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Norwegian Cruise Line (tel. 800/327-7030; www.ncl.com) has had one long, strange trip since 1966, when it began as an alliance between Norwegian ship owner Knut Kloester and Israeli marketing genius Ted Arison (who later founded Carnival Cruises). Fourteen years later, it introduced the megaship concept, purchasing the old SS France and transforming her into the Norway. Then came the hard times: the knock-down, drag-out competition with Carnival and Royal Caribbean, the gradual aging of its fleet, the perception that the line was just a step or so above the budget operators that then made up a clear second-tier periphery to the industry's major players.

Things began to turn around in the late 1990s, when the line built Norwegian Sky (now renamed Pride of Aloha), its first new vessel in years. After that, things started moving fast: In 2000, NCL introduced its groundbreaking "Freestyle Cruising" concept, which did away with fixed dining times, seating assignments and formal dress codes, each one an industry-wide practice at the time. That same year, the line was purchased by Malaysia-based Star Cruises, which gave it a stronger financial position from which to plan future strategy. And plan it did: In 2004, after some complicated legal maneuvering, NCL began to take steps toward completely taking over the Hawaii cruise market -- a move it's now accomplished. It also went to work on its fleet, launching six new vessels (with another on the way in December and another coming in late 2007) and making plans to divest itself of the older midsized vessels left over from its 1990s slump. Along the way it acquired an "everyman" onboard vibe that hews to the center with always-casual dining (and lots of it), bright, cheerful decor and fun innovations like onboard bowling alleys. In a nutshell, NCL has become the kind of cruise line you want to sit down and have a beer with.

Here's a round-up of what's been going on among the Norwegians lately.

NCL Joins the Big Time, Orders 150,000-ton Mega-Megaships

Earlier this month, NCL made a move to join the ranks of the supersized, placing an order with French shipbuilder Aker Yards S.A. (formerly known as Chantiers de l'Atlantique, builder of Cunard's Queen Mary 2) to construct up to three 150,000-ton, 4,200-passenger vessels. These would be the fourth-largest class of ships in the world, behind QM2 (151,400 gross tons), Royal Caribbean's Freedom of the Seas and upcoming Liberty of the Seas (160,000 gross tons), and the beyond-enormous 220,000-ton ships Royal Caribbean has on order for 2009.

The order is firm for the first two ships, with delivery dates set for the fourth quarter of 2009 and the second quarter of 2010. The company also has an option for a third sister ship, which would be delivered in the first quarter of 2011. Though NCL has released few details about the vessels, which are currently known by the project name "F3," they are slated to have balconies in all 1,415 outside cabins and suites, and will reportedly offer 60% more passenger space than any other NCL vessel.

Commenting on the order, Star Cruises chairman Tan Sri K.T. Lim said, "This order, placed in NCL's 40th anniversary year, marks the culmination of our plans to transform this great company. By 2010 there will be almost nothing left of the NCL we bought in 2000 except the name and the people, and in place of the old, mixed fleet we inherited, there will be the youngest, most innovative and exciting fleet in the industry."

Current plans call for the remaining "old NCL" ships -- Norwegian Majesty, Norwegian Wind, Norwegian Dream, and Norwegian Crown -- to be transferred from NCL to Star Cruises' Asia fleet over the next few years. Crown and Wind will depart in 2007.

NCL Launches New "All-Encompassing" Brand Identity

Get ready, 'cause you're about to see NCL everywhere. On October 2, the line will begin rolling out a $100 million advertising and promo campaign that it's describing as "a new, all-encompassing brand identity created expressly to capture and articulate the company's unique Freestyle Cruising" concept. Created by branding agency GSD&M of Austin, Texas, the program includes new TV, radio, print and online ads as well as a totally new style for all the line's printed materials, from mailings to cabin keys, welcome-aboard packets, comment cards, terminal signage and even in-cabin amenities like shoe-polishing mitts.

The basic message? "We're casual and loose and fun. They're not."

To longtime NCL passengers and industry observers, the message is nothing new, reiterating the "freestyle" concept that's been the line's focus for the past six years. Now, with the line's multi-year Hawaii roll-out complete, it has time and money to put toward defining itself in the public mind.

"With NCL set to have by far the youngest fleet in the industry by 2010, with all of our new ships purpose-built for Freestyle Cruising and deployed in all major cruise destinations and our NCL America fleet now fully in place, the time is right to build large scale consumer awareness through a major brand identity initiative," said Andy Stuart, NCL Corporation's executive vice president of sales, marketing and passenger services.

