How has the expedition cruise market changed and what’s behind its continued rapid growth?
Dan Blanchard, CEO of UnCruise Adventures: We started seeing changes in the late 1990s when the second half of the baby boomers hit their 40s and began sailing with us. While their parents (the World War II generation) were happy to see glaciers or wildlife from a distance in a skiff, the baby boomers want to touch the natural world and relive their days of backpacking round Europe in their 20s – but they now want a comfortable cabin with a Tempur-Pedic mattress, not a tent, to sleep in at night! Consequently, our itineraries and shore excursions programmes are very different to those we offered in the 1980s and 1990s. Changes have been even more dramatic since the early 2000s, especially in the past few years.
Sven-Olof Lindblad, CEO of Lindblad Expeditions: There has been a clear shift from affluent travellers’ desire to accumulate material goods to their desire to accumulate experiences. Consequently, there are more operators in the expedition cruise market, which creates a more diverse opportunity to take advantage of this trend.
Edie Rodriguez, president and CEO at Crystal Cruises (at the time of printing): The luxury travel segment has opened up to a broader age group that now includes younger and more active individuals who want to go out and ‘do’, rather than just see. Luxury travellers are not limited to mass-market holidays, so they often seek off-the-beaten-path experiences that immerse them in destinations and cultures in new ways. Expedition cruising offers thrilling adventures that truly push the boundaries of ‘traditional’ global travel.
Why are expedition voyages such an appealing prospect for both regular and first-time cruisers, especially when compared to land-based holidays or traditional cruising?
Blanchard: On a land-based holiday, it’s difficult to access truly wild places where there are no roads and minimal human intervention, such as Alaska and Panama, but adventure cruising makes this easy. Even in saturated markets like Hawaii where island- and hotel-hopping is a popular land-based option, more travellers are coming to UnCruise so they unpack once, stay in the same comfortable room, and most importantly, experience the destination from a different viewpoint.
Lindblad: Expedition cruises provide adventure, experiential stimulation and a sense of accomplishment. For guests, expedition cruises are a form of personal investment because they come back a more invigorated, interesting and knowledgeable person. This is heightened by guests sharing their adventures through social media with friends, family and colleagues.
Rodriguez: For experienced cruisers, expedition cruising offers a departure from ‘traditional’ types of sailings, but still features some of the familiar components they like. For those who have not cruised before – or perhaps never considered it – expedition cruising contradicts some of the misconceptions and stereotypes about traditional cruising. It’s a much more active, immersive, and adventurous prospect.
What makes your ships, and onboard and onshore experiences stand out from the competition?
Blanchard: UnCruise is the real adventure travel deal and, unlike many of the larger expedition cruise lines that are restricted by the size of their 2,000-passenger vessels, we have small ships so we can take people right into the heart of remote, untouched natural areas. Our passenger groups are also small (90 people), so our expedition crew can create programmes with multiple activity options that are customised to the specific travellers on each voyage. Some operators only offer one shore excursion per day, but our travellers can do at least two different activities per day, or opt for a full-day of kayaking, hiking and more. We cater for those who want leisurely skiff trips, and those who want to get their heart pumping.
Lindblad: We’ve been providing expedition cruises for half a century, and have focused solely on this product over the past two decades. Expedition cruising is complex and operators require deep geographic understanding, as well as a keen sense of what matters to a very sophisticated clientele. They also need highly trained personnel that includes everything from navigators to expedition leaders and the wider resource community. We’re not just sailing from port to port, our expedition ships require people who can work flexibly to conduct meaningful and safe operations.
Rodriguez: Crystal has always aimed to offer an unprecedented standard of luxury onboard our ships and take an equally innovative approach to our shore excursions. A great example of this is Crystal Serenity’s Northwest Passage sailings, where the extreme adventure opportunities in virtually untouched terrain juxtapose with the luxury offered onboard the ship. As the only luxury passenger ship to ever sail the region, we have crafted comprehensive onboard programmes that feature world experts in the Arctic environment, history and communities. Working in tandem with local communities, we’ve also developed more than 100 varied onshore experiences that showcase life in the far North, mostly led by professional explorers who know the region.
How will the expedition cruise offering change in terms of the overall industry, and your own company, in the near future?
Blanchard: Although it’s hard to imagine that the growth of adventure travel could continue to grow at the rapid pace it has in the past few years, we don’t see any indication from our current clientele that it will slow down anytime soon. UnCruise wants to expand further into the subarctic of Alaska and we’re looking at adding extra capacity in destinations like Hawaii, Panama, Costa Rica.
Lindblad: There are many new market entrants, so we expect new geographies to be developed, new technologies to be adopted, and in all likelihood, new regulatory changes. As the guest count rises, the challenges related to expedition cruising will also increase. For example, the logistics of handling more than 200 guests are radically different to those for 100 passengers. This will significantly change where they can go, and how they handle activities. What’s key is that we continue to deliver on the expectations that we have created for our guests because they will ultimately decide whether we succeed or fail. In our case, that means not pushing the boundaries of passenger numbers, which we believe would erode the quality of experience and create geographic limitations.
Rodriguez: As travellers seek more exclusive experiences and choices that reach beyond the usual, expedition cruising will continue to grow rapidly. This will be especially apparent in the luxury sector, as fewer limitations allow already well-travelled individuals to seek the next great adventure.