By Johanna Jainchill – Travel Weekly
Conroy timeline at Regent
1992: Conroy joins the line as president and CEO of Diamond Cruises. The Radisson Diamond is christened.
1995: Seven Seas Cruise Line merges with Diamond Cruises to become Radisson Seven Seas Cruises, part of Carlson.
1997: Launches the 320-passenger Paul Gauguin to be based in French Polynesia year-round.
1999: The 490-passenger Seven Seas Navigator enters service as the world’s first all-suite vessel.
2001: The 700-passenger Seven Seas Mariner becomes the world’s first all-suite, all-balcony ship. The line introduces the second all-suite, all-balcony ship, the 700-passenger Seven Seas Voyager.
2003: Radisson aligns with sister brand Regent Hotels and Resorts and is renamed Regent Seven Seas Cruises.
2006: Regent begins including most alcoholic beverages in its cruise price.
2007: Regent Seven Seas Cruises is purchased by Apollo Management, also the parent company of Oceania Cruises.
2008: Regent announces free selected shore excursions on 35 voyages for 2009.
In its 20-year history, luxury cruise line Regent Seven Seas Cruises has changed its name three times and gone through several owners, but one thing has remained constant: Its president has always been Mark Conroy.
Even in an industry where company loyalty runs deep, Conroy’s longevity stands out from the pack. With 20 years at Regent’s helm, he is currently the longest-serving cruise line president, the ultimate survivor.
“In this industry, the longevity of 20 years is pretty significant,” said Bill Smith, a Virtuoso vice president and former executive with Crystal Cruises. “There are not many players out there who have made it that long.”
Conroy’s tenure has survived not only 9/11, two U.S. wars and the worst recession since the Great Depression but two changes of the cruise line’s ownership: first to travel conglomerate Carlson Group and then to Apollo Management, a private equity group that is its current owner.
Conroy’s two decades as Regent’s only president mean he was there when the line was launched as Diamond Cruises in 1992, when it changed its name to Radisson Seven Seas in 1995 and when it became Regent Seven Seas in 2006.
He watched champagne bottles break against the hulls of five new Regent vessels, including the industry’s first all-suite vessel, the 490-passenger Seven Seas Navigator in 1999, and the first all-balcony ship, the 700-passenger Seven Seas Mariner in 2001.
As is the case with any long career, Conroy’s has not been all smooth sailing. For example, many in the industry wondered if he would survive the transition from Carlson to Apollo, which purchased Regent in 2007.
There was ample reason to think he might not. Apollo had already acquired Norwegian Cruise Line, after which it orchestrated a major leadership shakeup. On the other hand, it had also acquired Regent’s sister line, Oceania Cruises, where most of the company was kept intact.
Regent and Oceania have since operated as separate, competing brands under the umbrella of Prestige Cruise Holdings, which is headed by Oceania’s former CEO, Frank Del Rio.
By 2009, many of Regent’s top management had left, including Ken Watson, its then-executive vice president of sales and marketing; Christian Sauleau, executive vice president of operations; Andre Nordseth, vice president of hotel operations; and Darius Mehta, director of land programs.
But Conroy stayed on, and by all accounts, he and Del Rio have developed a mutual respect.
While acknowledging that he was initially concerned about how things would work out under the ownership of a private equity firm, Conroy described Del Rio as “one of the smartest people I’ve ever known.”
“We had to let some people go, which was difficult,” Conroy said. “But overall, I’m thrilled. The fact is, Apollo is a very good owner, and I think what they’ve really done is spent a lot of money to buy the Regent brand, and they realize they have to protect that investment.”
He said the change in ownership has made Regent stronger.
“Carlson was a multitiered travel and hospitality business, and we were just one part of it,” Conroy said. “The beauty of [Apollo] is we are owned by a financial institution that sees cruising as a good investment but doesn’t want to run the business. They’ve hired competent managers to do the job and build the brand to get a return on the investment. When we were part of Carlson, I was competing with the guy at TGI Friday’s and Country Inn & Suites.”
Conroy has also had to contend throughout the years with world events that in some cases flattened the travel industry so much that it killed off some competitors.
He recalls launching the Seven Seas Mariner just before the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Then the Seven Seas Voyager debuted on April 1, 2003, in Monaco, the day the U.S. began bombing Baghdad.
“I wasn’t concerned about whether [business] would come back, but I was concerned about when,” Conroy said.
Having seen consumers react to news of wars and disasters through the decades, he remarked that as the world has become more volatile, consumers have become more intrepid.
“It’s amazing how much more resilient the customer is today than in 2003, even,” he said. “Back then, with Saddam Hussein threatening to attack Europe, nobody was going to Europe. Today, even during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, we have ships in the Persian Gulf, we have full ships in Israel.
“[Consumers] are better able to put the overall risk in perspective, and they don’t cancel at the drop of a hat. Until around 2003, they would just cancel.”
Conroy credits his success in the luxury realm to his years of experience elsewhere.
“When you come from the premium and mass market, you understand what their offerings are and how to get a person to want to spend more,” he said.
With premium and contemporary lines continually improving their products over the years, industry observers say Regent has differentiated itself by being more inclusive.
“The direction Mark has helped guide and develop the Regent brand cannot be overstated,” said Greg Nacco, vice president of Cruise Specialists in Seattle. “Regent has carved out an all-inclusive persona that is second to none and a harbinger of what is expected to come. With each new addition to their all-inclusive product, Regent solidifies its place as the industry leader in this realm.”
Despite presiding over one of the smaller cruise lines, Conroy has long been a popular figure in the cruise sector. One reason for this is that he is half of a unique industry story: the only cruise president to compete directly with his wife.
Until 2009, Marilyn Conroy was senior vice president of sales and marketing for Silversea Cruises. Before that she held top posts at Cunard Line and Crystal Cruises. In 2009, she co-launched the marketing firm David Morris International.
As tough as it was to “sleep with the enemy,” as Conroy joked about their arrangement, it also meant they both understood what the other was going through.
“The beauty of being married to someone doing the same job is we understood what our work was all about,” he said. “If it wasn’t a competitive issue, she’d ask me a question or I’d ask her. We gained from each other’s experience.”
Conroy is highly regarded among travel agents, many of whom have worked with him since the days before he was with Regent. Nacco, for example, has worked with Conroy for 30 years and said he “never deviated from straightforward communication.”
“He exudes a presence of honesty and integrity,” Nacco said. “You may not like the answer Mark gives for a situation, circumstance and policy, although you often do, but you believe his answer to be the truth.”
Jean Creasy of Indian River Travel in Stuart, Fla., has worked with Conroy for 36 years. She recalled how he often comes out on embarkation day to greet passengers and help carry their luggage, hers included.
Travel agents, Creasy said, “respect him so much. He listens to us and really pays attention. He’s traveling the world almost constantly, and yet when I email him, I’ll have an answer right away.”
He is also popular for agent-friendly policies, such as Regent’s decision to become the first cruise line to do away with noncomissionable fees in 2010, paying agents commissions on port charges, government fees and taxes.
In 2009, Regent also began including select shore excursions in its cruise price instead of lowering rates.
Those polices, Creasy said, “help my bottom line.”
Conroy also earned the admiration of the other cruise executives, even his competitors.
“He’s always been well respected, and that’s tough in this business,” Virtuoso’s Smith said. “Particularly in a position like Mark’s when you have to make difficult and tough decisions, both with employees and the policies you implement, and run a company that is sensitive to people’s opinions, while you are under pressure from owners.”
Despite that balancing act, Smith said, “Mark more than survives it; he flourishes in it.”