PROFILE: Azamara Cruises new CEO Dondra Ritzenthaler talks ships and sharks

PROFILE: Azamara Cruises new CEO Dondra Ritzenthaler talks ships and sharks

You get the feeling Dondra Ritzenthaler likes to control her destination, while also enjoying the journey.

“I gotta tell ya,” she says in her soft southern accent. “I feel very honoured to be given the opportunity to be the CEO of Azamara Cruises. When they called and gave me this opportunity, I knew I could never pass it up. And then I had a lot to prove to myself in the industry that, you know, someone like myself, very much ‘putting people first’ culture could come in and really run it and make it really successful,” she says via Zoom.  

After Ritzenthaler (at left in main image) graduated from college, travel beckoned, but not in the usual sense. She joined American Airlines where she worked there for 20 years – and one day.  

“I had 11 jobs in 20 years. It was wonderful. And then I went to Celebrity Cruises in the RCG (Royal Caribbean Group) family for 20 years – and one day. And now I’m the CEO at Azamara. But I’m not going to be here 20 years – and a day.  

Why the hell not? 

“Why? Bet you can figure it out,” says the 61-year-old with a chuckle. “But I’m gonna learn as much and be as successful in 10 (years), as I would have been 20 – and a day.” 

Compared to its bulky cousins in Carnival and Disney, Azamara is a small brand. Once owned by RCG, Azamara Cruises is now in the hands of Sycamore Partners, a leading private equity firm based in New York City. Among its vessels are Azamara Journey, Azamara Onward, Azamara Pursuit and Azamara Quest.  

The Azamara ship line-up

“At Azamara, we’ve got four beautiful small ships that only hold about 697 guests. And, and we’re a small brand, right? So, we’re very blessed that we’re the small ship, global leader in destination immersion,” she says.

In 2023 cruise passenger volume reached 31.7 million – surpassing 2019 by 7per cent, according to the 2024 CLIA report. The report also shows continued demand for cruise holidays, noting intent to cruise at 82 per cent. The forecast for cruise capacity shows an increase of 10 per cent from 2024 through 2028. 

“As the industry grows … that’s great for all of us, right, because that’s many more cruisers coming in,” she enthuses. “Because where we really are strong is we are not focused on bringing new-to-cruise – we will certainly take them and we will deliver beautifully for them – but what we really do is that we are the brand that when somebody comes in and they cruise on one of the big guys, and they decide that they love to cruise but now they really want something that’s more small and genuine and authentic and immersive. That’s where we really come in. That’s really the sweet spot for us.”

they really want something that’s more small and genuine and authentic and immersive. That’s where we really come in. That’s really the sweet spot for us”

The number of new-to-cruise is increasing globally, according to CLIA, with 27 per cent of cruisers over the past two years new-to-cruise, an increase of 12 per cent over the past year. With new-to-cruise old news and return-to-cruise and premium and luxury cruising on the rise, the time was right for a woman of Ritzenthaler’s calibre to take the helm and point Azamara in a new direction. 

“We want to we want to get into that new build game,” she says of her plans. “But we’re not announcing that until we get the support from Sycamore, based on how well we do.

“Our mission, our goal is to be wildly successful and then be one of those (companies) who are announcing new builds in the future. But we’re not there yet! But we sure do have a goal and a desire.”

Azamara Journey in Sydney. Image: Tim Faircloth

Where to next? 

With congestion in Europe, and some ports banning larger ships, Azamara is ideally placed to venture to new destinations, or further explore existing ones. Finding them is the job of head of itinerary planning at Azamara, Mike Pawlus. 

“I really humbly believe he’s the best in the business as far as running deployment, and he is literally like an encyclopedia,” says Ritzenthaler. “I’ve never seen anybody that knows so much about different destinations, but not the big stuff that we would all know, you know, like a Barcelona or a Rome. But he genuinely knows these little, small, beautiful places.”

Think Sicily, Seville or the smaller ports of Croatia.

Azamara ships are ideal for smaller port immersions.

“He has gone in and learnt these little baby, very beautiful, special places, and has built our itineraries to be late nights and overnights. In fact, the reason that we’re the leader in late nights and overnights is because we have more percentage wise, we have more late nights and overnights than anybody else.  

“The reason that that matters is because we get to let these guests see these destinations in nighttime. And that’s not normally the way it works in the cruise business. Normally, you get in at eight, nine in the morning, and leave at five or six. Well, we can get in at eight or nine in the morning and leave the next day at five or six.”

Getting the village experience, enjoying the local area, eating at a local bistro or trattoria – and not being forced to go back to the ship to eat on board – is all part of the Azamara experience. 

“We can literally go up the river and park,” she says. Others have to stay out in the ocean or in a sea and tender or bus in from outer ports.

“It really does give us this beautiful, real rich experience,” Ritzenthaler says. “It’s the difference between night and day.”

Azamara Journey in port. Image: iStock – Bernard Bialorucki

Diverse experiences not just destinations 

Sport is also on the agenda, with popular destinations including shore stops such to include golf’s British Open, and a partnership with Perry Golf, plus perch at Port Hercule to take in the Monte Carlo Grand Prix.

Sporting events also help lower the cruise age demographic, even by a couple of years and that means that you will be probably get them cruising more often as you’ve got them earlier.

Cruises are also a top choice for multi-generational travel – with more than 30 per cent of families travelling by cruise with at least two generations and 28 per cent of cruise travellers traveling with three to five generations.

“They see how super fantastic it is,” Ritzenthaler enthuses. “And then they come back, and they come back, and they come back. What we’ve got to do is to keep those new people coming in, and then get them to come back and not only come back but bring their friends (and their families).” 

And Ritzenthaler is also aiming for the stars – make that the Sun.

