Torstein Hagen, founder and chairman, Viking Cruises with crew members from the three Viking Longships christened in Avignon
The fast-paced growth of Viking River Cruises was never more evident than today when -- in grand celebratory fashion -- the line christened seven Viking Longships –three docked in Avignon, France and three at Rostock, Germany. That comes on the heels of the christening of nine Viking Longships on the previous day in Amsterdam, The Netherlands.
In fact, Viking set a new world record after christening the 16 vessels. A Guinness World Records adjudicator was on site to make the announcement later in the day; Viking already held the previous record, having christened 10 new ships in one day in 2013.
For the ships docked in Avignon, godmothers Susie Barrie (Viking Heimdal), well-known from BBC1’s “Saturday Kitchen”; Mireille Mathieu, world-renowned international recording artist (Viking Buri); and Anne Willan, founder of Ecole de Cuisine La Varenne in Paris and an authority on French cooking, (Viking Hermod) did the honors.
Other godmothers present in Avignon christened their Viking Longships (which were in Rostock) remotely as a live video feed hooked the two locales. So these godmothers christened their ships from afar as guests watched on a huge top-deck video screen and champagne bottles hit the ships’ sides in Germany.
Two more Viking Longships also will be christened on March 21 in Porto, Portugal. That brings the total to 18 new Longships launched across four countries in five days.
Viking tapped the trade when it was selecting godmothers. Seven of 18 are travel agents, consortia/host/franchise leaders or trade-focused in some way. At the Avignon event, TravelAgentCentral.com ran into Anne Morgan Scully, president of McCabe World Travel; she served as godmother of the Viking Ingvi, christened this week in Amsterdam.
Similarly, Sarah Henshall, vice president of travel and branch operations, AAA Carolinas, previously christened Viking Lif in Amsterdam, and was present for the Avignon christening ceremony. Of the growth of Viking and the event itself, Henshall said, “I think it’s fabulous,” noting that having AAA selected within the group of illustrious godmothers shows how much the river line values its trade partners. “That’s a great statement for the industry,” Henshall noted.
Vicky Garcia, chief operating officer of Cruise Planners-American Express, also arrived in Avignon after christening Viking Magni in Amsterdam. She expressed pride in being chosen for the godmother honor and a bit of humor too, quipping: “Oh gosh, who would have ‘thunk’ it.”
Garcia believes the rapid growth of Viking’s river product shows the public that river cruising isn’t so obscure. That helps travel agents as consumers become more familiar with river cruise products. Both Garcia and Henshall are among the godmothers who plan to host their own “Godmother Cruise” onboard Viking during 2015.
Other trade godmothers who attended the Avignon events are Kathryn Mazza-Burney, executive vice president at TRAVELSAVERS (Viking Baldur); Geraldine Ree, senior vice president of sales and marketing, Expedia CruiseShipCenters (Viking Eistla); Pam Young, vice president of industry relations, Travel Leaders Franchise Group (Viking Bestla); and Hanh Haley, partner of Travel Leaders Group Chairman Michael Batt (Viking Gullveig).
Avignon Christening and Dinner
Crowd and christening ceremony at Avignon
The Avignon christening event got under way with pleasant weather and sunny skies. Guests sipped champagne while enjoying views of the Palace of the Popes and Avignon’s historic city walls. The ceremony unfolded on the top deck of all three vessels, decked out in red carpeting. Red and white balloons decorated the three ships.
“Today we mark a new milestone for Viking and for modern river cruising,” said Torstein Hagen, chairman and CEO of Viking Cruises. “We are proud to celebrate the arrival of our newest ships, and it is an honor to have each one named by a prominent godmother.”
Hagen noted that river cruising is the fastest-growing segment of travel, and it is in large part because of the enthusiasm of both guests and travel trade partners that Viking has enjoyed such success. He also expressed his appreciation for the godmothers’ participation: “It’s your day more than ours.”
After the ceremony, guests in Avignon were transported to Pont du Gard, a three-level Roman Aquaduct and UNESCO World Heritage site, for a christening dinner celebration. One entertainment highlight was a concert by godmother Mireille Mathieu, who sang in multiple languages.
Another “ooh” and “aah” moment was a sound-and light show on the 2,000-year-old Pont du Gard aquaduct.
Hagen’s Vision and Perspective
Torstein celebrates the Guinness Book of Records plaque
It’s definitely been a robust period of growth for Viking River Cruises. In 2013, it christened multiple ships simultaneously in similar fashion at Amsterdam and the shipyard. In fact, Viking has introduced 30 ships in the past three years.
During the evening christening dinner, Hagen addressed the audience of VIPs, trade partners, shipyard executives and news media. In talking about the evolution of his company, he said it’s a “bit extraordinary.”
Why? Hagen said that 17 years ago in Russia, he and a partner were “two guys with two mobile phones and no money…and here we are today. It’s a bit amazing.”
He thanked the company’s financial partners as well as Meyer Werft for the shipyard’s help in the growth of Viking. Sixteen of the ships that have been christened were built at the shipyard's facilities in two different locations.
Giving a bit of an educational lesson to the audience, Hagen explained his personal view about what sets Viking ships apart from other lines and how the company can build ships with more passengers onboard than others. Viking Longships typically carry 190 passengers.
