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In May 2015, when Viking expanded into ocean cruising, the conversation surrounding the river cruise line shifted largely to the oceans.
But despite the introduction of six new ocean ships over the past four years, Viking chairman Torstein Hagen said, during a press conference last month, that he hasn’t turned his back on the rivers. In fact, the press conference immediately preceded the christening ceremony of seven brand-new river vessels.
And on these rivers, Viking is a mighty force — the company operates 49 percent of the market share in this segment of the industry, with 72 river vessels (including 56 three-deck, hybrid Viking Longships, which were first introduced in 2012) currently in operation. The company's river product has continued to grow at a rapid clip, as it churns out series after series of nearly identical ships featuring the minimalist Scandinavian design that clients have come to expect.
It’s a formula that seems to be working, Hagen said during the March 19 conference.
“These ships last for a long time, and I think when you’re on the rivers, you should have an opportunity to see the scenery — you shouldn’t have to be disturbed by all the stuff you can have on the ship,” he said. “We don’t take great pride in having various designers and various ships; when we get it right, we just repeat it.”
But what really sets Viking apart from its competitors, Hagen added, is a laser-sharp focus on marketing, along with the follow-through for a product that has been in high demand for the 22 years the company has been in business.
“Since we started in the U.S., we have spent $1.5 billion in marketing,” he said. “And in that process, I feel we have been responsible for creating the river cruise business. Our competitors thank us for what we’re doing, and they ride on our coattails.”
New Year, New ShipsAlthough low water levels were challenging for river cruise lines last year, Hagen said Viking was able to accommodate with little disruption to guests, in part because his ships — down to the staterooms — are exact replicas of each other. This allowed for an easier transition if guests had to be moved from one vessel to another mid-cruise.
“From time to time, you can’t avoid these water-level problems, but we were well-equipped to deal with it,” he said.
And 2019 is looking especially promising for the company. The seven newest river ships were christened across four European cities: Basel, Switzerland; Porto, Portugal; Cochem, Germany; and Rostock, Germany. Six of the vessels featured the famous Longship design — Viking Vali, Viking Tir, Viking Sigyn, Viking Ullur, Viking Einar and Viking Sigrun — while the seventh ship, Viking Helgrim, is a Longship-inspired sister ship designed specifically for Portugal’s Douro River.
Hagen, along with the ships’ godmothers, crew, members of the media and more, were stationed for the naming ceremony onboard Viking Einar and Viking Sigrun in Basel, while the ceremonies of the other five ships were shown virtually via satellite. All in attendance watched as each godmother blessed her ship and sent a bottle of Gammel Opland Aquavit — a nod to the line’s Norwegian heritage — smashing against the square-shaped bows.
The six new Longships will operate across Viking’s most popular itineraries on the Rhine, Main and Danube rivers, while Viking Helgrim will join three sister ships on the Douro in Portugal. Following the naming ceremony, several media members and Viking executives joined Viking Einar’s maiden voyage, which sailed March 19 to 23 from Basel to Mainz, Germany, with stops in Strasbourg, France, and Hiedenberg, Germany, along the way.
Looking Toward the FutureIn addition to these seven new Longships, an additional seven ships are under construction and scheduled for deployment in 2020, including Viking Osiris, which will debut as the first newbuild ship owned by a Western company on the Nile River.
Notable new itineraries for this year include the sold-out Paris & D-Day 75th Anniversary sailing and a new Holland & Belgium voyage. More than 30 new immersive shore excursions have also been added in 22 European destinations; five new extensions have been added in the U.K., Istanbul, Brussels and Bruges; and Viking will have a new docking station on the Seine River, notable for its proximity to the Eiffel Tower.
Although Viking customers continue to be mainly clients from the U.S., Canada, Australia and the U.K., the Chinese market has also caught the attention of Hagen and his team. Five Europe-based Longships tailor specifically to Chinese guests and feature all-inclusive pricing and Mandarin-speaking staff. The company projects 27,000 guests will travel on these ships in 2019.
And, as for the far future, Hagen alluded to, but didn’t elaborate on, potential future product on the U.S. Mississippi River and within the expedition cruise market.
Even at 22 years old, Viking is — as its chairman said — continuing to grow up.