Ponant is pioneering the luxury expedition cruise market

As the company celebrates its 30th anniversary, Hervé Bellaïche discusses its continuing influence

Ponant is pioneering the luxury expedition cruise market
Le Lapérouse is the first of six new luxury Ponant Explorer expedition vessels

This article was first published in the Autumn/Winter 2018 issue of International Cruise & Ferry Review. All information was correct at the time of printing, but may since have changed.

When Jean Emmanuel Sauvée and a group of French Merchant Navy academy graduates founded Ponant in 1988, they brought a unique vision to life. “They created a high-end cruise line with one goal: to go where others do not venture,” says Hervé Bellaïche, chief commercial and marketing officer at Ponant. “In 1988 the industry was building very large ships, and the ship itself was the destination. Ponant took an opposite approach. We are convinced that small is best, destination is key, and enrichment and innovation are critical.”

Thirty years on, the strength of that vision is evident in the company’s evolution and that of the wider industry. “Ponant has been a catalyst for the industry growth in expedition cruising with small, luxury yachts,” says Bellaïche. “We have the broadest portfolio of expedition cruises in the polar regions. We invented the concept of the luxury expedition in Antarctica and set a new standard in the industry with our luxury expedition cruises in tropical destinations. We have operated cruises through the Northwest Passage for six years, and in August 2018, we have two ships doing the crossing for the first time.”

The launch of a new vessel in 2010 proved a key milestone in the company’s evolution. “In 2010, when we launched Le Boréal, we came up with a new concept to combine luxury and expedition cruising on small ships,” says Bellaïche. “Over the next five years this ship was quickly joined by three others of the same class – L’Austral, Le Soléal and Le Lyrial. All the ships offer luxury expeditions like none before.”

World firsts have become a way of life for Ponant, and the company continues to deliver. “In September 2013, Le Soléal became the first French merchant ship to cross the Northwest Passage from Greenland to Siberia, with 200 passengers onboard,” says Bellaïche. “It’s a great example of the pioneering spirit of Ponant – something that was at the heart of our proposition from the start, and that we are committed to continue in the future.”

Today, Ponant is looking forward to the delivery of six new ships, the Ponant Explorers. “Two ships, Le Lapérouse and Le Champlain, are coming out in 2018 and another two, Le Bougainville and Le Dumont d’Urville, will debut in 2019,” says Bellaïche. “They will be followed by Le Bellot and Le Surville in 2020. Each of these ships has 92 staterooms (88 cabins and four suites), all with sea view and balconies. They will be the first cruise ships in the world to be equipped with a multi-sensory underwater lounge, The Blue Eye, in which you can see, feel and hear the underwater life. Another world first will come in 2021 when, after years of work, we launch the first luxury cruise icebreaker with an electric hybrid engine and powered by LNG.”

Unsurprisingly, these are busy times for Ponant. The company currently operates 30 expedition experiences including one of the largest portfolios of expeditions in tropical and sub-tropical regions, and its passenger demographic continues to grow. “A large proportion of our passengers is French, but our international development is increasingly important, especially in Australia and the US,” says Bellaïche. “The UK market is also very important to us and we are investing a lot of resources in it. By 2021, Ponant will have a fleet of 12 ships, 2,000 crew and will offer 460 departures. We will cover all of the world’s oceans and this requires a lot of preparation, from recruitment of onboard staff and collaborators ashore to ship construction.”

Sustainability is at the heart of the company, influencing not only its own decisions, but also those of its customers. “Sustainability forms the DNA of the company since our foundation,” says Bellaïche. “Our passengers are increasingly interested and concerned about environment protection – they demand a real commitment from brands and that includes who they use for their leisure and travel. Sustainable development must be at the core of the overall business strategy; it is a necessity today and it will become even more crucial in the future.”

Ponant’s ships cruise in environmentally sensitive areas, and the company has an ongoing commitment to improve its performance in terms of environment protection. “From the design stage of the ships to shore landings, everything is done to reduce the company’s impact on the environment,” says Bellaïche. “For example, we have spent the past three years developing the icebreaker. It is scheduled for delivery in three years. That’s six years spent working to develop the most sustainable small ship in the world, the first LNG-powered small ship.”

With the most recent fleet in the industry, Ponant prides itself on having the most advanced planet-friendly technologies. “We have the most recent engines that consume less, better hulls to limit fuel waste, best antifouling paints,” says Bellaïche. “Everything is thought through to respect the environment. We use the latest technology for water treatment (five times less water than usual) and waste management (three times less than usual). The silent electric propulsion and dynamic positioning that our ships are equipped with is respectful of the sea bed and ocean floor. We also embark an environmental officer onboard each cruise; and we train our guests and our staff, lobbying for them to become environment ambassadors and making them aware of environment protection, ecological risks, wildlife protection and so on.”

These priorities are the foundation of Ponant’s past and future success. “Our main ambition is to offer our passengers cruises and expeditions in places that are still wild and unspoiled,” says Bellaïche. “This is not, however, our only objective: we also try to alert them to the need to protect the areas we visit. 

“Our entire fleet uses innovative technologies to reduce pollution levels, whether it is on the ships being built or those already in service. This choice and approach, both philosophical and strategic, allows us to reach places and territories previously inaccessible to cruise ships and contributes to our commercial success.” 

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Jacqui Griffiths
By Jacqui Griffiths
Thursday, February 21, 2019