The Voice of the Cruise Industry

Making Waves – Ponant

The introduction of a fifth ship and new destinations will heighten the profile of Ponant, France’s only cruise line, believes international sales director Stephen Winter.
By Phil Davies

Small is beautiful is the tag line that perfectly reflects the Ponant experience through a fleet of compact luxury vessels exploring lesser visited destinations across the globe.

The French company, which refined its name last year from Compagnie du Ponant, may not be as visible to the UK trade as some of its high end contemporaries but international sales director Stephen Winter believes its perfectly formed fleet of yacht-style vessels occupies a niche others struggle to match.

“It’s like a private yacht experience, rather like being part of the European jet set when you step on board,” he explains, revealing that many celebrities appreciate the discreet style of five-star luxury the line has perfected together with the chance to explore many off the beaten track regions of the world.

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has sailed with Ponant while the company regularly charters its vessels to high-worth individuals and incentive groups for birthday celebrations and other special events.

Joie de vivre

Besides the feeling of joie de vivre on board, the specialist in yacht cruises and five-star expeditions boasts an exhaustive breadth of destinations from Antarctica to the Isle of Wight and Alaska to Albania thanks to the small scale of its fleet which enables exploration in regions bigger ships are incapable of reaching.

The sailing yacht Le Ponant, with just 32 cabins and refurbished last year, is designed to evoke the spirit of tall mast sailing while the larger 132-cabin identical sister ships Le Boreal, L’Austral and Le Soleal are designed for both warm and cold water cruising, complete with ice classification to allow them to operate in Polar regions.

The trio was joined in April by Le Lyrial, the final vessel in the series which boasts more public space by having ten fewer cabins and larger suites. The ship was chartered by a private individual for its first three weeks of operation before entering service on May 9 with a seven-night itinerary from Venice along the Croatian coast and Montenegro.

Ponant bookings from the UK may be relatively modest – Winter is targeting more than 1,000 by 2016 – but numbers have been growing year on year along with as the international passenger mix.

So while UK passengers may be in their hundreds, the value per booking to agents is high based on fares that can be up to €8,000 per person for 10 days Antarctic sailing carrying a base commission of ten per cent.

Winter also points out that agents are eligible for 75 per cent discounts for their own travel and the company continues to invest in training and other trade concessions.

Bookings in the UK are handled by eWaterways via a dedicated call centre and rates are in euros to match the currency used on board.

Bringing Le Boreal up the River Thames to moor alongside HMS Belfast in London last May helped showcase the Ponant offering to the trade in the UK.

Another sailing from the capital has gone on sale for May 2016 with an eight-night voyage by Le Austral to Dublin via Ostend, the Isle of Wight, Scilly Isles, the west coast of Ireland and Belfast. The ship will then run a Dublin round-trip cruise before sailing for Glasgow via Liverpool, the Isle of Man and the Western Isles.

Global ambitions Further afield, Ponant is making its first push into Alaska and the South Pacific as the fleet visits more than 100 countries this year.“We are not exactly a household name in the UK,” Winter admits.

“But we are becoming more and more well-known to travel agents. The variety of our cruises is pretty outstanding. Apart from the classic yacht cruising destinations we are also expedition leaders, especially in the Antarctic region.”

Founded in 1988 by a group of French naval officers, the company’s first vessel, the sailing yacht Le Ponant, entered service in 1991 after 200 investors were persuaded to become investors.

“The thought was that there was a market for people who wanted to sail the world but not in such large vessels,” says Winter

Marseilles-based CMA CGM, the third largest cargo shipping company in the world, bought the fledgeling line just over a decade ago with the intention of building more ships. That led to the introduction in 2010 of 264-passenger Le Boreal, the first in a series of new generation vessels.

Fresh financial backing came through Ponant’s purchase by investment firm Bridgepoint in 2012, helping expand the company’s reach in more international markets.

“These are ice-category ships with state of the art technology both in terms of the engines and use of fuel, so these are green ships as well,” says Winter.

“They go above and beyond what the Antarctic regulations impose on ships sailing in the region. So while some of the older ships have had to leave that part of the world, we continue to sail and have become the world leader there.

“It’s got to the point where we don’t need much help to sell the Antarctic, what we are looking for is support for our other destinations.

“We decided with our new ship Le Lyrial to go somewhat smaller, bringing down the capacity to around 230.”

The latest addition to the portfolio means that Ponant will be able to deploy three ships in the Antarctic regio in the 2015-16 season, while in the summer the company features the likes of the Mediterranean, Baltic, Iceland and Greenland in addition to new the new destinations of Alaska and the south Pacific.
Winter admits Asia cruises introduced in 2012 took a while to become established while the company also sails in South America and through the Panama Canal. Further destinations on the radar include South Africa and departures from San Francisco down the US West Coast to Mexico as Ponant looks to build on the 175 cruises on offer this year across seven continents.

Even the French are squeezed as Ponant goes international. Ponant’s international sales chief concedes that being France’s only cruise line can create barriers even though the line is an established international player sourcing passengers from around the world.

“It’s a very international cruise line but with a French touch,” is how Stephen Winter describes the Ponant proposition.

“France has a reputation for the good life and fine food and that’s something we bring to the party but you don’t have to speak French to enjoy it.

“We do have big competition in the UK from the likes of Seabourn and Silversea who have been in the market longer than we have and have a loyal following. They have great ships but we have the youngest fleet currently in the luxury cruise sector, we also have the French touch,” he says.

“I play that cautiously with the English and Americans; I know that sometimes the English and French don’t always get along and there are language issues. But I know the English love to come to France on holiday, the finest restaurants in London are French and they love their wine.

“Take the fine food, the lifestyle and not having to speak French – they are all multi-lingual cruises – and we’ve come to the point where we have more non-French people on board than French and that creates the reverse effect where the French are feeling a little bit squeezed.”

He adds: “There’s a notion of luxury that is old school, where you have to wear a jacket and tie to dinner but with the new generation of sophisticated traveller, they don’t want to wear a tie to dinner when they are on holiday. It’s more relaxed with the design of the ships very much like a boutique hotel but it’s simple.

“A lot of the cruise ships I’ve seen are like a Las Vegas casino. Not everybody wants that and we provide the whole private yacht experience.”

Sign In

Lost your password?