Profiling the Future Expedition Cruiser

Travel advisors share what tomorrow’s clients want and expect from the burgeoning expedition cruise market

Scenic is luring travelers with helicopters and submarines. © 2019 Scenic

Scenic is luring travelers with helicopters and submarines. © 2019 Scenic

Imagine not only visiting the most remote shorelines in person, but doing so onboard a helicopter, a seaplane or a submarine that has launched from a luxury ship.

The dream is becoming a reality, as existing and new cruise lines are launching more vessels purpose-built for expedition travel than ever before. The market is relatively established, but like river cruising before it, its time has come to mature and enter the mainstream.

That means no longer roughing it onboard aging — albeit retrofitted — hardware, but instead, being pampered on world-class vessels fresh from the shipyard and fully equipped with the latest adventure gear.

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Expedition lines are swapping out old ships for purpose-built vessels. © 2019 Crystal

Celebrity Flora is being marketed as the largest and most luxurious ship in the Galapagos. © 2019 Celebrity Cruises

The Ritz-Carlton Yacht Collection promises to be stylish. © 2019 The Ritz-Carlton Yacht Collection

Expedition lines are swapping out old ships for purpose-built vessels. © 2019 Crystal

Celebrity Flora is being marketed as the largest and most luxurious ship in the Galapagos. © 2019 Celebrity Cruises

The Ritz-Carlton Yacht Collection promises to be stylish. © 2019 The Ritz-Carlton Yacht Collection

Hardware and Destinations


Well ahead of their launch, several new ships are resonating with clients, according to David Locke, owner of Seize the Seas, an Independent Agency in the Avoya Travel Network. This is crucial for both cruise lines — which need to secure early bookings — and travel agents, who want to be the source of those early sales.

“Scenic Eclipse and Crystal Endeavor are getting a lot of attention as the most innovative in the category,” Locke said. “I’m also looking forward to Seabourn Venture and SeaDream Innovation as new entries. And Celebrity Flora is already making a huge impression in the Galapagos market.”

He accurately emphasizes that aside from the ships themselves and the equipment they carry, where they go matters. But the opportunity to go in style makes the destinations even more alluring.

“Luxury accommodations can be enjoyed anywhere, on land or sea,” Locke said. “But a submarine voyage in Antarctica, or a helicopter ride over the Seychelles? Wow!”

In fact, several lines are touting onboard choppers, planes and submarines. Crystal already has a submarine onboard Crystal Esprit, and its upcoming 200-guest Endeavor (launching in August 2020) promises a pair of helicopters and another submersible.

“Endeavor and its itineraries [including the Northeast Passage and Pribilof Islands] are generating tremendous buzz and interest,” said Tom Wolber, Crystal’s president and CEO, at the line’s 2019 sales gala. “We’re looking forward to hearing the great testimonials the ship will create for us.”

Other well-known brands to introduce such gear are Scenic (helicopters and submarines), Seabourn Cruise Line (submarines), SeaDream Yacht Club (a helicopter and a seaplane) and newcomer Norwegian Yacht Voyages (submarines).

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Submarines take expedition cruises to new depths. © Scenic

Submarines take expedition cruises to new depths. © Scenic

Software and Staff


Daniela Harrison, a travel advisor for Avenues of the World Travel, concurs with the destination focus but places less importance on the equipment.

“My clients still consider the itinerary first and foremost, and then look at the level of service and expedition experts onboard,” she said. “The new toys are a nice extra and create bragging rights for travelers, but I haven’t seen specific requests to be on a ship that offers a submarine tour. The toys are just a fun bonus.”

Like elaborate attractions on larger ocean ships, lavish equipment undoubtedly attracts newcomers to the segment. But what will ultimately differentiate competitors are the ships’ heart and soul: the crew.

“The more important things to pay attention to are the expedition leaders onboard,” Harrison said. “Knowledgeable guides who are able to take you to the edge of your seat, while making you feel safe, are priceless — and they are in high demand. As more ships are released and more departure dates are announced, contracting the top guides around the globe will likely become more challenging.”

“The more important things to pay attention to are the expedition leaders onboard. Knowledgeable guides who are able to take you to the edge of your seat, while making you feel safe, are priceless — and they are in high demand.
Daniela Harrison, a travel advisor for Avenues of the World Travel

A wonderful expedition team is comprised of knowledgeable individual guides who work well together. Harrison suggests checking out staff members’ field credentials, permits and expertise to operate complex equipment — particularly important when it comes to submarines versus Zodiacs.

Harrison says you get what you pay for, and staff can make a big difference in overall price between otherwise comparable trips.

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Celebrity Flora was built specifically for the Galapagos Islands. © 2019 Celebrity Cruises

Celebrity Flora was built specifically for the Galapagos Islands. © 2019 Celebrity Cruises

Price Point


Increasing competition will lower fares, but it might not happen for some time.