“It’s not even out yet, but we are going to be announcing that we’re going to have two ships that are going to do the solar eclipse in August of 2026,” she reveals. “We’re going to have two ships that are going to be there during that time.” 

There’s also the begging question of sustainability, with fuel consumption, the impact of ever-bigger ships, air miles for frozen foods, and running power in port rather than diesel. As two new vessels are yet to be commissioned, Azamara is currently doing its bit by improving its sustainability efforts – getting rid of single use plastics and sourcing a lot of food locally, among them.  

The listening stage 

Ritzenthaler has a lot to take on-board, she says, both in a literal and figurative sense, with the freshly-minted CEO saying she is still in her listening phase.  

“I gave myself 30 days to listen, 30 days to really digest and learn and then 30 days to act,” she says. “I’m doing a listening tour around the world, I’ve got 14 different times where I’m inviting travel advisors, to just come in and talk to us. I’m going to listen to them … but also our crew, and our guests, because it’s amazing what you can learn from your guest. 

The things that you can’t control, are the things that I will always be thinking through. But I do believe that no matter what, it’s only 10 per cent what happens and 90 per cent how you handle it.”

Dondra Ritzenthaler gets to know the crew.

‘Handling it’ is her forte 

Ritzenthaler has now set foot on two of their ships, meeting with a hotel director, F&B staff, housekeeping and engineers among the crew.  

“I asked them very simply, ‘What do you think’? ‘What advice do you have for me?’ ‘What do you think we need to be looking at?’ And I gotta tell you, it was really heartwarming because they go, ‘Dondra… no one has ever asked me that’.

“What I’m gonna do is I’m gonna stay extremely close to the crew at all levels, show them that I very much know and get that we can’t do it without them. I feel very bullish that we’ll be able to really be great teammates with ship and shore better than ever, because it’s a big focus of mine,” she says.  

“This is the first time that I’ve ever been in a role where I can truly lead the team. I want my legacy to be that I lead a team to incredible success. While everybody on the team, no matter where they are, and what their role is understood how valuable what they did was to the total success, and how much I appreciate them. And if that’s what people say about me, when I leave, I think I will have done what I really set out to do.

“I firmly believe we can be successful and profitable, while truly letting people know how much we value you and appreciate them. And I think you can do that.  

In fact, I think that’s the that’ll be the secret sauce as to why we are successful, because people will be so motivated. They’re gonna want to give you everything they got.

As for her own bucket-list destination Ritzenthaler has been pretty much all over the whole world – except Australia! 

“I want to go so badly,” she says, explaining two sets of plans were scrapped. First because of the pandemic, then airfares went through the roof. It was going to cost the family $35,000 just to get here. Now that flight costs have come down, Down Under is back on the agenda. But probably not on an Azamara vessel – for the moment anyway.

Their first Aussie experience?  

“The family is all diving certified,” she says. “We want to go cage diving with the sharks.” 

You first! 

“Take care y’all,” she says.

We will.

Latest News

  • Aviation
  • News

UPDATE: Crash compensation unlikely, says head of digital disruption payment system

Southern Cross Travel Insurance says it will be covering claimable losses caused by the Crowdstrike global network outage event, despite its own operations not being affected. “We will be covering claimable losses caused by this event, provided all other conditions and criteria for cover are met (and subject to any limits, sub-limits and/or any exclusions […]

  • Food & Beverage

Exciting culinary experiences across Asia

Here is a look at some exciting experiences across Asia to enhance traveller vacations in iconic cities across the continent. The Mai Restaurant at Meliá Chiang Mai Located on the 21st floor of the iconic hotel, the Mai Restaurant has launched a Thai-inspired afternoon tea for two that pays tribute to the Baan Tawai Wood […]

  • Regional
  • Tour Operators

On Foot Holidays launches Ligurian Hills hiking tour promotion

Australians can explore Italy’s Ligurian Hills on foot on a self-guided, inn-to-inn hike with Onn Foot Holidays new promotional rates. Liguria is a coastal region in north-western Italy near the French border, known for its mountains, rolling hills and seaside ports. On Foot Holidays’ seven-night holiday begins with two days of walking through vineyards and […]

  • Products

Mandarin Oriental takes a dive into swimwear with $360 board shorts

If you were inspired by The Inspired Unemployed’s Liam Moore limited-edition pair of Budgy Smugglers but want a bit more coverage, then here’s your chance. The Orlebar Brown brand has introduced an original design of the Bulldog swim short for Mandarin Oriental hotels – yours for a snip at US$242.25 (AU$360). They have been “designed […]

  • Health & Wellness
  • Luxury

Trisara showcases sustainable dining via wellspring program

Phuket-based resort Trisara is transporting guests from resort to farm to table then back again courtesy of a new limited-time program, Wellspring. The package is a collaboration with Tri Vananda, a US$182 million (AU $270 million) wellness community in northern Phuket, conceived by Montara Hospitality Group, the owners of Trisara. In addition to entitling guests […]

  • Aviation

Emirates SkyCargo expands fleet with five Boeing 777 freighters

Emirates SkyCargo announced an investment of US$1 billion (AU$1.484b) to expand its fleet with an order of five new Boeing 777 freighters. The investment follows a strong performance in the first quarter of the 2024/25 financial year. Emirates SkyCargo expects the new freighters to increase its capacity by 30 per cent. The increase enables the […]

  • Events
  • Tour Operators

ITE HCMC 2024 focuses on sustainable tourism for creating a future

The 18th annual International Travel Expo Ho Chi Minh City (ITE HCMC) will take place from 5 to 7 September at the Saigon Exhibition and Convention Center. Under the theme “Responsible Travel, Creating Future”, the expo will highlight its dedication to promoting sustainable tourism practices and showcasing innovative tourism products and services to meet rigorous […]