Why one of the world’s top luxury cruise lines is just saying no to the industry’s hottest trend

Feb 29, 2020

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First came the boom in ocean cruising. Then river cruising took off. Now the buzz in the industry — at least at the high end — is all about the growth of “expedition cruising.”

In a major development, luxury lines Crystal Cruises and Seabourn are about to get into the niche, which involves small, hardy ships traveling to remote, hard-to-reach places. Upscale line Viking just announced plans to add expedition ships, too. Silversea, Ponant and Hapag-Lloyd Cruises are already big in expedition cruising and getting bigger, and upscale river cruise operator Scenic Luxury Cruises & Tours just unveiled its very first expedition vessel.

That leaves just one big player in high-end cruising that, at least for now, is sitting out the trend: Regent Seven Seas Cruises.

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In an unusually open and revealing conversation with TPG and several other travel media outlets this week, the president and CEO of the 28-year-old luxury brand, Jason Montague, said the company thinks an expansion into expedition cruising would be a mistake.

“We’re 100% focused on being the best in [traditional] ocean cruising,” Montague said in response to a question about the topic during a small reception aboard the line’s new, 750-passenger Seven Seas Splendor. 

Expedition cruising is “an interesting model,” Montague added. “But it’s different than ocean cruising. You need different expertise.”

Viking's new expedition ships will spend a significant part of the year sailing in Antarctica. (Image courtesy of Viking)
Viking’s new expedition ships will spend a significant part of the year sailing in Antarctica. (Image courtesy of Viking)

 

Expedition ships typically focus on such hard-to-reach places as Antarctica and the Arctic, and they require officers and crew that are specially trained for operations in such regions. Many expedition trips revolve around “wet landings” in remote locales by Zodiac boats carried onboard — boats the crew must understand how to deploy, operate and maintain.

In lieu of a standard array of cruise ship entertainment staff, expedition ships typically sail with a specialized cohort of botanists, geologists, ornithologists and other outdoors- and adventure-focused “expedition guides” who lecture on board and lead landings.     

To Montague, developing and managing such an operation would be a distraction for executives.

“I want my management team just to be focused on delivering and executing and being-the-best at [traditional ocean cruising], and not splitting our focus,” he said.

Related: The best credit cards for booking cruises

Montague noted the typical expedition ship is small, with a capacity for just 100 to 200 passengers. By comparison, the luxury ships operated by Regent carry 490 to 750 passengers. Given the differential, and the resulting potential payoff of the different types of vessels, it doesn’t make sense to throw a lot of management time into developing the expedition product, he suggested.

Montague also foresees a coming glut in expedition ships.

“I personally think the amount of ships being built for the expedition space is excessive,” Montague said. “There is a huge number [of expedition ships] being built.”

Indeed, nearly 30 expedition ships are on order, including more than one each for Crystal, Seabourn, Ponant and Viking. Eight new expedition ships will enter service this year alone.

In addition to new vessels from traditional upscale cruise lines such as Crystal and Seabourn, the expedition cruise space is seeing new ships from longtime expedition cruise specialists such as Lindblad Expeditions and Hurtigruten.

Lindblad next month will unveil what’s being billed as the world’s most advanced polar expedition ship. Dubbed National Geographic Endurance, the 126-passenger vessel is being built super tough for the most off-the-beaten-path exploring. It’ll have the highest ice class rating (PC5 Category A) ever for a purpose-built passenger ship.

Related: How to plan a cruise with points and miles

An excess of new expedition ships could begin to bring down pricing for all players in the niche. But it creates other problems, too.

With so many expedition ships on the way, Montague wondered whether the core allure of a trip on an expedition ship — the chance to see something that’s rarely visited — would start to be diluted.

“The brilliant part of [an expedition cruise] is seeing things that are remote and untouched” in places like Antarctica and the Arctic, he said. But, with so many new ships going to such destinations, “how long is it going to stay that way?”

Planning a cruise for 2020? Find everything you need to know here:

Featured image courtesy of Viking.

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