Because Richard Marnell is Viking Cruise's Senior Vice President of Marketing for North America, he has been charged with helping make Viking River Cruises a household name, by creating a deeper, more active awareness of the existence and benefits of river cruising, an important mode of experiential travel.
Marnell has been with Viking since February 2007 as Senior Vice President of Viking River Cruises North American marketing. For the past seven years, he’s leveraged over $400 million to raise customer awareness of the Viking brand and river cruising industry. He has often discussed Viking River’s laser focus on small-vessel cruising and how such an experience enhances a deeper cultural understanding of the destinations because those voyagers on Viking River Cruises can stay longer in the destinations, learning about the culture. With this major awareness, the brand is now ushering in a new era of ocean cruising, taking lessons learned in river cruising to the oceans. The maiden voyage of their first of three ocean cruise ships, the Viking Star, will set sail in spring of 2015.
We recently interviewed Marnell recently and he discussed this new bandwidth, and what this means for future travelers.
JustLuxe: The Viking Star is the first ship to be in the Viking Ocean Cruise’s fleet and will be sailing next year. This ship, with two others coming in 2016, will enlarge the Viking Cruises brand to include a more defined, educational and comfortable water travel dimension than before. Can you discuss this brand expansion and include some of the data that helped with the decision to expand the brand to include ocean travel?
Richard Marnell: It is important to note that it is our view that creating new destination-focused ocean itineraries was a natural next step for the Viking Cruises brand. We do not aim to be a luxury product per se, whether on our river or ocean cruises, but we do aim to provide our guests with a comfortable way to explore history and culture on enriching trips to interesting destinations.
At the time when we were developing our ocean cruises, we surveyed our river passengers and learned that 50 percent of them also take premium ocean cruises. So we asked our guests how their Viking river experience stacked up to their other ocean cruising experiences. Seventy percent said Viking was better, and 84 percent said they would like to go on a Viking ocean cruise. Our ocean itineraries are curated for maximum time in port, often with late evenings or overnights, so guests can experience evening performances. Ports include both cosmopolitan cities and “collector ports,” and appeal to those with an interest in history, art and culture.
In addition, we have inclusive pricing, providing every cruise fare with a veranda stateroom, shore excursions in each port of call, all onboard meals, and all port charges and government taxes. Passengers also enjoy many complimentary amenities as part of their fare, including: beer and wine with lunch and dinner service, Wi-F, self-service laundry and 24-hour room service, a value of more than $2,400 per couple for an average cruise.
JL: I am interested in how the decision of size of the ship was made also. What were you hoping for? Intimacy? Transparency? A more peaceful, educational experience? It is, in terms of cruise ship size, sort of boutique. There are 465 cabins for a total of 930 passengers, instead of thousands that so many cruise ships have. How was this size decision arrived at?
RM: It is our view that in the race to build bigger ships, many cruise lines have lost sight of the destinations to which they sail. With our new ocean cruises, we are applying the same principles behind our award-winning river cruises to our itinerary and ship design, privileged-access excursions and onboard experiences to make destinations the true focus.
Classified by Cruise Critic as a “small ship,” the new 930-passenger, all-veranda Viking Star (and her two sister ships, Viking Sea and Viking Sky) is engineered at a scale that allows direct access into most ports, so guests have easy and efficient embarkation and debarkation. The ship’s understated elegance and modern Scandinavian design is crafted for maximum guest comfort.
JL: The two descriptions of the Viking Star that seem to resonate are (1) it is a “home on the water,” and (2) it is “ocean cruising re-imagined.” Could you comment on both of those phrases, defining in your opinion, how these descriptions will be experienced by the passengers?
RM: In my view the two phrases are inextricably linked as part of our vision for Viking Ocean Cruises. We truly want our guests to explore the world in comfort. As such, our ocean ships have been designed to serve as a vessel meant to help them better experience their destinations. The smaller size will allow access into both large and small ports—with easy embarkation and debarkation—and every stateroom features its own full-size veranda. Our chairman is adamant that unlike other big cruise lines, we will not nickel-and-dime our guests. So there is no casino onboard, and we have included premium amenities like Wi-Fi and beer and wine with lunch and dinner, in the base fare. We will serve excellent food onboard, with open seating in the main restaurants, and attire is always casual; there will be no formal nights.
