Cruise Chatter: Hurtigruten's Downey, Cruise News and Virtual Programs

Hurtigruten Roald Amundsen
Hurtigruten operates both Norwegian coastal sailings and more adventurous expedition sailings. The line's new expedition ship, Roald Amundsen is shown above. (Photo by Hurtigruten)

Hurtigruten, the Norwegian small-ship and expedition line, recently announced it would split its cruise operations into two separate units. What's that all about and what does it mean to advisors? Travel Agent talked with John Downey, president of the Americas, Hurtigruten, to understand the full picture. 

Along Norway's coastline, Hurtigruten typically (during a non-pandemic year) welcomes two different types of guests: International travelers, who book a cruise in overnight accommodations to view gorgeous scenery and explore small towns and off-the-beaten-path cities, and Norwegian "locals" who sail from point to point—with the voyage only lasting a few hours (not overnight in many cases) as they conduct business or visit family or friends.

“It’s a service similar to trains throughout a county,” explained Downey, president of the Americas, Hurtigruten. In fact, for more than 125 years, the coastal voyages have connected Norway’s coastal towns in this way.

He also said the small ships are built to carry much cargo and cars, too, due to the mountainous nature of the local terrain and difficulty of reaching some coastal destinations via land.  

But in addition to this “combination of guests” on the Norwegian coastal cruises, Hurtigruten also operates expedition sailings, which carry only cruise guests eager for outdoor adventure in off-the-beaten-path destinations. In the coming year, Hurtigruten’s expedition voyages will sail to the Arctic, Alaska, Antarctica, the Caribbean, South America and beyond.

So, given the differences in cruise style, Hurtigruten made the decision to split its operations into separate units. “We’ve actually been looking at doing this for awhile,” Downey told us. Right now, it’s “a really good time to organize corporate structuring,” he believes, noting that the line now has “teams focused on each of those products, so we can design the best possible experience” for both groups of customers.

While “there is some overlap because Norway is a very popular destination,” Downey noted that Hurtigruten’s expedition voyages are very different than the coastal voyages and not just in clientele. Expedition ships also have more onboard amenities, such as a spa/sauna and more dining options. The expedition ships also cruise away from populated places—at times up to three weeks off-the-grid—while the coastal voyages operate close to shore.

Travel Agent asked Downey if splitting out the two types of cruises will change anything in the way of commission or other trade policies for travel advisors. “I don’t anticipate any big changes,” he said. “My goal is to make this as seamless as possible for advisors," he added, expressing appreciation for their past support and noting that the line “could not have done this year” without them.

To support the trade selling 14 different Hurtigruten ships, the small-ship line has been working on improving its travel advisor portal, doing destination training to assist advisors and has relaxed its cancellation policy so travelers feel more comfortable in booking.

Hurtigruten’s newest vessel is the 530-passenger Roald Amundsen, which in 2019 became the cruise industry’s first electric hybrid expedition ship. But with so many new players entering the expedition side of the market, Travel Agent asked Downey if there are too many expedition lines now?

“We believe growth in expedition is great for the industry and guests,” Downey emphasized, noting that growth can raise overall marketplace awareness of expedition cruising. “I compare it to river cruising, which wasn’t common,” or that well known to consumers, he says, until growth in that segment fueled the rise of the river cruise industry.    

Downey is excited about his line’s expedition sailings in 2021-22. Among the highlights are voyages to Antarctica; the Americas coastline and Alaska for Americans seeking trips a bit closer to home; voyages to Arctic Canada and Svalbard in Norway; and 2021-2022 expedition sailings from Dover, U.K. to off-the-beaten-path southern Norway as well as a new itinerary throughout the British Isles.

He said that U.K. citizens “are booking [that latter option] like crazy.” The itinerary visits the Shetland Islands, Orkney Islands and Inner and Outer Hebrides, as well as the Scottish Highlands.

“I’m feeling really good about the second half of 2021,” Downey says. Last summer, Hurtigruten did have a COVID-19 issue on a Norwegian sailing, and the line’s leadership later apologized in realizing some protocols were not followed appropriately onboard. So, what’s been done since then for its expedition sailings? 