First, he said, the company uses a “square bow” design, which allows eight more cabins on each ship. Second, the company uses an asymmetrical corridor, which allows the line to “steal space” for more balcony cabins.
Third, the Viking Longships are hybrids which run on diesel-electric, which are quieter than other propulsion systems, so the line could build ships with two Explorer Suites all the way forward. That too adds space not available on other ships, which may use space over the engines for crew cabins or storage.
And fourth, he said, the changes above, allow the line to utilize three full decks in the front of the ships, not two as many lines do.
Those efficiencies and design innovations have allowed Viking to put on more cabins and carry more people – making it a less costly operation. Hagen said that’s why his company is able to charge 20 percent less than the competition for the same type of accommodations. “It’s not because we save on service or food,” he stressed.
He said, however, that he wouldn’t say his ships are better than a competitor’s. Some people, he said like Viking’s understated elegance, whereas other consumers might prefer a more ornate ship: “Which ship is better? I will not judge.”
However, it’s clear consumers are happy with the Longships and the Viking product – based on the statistics Hagen provided. Viking has increased its marketshare from 20 percent five years ago to 48 percent this year.
“This year, virtually all capacity through the end of October is sold out,” he said. “But we have a little space left in Ukraine.” He quipped about knowing there is an explorer out there for whom the journey would be of interest, someone who would like to say “I was in Crimea.”
He said the Russian river voyages for this year are also pretty much sold out, and the recent political issues have not impacted sales or bookings on those cruises.
Hagen summarized the “look” of the company – 53 river ships, $1 billion-plus in revenue, and 30,000 people affiliated with Viking on an annual basis, including guests, shipyard personnel, suppliers, travel partners and so on. It all adds up, he said, again stressing “We started from nothing 17 years ago.”
“River cruising has obviously come of age,” Hagen said. Between 2001 and 2014, the river industry has increased by 11 percent a year; that’s a rate he calls “for the other guys,” a reference to competitors.
The ocean side of cruising has grown by 5 percent a year, Hagen said, but Viking has grown in the same period by 31 percent a year, and that’s accelerated to 40-45 percent in the last year.
In 2015, Viking will introduce more Longships including two new ships on the Elbe River. He said he initially was worried they would run out of Norse heritage names for the ships, but when considering “pagan times” the line hasn’t yet run out.
Will so many Longships and all these additional berths impact the marketplace? Michael Consoli, franchise owner, Cruise Planners-American Express Travel, Atlanta, GA, says the new vessels being introduced this week will “impact the market significantly” because of the balcony options now on all the major rivers of Europe.
“Viking really offers their guests a fantastic option with verandah [staterooms] and verandah suites,” he says. “This is significant because as more and more of the ocean cruise market moves over to river, they will be looking to companies that offer similar accommodations as the ocean cruise ship do.”
In addition, the “Viking Longships really will exceed expectations with things like heated tile floors in the bathrooms and soft-close drawers and doors in the cabins,” said Consoli. “The utilization of space is amazing and the cabins are beautifully appointed with a modern Scandinavian design.”
All of Viking’s new ships will be deployed on its most popular itineraries in Europe, and 2014 marks the first year that the Longships will sail in France; four will be deployed with one dedicated to a new Châteaux, Rivers & Wine itinerary in Bordeaux.
Viking’s “Portugal’s River of Gold” itinerary is very popular, Viking acknowledges, noting that two new ships there will double the company’s current capacity on the Douro River. While inspired by the design of the Viking Longships, the two newest vessels in Portugal will be smaller, serving 106 passengers in 53 staterooms
Viking Heads to Sea
Viking will head to the world’s oceans next year with the launch of an ocean ship, Viking Star. It will be christened on May 17 in Bergen, Norway, the country’s Constitution Day.
He said the line’s customers urged him to get into the ocean side of the business again. “Our river cruise customers are fed up with big ocean ships, they’re fed up with being whisked away [from interesting destinations early in the day], and they’re fed up with being nickled and dimed,” said Hagen.
In designing a new smaller ocean ship, serving less than 1,000 passengers, Viking again looked at ways to cut unneeded space, to fit in enough guests comfortably, and yet allow the product to be highly inclusive.
For example, staterooms have no bathtubs, saving 6 percent on space; suites will have bathtubs. There will be no casino. “And we don’t need to fleece [the customer] when they get onboard,” Hagen said.
Top clientele? Hagen says the guests for his new line will have an explorer mindset and are likely in their mid-50s and upward in age. They will be people with a strong destinational focus; the line will create itineraries that dovetail with that approach.
In addition, the ship will have inclusive drinks – beer and wine – as well as a complimentary shore trip in every port. “Again, we don’t want to nickel and dime,” he emphasized.
And to a crowd of cheers from the crowd, he also stressed Viking’s planned approach of no NCFs or noncomissionable charges, something travel agents have long complained about.
Big lines sometimes throw lots of fees into the NCFs, to the point when the cruise fare is almost rivaled by the NCF charges. In contrast, he told the trade-focused group, that he hopes his new ocean line – based on how it’s being approached and designed -- will be profitable for agents to sell.
Stay tuned to TravelAgentCentral for more on Viking Cruises, both on the river and ocean side.