JL: One of the many exceptional parts of these ships is their spa components. Could you explain what types of treatments and what product brands will be available for those on board?
RM: We are very excited about the new spa program aboard our ocean ships. While we are still finalizing the details, I can tell you that the spa experience has been designed by drawing upon the holistic wellness philosophy of Nordic culture. In addition to pools and relaxation areas, guests will be able to stimulate their circulatory system in the Snow Grotto where snowflakes gently descend from the ceiling through chilled air, then invigorate themselves in the sauna, following a centuries-old Nordic tradition.
JL: From the standpoint of cuisine, how were the culinary staff chosen? And will the food preparation be visible and accessible to the cruise participants? Will special dietary restrictions be understood?
RM: We haven’t yet made any announcements about the culinary staff, but we are very excited to share more in the coming months. With a variety of onboard options the central culinary theme for our guests is choice. Of course, guests can also expand their horizons by accompanying a Viking chef to a local farmers market to learn more about regional ingredients, or even try the onboard cooking school and intimate restaurant, The Kitchen Table.
For all Viking cruises, river and ocean, we are happy to work with guests to accommodate dietary restrictions.
JL: Viking Cruises will be expanding their itineraries over the coming year, as they have in 2014. How successful have you been this year, in terms of the river cruise components? And where in particular will Viking Cruises be going next year that is exotic and compelling?
RM: River cruises continue to be the fastest-growing segment of travel, and with the launch of 16 new ships, 2014 is the biggest year yet for Viking River Cruises. We are very excited about the positive response to our new itineraries in Myanmar (Burma) and Bordeaux, both of which debuted this year.
With a variety of Maiden Voyage itineraries debuting next year for Viking Ocean Cruises, we are delighted to have the opportunity to be able to now host guests in Scandinavia and the Baltic; and the Western and Eastern Mediterranean. Specifically I know our Chairman is particularly proud to showcase the “Viking Homelands” and his native Norway as part of our Scandinavian itineraries.
JL: The multiple foci for river cruising seems, to me, to be about defining access to the history, architecture, cuisine and most importantly education implicit in the destinations. Could you explain how you keep all those interests alive in those who book a year in advance?
RM: Our Chairman, Torstein Hagen, often refers to Viking as “the thinking man’s cruise.” Viking guests are lifelong learners who are interested in new experiences and exploring destinations in-depth. To that end, we have invested significantly in creating short- and long-form video content that can stimulate, inspire and educate our guests, at home before they depart, onboard during their cruise, and well after they are at back home pondering their next voyage. Hosted by Karine Hagen, Viking Vice President and daughter of Torstein, the award-winning videos cover a spectrum of cultural topics—whether it’s the story of Mikhail Bobrov, the legendary Russian hero from World War II—or an in-depth exploration of Bordeaux’s Prestigious Wines. We also encourage our guests to join our Facebook communities, where they can also discover videos, photos, recipes and conversations with their fellow travelers.
JL: Are there any components that you would prefer seeing in future river and ocean cruising that are not there right now? If so, what are they and how do you think they will be included?
RM: Because we focus so strongly on the culture, history and food of the destinations we visit, it is Viking’s belief that our guests’ in-country experiences can be greatly enhanced by leveraging the time between when they book and depart for their trip. We are in the process of developing a pre-cruise enrichment program that would provide engaging content about the destinations they will visit, curated based on their own personal interests. That type of relevant engagement fosters curiosity and discovery, which is exactly what we want our guests to experience while [aboard] our itineraries.
JL: How do you see the future of Viking River and Viking Ocean Cruises, in terms of recent trends? I am thinking of unusual destination trends, as well as selling to Millennials, this demographic being different from sales and marketing perspective from Boomers, Gen X and Y’ers.
RM: Regarding target market, we are laser focused on experienced travelers, aged 55 and older in North America, the UK and Australia, who have a good income and interests in history, art and culture. For us, a relevant trend is certainly hosting experienced travelers who are looking for a new way to explore Europe. So many of our guests are Baby Boomers who have been to Europe multiple times, either with group tours or visiting cities on an ad hoc basis, and river cruising offers an entirely different way to experience the continent and its culture.
Regarding future destinations, our Chairman has said publicly that he would like to sail the Mississippi, and beyond that, we are always in the process of researching new options for delivering Viking’s signature experience to guests.