Many agents think Compagnie du Ponant, a luxury, small-ship operator, is a French company that just started operations. Nothing could be further from the truth.
“A lot of people don’t realize we’ve been in business for 25 years,” said Terri A. Haas, the cruise line's chief commercial officer. Last week, she updated TravelAgentCentral.com about what’s happening with the luxury line.
Compagnie du Ponant has worked with Tauck for more than 20 years. In fact Kiki Tauck Maher will be the godmother of its new ship, Le Soleal, launching in July.
But while agents know the ships, Haas says they don’t necessarily know the brand. In the past, the strategy was to sell most efficiently through tour operators.
Yet, as the line built new luxurious mega-yachts to sail many more itineraries to off-the-beaten path itineraries, particularly appealing to consumers seeking exotic or experiential travel, it began to seek additional sales opportunities.
“There were a lot of new options outside of tour operators, so it made sense for us to open an office here [North America], as we really wanted to get into the FIT market,” Haas said. “Our goal is to now become visible as a brand.”
A Fleet for the Future
Compagnie du Ponant’s ships carry between 64 and 264 guests. The smallest vessel is the 32-stateroom Le Ponant, a three-masted sailing yacht built as the line’s flagship many years ago. Kept refreshed in its décor, the ship remains a client favorite.
Among its upcoming cruises? For the first time this coming winter, it will cruise to West Africa and the islands of Cape Verde.
The line sold two other vessels last year, with the goal of focusing on its three modern, nearly identical mega-yachts. Le Boreal and L’Austral, which launched in 2011 and 2012 respectively, and Le Soleal, debuting this summer.
Agents sometimes get asked by clients how identical ships in a fleet differ. “The only thing really different about Le Soleal is that it’s a lighter colored hull and there is a little different coloring inside, but it’s very beautiful and has all the same eco-friendly features,” says Haas.
Offering a private-yacht feel, the mega-yachts are still large enough to have a full-service SOTHYSTM spa, fitness center, two restaurants, two lounges and a theater that can seat 250. Guests also enjoy an outdoor pool with bar, panoramic terrace adjoining the indoor bar and lounge, library with Internet stations, WiFi, in-room flat-screen satellite television with complimentary on demand movies. The ships also have a medical center.
A fleet of Zodiacs outfitted with satellite tracking are used when the ship gets to a remote place in Antarctica or the Amazon for example; guests head out for birding, wildlife spotting or going ashore.
“We’re starting to feel this is the future of our company to continue to build yachts of this size, because they have been so successful in the marketplace,” she notes.
What differentiates Compagnie du Ponant from other small-ship lines? “Yes, we have beautiful ships, but you really get the ‘European feel’ on our ships,” Haas said. The line’s captains are very visible and interact throughout the voyage with guests.
Ships sail three- to 21-night itineraries, often to remote locales. Among them are polar expeditions, cultural cruises and ocean voyage, some themed around music (jazz, classical, opera and more), golf or culinary themes.
Will American clients be comfortable on a French line? Are there mostly French speakers onboard?Interestingly, Haas reported that historically, 55 percent of the line’s guests have originated in North America.
But because of the growth it’s experienced with the addition of the mega-yachts and the fact it’s been selling to the FIT market for three years, the number of English speaking guests has soared.
Today, about 75 percent of all Compagnie du Ponant guests are English speaking guests. They come from the U.S., Canada, United Kingdom, Australia and other countries.
Haas said the line still has a few itineraries described as “pretty intensive French” with a hefty complement of French speaking guests, but “for the most part, it’s a very good mix of guests onboard."
To the Ends of the Earth
CEO Jean-Emmanuel Sauvée is very much a risk taker and looking for new and exciting itineraries, according to Haas. On Aug. On Aug. 26, for example, the line will operate its first Northwest Passage voyage from Greenland to Russia over the top of the world.
Haas said the line’s related Russian itineraries are one-of-a-kind trips that go all the way down the Far East Russian coastline. In addition, the line sails to Japan’s remote islands, which “are all different colors with different bird life and the sea lions are amazing,” said Haas.
The line is planning for another Northwest Passage voyage next year; it’s not yet firm but she revealed that the line is considering a Greenland to Nome, Alaska route. While the line charters air flights as needed to bring and take guests from remote or embarkation or debarkation cities, Nome rather than Russia would give North Americans traveling on their own more air options.
Launching in July 2013, Le Soléal will initially sail to the Arctic region on polar expedition cruises. Then the new ship will operate 13 seven- to 17-night Asian itineraries over the winter. Ports of call are in Japan, Vietnam, Malaysia, Thailand and India, as well as more off-the-radar spots in Borneo, Myanmar and Oman.
What’s the number one selling destination from North America? It’s the Dalmatian Coast in Europe, according to Haas. In that region and other parts of the world, Companie du Ponant’s captains have some flexibility to personally adapt itineraries for the best guest experience.
For example, Dubrovnik can be incredibly crowded with big ships on certain days. So if 10,000 or more cruise ship visitors are ashore there for the day, Compagnie du Ponant's captain might opt to sail to a small, less-crowded destination or island, then circling back to Dubrovnik on another day when it's not so crowded.
"We do have the ability to enhance the guest experience doing that,” she said.“We can add different ports or islands, depending on weather conditions, or sail into a coastal town because of a festival that day, so every itinerary is a little unique."
Mediterranean and Greek Isles voyages are also not typical in that clients will see names of islands they might not know about. For example, one Greek Islands cruise on L’Austral from Oct. 2-9, 2013, begins in Istanbul, then calls at Limnos, Paros and Siros, Greece, spends a day in Bodrum, Turkey and then calls at Symi and Patmos, Greece before concluding in Athens.
Interestingly, one in four Compagnie du Ponant guests has never cruised before boarding the line. “It’s very interesting because what it really says is that ‘we’re attracting guests who are typically very well-traveled,'" said Haas.
"They’ve been everywhere but don’t like the idea of cruising," she said. "They see what we do and how we do it, and they love us.’”
Within a year, 50 percent of first-time guests return to cruise with the line again. The figure soars to 85 percent for those who come back within three years.
Most guests are between 45-65 years old. Guests for Antarctic voyages are typically older, although all those guests are generally pretty mobile; they need to be able to board Zodiacs for wildlife spotting or shore landings in remote locales.
Overall, the age demographic has come down a bit with the introduction of the line’s mega-yachts. “They are attracting a lot younger audience,” said Haas, with the top average age at 55 rather than 65 as in the past.
As the line continues to build the mega-yacht vessels, she said it will attract “people who are usually very well-educated, savvy travelers looking for something different and eco-friendly.”
Travel Agent Topics
At least 97 percent of sales are made through travel agents. That’s always been the direction and strategy, she said, noting it makes the most sense “travel agents really know who their clients are.”
The line isn’t a mass-market product and it’s clearly not for everybody. It’s exotic. It’s a small-ship line that’s now mega-yacht focused, although Le Ponant attracts the sailing set.
But for the right clients, the pampering small-ship luxury product it may be just what’s desired. To learn to about the product, Compagnie du Ponant puts on Webinars for consortia.
It will also chat with individual agency owners or managers (those with a number of agents to train) about possibly doing one. Video of some Webinars will be promoted to the trade via email sometime this summer. That will give individual agents a chance for viewing.
What's ahead? The line is in the process of implementing a new reservations system. “We’re working through that and very soon we will introduce our new online booking tool,” she said.
Haas described the new system as user-friendly and Windows based. It will allow agents to access the line’s inventory and make both individual traveler and group bookings online.
For more information on Compagnie du Ponant, visit http://en.ponant.com.