The new TV spots feature the most obvious "us vs. them" positioning, depicting masses of passengers on an unidentified cruise line marching in lockstep from deck chair to shuffleboard to gym to dining room, constantly checking their watches to stay on schedule. The spots then shift to an NCL ship, which is depicted as loose, laid-back, and free of timetables. A new slogan sums it all up: "NCL: Where You're Free to ... Whatever."

Print ads continue the lighthearted tone with retro, pseudo-1950s Hawaiian style, using slogans like "Woe to the vacationer who is forced to dine at 7pm at table 9 with the Wurtzels from Albany" and "There is no such thing as a romantic table for 8." Garment-bag ads for use by laundries and dry cleaners promise, "Whatever this is, you can wear it on board." A graphic that appears throughout the campaign depicts a school of blue fish swimming in one direction, while a single white fish swims in the other. According to NCL, market research shows that the types of people who are attracted to the line see themselves as individualists.

The cruise industry has a long history of media strategies that have successfully defined brands. Think of Princess riding The Love Boat's coattails to a romantic image; or the Carnival ads where tropical fish party to lively Caribbean music; or, most successfully, Royal Caribbean's energetic "Get Out There / Lust for Life" ads, which depict the line as a combination hyperactive urban health club, chic restaurant district, and adventure-travel outfitter. NCL is banking hard that "... Whatever" will prove to be a similarly defining campaign.

Coming Back? New NCL Loyalty Program Offers Rewards

Cruising is like a drug: You pay the cruise line, and they provide the temporary illusion that you're richer than you are, and more highly placed, and maybe even more attractive. The more you pay, the deeper the illusion that's reinforced by gestures and amenities: larger cabins, more deference, more pampering and lots of "free" stuff. From a sales standpoint, it's all designed for one purpose: to make you come back for more. And if you do, the treatment gets even more refined, and the amenities pile up at your door like candies in a Christmas stocking.

What we're talking about here are loyalty programs, the little extra kicker the cruise lines use to get passengers hooked so they'll come back again and again. Recently, NCL rolled out an enhanced program that, like many other cruise lines' programs, offers tiered benefits based on the number of cruises you take with the line: Bronze members (1-4 cruises) get past-passenger discounts on all sailings, a special check-in desk at the pier, admittance to a cocktail party hosted by the captain, and a pin to identify them as a past guest. Silver members (5-8 cruises) get admission to a second onboard party and free in-cabin treats twice during their cruise. Gold Members (9-13 cruises) get priority boarding and debarkation, a stateroom welcome basket, priority reservations at the onboard restaurants, priority tender tickets, and an invitation to the captain's VIP cocktail party. Passengers' onboard keycards are color coded so staff knows to give repeaters extra-special care.

The program is retroactive to the inception of the original Latitudes program from 1995, so if you've sailed with NCL previously, you may already be a highly placed personage who's due some free goodies on your next cruise.

Bringing the Family? Now You Can Spread Out for Less

Concurrent with all its other news, NCL has also begun touting a new Family Plan, by which families booking a mini-suite (category AF) on select NCL ships this fall and beyond receive 10% off the cruise fare for a second stateroom, which can accommodate kids, parents, Aunt Betty, or ... whomever.

The family-friendly special is available on all sailings of the Norwegian Dawn, Norwegian Gem, Norwegian Jewel, Norwegian Pearl, Norwegian Star, and Pride of Hawaii. New individual reservations must be booked 180 days prior to sailing and blackout dates do apply.

And Finally, Vindication ...

Remember the headlines in April 2005, when Norwegian Dawn was struck head-on by a freak 70-foot wave while en route from Miami to New York? The force of the blow broke windows in two forward-facing cabins on decks 9 and 10 and sent seawater rolling through the decks and into some 62 other cabins. Dawn sustained no damage to her hull and only minor damage to her superstructure, and only four passengers were treated on board for cuts and bruises, but major media outlets treated it like a second Titanic disaster. A group of passengers also sued for $100 million, claiming the line had intentionally ordered the ship into bad weather in order to make it back to New York early for a scheduled appearance on Donald Trump's TV show The Apprentice.

Earlier reports by the Bahamas Maritime Authority and the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board found that NCL was not at fault in the matter, and now comes word that U.S. District Judge Cecilia M. Altonaga has denied the plaintiff's motion for class certification, meaning the suit will not automatically cover the 2,000-plus passengers aboard during the incident. Instead, any passenger who chooses to bring suit will need to prove he or she personally suffered damages as a result of the incident.

"We are pleased and gratified with Judge Altonaga's decision that the lawsuit is not appropriate for class action status," said NCL President and CEO Colin Veitch. "From the outset, this frivolous lawsuit has existed only in the minds of the plaintiffs' lawyers."

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