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Viking Legend // (c) 2010 Viking River Cruises
Viking just released details of its new fleet development program, which includes eight newbuilds and two comprehensive refurbishments: in total, it represents a $250 million commitment over the next three years. Adding eight new vessels will bring the total number of ships operated by the company to 26, an increase in capacity of more than 40 percent. The first new ship, Viking Prestige, will premier in Europe in 2011. Also making its debut in 2011 is the Viking Emerald, which will sail in China as a replacement for the Viking Century Sun. Additional European vessels will follow in 2012 and 2013.
Torstein Hagen, Viking River Cruises CEO and chairman, said that, in Europe, the line is planning a series of successors to last year’s revolutionary Viking Legend. That ship has proven very successful, due in part to its hybrid propulsion system, which provides significant fuel conservation and a smoother, quieter ride.
In 2011, the 189-guest Viking Prestige will debut, sailing the eight-day Romantic Danube itinerary from Budapest, Hungary, to Nuremberg, Germany. Like the Legend, the vessel will have French balconies on the top two decks and exceptionally large suites. The ship will have all outside staterooms and panoramic views throughout. Prestige’s decor will continue the tradition of Viking’s signature sophisticated, understated style, based on the influence of the Royal Viking Line, with assistance from Yran & Storbraaten, whose ship designs include vessels from Cunard Line, Holland America Line, Silversea Cruises and the Yachts of Seabourn.
Alone on the Elbe
Elsewhere in Europe, Viking is now the only line operating on the Elbe River, which requires special shallow-draft vessels. Viking has its own docking space on the river, and its ship, Viking Schumann — which was purpose-built with a shallow draft and pump-jet engines rather than propellers — sails eight-day itineraries between Vienna, Austria, and Prague, Czech Republic.
For 2011, the Schumann will undergo bow-to-stern refurbishments to match the 2010 renovations on her sister ship, Viking Fontane. While all public areas of Viking Schumann, including the restaurant, bar and lounge, will be refurbished, the most substantial changes are planned for stateroom accommodations. These include the creation of eight, 180-square-foot deluxe staterooms on the upper deck plus upgrades to standard staterooms, including standard-size beds. The 2010 Elbe season runs through late October and space is extremely limited; for 2011, the season starts on March 19 and runs through Nov. 5.
In Russia, Viking has been making even more drastic refurbishments. The line has completed two bow-to-stern transformations of Viking Surkov in 2008 and Viking Kirov in 2010, spending $10 million per vessel, with Viking Pakhomov scheduled to go through the same renovations for the 2011 season. During these refurbishments, the ships are stripped down and given the look and feel of Viking’s signature design with open, airy interiors and panoramic views. In addition, the restaurants were enlarged to accommodate single-seating dining in one location.
The deck plans for these ships, which formerly had all standard staterooms averaging 100 square feet, were redrawn, and walls were moved to create a ship with all-deluxe staterooms now averaging 161 square feet (three standard staterooms converted to two deluxe staterooms). All staterooms also feature flat-screen televisions and the latest amenities.
New Emerald in China
In China, Viking is working in partnership with Century Cruises, with its new Emerald coming out in 2011, designed by Yran and Storbraaten. The 264-passenger vessel will feature the largest suites in river cruising — the 840-square-foot Presidential Suites will have separate sitting and sleeping areas, two flat-screen televisions, panoramic windows and a private wraparound balcony — as well as deluxe 269-square-foot staterooms with hotel-style beds and private balconies. Like Viking Century Sun, Viking Emerald will provide Asian and European cuisine prepared by a catering staff trained and managed by Viking’s Swiss management team.
Hagen said the line controls the entire hotel side of the operation. He added that Viking’s guides on the Yangtze are the by far the highest paid, and the quality is reflected in guest-satisfaction scores.
“The most important thing is staff,” Hagen said. “Good staff means satisfied customers.”
Responding to the same philosophy, Viking has more than one staff member for every two passengers.
The company is currently researching future opportunities in other regions including the Nile and Mekong rivers, according to Hagen.
Developing Agent Relationships
To experience the full range of Viking’s product firsthand, agents can book ongoing fams for 50 percent off Viking’s two-for-one fares; the form is on the company’s online agent portal. Since space is limited, however, it is important for agents to give the company several possible dates. As the inventory on the agent website is live inventory, agents can see what space looks like well in advance.
“Our Platinum Circle agents [high producers] have almost doubled between 2009 and 2010, and with that came very large revenue increases,” Michele Saegesser, vice president of sales, said. The sales team’s goal is to focus on the top accounts and this has led to incredible sales for 2010 as well as 2011.”
Saegesser says Viking’s commitment to agents keeps growing.
“We spent more than a year developing what we think is the best agent tool out there —Your Own Viking website. We developed it so that the larger agencies and home-based ones both had an opportunity to have a piece of this great tool. There is a dedicated DSM to helping agents use this tool and offering ways to implement it on their home pages.”
She said Viking has just added four more DSMs in the U.S. to better support the agent channel. The travel agent portal, too, continues to grow, with agents being able to access data and book online. Viking’s all-inclusive pricing features accommodations, all meals, daily guided shore excursions and port charges. Viking has a generous travel agent commission structure and payment policy of 29 days prior to departure; commissions average more than $1,000 per booking. The line also offers many commissionable upgrades to make the most of each reservation including a travel protection plan, land extensions and various air programs.
“Over the past decade, Viking has established river cruising as a mainstream means of travel,” said Hagen. “At the same time, we believe that river cruising is still in its infancy, and has tremendous growth potential. Our fleet plans will benefit the industry as a whole, by increasing supply in a marketplace in which demand is exceeding available inventory.”
Viking River Cruiseswww.vikingrivercruises.com/agents