“I’m beyond confident that the experience will be safe and amazing, given our number of enhancements in protocols,” Downey told us. In addition, the line has lowered onboard expedition ship capacity to assure there’s ample room for social distancing. All staff and guests on expedition sailings will be required to wear masks in public spaces, and the staff will have medical-grade masks.

Temperature checks also will be performed for guests as they board and on a daily basis for crew, and the line will use electro-static cleaning in both public spaces and guest accommodations. The line has also eliminated high-touch points for public interactions.

Water stations around the ships will be hands-free, guests won’t help themselves at a buffet, but instead will be served individually plated meals. “We’re confident about the protocols,” Downey said.

“Pauses” Extended; Liquidity Boosted

In digging into the new U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) protocols and procedures required for sailing from U.S. ports, many cruise lines have realized it’s going to take time to set up those and meet the pre-sailing requirements needed to restart cruise operations.

Last week, many lines, including Holland America LinePrincess Cruises, PonantCarnival Cruise Line, Celebrity Cruises, Windstar Cruises and Seabourn, among others, extended their “pause” in operations.

Cruise lines are also now looking for more cash in the face of continuing, extended shut-downs. Last week, Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings closed on a 40-million share offering of new common stock, bringing in gross proceeds of $832 million to bolster its liquidity.

Carnival Corporation also shored up its financial position with offering of more notes with proceeds to be used for general corporate purposes including its ships’ ready-for-sea costs.

Virtual Opportunities

The travel industry’s march to virtual content continues, as Viking last Friday debuted a new series, “Foodie Fridays,” with each episode hosted by a Viking team member from around the world and focusing on the cuisine of their chosen country. 

Michael Consoli
Michael Consoli, franchise 
​​​owner, Cruise Planners

Viking’s top producer is Michael Consoli, franchise owner, Cruise Planners, Roswell, GA, so Travel Agent asked him how he’s using the virtual content. 

“The Viking virtual programming have been extremely helpful in helping me paint a picture of the overall Viking experience for my clients,” Consoli says, adding that “it’s brought traveling to life for them, while we are all ‘holed up’ at home and unable to travel.”

He’s forwarded many of the virtual programs to his clients, and “they’ve responded very positively to it and we have closed many sales from these outstanding productions.”

Other virtual news? Last week, Norwegian introduced its virtual EMBARK – The Series Docuseries, and, in one EMBARK NCL Spotlight, streamed “The Choir of Man” live; it’s now available for replay at nclembark.com. Additionally, boutique cruise line Azamara is launching a new Masterclass Series of on-demand videos for travel advisors on Azamara Connect—the brand’s online portal for travel advisors.

Positive Thoughts

In the good news bucket, consumers—and particularly cruise veterans—seem very eager to sail again soon. Michael Bayley, president and CEO, Royal Caribbean International, reported on social media that more than 100,000 people have already volunteered to sail on the line’s test voyages prior to the line receiving CDC approval to sail. So, there is strong pent-up demand. 

And in a briefing with reporters last week, Richard Ambrose, senior vice president, entertainment, Norwegian Cruise Line, promised that the line’s shows will be back in the way guests have come to expect when cruises begin once again. Veteran cruisers need not fear that they won't have great entertainment.

Ambrose says some entertainment will start immediately, although a few shows will need four to six weeks to resume (after the line’s resumption of cruises), given the need for gearing up with those productions. But, at that point, Ambrose assures guests that they'll be able to enjoy full-blown Broadway shows, such as "Jersey Boys," as well as cabaret and comedy club performance and the Beatles tribute show in "The Cavern Club."

Royal Caribbean Group also extended its “Cruise with Confidence” program for all bookings made by January 31, 2021, so guests can cancel up to 48 hours prior to sailing and receive the full credit of the cruise fare paid for a future cruise.

In addition, in a step that provided a positive look and "feel" for the future, Celebrity Cruises laid the keel for its third Edge-class ship, Celebrity Beyond, celebrating with the maritime industry's traditional coin ceremony at Chantiers de L’Atlantique shipyard in St. Nazaire, France.

As this week unfolds, Cruise Chatter wishes all travel advisors and readers a happy, safe and healthy Thanksgiving.

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