Neil Barclay, Head of Sales for Viking Cruises in the UK, is a busy man – but he’s not complaining. Demand is outstripping supply in some markets and the addition of two ocean ships to a strong river cruise offering has been a big success. Now it’s time to plan for 2017 and beyond.
Those Vikings get everywhere. They might not be sponsoring ITV mystery dramas any more, but their familiar logo with its red and white sail still crops up on TV commercials with comforting frequency.
This year the ubiquitous cruise line has been a headline sponsor of the RHS Flower Show at Hampton Court and was a partner at the RHS Tatton Park Flower show. Its Mekong Garden, designed by Sarah Eberle, won the Best Artisan Garden and Gold Medal awards at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show.
Viking also sponsored Classic FM’s afternoon show throughout the summer, and was headline sponsor of the Classic FM Live concert at the Royal Albert Hall last month.
That’s a lot of opportunities to project the Viking brand, but then Viking has a lot of staterooms to fill every week, on rivers and on the ocean. Viking Longships outnumber every other river cruise operator on Europe’s two major rivers, the Rhine and the Danube, and they are prominent on the Seine, the Rhone, and the rivers around Bordeaux. Further afield, they have specially designed ships sailing Russia’s Volga river, the Mekong, and the Yangtze.
The first two ocean ships, Viking Sea – christened in Greenwich this year – and its predecessor, Viking Star, have been a huge success. The ships have proved popular in the Mediterranean and northern Europe and now Viking Star is embarking on her first Caribbean season.
There will be even more action next year, when the ocean fleet doubles in size with the arrival of Viking Sky and Viking Sun, built to carry another 930 guests each.
All of which means lots of work for Neil Barclay, who is head of sales for Viking in the UK. He is already preparing by increasing the number of call centre staff at the UK headquarters in Wimbledon.
The increase is due to having split-out the ocean and river departments to improve the booking experience for agents.
Neil suggests that in order to take advantage of the increased capacity, agents should impress on their customers the value-for-money proposition that Viking provides.
“Extras on other cruise lines are included in the fare with Viking Ocean Cruises. For example, we offer free Wi-Fi, a daily shore excursion, and complimentary use of the spa – not forgetting drinks with lunch and dinner, and included gratuities.
“We also offer a very healthy base commission, in line with our river product, and our on-the-road team can help give agents the valuable knowledge to help sell our ocean cruises.
“Viking is always committed to bolstering its agent offering and agent education. As part of this, Viking launched an exclusive new online training programme, Made For Trade, where agents can increase their river and ocean cruise knowledge.”
Since he joined Viking seven years ago, 43-year-old Neil – along with the rest of the Viking team – has been a key part of the line’s expansion. “Our ocean fleet and the range of destinations visited go from strength to strength. We have seen crossovers from river to ocean and vice versa, and our destination-focussed itineraries are attracting many guests who are new to cruise and want to immerse themselves in local culture.”
After several years of rapid growth in the numbers of river vessels – with up to 14 ships a year being launched – two Viking Longships, Viking Herja and Viking Hild, are planned for 2017 and they will bolster the fleet in Europe.
The doubling of the ocean fleet opens up lots of possibilities, however. Neil explains: “New for 2017 is our first ex-Miami cruise taking in Cuba. Our first two cruises on this itinerary departing December 2017 sold out within two weeks of going on sale. We have since added further departures in November 2017.
“Viking Sun will operate the ex-Miami cruise as well as our first round-the-world cruise, which is over 80 per cent sold. Departing Miami in December 2017, the 141-day sailing takes in America, Central America, the South Pacific, Australasia, Asia, North Africa and the Mediterranean, finally completing her journey in Greenwich in May 2018.”
Viking founder and chairman Torstein Hagen has made no secret of the fact that the number of American bookings for European cruises “fell off a cliff” after the Paris shootings last November, and subsequent events in Brussels and Nice did nothing to restore US confidence.
As a by-product of this, there have been more opportunities for British passengers to get on the ships. Neil says: “2016 has been an excellent year for the UK market and we have seen no impact on sales. In fact we have seen demand outstripping supply and sometimes it has been difficult to accommodate everyone looking to depart this year.
“Sales for 2017 are extremely strong, and UK travellers should not think they can hold out for cheaper fares. The average river ship has around 100 staterooms and they sell from the top down. Anyone who leaves it late must face the possibility that they cannot be accommodated on the sailing of their first choice.”
How can agents make the most of the opportunities? “Simply pick up the phone to Andrew or Jenny, our on-the-road sales team,” says Neil. “They will deliver great product training and knowledge, while talking through business development opportunities. “
“I always used to tell agents the customer who is looking for a city break would love a river cruise. The same is true of our ocean product. On an average 14-day itinerary you only have one or two days at sea; the rest of the time you are exploring a new city. “There are great synergies and excellent commission on both products.”