How a teenager and a silver screen love story inspired the building of Cunard’s Queen Mary 2. Carnival Corporation chairman Micky Arison talks exclusively to John Honeywell.
The cruise industry today would be much different – indeed it might not even exist at all – if it had not been for Ted Arison. Starting with a converted liner that ran aground on her maiden voyage from Miami in 1972, he built a global empire that owns more brands and operates more ships than any other.
By 1998, when Cunard Line was for sale, Carnival was headed by Ted’s son Micky, who really wasn’t interested in acquiring the historic company.
He had nurtured an affection for ocean liners since the age of five, when his family emigrated from Tel Aviv to the United States, crossing the Atlantic in 1954 on board Cunard’s Mauretania. The love affair grew as the young Micky saw the ships lined up at Manhattan Piers as he travelled to school each day.
At that time, he had no idea that he would end up so involved in the industry, but when the opportunity came to buy Cunard, he did not think it had anything to add to the Carnival conglomerate.
That was until his daughter Kelly – then 15 – persuaded him to take her to see Titanic. “It was not a movie I wanted to see,” Micky told me. “I knew the story. I knew the ending. But Kelly convinced me there was more to it and I came away with the sense that the success of the film was not because of the events but the love story and the nostalgia.
“Cunard’s QE2 was reaching the end of her life and it struck me that the possibility for people to relive the experiences of their grandparents and great-grandparents would disappear.“
“That’s when we got together and said: ‘Let’s see if we can build another transatlantic liner.’ To do that, we had to buy Cunard. Most people think we bought Cunard and then we built Queen Mary. The reality is, we needed Cunard if we wanted to build a transatlantic liner.
“I put a project team together to investigate what it would take to construct a ship capable of making 20-25 crossings a year. I knew it would be more expensive and inefficient. You’ve got a 140,000-ton ship with 2,600 lowers [lower berths]. Any other ship that size would have 4,000.
“To make that work, you have to be able to get a premium fare. Was I nervous? The answer is yes. Was my board sceptical? The answer is more than yes. But I was convinced that because it was a market with no significant competition, we could get the premium fares and it would be successful. And so it has been.”
Living the dream
Fast-forward 12 years from QM2’s christening in 2004. Last summer the ship emerged from a £90 million re-mastering and Micky decided now would be a good time to make his own first crossing from New York with English-born wife, Madeleine.
Did they enjoy it? You bet.
“You wake up every morning and there it is – you’re at sea and you get into this almost hypnotic thing where every day you get up and have your breakfast; if it’s sunny you go out on the balcony. If you’re having dinner in the Queen’s Grill it’s one of the most incredible dining rooms anywhere in the world.
“I’m not one that loves to be in a tuxedo all the time, but you get used to that too. It just fits the ambience of the whole thing.”
Micky’s affection for the Cunard lifestyle shines through in our conversation. But his acute business sense is never far away either. When I ask him what is his favourite aspect of the re-mastering, the answer is quick and forthright.
Sure, he’s impressed by the improvements to the Kings Court buffet restaurant, and he loves the way the unwelcoming Winter Garden has been transformed into the cosy Carinthia Lounge. But the most significant changes bring in extra revenue. “I had been pushing part of this project for a long time. 2,600 lowers is not enough, so I had wanted the 50 extra balcony cabins we built. We could have done 30 or 40 more but I was convinced by others not to do that.”
He remains certain the transatlantic market is a one-ship business and it’s most unlikely that another liner will be built until QM2 reaches the end of her life – probably at least 25 years from now.
As for another Cunard cruise ship to join Queen Elizabeth and Queen Victoria, he is equally cautious. Every other brand in the Carnival empire has new tonnage on order, including P&O’s biggest yet, a 5,200-passenger giant launching in 2020. Cunard is currently the only one without the promise of a new ship.
“If capacity becomes an issue we would consider building another ship, but it won’t be a liner,” said Micky.
Unless, maybe, daughter Kelly can persuade him one more time.