Edie Rodriguez loves tennis.
And the president and CEO of Crystal Cruises especially loves the legendary Venus Williams.
“I absolutely love girl power. As the only female CEO of a luxury cruise line, I love to see women succeed. Venus not only succeeded in a sport, she’s already transitioned in life to follow her other passions,” Rodriguez says.
“What I love are women that get ahead and don’t see any barriers, and particularly what Venus did to help get women equal pay in the tennis world.
“It should not matter, our gender, our race – our anything. She’s a trailblazer for women, not only in the tennis world. And that’s how I like to see myself,” Rodriguez adds.
Desire, work ethic – but no tennis talent
The indefatigable New Jersey native had nearly everything it takes to succeed in tennis. She’s ambitious, passionate, has a relentless work ethic and is the kind of woman who won’t take “no” for an answer.
Unfortunately, Rodriguez was missing one key element: ability.
“I would have preferred to travel the world on the tennis circuit. Had I had a talent like that, that would have been the preferential way,” she laughs. “I love tennis as a sport, to watch, because I am the worst tennis player imaginable. I sort of live vicariously through these players.”
What Rodriguez has done instead is weave the sport of tennis into her business, which spans the gamut from luxury cruises, to yacht expeditions, to a charter airline, to a river boat and, coming soon, residences at sea.
One ship has a paddle tennis court on board – equipment provided, if necessary.
“From when we built the ship we put it on. The main thought was that we cater to the aspirational wealthy, and our guests love tennis. It’s very popular. Some of the sailings will have a tennis pro on board,” Rodriguez said.
“One gentlemen, the only reasons he loves to cruise on us, is because he can still play his tennis every day.”
If you’re looking for a tennis experience, Crystal Cruises offers far more than that.
Being the global sport it is, there are always tournaments going on somewhere, some day, when Crystal Cruises is in the neighbourhood.
And there are tennis courts anywhere Crystal Cruises sails, or flies.
“Our ocean vessels range from five nights to 128 nights. It literally means you can play tennis around the world,” Rodriguez says. “When we have itineraries that sail around Paris, for example, we provide things like tennis and golf experiences ashore when we’re in port. And young people can go out and party in the cities that they’re in.”
Making dreams come true
The business of luxury travel is limited only by the imagination. And that’s a perfect fit for Rodriguez, who grew up dreaming of seeing the world, but without the funds to make those dreams come true.
Rodriguez always thought big. And she found a way.
“Eastern Airlines tried to hire me as a flight attendant. But it wasn’t what I wanted to do. I truly came out of my mother’s womb as a naturally-born salesperson,” she says.
So Rodriguez began as a travel agent. Later, she was an executive for several cruise-line companies, and vice-president of a technology company that served the travel industry.
Crystal Cruises came calling nearly four years ago.
First, Rodriguez tried out the product. She had never sailed with them, although she had admired them as a competitor and the travel agents she worked with raved about them.
She booked it herself, boarded under her maiden name, and experienced it as any customer would.
“I fell in love with the brand. The first day, on the ship in New York, at the press conference, I said, ‘Seven ships, seven seas, seven continents.’ People in the travel industry thought I was crazy. They said the company was never going to grow.
“I said, ‘you don’t know me. I’m a pushy New Yorker,’ ” she adds.
At the time, Crystal Cruises had a two-ship fleet in a very competitive landscape.
The parent company’s core business was container ships. And it was divesting themselves of businesses that didn’t fit that core. Rodriguez was able to help start a bidding war – getting far more for the company than the owners could have imagined.
It already was an award-winning company with a reputation for sterling service. What it needed was a dreamer to make it grow.
New ownership, and big-time expansion
The new owners, Genting Hong Kong, went out and bought a shipyard,
The expansion under Rodriguez’s has been swift and all encompassing – all with a keen eye to meeting the exacting Crystal standards and with the goal of selling not products, but experiences.
The first 31-suite yacht was delivered in May 2015.
In April 2016, the charter airline was born. There’s a kitted-out 777 – 84 flatbed seats only – and a 12-passenger Bombardier for small charter groups.
The five riverboats cruise the Danube, the Rhine, the Main and the Moselle.
In July 2016, the first of the seven ships Rodriguez vowed to make happen on her first day on the job was christened.
By next year, a polar-class megayacht will start cruising the Arctic and Antarctic.
In 2019, three new “Exclusive Class” vessels will join the two existing ships.
And along with that, Crystal is launching its condo-at-sea concept, with 48 permanent residences on the upper floors on each of the new ships.
The mini-sub – Bluetooth-enabled, champagne flowing, which can drop down 1,000 feet into the sea – is just an extra perk.
The reputation of the cruise-ship experience as a place for retirees to dodder around the decks all day has all but been swept overboard.
And Crystal is at the forefront of that sweeping change.
“With our yacht expedition experiences, 76 per cent of those guests have never cruised before. With our river trips, 52 per cent had never cruised before – not only on Crystal, on anybody,” Rodriguez said. “So we are clearly expanding the audience.”
Miami, L.A., NYC – Rodriguez is everywhere
The little girl from Jersey now lives in Los Angeles and in South Florida, where Crystal Cruises’ parent company has just opened a flagship office in an historic Art Deco building in Miami.
When she’s there, she’s a regular visitor at the Miami Open, where the best players in the world showcase their talents in late March.
“I’ll come in and out from the suite, go out to the seats. It’s just so oppressively hot, and I’m dying,” Rodriguez says. “God bless these players. How they do it in that heat, I don’t know.”
When Rodriguez is in a city, and the planets align, and there’s a tournament going on, she’s there with bells on.
Open time with Venus
When the US Open comes around, she’ll head back to her old New York City stomping grounds and, hopefully, catch the 37-year-old Venus Williams in action.
“She and her sister took a God-given talent and really made sure they honoured the talent they were blessed with, to be the successes they have become,” she says.
Rodriguez has had a life and career filled with success beyond even her most exotic girlhood dreams. And yet, the triple-A type personality, who boasts she has more energy than her 27-year-old son and only sleeps four hours a night, isn’t planning on smelling the roses any time soon.
In that way, she and Venus Williams also are kindred spirits.
“Venus is investing in her own future. It doesn’t matter how much money you have. It’s all about learning, and growing.”