By the hundreds, tourists and local London residents alike lined the walkway railings along the Thames River on Saturday, as Tower Bridge's famous drawbridge slowly raised and a tug boat guided Silversea Expeditions’ Silver Cloud through the waters beneath it.
Special invited guests – Venetian Society members who’ve sailed much on the expedition product, as well as top producing travel agents who sell expedition cruises and news media, including Travel Agent – waved small U.K. flags distributed by the line. People ashore waved back as the ship passed.
It wasn't the Royal Wedding, but the hoopla was right "up there" as cruise industry events go.
So what was the occasion? On June 3, 2008, Silversea Expeditions, a specialty product of the Silversea Cruises brand, was created. This past weekend’s two-night special journey was to celebrate the expedition product's first 10 years. That short cruise ended this morning in Dublin, Ireland.
Coincidentally, Manfredi Lefebvre, executive chairman and owner, Silversea Cruises and Silversea Expeditions, told travel agents, veteran expedition travelers and media in briefings on the ship that it was also 25 years ago that he first sailed on Silver Cloud from Tower Bridge on the line’s first voyage.
“It started because I’m a very lucky man,” says Lefebvre. “My job is to do what I love and what I love is travel. And travel for me means seeing new places, meeting people, learning [about] cultures which are different everywhere I go.”
Since then, the company has evolved to a fleet of nine ships in two different brands – the classic Silversea Cruises with five ships and the more adventuresome, far-flung Silversea Expeditions product with four ships.
The 16,800-grt Silver Cloud, recently received an ice-strengthened hull and other updates in a significant drydock. It's now transitioned from the classic fleet to become the expedition product’s flagship.
Sailing past Greenwich on Saturday, Silver Cloud blew its horn to greet sister ship Silver Spirit, recently cut apart and lengthened with a new mid-section added in a Palermo, Sicily, shipyard.
The two ships continue to blow their horns alternatively back and forth before Silver Cloud then continued onward toward the sea -- and Silversea Expeditions began its journey into the second decade.
Onboard for the special celebratory voyage were Lefebvre; Roberto Martinoli, the cruise company’s CEO; Barbara Muckermannn, the line’s chief marketing officer; Mark Conroy, managing director, the Americas; Peter Shanks, managing director, United Kingdom and Ireland; and Conrad Combrink, senior vice president, strategic development expeditions and experiences, among others.
Sailing to Remote Places
While Manfredi believes it’s beautiful to go around the ports of the world from ships, it’s an added experience for guests to go places where it’s difficult to go to. “We all know that Norway is beautiful, Chile is beautiful but there are even more places and that’s how we started [Silversea Expeditions],” Lefebvre says.
At those remote, off-the-beaten-path destinations, guests have authentic, local cultural and wildlife experiences they’ve dreamed about. But, they don’t have to rough it.
“You’re always in comfort,” says Lefebvre. “You’re always followed and assisted by the ship. So you’re never alone….When you go around, Silversea is with you everywhere you go. ”
When it launched 10 years ago, Silversea Expeditions started with one small vessel, the ice-class Silver Explorer, originally named the Prince Albert II, in honor of the same-named monarch of the Principality of Monaco, where Silversea is based. He cut a ribbon to launch the ship back in 2008.
So at the welcome onboard event, Lefebvre introduced a special video in which Prince Albert spoke to the audience and expressed his congratulations to Silversea Expeditions on its 10th anniversary. “On a personal level, I feel a real bond with this achievement,” he said. “I look forward to joining you soon for another expedition.”
Possible Wind Project
During their time onboard and in discussions with agents, guests and journalists, Lefebvre and other officials alluded to more capacity coming for the expedition product. Martinoli said he was proud of the recent conversion of Silver Cloud to an ice-class ship and that it wasn’t an easy project.
In addition, the line opted to completely refurbish the ship. “It’s the same feeling as when you walk on the Silver Muse,” Martinoli said, referring to the muted color scheme, lighter in feel, and yet rich at the same time. He said it was much the same when the Silver Spirit came out of drydock after its recent lengthening and refurbishment. “It looks great,” he said.
In the next phase for both the classic and expedition fleets, “we are starting to work on [planning updates] for the Silver Whisper and Silver Wind, and there is more to come,” said Martinoli. “We’re going to be able to bring the standard of the fleet to what you see here [and] what you see on the Silver Muse.”
Recently a sister to Silver Muse, the new Silver Moon, was announced as the next classic fleet new build, coming in 2020. Another ship will launch in 2021 and the line has an option for another classic fleet vessel in 2023.
“The fleet expansion is going to be very aggressive,” Martinoli told the crowd. “On the expedition side, we have a sister ship [Silver Wind] of this one that might be a good candidate to go through the same [process as Silver Cloud].” Executives called that “the Wind project” onboard, but did not commit to a specific decision on that as yet.
For example, Lefebvre stressed: "This ship [Silver Cloud] has been so successful, it commands a ‘Wind’ transformation,” yet he also said "on top of that we have several other ideas.” So agents will have to stay tuned.
“Hopefully, we will come soon with some great news,” said Martinoli.
Capacity Versus Demand
But what about the industry-wide growth in expedition cruising capacity over the next few years? What about the potential for price dilution? Silversea’s executives indicated little concern, based on this reasoning.
Martinoli said that if people look at the line’s latest Antarctica season, “we’ve been increasing capacity by over 60 percent, we been able to fill it pretty easily and the success of this business is so evident.”
He said that any increased capacity will be more than offset by increased demand for the expedition type experience. “It’s pretty obvious,” he stressed, referring to burgeoning demand. So he said “we are not too concerned about flattening of prices.”
Conroy added that there are 85,000 Venetian Society (loyal past guest) households in North America alone: “They’re not always the big buyers of our polar exploration in the north and the south, but where they really help us is they like to collect destinations.”
The beauty of that, he explained is that when a ship leaves to transit between Antarctica and the Arctic, it takes a month’s transit. Along the way the line has created itineraries that are interesting and appealing for those Venetian Society guests, so Conroy said: “That allows us not to lose all the money we made in Antarctica in repositioning the ship up to the Arctic.”
“I think that’s a competitive advantage we have versus a new start-up company,” Conroy noted, adding that Silversea knows how to get the ship back and forth in a profitable manner.
In addition, Muckermann said that changing consumer dynamics also bode favorably for expedition cruising – even with sizable added capacity. For Baby Boomers who are retiring with both time and money, the expedition product is a good fit.
“Today it’s not just about owning,” she stressed. “It’s about experiencing.” She explained how “watch sales” globally have dropped and even the world’s largest diamond producer has cut back on production: “Boomers are not interested in jewels, cars or watches. They are shifting ‘the spend’ to experiences.”
And, as a savory tidbit, she said that for the Chinese market, the number one expeditionary region is Antarctica and the polar regions.
Silversea has a different focus than many expedition lines with its onboard experience as well. It focuses 100 percent on luxury and 100 percent on expedition at the same time, according to Martinoli: “We do it very different because we do it with an ultra-luxury product.”
And with Silver Cloud, which has a faster sailing speed than some other expedition ships, Conroy said the ship can cover more territory in a shorter time – turning what might be a 21-day to 23-day expedition into a 15-day sailing, which broadens the market for potential clients who will book.
Over the past decade, Silversea Expeditions has journeyed to Antarctica, the Russian Far East, West Africa, Bangladesh and the Northwest Passage. “This is just beginning,” said Muckermann. Bangladesh is coming back. The line will add the Northeast Passage in 2019.