Exploration cruising spreading beyond the poles

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Hurtigruten's Fridtjof Nansen undergoes sea trials in Norway.
Hurtigruten's Fridtjof Nansen undergoes sea trials in Norway.

This decade might well come to be known for the explosion of the expedition cruise segment, with some 10 ships slated to launch this year and many more on the books for 2021 and 2022.

On the Record

Amid the explosion in expedition cruise product, Lindblad Expeditions remains a leader in the sector. CEO Sven Lindblad spoke with Travel Weekly news editor Johanna Jainchill about the line's previous three ships, the brand's first newbuilds, and the increasingly crowded expedition cruise space. Read More

Newcomer Atlas Ocean Voyages, for example, has five adventure ships on order; Ponant will take delivery this year of two of a six-ship expedition class; and Viking, never a company known for just dipping a toe, this month launched an expedition brand that will set sail in 2022 with two 378-passenger ships.

This plethora of product raises many questions, including how travel advisors will differentiate the brands and sell them. There is also a question about where these ships will go, which stems from the fact that the expedition market sells itself heavily on the polar regions, the Arctic and Antarctic primarily, with the Galapagos being the main tropical outlier.

But the lines offering expeditions have become more creative in their itinerary planning, and in many cases, they have added adventure to classic cruise destinations.

Carolyn Spencer Brown, chief content officer at Cruise Media, said that while people tend to try expedition “for the polars,” cruise lines are “transforming some off-the-beaten-path parts of the world with active, immersive opportunities.”

“They have small ships that can go into tiny places,” she said.

Pointing to Ponant as an example of a line that has gotten creative, she said an Indonesia trip she took with the company visited areas “that were not ready for prime time, and that made them that much more fascinating.”

She called such itineraries “the next wave for the niche adventure market from truly hard-core expedition cruising to soft-adventure cruising, during those times when it’s not the season for the polar regions.”

“This is a great example of a company opening up other parts of the world,” she added. “Totally exotic for cruise travelers for the most part, but a softer exotic.”

Navin Sawhney, CEO of the Americas for Ponant, said that unlike its 264-passenger Boreal expedition-class ships, the line’s 184-passenger Explorer-class ships are purpose-built to be smaller and more flexible in order to visit such destinations.

“The Boreal ships do the polar expeditions, and the Explorer ships really expand our portfolio into tropical destinations like the Kimberleys [in Australia], like the Solomon Islands, like the Seychelles,” he said.

John Downey, Hurtigruten’s president for the Americas, said there is increased demand for expedition experiences in areas like Central and South America as well as Alaska. He said that while demand is still strongest for Antarctica and the Arctic, the line is “seeing increased demand across the board for expedition sailings. ... Specifically in the North American market, travelers are increasingly looking for ways to explore traditional cruise destinations in a new way.”

Lindblad’s National Geographic Endurance on its float-out.
Lindblad’s National Geographic Endurance on its float-out.

For travel advisors, new itineraries and ships mean more to sell, and according to Michelle Fee, CEO of Cruise Planners, it gets people on the water more often.

“Sometimes people cruise every other year and do land vacations in between,” Fee said, “Now, they see these new expedition ships and say, ‘Let’s try one of those to go to Antarctica instead of a land choice this year.’”

Lindblad Expeditions, a pioneer in the segment, has long offered what it calls adventure and expedition itineraries beyond the poles, such as in Baja California since 1981 and the British Isles, which was launched in 1987 and which CEO Sven Lindblad said, “is absolutely an expedition,” with experiences such as landing at midnight at the standing stones on Scotland’s Outer Hebrides and visiting islands with huge seabird populations.

“The only thing that’s missing from what you might consider a traditional expedition is ice,” Lindblad said.

As to whether the expedition crowd takes such cruises, Lindblad said that the subset of people completely dedicated to adventure in remote places is actually quite small.

“One thing I learned long ago is that our clientele and audience is incredibly diverse in their interests,” he said. “You can run into someone in Antarctica on Feb. 1 and then six months later at the Paris Opera and then six months later at the top of Machu Picchu. These are people who enjoy history, culture, nature, food. And they are doing all kinds of things.”

New players still catching up

Sharon Fake, director of operations at Travel Experts, said that selling adventure is different than selling standard cruises.

“When you deal with the adventure companies, they do a great product,” Fake said, but their back office, attention to details and communication “tend to be less up to par than a Silversea or a Seabourn that’s been dealing with the luxe cruise element for a long time. It’s more work to deal with expedition companies, because [the advisor has] to be the one to follow up and make sure everything is right and ask the questions.”

With so much product out there, Fake said, lines that are less known in the U.S. market, such as Ponant, may have more trouble selling here, whereas Crystal Cruises’ expedition vessel, the Crystal Endeavor, “will definitely be a very popular choice.”

When it comes to qualifying clients, she said, it is important to “know what the client has done in the past and also know the culture of the cruise line.”

Le Bougainville, one of Ponant’s Explorer-class ships, debuted last year.
Le Bougainville, one of Ponant’s Explorer-class ships, debuted last year.

She added that it can be difficult for companies not used to offering expedition cruises to jump into that market.

“It’s new territory,” Fake said. “They might do what they normally do really well, but are they able to satisfy what the customer wants and what the expectations are for the adventure category?”

She predicted that established expedition brands such as Quark and Lindblad will do well in this new era because “they have that name and the background, and this is what they’ve done for so long.”

“It’s some of the ones jumping over you that have to look and see how they do things and how they do things in recovery when things don’t go as planned, which happens more on expedition ships,” she said. “Especially when you’re moving clients to expedition who have always been regular cruisers. It’s a challenge to have confidence in a company that if things are not as expected or go wrong that you have a partner to work with.”

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