New vessel to mark Society Expeditions' return

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SEATTLE -- Society Expeditions is experiencing a rebirth -- or should we say, a "re-berth" -- with a new premium-level ship, new itineraries and new commission rates of up to 25%.

In April, two years after the cruise line's only ship, the World Discoverer, ran aground in Southeast Asia and was taken out of service, Society's new ship will sail the South Pacific on a 26-day Wake of the Bounty itinerary from Easter Island to Tahiti.

And the new vessel, also to be named World Discoverer, will take the company to a whole new niche level, ac-

cording to president Michael Lomax.

"The original World Discoverer was 25 years old, and it was ... rather spartan," Lomax said. "There really is not now what I label a 'premium' expedition cruise ship in the market -- that is, a vessel with the speed, the ice-rated class, the maneuverability."

The company has been operating expedition-style cruises to the ends of the earth for more than 27 years; this year it will sail to Antarctica, Russia's far east and the South Pacific.

Society Expeditions' new World Discoverer will sail in Antarctica in 2002. But because of the extended delay between the old World Discoverer's demise and the new World Discoverer's entry into the market, Society Expeditions was forced to cancel a series of programs in 2001.

"We continued to operate," Lomax said, "although we downsized and did what we had to do to continue in the marketplace."

Of course, the sensational story was how the original World Discoverer ran aground in April 2000, after it hit an uncharted coral reef in the Solomon Islands.

"The World Discoverer met an end that was, I suppose, the best way to go under the circumstances," Lomax said. "A little piracy in conjunction with the expedition."

The ship was sailing off the Solomon Islands when it hit the reef and began taking on water. The 99 passengers and the ship's crew were evacuated to a nearby island, where Lomax said they met and mingled with the inhabitants until a local tour boat was arranged to take them to Honoria.

The World Discoverer was recovered and slated to go into drydock when, Lomax said, a 135-person militia boarded the ship and threatened to set it on fire.

"The Australian [workers aboard the ship] decided to cut their lines and leave," Lomax said.

Theatrical it was, indeed, but from a business standpoint, Society Expeditions was, metaphorically speaking, up a creek without a ship. The company debated chartering or purchasing a ship and settled on the latter.

Society Expeditions found a former Baltic ferry that had been converted into a seminar ship. Negotiations to purchase the vessel began in August 2000 and took nearly a year to finalize. "It was a very long, drawn-out process," Lomax said.

The 6,000-ton, 160-passenger ship, which is under renovation, will have 85 cabins, some with balconies, that range from 155 square feet to more than 500 square feet.

Society Expeditions is being relaunched, both literally and figuratively. The company brought in Mary Novak Beatty, formerly with Maupintour and Cruise West, as its new vice president of marketing and business development.

The line also published a brochure that lists all its 2002-2003 programs and is developing an e-marketing strategy.

The Wake of the Bounty cruise is sold out, and Lomax said 2002 bookings are strong.

"Of course, since we have not been in the market 100% over the past six to eight months, we have availability throughout 2002," he added.

And the line plans to reach out to travel agents. Society Expeditions is offering a 5% bonus commission on standard commissions that can go as high as 20%.

The company's cruises usually run longer than two weeks, and prices, which include all shore excursions, range from $6,000 for a two-week cruise to the Society Islands and Fiji to $11,000 for a 21-day Antarctica cruise.

Meanwhile, Lomax said, once the new World Discoverer is introduced, Society Expeditions will be sailing full steam ahead.

"We're in the planning for new itineraries into 2004, which would be through areas that currently no one is visiting."

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