Brand-new ships command a higher price and can sustain it, thanks to feature-rich amenities.

“Expedition travel is pricey,” said David Walsh, owner of CWCruises, an Independent Agency in the Avoya Travel Network. “The source of all of my expedition customers is my luxury travel clientele. Though there will always be competition for the customer, the price is not necessarily the deciding factor. I think expedition travel is something the budget-conscious client will not find attractive.”

Locke of Seize the Seas predicts that it will be at least three years before luxury expedition cruises break from high pricing. However, not all expeditions meet the criteria of luxury travel, and he believes that competitors outside the standard definition of luxury will feel pressure to reduce costs.

Consider the existing ships that are sure to be displaced by new ones over the next several years. Fleets are already planning on phasing them out. For example, in spring 2020, Silversea Expeditions will transfer its Silver Discoverer to CroisiEurope, where it will become La Belle des Oceans, the French line’s second seafaring vessel. (I’ve sailed on Discoverer, and although it’s a fine vessel, its cruises will likely cost less after the transition based on competition alone.)

With Silver Origin scheduled to come online in 2020, Silver Galapagos is also slated to leave the Silversea fleet. As such ships are replaced with fresh hardware, the older generation of vessels, wherever they end up, will surely set a lower price point and potentially carve out a new value-oriented segment within the expedition market.

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The Ritz-Carlton’s yachts will have an onboard sushi bar. © 2019 The Ritz-Carlton Yacht Collection

Brand-new ships will keep expedition cruise prices high. © 2019 Scenic

The Ritz-Carlton’s yachts will have an onboard sushi bar. © 2019 The Ritz-Carlton Yacht Collection

Brand-new ships will keep expedition cruise prices high. © 2019 Scenic

A Narrowing Demographic


Locke believes there are two major demographics for expedition cruising: baby boomers and affluent youth. He describes boomers as those who have already “been there, seen that” in traditional cruise destinations such as Europe, South America and Asia. They appreciate the convenience of unpacking once and seeing a new place every day, as well as the opportunity to take a deeper dive with helicopters and submarines. Meanwhile, the youthful clients he considers are slightly older than millennials and can afford luxury trips, but prefer adventurous varieties.

“Some of these potential clients may be new to cruising and won’t consider these large ‘yachts’ as cruise ships,” he said. “It will be difficult to reach these people if the cruise lines have cruise ‘silo’ vision for their marketing.”

“Some of these potential clients may be new to cruising and won’t consider these large ‘yachts’ as cruise ships."
David Locke, owner of Seize the Seas

In other words, while there is some crossover between traditional and expedition cruisers, the latter sees the world differently.

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For many clients, the main attraction is the expedition itself. © Silversea Cruises

For many clients, the main attraction is the expedition itself. © Silversea Cruises

Multigenerational and Limited-Mobility Guests


Meanwhile, the likes of Lindblad Expeditions-National Geographic, UnCruise Adventures and Zegrahm Expeditions have been in the market for years and are adapting well to new clients. Harrison finds these lines are great at accommodating honeymooners and multigenerational groups.

“Friends and families traveling together love the flexible and active options,” she said. “They can set daily goals for themselves and celebrate when they all cross the finish line. Things such as learning a new skill, overcoming a personal fear and cheering each other on for the last mile of a challenging hike are helping families bond, teaching children to overcome obstacles and creating friendships among travelers.”

Harrison also gives kudos to Celebrity Cruises’ Celebrity Flora for having the infrastructure and Zodiacs to facilitate ramp access. Even walking-impaired passengers can enjoy a Galapagos adventure with the line.

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Previewing in Comfort


If seasickness inhibits clients, technological efforts toward greater stability should help bring them onboard. Smaller expedition ships generally move more in high seas, but new designs promise a smoother ride. Consider the X-bow, an inverted bow concept that will be employed by Albatros Expeditions, Aurora Expeditions, Lindblad, Vantage Cruise Line and Victory Cruise Lines. The forward inverted hull allows for a more comfortable onboard experience in challenging waters, such as the rocky Drake Passage en route to Antarctica.

Those looking to sample expedition cruising before branching out too far may opt to sail with Victory in Alaska or other lines cruising nearby in between remote locales.

“Some of the itineraries these ships are offering are indeed more traditional cruise destinations, especially when repositioning from the Northwest Passage to Antarctica along the coast of the Americas,” Locke said. “These destinations are safe for those who want the luxury yacht experience without as much adventure.”

In the end, it remains the job of agents to match the client with the right expedition.

“Consumers will be flooded with options in the next three years,” Harrison said. “As travel advisors, we need to do our part to properly educate our clients and help them plan ahead.”

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