Luxury cruise lines, such as Seabourn, are now visiting more exotic destinations. // © 2014 Michael S. Nolan/Lindblad Expeditions
Seagoing expedition cruising has long been popular with travelers who want an in-depth experience, and traditional lines have maintained expedition ships for some time. Recently, however, three converging trends have reshaped this niche. First, luxury cruise lines are investing in expedition cruises, both as important itineraries for their clientele and as a means of reaching a different, generally younger, segment of guests. At the same time, expedition lines are refining their product and making their distinctive specialties clearer to the traveler. A third trend sees the expedition-style approach utilized in more familiar destinations, such as Europe, Alaska and Hawaii.
Tim Jacox, Un-Cruise executive vice president of sales and marketing, sees small-ship luxury cruising and expedition cruising blending together. The company has also made its mark by bringing the expedition approach to more conventional cruising regions.
“It took five or six years in Hawaii to get to know the people and much more preparation than a conventional cruise line approach,” he said. “We had to conquer regulatory issues. Even the locals were not sure how to handle some of them. It’s a daunting challenge to set this up — it can’t just be done on a whim. And then there’s the problem of rising above the noise and clutter of previous marketing to convey the difference in what we are doing.”
Un-Cruises’ entree to Molokai caught the attention of travelers who had sailed with the line previously and knew its ability to explore local culture. A quarter of the passengers had never been to Hawaii before; the rest wanted to go beyond the destination’s typical experiences.
In 2016, the line will venture into Costa Rica and Panama, and it is expanding into the Galapagos in 2015 with a very boutique vision.
“We are keeping numbers very low at 32 passengers,” Jacox said. “And we are emphasizing our all-inclusive approach, including premium spirits.”
Luxury With a Touch of Adventure
The reverse trend — bringing luxury passengers to expedition destinations — is also growing.
Silversea Cruises is a prime example of a luxury line that has created a formal expedition spin-off. The line launched Silver Explorer in 2008 and Brad Ball, director of corporate communications, said the concept was an immediate success.
“Our classic fleet guests couldn’t wait to visit some of the unusual ports where you could only take a ship this size,” he said. “Explorer drew a younger demographic that did not think of itself as cruisers, but many of them have fallen in love with Silversea’s product and have also added cruises on the classic ships.”
The venture has been so successful that Silversea added Silver Galapagos last year and is bringing out Silver Discoverer in March 2014. Discoverer will sail to a number of different destinations, including East Asia and the Russian Far East, as well as Australia/New Zealand. Ball said Silversea books a huge number of full-ship charters in the expedition sector and that passengers are willing to pay about double the per diems they would for the classic fleet.
Celebrity also pioneered an offshoot expedition product 10 years ago with their Xpedition ship in the Galapagos. Celebrity Xpedition manager Susana Romero said that 60 percent of Xpedition customers are sailing with Celebrity for the first time, and the brand name helps to reassure them that they will have a quality, all-inclusive experience. The Galapagos has mandated alternating itineraries to minimize the impact on the islands, so Celebrity has two seven-day cruises, each mixing islands such as Espanola and Fernandina with some of the more remote islands.
Holland America Line (HAL) also has its dedicated expedition ship, the Prinsendam (originally the Royal Viking Sun) featuring longer, adventurous itineraries.
“For us, it’s all about exploration — a broader term than expedition, involving physical and mental exploration, culture, history and nature,” said Richard Meadows, executive vice president of marketing, sales and guest programs.
The same philosophy extends to shore experiences worldwide, from visiting people’s homes to sample the local cuisine of a region to dog-sledding by helicopter in Alaska or doing an ATV safari in the Baltic. HAL also brought large ships into regions such as Antarctica — not taking passengers on land, but introducing them to the destination.
Bob Simpson, Abercrombie & Kent (A&K) vice president of product operations, credits companies such as HAL and Princess Cruises for expanding the audience for exploration cruising.
“The evolution of client expectation has been drastic,” he said. “In 1997, most passengers in Antarctica were professors or had an interest in geology. Then Princess and HAL brought in some big ships and exposed the area to a much wider audience. They created huge awareness.”
Another factor Simpson sees as expanding the passenger pool is the level of luxury in expedition cruising. Simpson saw this firsthand when the company moved from their own ship to chartering Compagnie du Ponant’s Boreal and found a new kind of client, with very different expectations of onboard comfort and amenities.
“People who never in a million years would have gone on the old ships booked with us,” he said.
Ponant itself is emphasizing its expedition identity these days. Reporting that 2013 revenues were up 25 percent, the luxury line takes guests on itineraries from the Arctic and Antarctica to the Mediterranean. The company is adding a third ship to polar cruising in 2015, drawing 40 percent international guests.
Sarina Bratton, who helped to establish luxury expedition cruising when she founded Orion Expedition Cruises in 2004, has moved to Ponant. She will be expanding the product, particularly on her home ground, with a new expedition ship due to sail in and around Australia starting in late 2015.
Brand differentiation has become a major issue as more cruise lines develop their expedition itineraries. Magnus Wrahme, senior vice president of global sales for Hurtigruten, says the 120-year-old company, which started as a lifeline for the small towns along the coast of Norway, is planning to stay longer in the polar regions and will de-emphasize the European destinations that they have experimented with, thereby highlighting the adventurous side of the brand.
In some cases, the expedition label is one of perception. John Delaney, senior vice president of marketing and sales for Seabourn Cruise Line, says the company has been bringing luxury passengers to expedition destinations for years, cruising 1,000 miles up the Amazon, for example. But Seabourn’s recent move into Antarctica grabbed a lot of people’s attention.
“With five days of landings in Antarctica, people who only knew us as a luxury brand now see that we are also adventurous,” he said. “There’s a well-documented interest in soft-adventure, which is now increasing dramatically as people are aiming at their bucket lists.”
Seabourn is bringing them to Machu Picchu in Peru, Kodo Island, Indonesia, and Aqaba and Wadi Rum, Jordan. This year, the line will sail to Myanmar and it visits two-thirds of the African coast.
If Seabourn is getting recognized as an expedition company, Lindblad Expeditions, who is known for its sensitive expedition cruising, is carrying that approach to more familiar destinations, including Holland, Belgium, the U.K. and others. Lindblad president and founder Sven Lindblad said this tactic is popular with guests.
“We had planned a South America trip in the time slot now set for Holland and Belgium, but we were getting no traction and decided to go to Europe early and do a rare short itinerary. We’re spending evenings in different cities, focused on the cultural experience,” he said. “Even though we offered it late, it is nearly sold out.”
Although the cruise line is known for its natural history trips, a very significant part of the product is cultural exploration, Lindblad said.
“We bring 1,000 people a year to Peru on land as an extension of a Galapagos cruise,” he said. “We recognize that our guests are omnivores — they don’t want just one kind of expedition travel, they want nature, culture and history.”
With the changes in expectations, expedition cruising is attracting a wider demographic. Lindblad notes that there is now a strong multigenerational family business.
“In summer, multigenerational travel dominates, especially in Alaska and the Galapagos,” he said. “Also, singles are coming in increasing numbers and, while we still see couples, that group no longer dominates.”
Other companies also report growing demand in multigenerational cruising, even in Antarctica. A&K has placed two additional staff members onboard the Boreal to manage their Young Explorers program.
The bottom line is that the thirst for an authentic experience, coupled with a luxurious comfort level, is driving the expansion of cruising, from river cruises to expedition/exploration seagoing sailings.
“The bar just keeps getting raised higher and higher,” said Simpson.
That’s good news for both travelers and travel agents.