Torstein Hagen, chairman of Viking Cruises, announced plans to go into the ocean cruise business in 2013. Three years later, he has plans for a half-dozen ships on three continents. He spoke with senior editor Tom Stieghorst onboard the Viking Star as it repositioned for its first season of Caribbean cruising from San Juan.Q: Viking has never been in the Caribbean before. How do bookings and pricing look for the Caribbean season?
A: Looks good. Bookings for the Caribbean come a bit later than they do for Europe, but I think the itinerary we have is very good. I think we're a bit different, particularly for New Yorkers and the like. It's a good opportunity to fly straight down to San Juan. You don't have to take the two days positioning from Miami to the Caribbean. At least we're different.
Q: How do European river cruise bookings look for 2017?
A: Not good. Not much down, but down. And certainly less than we had hoped. I think the reasons are twofold. One is terrorism, no doubt about it. Hopefully that abates. And I think the [U.S.] elections probably have something to do with it. Election time has not been traditionally a good time for any travel business. I would suspect this year is probably extraordinary-extraordinary. I'm sure the river business is going to come back, but it may take some time.
Q: There's a perception your river ships are more crowded than your competitors.
A: They're not. We have a very unique design on the river ships. What we have done differently on our Longships, in front of the ships, most other ships only have two decks. We have three decks. It means that we have that much more space available for cabins. I know that some of our competitors like to say we are denser and so forth, but it's not true.
Q: What do you have against bicycles?
A: Absolutely nothing. We have chosen not to carry them. Not many of our guests would go on bicycles. Not many of our guests could go on bicycles. I sure as hell wouldn't. So if you want to go on a bicycle we have a concierge that can arrange it. But if it's such a very important thing, you should not go on Viking.
Q: You've recently taken on equity partnerships with TPG and the Canadian pension board. What's the logic of taking on equity partners now?
A: We have a big expansion program. We have four more ocean ships. We have started our China outbound program, which could be large, we don't know. But we are prepared to invest large amounts of money into it. And I think those two groups are serious people. I think they share our vision on what we can bring. I think we got good valuation for the company out of it. And if we want to go further, I'm sure we can get more money.
Q: Your favorite river cruise is from Moscow to St. Petersburg. What do you see on that cruise?
A: First of all, Moscow is Moscow. It's phenomenal. It's Manhattan in the middle of Russia. And then you get on the river cruise and you see beautiful scenery, you go to see the cities around the Golden Ring, with the churches and that kind of stuff. It's the quietness of the landscape. I grew up along a river and you see people, the young kids, go swimming in the river and you go into some of the homes. I come from a modest background, and it sort of reminds me of how our life was when I grew up.