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It has been a long and unusual road for Bruce Nierenberg, cruise industry veteran and the president and CEO of Victory Cruise Lines, a new cruise company that launched service July 8 on the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Seaway. In winter, the company’s 202-passenger Victory 1 ship will move to Cuba service from Port Canaveral, Fla.
Nierenberg has been working on Cuba travel for more than five years, focused mostly on the concept of a ferry service between Florida and Cuba. He consulted with Haimark, the previous owner of Victory — formerly named Saint Laurent — and set up its Cuba arrangements.
“We were going to be the first line from the U.S. into Cuba,” Nierenberg said. “But a number of things changed.”
After an accident in a lock at the beginning of Haimark’s service, Saint Laurent became the center of a financial storm that left the company in bankruptcy and the vessel in limbo.
However, it also left a ready-made market and a refurbished ship just the right size to slip into more unusual ports, making it attractive to groups and charter operations. Three private investors from Danish company Albatros, strong in expedition cruising worldwide, purchased Saint Laurent, and Victory 1 was born.
“This is a turnkey acquisition,” Nierenberg said. “The ship was already completely refurbished and ready to go.”
Nierenberg’s experience in the industry, both with Cuba and Saint Laurent, allowed him to move rapidly to put the pieces back together. Victory capitalized on organizations and tour operators already interested in booking, including educational-travel-focused Road Scholar and Boston’s Vantage Deluxe World Travel, known for affinity groups.
“That’s how we were able to get started so quickly,” Nierenberg said.
CMI Leisure, whose president, Dietmar Wertanzl, is well-known in the industry because of his positions with cruise lines such as Royal Viking Line, Crystal Cruises and Celebrity Cruises, is providing hotel operations.
Victory will access Albatros’ resources for its reservations system, along with its international sales representatives. Additionally, cruise veteran Jim Applebaum is vice president of marketing and sales for Victory, bringing experience from companies including Norwegian Cruise Line, Paul Gauguin Cruises and Voyages to Antiquity, among others.
Nierenberg says agents can register on the company’s site now that the line has its Federal Maritime Commission bond. When customers call, Victory will recommend registered agents; only if clients insist on booking direct will the reservation be taken, he adds.
There is considerable promise of growth: Victory’s owners have the option to acquire the former Cape Cod Light, sister to their own ship, and Nierenberg is confident that the ferry concept — on the back-burner until there is more infrastructure to handle the numbers of visitors — will become a reality, too, probably as a separate brand within the company.
Meanwhile, Victory 1 is offering cruises this summer on the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence Seaway with a highly inclusive product: The fare includes basic Wi-Fi access, wine and beer with lunch and dinner, a complimentary cocktail hour in the evenings and all shore excursions, including some that are full-day and include lunch at iconic venues such as Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island.
Victory 1 will sail from Chicago, Montreal and Toronto through September, followed by a 14-night cruise to Gloucester, Mass., with calls in Quebec; Atlantic Canada; Maine; Cape Cod, Mass.; Newport, R.I.; and Salem, Mass., an unusual port.
In Cuba, the company has varied itineraries, from three- to seven-day cruises from Port Canaveral for the time-constrained to a Christmas and New Year’s cruise to 14-day sailings that completely circumnavigate Cuba and call in eight ports in five regions.
“Travel to Cuba is extremely Havana-centric,” Nierenberg said. “The other ports are very different, and we are going to have people-to-people on and off the ship, bringing on artists, chefs and musicians to sail overnight and bring their culture to the guests.”
One example is the city of Matanzas on the north coast, where there is an association that refurbishes 1950s cars. Victory’s guests will travel in restored 1950s convertibles and learn about this operation.
“It should be a terrific hit with this demographic,” Nierenberg said.
Calling on more than a century of experience in cruising from senior management, Nierenberg expects the company to flourish. He believes that the reaction of the mature market to recent terrorist attacks will be a lasting one, with a renewed interest in vacations close to home. He says that by providing excellent service and a destination-oriented product at great value, Victory should be perfectly positioned to serve that market.
"Small-ship cruising is very strong now,” he said. “And we expect to be the standard of excellence on the Great Lakes and in Cuba.”