Arthur Price. ‘Where possible we looked for the best in materials, craftsmanship and provenance,’ says Munro. ‘It’s not always just about visual impact. The tactile sense is important – how a glass feels in the hand, its weight. “Feeling good” is a subtle thing, but it affects customers and has a subconscious impact.’ Munro’s pieces are stylish, aesthetically strong and almost always inherently tactile. The in-room stainless steel kettle, cafetière and tea pot in particular are beautifully designed and immediately noticeable. On the rest of the vessel, it’s clear that P&O has ‘spent big’. The Ventura feels plush and details such as sanitary ware by Villeroy & Boch and Ideal Standard, glossy Zebrano wood panelling and spacious bedrooms with private balconies are in evidence. But spending money is, in itself, not enough to make for a top-end travel offer and there are many areas where the Ventura simply does not compete with rivals such as boutique hotels or business-class airline products.

The principal issue is that, though luxurious, the ship’s interiors don’t feel contemporary. Heavily patterned carpets, a colour scheme lacking verve, long hallways that resemble hotel corridors, dining rooms that feel stuck in the 1980s and a general over-reliance on laminate finishes all give the design a slightly dated feel. For a vessel that aims to target the premium audience, it misses the mark.

What is also surprising is that the interior design avoids reference to the nautical and rarely acknowledges the fact that passengers are on board a ship. The casino features faux brick walls, while the premier restaurant, The White Room, has a heavy, dark palette and could be on any provincial British high street. It feels like a missed opportunity. The romance and excitement of a sea voyage are lost and instead a bland, chain-hotel environment predominates.

As airline travel becomes more fraught and environmental concerns move up the public agenda, the cruise sector is well placed to attract a new audience. But, as Priestman Goode director Paul Priestman points out, that won’t happen by paying lip service to design. The consultancy is working with Norwegian Cruise Line on a new ship which will launch in 2010 and which will also target younger, more affluent passengers. Priestman believes cruise companies need to do more than tweak the details to attract this audience. ‘You can shift perceptions of what cruise ships are about, but not through a superfluous styling exercise. You need to improve the entire experience and really raise the baseline. It has to be beautiful, that’s a given, but it also has to reflect people’s needs,’ he says.

According to Priestman, the objective should be modernity and relevance, rather than ostentatious affluence. ‘It’s not necessarily about being upmarket,’ he says. ‘It’s more about being modern and bringing good taste to it; thinking boldly and differently. People’s bottom line of reference today is modern design – from Ikea through to their homes and their expectations about travel. Old-fashioned style is no longer relevant and brands that don’t recognise that will struggle.’

Munro acknowledges that there is some way to go – to a large degree this is a styling exercise, he says, and the Ventura is ‘a statement of intent’, a pointer of the way ahead for P&O and the market as a whole.

There’s a certain lure in the thought of a beautifully designed, well-appointed ship, catering to a contemporary traveller’s every whim as it carves its way through the azure sea. They may not be with us quite yet, but boutique cruise ships look like they might be on the way. l

The Ventura by numbers• 116 000 tonnes• 290m long• 36m wide• 67.4m high• 3574 passengers • 1220 crew• 1546 cabins • 11 restaurants and cafés • Ten bars • Five swimming pools • 7000 pieces of original art

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