Delivering transformative cruises that will redefine the concept of luxury travel and empower guests to achieve an “ocean state of mind” is the challenging, yet intriguing, aim of new brand Explora Journeys. Launched in June 2021, it is the first-ever luxury cruise brand to be established by family-owned shipping business MSC Group and will be led by industry stalwart and CEO Michael Ungerer.
“MSC Group’s Pierfrancesco Vago, his wife Alexa and the Aponte family, have wanted to build a luxury cruise brand that will redefine the industry for many years and now is the perfect time,” he says. “The luxury hospitality sector was growing rapidly pre-pandemic and consumer research indicates it will continue expanding post-pandemic. There’s significant pent-up demand from both regular and first-time cruisers who are eager to explore and enjoy a new type of luxury experience with family and friends after spending so much time at home during the pandemic.”
When designing the brand, ships and itineraries, Explora Journeys commissioned extensive industry research and hosted roundtable discussions with global specialists in luxury hospitality and design. Noting that customer-centricity is at the core of everything Explora Journeys does, Ungerer adds that his team also organised focus groups involving around 20,000 repeat cruisers and luxury travellers from across Europe, China, Japan, the USA and elsewhere. One of the recurring themes that emerged from the discussions was that people are yearning for authentic, immersive and meaningful travel experiences and a sense of connection.
“People loved the idea of a cruise experience that empowers them to reconnect with themselves, while at the same time enabling them to meet like-minded individuals and develop deep connections with the destinations and the local communities they visit,” says Ungerer. “Consequently, we aspire to deliver a unique form of ocean cruising that will attract discerning travellers, put them in an ocean state of mind and turn them into adventurous explorers.”
To achieve this ambition, Explora Journeys has invested around €2 billion ($2.32 billion) to build a fleet of four 900-guest ships, which will enter service one per year between 2023 and 2026. There are also plans for additional vessels in future.
“We’re taking a long-term approach to ensure Explora Journeys becomes a successful global brand, gradually increasing the size of our fleet and the length and breadth of our itineraries until we have a wide mix of international travellers and visit destinations worldwide,” says Ungerer. “The first two, EXPLORA I and EXPLORA II, are already under construction at Fincantieri’s shipyard in Monfalcone, Italy.”
Created in partnership with renowned superyacht and luxury hospitality designers, EXPLORA I will “blend elegant Swiss precision with modern European craftsmanship” and feature onboard spaces designed with water as a focal point to reinforce the ocean state of mind. The ship will span 14 decks and boast 461 oceanfront suites and residences with floor-to-ceiling windows and private terrace. The suites will start at 35 square metres, making them among the most spacious for the category in the industry.
EXPLORA I will feature several indoor and outdoor bars and lounges, as well as nine distinct restaurants offering flexible dining times and dishes made with ingredients sustainably sourced from local partners. There will also be an indoor/outdoor spa and fitness area where guests will be able to enjoy bespoke wellness experiences and participate in group classes or personal training sessions. Other onboard highlights will include a promenade deck with indoor and outdoor whirlpool baths, a pool with a retractable glass roof and more than 2,500 square metres of outdoor decks with three outdoor pools and 64 private cabanas.
“MSC Group was established in Geneva, Switzerland, which is the epicentre of vibrant European luxury and hospitality, so we wanted to recreate this for our guests,” says Ungerer. “It will be reflected in the smooth flowing lines of our ships, the elegant interior designs, the upscale amenities, the varied dining experiences, the personalised and intuitive hospitality services, and much more.
“Our ships will feature the perfect combination of open public areas that are designed to encourage guests to come together, as well as intimate spaces that enable individuals to relax by themselves. From the moment they step onboard our vessels, we want guests to feel as though they are being welcomed into the home of a friend who is dedicated to making their holiday as comfortable, luxurious and enjoyable as possible. We’ll achieve this with a guest-to-crew ratio of 1.25 to 1.”
Itineraries have been carefully curated to include overnight stays, as well as non-conventional arrival and departure times, to offer guests more time in destinations and access to exclusive onshore experiences. EXPLORA I will begin her maiden season in May 2023, sailing voyages to the Mediterranean, Northern Europe, Canada, the east and west coasts of the USA, the Caribbean and South America. Voyages will start at seven nights in length.
“None of our ships will sail roundtrips from the same homeport; every sailing will be an individual journey that will start in a marquee port and combine calls at popular destinations like Reykjavik in Iceland with less-visited ports such as Kastellorizo in Greece and Norway’s Lofoten Islands,” says Ungerer. “We’ll take guests on an explorative journey, offering destination experiences that are designed to suit both groups and individuals. They will fully immerse guests in the destinations, taking them off the beaten path to create unforgettable memories.”
Explora Journeys will invest in the latest green technologies to minimise the environmental impact its vessels have on the destinations it visits. Solutions will include selective catalytic reduction systems to cut nitrogen oxide emissions by 90 per cent and ship-to-shore technology to eliminate carbon dioxide emissions while berthed in port. In addition, the ships will be RINA Dolphin-certified for reduced underwater noise and single-use plastics will be banned – both onboard and during land-based experiences.
“We’re committed to respecting and protecting the sea, marine life and the destinations we will visit, and our long-term goal is to decarbonise our operations,” explains Ungerer. “Initially, the vessels will operate using marine gas oil, but the design incorporates provision for battery storage to facilitate hybrid power generation and can be adapted for cleaner fuels when they become widely available in future.”
Focused firmly on the future, Ungerer is building diverse team of more than 40 people of over 20 different nationalities with a 50:50 ratio of males and females to navigate Explora Journeys through the ongoing Covid-related challenges and uncertainties ahead of EXPLORA I’s debut.
“We’ve been through multiple iterations of our go-to-market plan, but this has helped us to improve and refine our brand promise and ensure that our offerings will truly satisfy our guests’ needs and preferences,” he says. “I’m very privileged to be working with an incredibly talented team to take Explora Journeys from a concept design on a piece of paper to reality, and I’m excited for our guests to enjoy it.
“For me, the biggest indicator of success will be our guests disembarking our ships feeling fully refreshed, reinvigorated and satisfied after enjoying a cruise that exceeded their expectations. We hope that by reinventing the classic cruise experience, we will be able to introduce the ocean state of mind to the current and next generations of luxury travellers, turning them into lifelong cruise and brand advocates.”
This article was first published in the Autumn/Winter issue of Cruise & Ferry Review. All information was correct at the time of printing, but may since have changed.
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