Travel-Intel cruise guru Bill Becken interviews Torstein Hagen, CEO, Viking River Cruises, about today’s cruise market and its customers. How will the cruise industry, especially river cruising, address and service them? What will future customers look for in cruise products? Hagen gives answers to these questions and others.
Q. What are some of the larger trends among river cruise customers today?
A. Well, for one thing, they’re growing in number. We expect, both as a business and an industry, to see continued double-digit growth. In fact, that’s been characteristic for a decade now. River cruising appeals strongly to Baby Boomers. Each year more of them enter retirement, and so more of them are likely to travel. That makes us hopeful for the future. Viking has met the demand by fielding 25 ships for the 2012 season. And we expect a 29% market share in three top river cruising regions: Europe, Russia and China.
Q. How do you see future customers? How will their tastes and demands shape your product?
A. The river cruise guest of the future is not unlike that of today—he or she is
among the 50-plus market of sophisticated travelers looking for a value-packed experience. River cruising gives them that. It’s a perfect travel experience, really, for the mature traveler, an educated person whose interests run to art, music, history and culture. Our cruises aren’t so much vacations as experiences or journeys. The point is to give guests the opportunity to invest a journey with self-immersion in their chosen destination.
Q. Even if your future customers well resemble your current ones, what about their new expectations? As boomers get older, how will their expectations change? How will Viking River Cruises meet those new expectations?
A. Indeed, our passengers don’t just want to travel. They want enrichment through travel. Sightseeing is no longer enough. They want to get off the beaten path and experience more things. That is why we provide things like behind-the-scenes access to, say, the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersberg. Or authentic cuisine in the home of a local. We offer both of those, actually, on our Waterways of the Czars itinerary in Russia. Our product and itinerary development focuses on just such new, immersive ways Viking can introduce or reintroduce its guests to destinations of their choice.
Q. Anyone who’s traveled the world can understand the hankering to hang with locals as a counterpoint to a ship’s ivory tower comfort and luxury. But there’s been more such hankering, right? How and why?
A. Making the most of a travel experience is not a passive activity. That’s what immersion in a destination means. Our guests want to use all of their senses, from the taste of regional cuisine and the sounds of a Viennese orchestra to the aroma of a fine wine and the performance of an acrobatic troupe in Shanghai. Some of our most popular included excursions feature meeting and mingling with locals—such as the visit to a local elementary school along China’s Yangtze River, a home-hosted visit in Uglich, along Russia’s Volga River, and market shopping tours in various cities, escorted by our onboard chefs.
Q. What about Gen X and Gen Y? What are the keys to engaging them in river cruising?
A. Well, at this point, they don’t fall within the realm of our typical demographic. So we remain more focused on increasing awareness of river cruising among mature travelers than among younger customers. On the other hand, while the profile of our guests has remained consistent over the years, definitely one major change is that—like Gen X and Y—they have become increasingly more technologically savvy and active digitally, whether wielding iPhones, iPads or Galaxies or more traditional laptops and digital cameras. In a way, then, we’re constantly preparing to welcome Gen X and Gen Y, to whom digital interaction is second nature, and indeed more of them will be coming aboard in time.
Q. Why are customers choosing Viking over others?
A. Viking is really the leading river cruise company. We offer a larger selection of itineraries and regions than any other such company, giving guests many opportunities to choose us. Also, we’re focused on guests’ top-of-mind concern—value for their travel dollar. For us, this translates to all-inclusive itineraries featuring everything from accommodations and meals to daily shore excursions and our onboard Culture Curriculum program, plus port charges, bottled water, wine with onboard dinners, internet service and travel documents. Finally, both trade and consumer publications and organizations continue to give us many accolades—for example, we got Cruise Critic’s “Best River Cruise Line,” one of the categories of its annual Editors’ Picks Awards.
Q. More precisely, how do Viking’s service and its itineraries substantiate its leading position?
A. In terms of service, that means an onboard staff of more than 1500 people anticipating and meeting our guests’ expectations. Our guests, when surveyed at the end of the cruise have responded with extremely high and consistent satisfaction ratings, approaching 100% or full satisfaction. And that’s just for service. The other half of our excellence saga is that Viking sails in six regions worldwide—Europe, Russia, Ukraine, China, Southeast Asia and Egypt—more than any other river cruise company. In doing so, we offer more itineraries, more departures and more meaningful journeys to all guests, past and future, sedate or venturesome, who seek the immersive experience, not to forget camaderie, of a river cruise.