The founder of Orient Lines, Gerry Herrod, has launched Voyages to Antiquity, a cruise brand centered on Mediterranean history and culture. Mitchell Schlesinger, director of sales and marketing for the new line, was also head of sales at Orient. He spoke with cruise editor Johanna Jainchill about why the line will do well, despite launching during a recession.
Q: People will say 2009 was not the year to launch a new cruise line.
A: Starting something in 2009 was incredibly perilous; it was the middle of the economic downturn. We've already started to see an upturn in the economic environment. But It's about the design of the product and how you select a vessel for it. This is a very overfocused, niche-based product, and we're using a ship with a maximum capacity of about 380. There aren't 1,200 people every 14 days to do this. There are 350.
There is a market for it, there is an interest in it, and the other big consideration is, the population is aging. There were 35 million Americans alive in 1995 at age 70; it's projected that could reach 70 million by 2020. You have this group of people who want to do travel that is more interesting, more educational and fulfilling, and they have more time to travel.
Q: Three cruise brands with some connection to Orient Lines were announced in the last two years. The first, the relaunch of Orient, did not succeed. Why will you?
A: [Voyages to Antiquity] is succeeding because it is a new, more unique and innovative and targeted product concept introduced clearly in a much better economic environment. We have booked over 40% and are closing in on 50%. Based on booking patterns, the entire fall part of the season is forecasted to book well beyond objectives, which allows us to focus on the middle of the season.
Q: Is the demand for these small niche lines a reaction to the megaships?
A: The mainstream cruise lines dominate, and there are people who like this experience. ... The demographic we are targeting wants an experience they are not sharing with 2,000 guests. That's why the river cruise market has exploded in the last 10 years.
Q: You often connect Orient with Voyages to Antiquity. Is that how you intend to position this product?
A: The connectivity to Gerry, and perhaps my involvement, as well, has provided immeasurable credibility and a reflection of integrity, especially with the distribution system. We definitely want to establish ourselves as a different product, but it has been helpful in the scope of the initial announcements to connect those dots. We were considered one of the pre-eminent expedition companies in the cruise industry in the '90s. If you tell a travel agent the founder is from Orient, you get the sense that they understand the credibility. In its heyday, we had a core of past guests that were traveling with Orient twice a year.
Q: Why did Norwegian Cruise Line decide not to keep Orient Line going if it so popular?
A: NCL has had three scenarios where they purchased destination cruise lines and did not let the brands operate autonomously and separately, and none of the three brands was able to survive long-term [the others were Royal Cruise Line and Royal Viking]. It's very difficult for mainstream cruise lines to operate small, specialty brands. ... With the specialty brand there is a different approach to customer service and how you manage the guest experience, and the two are difficult to manage together. NCL did not want to have Orient to continue operating on its own and merged all marketing, sales and tech operations.