Over the years, as it has developed from a small river cruise operator to an ocean-going market contender with expedition ambitions, Viking has attained a reputation for having a distinctive personality at the helm. With 2022 set to be one of the brand’s biggest years yet thanks to the launch of many new ships and new itineraries, managing director of Viking UK Wendy Atkin-Smith looks at how the chairman of Viking has shaped the brand’s growth.
“Our chairman, Torstein Hagen, has been at the helm of Viking since it all began back in 1997 and it was always his vision to offer culturally enriching experiences and an alternative to mainstream cruises – he often refers to Viking as ‘the thinking person’s cruise line’,” says Atkin-Smith. “Torstein always says there is a cruise line for everyone so we have never tried to be all things to all people.”
Atkin-Smith believes that the success of Viking can be attributed to the fact that the company has always focused on its core market of culturally curious travellers aged 55 and above, tailoring all of its onboard and onshore products and experiences to this market and their interests. “Viking has always been destination focused, which enables our guests to explore different parts of the world with us. We welcome guests over the age of 18 and we do not have casinos or formal nights so it is really a very different experience.
“We started in 1997 with four river ships, so we have continually been adding new destinations and varied itineraries since then, including our popular world cruises. With the recent launch of our expedition voyages, we now cover all seven continents including Antarctica.”
Having introduced its first ocean cruise itinerary in 2015, the company has gone from strength to strength in this market sector and took delivery of its seventh ocean ship, Viking Venus, in 2021. This made Viking the largest small-ship travel company in the world.
“With two new ocean ships launching this year and another planned for 2023, the speed of our growth into the ocean cruising sector has been quite exceptional,” says Atkin-Smith. Viking Mars will be delivered in May 2022 and Viking Neptune in November 2022, with the latter vessel set to embark on the 2023-2024 Viking World Cruise from Fort Lauderdale, Florida, to London, UK, which spans 138 days, 28 countries and 57 ports, with overnight stays in 11 cities. Viking Sky will sail an identical itinerary in parallel, giving guests a choice of two departure dates for the 2023-2024 extended voyage to meet high demand.
The expedition and river cruise strands of the business are set for a bumper year. Atkin-Smith explains: “As well as introducing Viking Expeditions and our two new ocean ships, we are also launching our first river cruise in North America on the Mississippi and new river ships on the Nile and the Mekong, plus eight new vessels on European rivers.”
Viking’s new focus on the growing expedition market fulfils Hagen’s long-held dream of visiting Antarctica, which began when he was a small boy, explains Atkin-Smith. “We could see there was a gap in the market for expedition ships which harness all the latest technology and cutting-edge design, but which are also extremely comfortable,” she says. “Viking now offers destination-focused voyages on more than 20 rivers, five oceans and five Great Lakes, visiting 403 ports in 95 countries. Our first expedition ship, Viking Octantis, embarked on her inaugural voyage to Antarctica in January.”
The new expedition ships include innovative features such as The Hangar, an in-ship marina which allows guests to embark and disembark from the expedition vessels in a safe and stable environment. In addition, every stateroom has a Nordic Balcony which comprises a sunroom that converts into an al fresco viewing platform.
Connecting cultures is central to the Viking experience, says Atkin-Smith. “We have always enabled our guests to meet and interact with local people in the communities we visit. As part of many of our itineraries, we provide Privileged Access experiences which offer exclusive entry for Viking guests to cultural treasures all around the world. This exclusive access has set us apart from other operators.”
Since the Covid-19 pandemic, the bar has been raised in the industry for what constitutes a safe onboard operating environment and Viking has risen to the challenge. “We have always had a customer-centric approach and, as a privately held company, we are able to focus on the well-being and best interests of our guests and crew,” says Atkin-Smith. “We were the first cruise line to suspend operations in March 2020 and we are the only cruise line to have installed full-scale PCR laboratories on our ocean and expedition ships.”
Regular onboard testing and other health protocols continued to be overseen by the company’s chief health officer, Dr Raquel Bono. “The feedback from our guests has shown that our stringent health and safety measures don’t affect their overall experience – instead, they welcome it and we have received some of the highest ratings ever since we restarted operations in May 2021.”
During the pandemic, when operations were suspended, the company focused on innovation. “In April 2020 we launched Viking.TV, a new digital platform offering daily live streams which are broadcast at the same time every day,” says Atkin-Smith. “The aim was to keep everyone, including our guests and crew, connected and entertained during the various lockdowns we all experienced – as well as to help everyone explore the world from the comfort of their own homes. Even though we are back exploring the world now, Viking.TV is still going strong.”
With so many newbuilds joining the fleet, it seems as though Viking is grasping the opportunity to lead from an environmental perspective. “The design of our ships is built to meet strict environmental standards,” says Atkin-Smith. “Our Viking Longships are powered by true diesel-electric hybrid engines that meet stringent emission standards. Shore power is also used when available along the rivers. Additionally, the vessels feature onboard solar panels and organic herb gardens.
“Our ocean ships have been designed with energy-efficient hull, propeller and rudder arrangements and engines with heat recovery systems. In addition, our ships are the first newbuilds in the world with a closed-loop exhaust cleaning system designed so that pollutants can be removed and disposed of safely.”
Viking Octantis and Viking Polaris are amongst the first in the sector to have received a silent-e notation, which is the highest-level certification for quiet ship propulsion, minimising underwater noise pollution. Atkin-Smith adds that the expedition vessels have set a new standard for responsible travel, thanks to their energy-efficient design that exceeds the Energy Efficiency Design Index requirements by nearly 36 per cent – more than any other expedition ship.
This article was first published in the Spring/Summer 2022 issue of Cruise & Ferry Review. All information was correct at the time of printing, but may since have changed.
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