A select group of expedition cruise specialists sat down with Cruise Trade News deputy editor Gary Peters at CLIA’s London office to discuss the growth in the sector and how guests are eager for more experiential travel.
The cruise sector is living in a time of trends. People want the “wow” of a destination – the sounds, the sights, the wildlife.
And, there is a growing realisation that one of the better ways in which to achieve this is through an expedition cruise.
The question is, why are we seeing this expansion? “There is the overall consumer awareness,” says Aurora Expeditions’ sales director UK and Europe Craig Upshall. “For example, places like Antarctica are on people’s bucket-lists. They want to go down to the further reaches of the world.
“There is also increased tonnage coming into the market – with 30 plus expedition vessels on order, so that is increasing awareness levels.” One such ship is Aurora’s Greg Mortimer, setting sail in October 2019, which features the X-BOW, a unique design that pierces waves with greater ease, improving fuel efficiency.
Also take into consideration CLIA’s first-ever expedition cruise forum, to be held on 28 March in London.
It’s not merely about what’s happening inside the industry, however. The boon in television programmes showcasing the environment, such as David Attenborough’s Dynasties and Blue Planet, has helped to make far-flung destinations more accessible.
Peter Shanks, Silversea MD UK & Ireland, claims expedition “is of the moment”. “People want to go and explore,” he says. “It is all about destination and getting people out into nature. I sometimes say, ‘it’s the new river’.”
Ruth Gardiner, strategic account manager at Celebrity Cruises, believes that the trade is now able to say to clients, “yes, you can experience these destinations, such as the Galapagos”. “The trade really understands expedition. Agents know we will take great care of guests, from start to finish. And we will fulfil expectations. We will take care of them from start to finish.”
Carly Perkins, marketing manager at Seabourn – which is launching two luxury expedition ships in 2021 and 2022 – calls it the time of “personalisation”, as people want smaller groups, “expedition ships can offer that opportunity”.
Protecting the environment
However, such opportunity has to be balanced against the very real environmental concerns in many destinations worldwide.
For example, Blue Planet II showcased the damage caused to the ocean by plastic waste; the subsequent public worry surely creates food for thought for cruise lines?
“We work with local authorities to ensure these destinations are wonderful to visit,” explains Gardiner, who, alongside her colleagues, is patiently awaiting the arrival of the 100-passenger Celebrity Flora, which joins the fleet in May.
Flora, which will operate in the Galapagos Islands on “green fuel”, has been designed and built from a destination-first angle. “We’re going organic,” says Gardiner. “All of the materials are locally sourced and have that look and feel touch of being part of the Galapagos.”
It’s a laudable effort, and one which Shanks wholeheartedly agrees with. “We are all focused on the environment,” he says. “I don’t think it’s a threat, rather a responsibility. We are regulated on what we do.”
For Upshall, “the challenges are about consumer perception of where we are going and how it is contributing to the environment”. He adds: “The climate is changing, so things will change, but we will adapt accordingly.”
A changing dynamic
It could be argued that this sense of urgency and new-found appreciation of the environment is creating a new type of expedition cruiser, one that is keen to “accumulate memories”, as Perkins describes it.
“The Seabourn demographic wants to see and do something new. We’re are giving guests the option to do that, but they can still have the ultra-luxury dining and service that they are used to with Seabourn.”
At Aurora, the average age for expedition is slightly younger, at around 40, as people are keen to have ‘memory bank’ experiences rather than tangible assets, while Celebrity has noted an increase in multi-generation travel.
These guests want more comprehensive shore excursions and activities, from kayaking and hiking to polar diving and snorkelling.
How about glamping under the stars in the Galapagos? Celebrity Flora will feature a camping experience on the top deck, complete with two luxury cabanas, one for sleeping, the other for meals.
“You can sleep under the stars and wake up and be served breakfast under the stars,” says Gardiner. “You are at one with the environment.”
With news ships on order, the next challenge is to fill them. “For travel agents, the benefit for them selling [expedition] is the margin and commission – these are high value bookings,” says Upshall. “If agents can get those customers and put them on the right product, they will earn a nice margin.”
One rather large slice of news for agents is that Silversea has just launched its first-ever expedition world cruise, sailing in 2021.
The 167-day cruise will travel from Ushuaia to Tromsø, calling at 107 destinations, in 30 countries, including six new ports of call for Silversea – Naxos, Folegandros, Nafpaktos, Ksamil, Bejaïa, and Fort William.
“This is what is next in expedition,” says Shanks. “It’s new and it’s different.”
Elaine Gillard, senior sales and marketing manager for Crystal Cruises – which is launching Crystal Endeavor in August 2020 – believes that at the “luxury end” of expedition “there is that need for the ‘cool toys’ to be there – such as helicopters and submarines”.
“Where can you go? It’s about aiming for the new experience and finding what nobody else has done,” she adds.
Upshall, meanwhile, believes “we’re only at the early stage of expedition cruising”.
“What’s next? It is the growth. We’re at the very tip of the iceberg.”