Viking chief: Ocean cruises will focus on port calls, pricing

By Tom Stieghorst

rendering of main restaurant on Viking StarBEVERLY HILLS, Calif. — Heretofore a river cruise company, Viking Cruises polled its passengers and said it found what it thinks is a winning formula for an oceangoing cruise line that will have elements that no other blue-water cruise outfit can match.

"There seems to be a big hole in the market that somebody ought to fill," Viking Chairman Torstein Hagen told guests at the Beverly Hilton Hotel here on May 16, when he detailed plans for the ocean line.

A key ingredient for the line, which launches in May 2015, will be putting destination first. Viking ships will spend an average of 12 hours in port, and the 10- to 15-day cruises will include only one sea day. Cruises will also start and end with overnights in the ports of embarkation and debarkation.

Emphasis will also be on value. Pricing will be lower than lines aimed at the luxury market; Hagen said per diems will average $421, including air. That also prices it below smaller ships from Holland America Line, Celebrity Cruises, Oceania Cruises and Princess Cruises, he said.

Other signs of value include standard cabins 20% larger than average, no charges in specialty restaurants, free WiFi, free excursions and complimentary beer and wine at lunch and dinner.

Plus: "No inside cabins, no window-only cabins," Hagen said. "Only verandas."

Introductory two-for-one prices for a 15-day cruise of Northern Europe start at $4,999 per person, with discounted air from $895 per person, Viking said.

Most cruises have become too un-inclusive, he said.

"The rule of thumb is for every $2,000 of ticket price, take another $2,000 along with you," Hagen said. So "no nickel-and-diming" will be the guiding philosophy at Viking, he said.

That also applies to paying travel agents: There will be no noncommissionable fees, Hagen said.

Like most ships in the 500-to-1,000-passenger segment that Viking sees as its market, the Viking Star will emphasize culture, history and enrichment in its shore excursions and onboard programs.

But what will make Viking truly different, Hagen said, is that it won't try to be everything to everybody.

Unlike many small ships, it won't have a casino. Instead, there will be a piano bar. Hagen said that decision was debated at length, but the argument that long days in port leave little time for gambling prevailed.

Announcements will be in English only, and the first season of cruises will be marketed only in North America.

"All the staterooms are designed for two people only; we're not for intergenerational cruising," Hagen said. "We don't want to pack everyone in and get 110% load factor."

There will be no formal nights on Viking Cruises and no requirement for men to wear a tie, he said. The best food onboard will be served in the main dining room rather than in the specialty restaurants.

Hagen said the survey of past river cruise guests found 84% would be interested in trying a Viking ocean cruise.

Viking is the largest river cruise company and expects to carry about 250,000 passengers in 2014.

Follow Tom Stieghorst on Twitter @tstravelweekly. 

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