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Expedition 101 with Liz Gammon

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Seatrade Cruise’s Expedition Cruising Ambassador Liz Gammon shares an insightful look into the Expedition Cruise Market – including current trends, challenges and future opportunities.

My name is Liz Gammon.

I am a results driven, passionate and creative cruise marketing expert based in Iceland. I assist my clients make an impact on the world by creating innovative and effective marketing strategies that promote the long-term growth for their businesses and get them noticed. My specialities include engaging content creation, social media management and digital storytelling. And… (nerd alert!) I’m also very interested in Expedition Cruising – hence the Seatrade Expedition Ambassador title! So without further ado, let’s dive straight into our article.

What is Expedition Cruising? An Introduction

Expedition. The fast growing, adventure sector of the cruise industry, currently flaunting an order book brimming with beautifully designed, luxury, ice class vessels. A far cry from the pioneering expedition fleet of yesteryear with their modest accommodations and ground-breaking adventures fuelled by steam and sail. Today’s newbuild fleet is very different. For not only are these ships easy on the eye, the good news is they are also easy on the environment too. In fact, most of the new expedition cruise vessels are equipped with Tier 3 compliant engines, which have up to 80% less emissions than some of the older, traditional expedition cruise ships.

Another environmental plus is that the use of marine gas oil in the expedition sector is standard, unlike in traditional cruising.

Not a New Concept

It might come as a surprise to some to learn that expedition cruising is far from being a new concept, in fact it has been around for quite a long time.  Just over 150 years in fact!

Expedition cruising has always harboured a competitive streak and in those early days, alongside the thrill of ploughing through pack ice so as to be able to lay claim to the title of having sailed furthest north in the shortest of time, there was also great passenger interest in expedition cruises featuring trophy hunting and fishing. Thankfully, the taxidermy rooms of by-gone years have since been replaced by climate-controlled mudrooms. And the darkrooms of the past are now bright, airy lounges hosting informative lectures and presentations. 

Some things never change though, and the spirit and desire to explore and discover more of our wonderful planet burns just as brightly today as it did 150 years ago.

Unique Features of Expedition Cruising

Aside from wearing the crown as being the fastest growing sector of the cruise industry, expedition cruising is (in a nutshell) traditionally about structurally equipped vessels sailing to remote geographical locations that are considered off-limits to larger cruise vessels and their passengers.

Flexibility is a key feature as expedition ships tend not to stick to strict itinerary plans in the same way that larger cruise ships must, choosing instead to optimise the onboard guest experience by scouting out impromptu wildlife sightings and operating zodiac (inflatable rubber boat) explorations - sometimes staying in locations much longer than originally intended, and sometimes not… Expedition lines tend to operate in a much more flexible manner. Especially when exploring the more remote parts of the world.

Weather conditions also play an important role in the day-to-day operation of a successful expedition cruise, and last-minute changes of plan are the norm. It is this flexibility and unpredictability that makes each cruise unique and delivers the authentic, expedition experience that is so popular with guests. Whales sighted in the next fjord, you say? What are we waiting for? Let’s go!

That’s the beauty of expedition cruising. Exploring and embracing the unexpected at a pace and in a manner dictated by nature.

Let’s Get a Little Technical

And whilst expedition ships don’t just sail in the Arctic and Antarctic regions - they are built for sailing in extreme conditions and hostile environments. Most vessels typically carry a lower Ice Class Certification, but more and more new-builds are being constructed with a view to navigating more challenging ice conditions. As an example, Lindblad Expeditions’ new National Geographic Endurance has been built to ICAS Polar Class 5 Category - which offers the opportunity to operate year-round in medium, first year ice.

Whilst Quark Expeditions’ new Aquamarine and Seabourn’s Seabourn Venture (scheduled for launch in December 2021) both feature an impressive Polar Class Category 6, plus an array of on-board features that are set to ensure an expedition experience guaranteed to exceed even the highest of guest expectations. A far cry from the former Russian ships and converted fishing trawlers of the 1980s! Typically, expedition ships are small or medium in size, with a limited draught enabling them to access more remote places and smaller ports. A smaller ship means fewer guests onboard, which undeniably leads to a more positive shoreside experience. Something that is seen as being a huge plus from a guest point of view - especially given today’s traveller’s sustainable-focused travel demands.

A small ship also allows for a more relaxed onboard ambiance and encourages the typical guest camaraderie that expedition cruising is so famous for. Another unique side to expedition cruising is that guests are actively encouraged to participate in all aspects of the expedition, and an open bridge policy is quite often the norm. The current Expedition Fleet offers a range of ships and accommodations that vary in class from being ‘reasonably comfortable’ to boasting ‘opulent, high-end luxury’ – the latter of which has resulted in the opening of a new market and generating an even higher guest expectation.

This higher expectation has resulted in the development of a new class of expedition cruise vessel, and it is estimated that there are around 30 new ships on order for delivery in the next four years. Each of these ships is estimated to carry an average of 208 guests.

Expedition Cruising: Meet the Team

Expedition ships sail with specialised, onboard Expedition Teams that consist of an Expedition Leader and a team made up of dedicated experts. Typically, these teams include geologists, vulcanologists, ornithologists, historians, and marine mammal experts - depending on where in the world the ship is sailing. These onboard experts act as guides and lecturers, accompanying guests on the zodiac tours, shoreside explorations and hikes.
Incidentally, zodiacs are considered an essential part in the expedition kit and feature on just about EVERY expedition vessel. Kayaks are also popular onboard additions, and some of today’s luxury expedition vessels also have helicopters and submarines.

Expedition Cruising: Meet the Guests

Let’s talk a bit more about the guest demographic and expectation. The expedition target group consist of curious, highly educated, nature-focused, and adventurous individuals – of all ages. It is worth noting that whilst some companies adopt an adult only policy, others welcome families with children. Regardless of the age of the guests on board, the aim of expedition cruising is to offer a taste of exploration and adventure, along with an enhanced insight into the daily lives of the communities they visit. Authentic, sustainable experiences are highly sought after. As are itineraries that include off-the-beaten-path, so-called ‘trophy’ destinations. Hence the predominant focus on wildlife, culture, history, scenery, geology, and conservation.

Tips for a Destination – How to Become Expedition Ready

Don’t be put off by the ‘geologically remote destination emphasis’ and please don’t presume that just because mass tourism already exists in your destination, that you have nothing to offer this exciting sector of the cruise industry. That is not always the case. Instead, try and look at ways of highlighting the unique qualities that already exist there. Take a step back and look at your destination through ‘expedition eyes’. A local custom that is unique to your part of the world, perhaps. Is there a way to experience it in a more intimate and less touristic manner? A festival, tradition or event that has remained unchanged for centuries? Can a popular geological or historic site visit be arranged outside of normal operating hours? Are there people you know that might be willing to share their own personal experiences and memoires with guests? Teach a folk-dance step, share a recipe?

Remember, the more intimate and authentic the experience, the better. Something completely ordinary to your local community can still be interesting and generate value to expedition guests looking for a “day in the life”. Are there opportunities for guests to get involved with local crafts - like weaving, cooking, fishing? Let’s not forget we are not talking about high-volume tourism, the ships we are referring to are considered small and carry only a couple of hundred guests. Guests that are typically culturally sensitive, have an appetite to learn and who have respect for the people and the places they visit. Guests who are recognised as being open minded and are willing to step out of their comfort zones.

Another important thing to keep in mind is that quite often expedition ships don’t require a harbour or port at all. Not even a jetty. They are quite capable of bringing guests ashore via their zodiacs and conducting so-called wet landings. Sometimes it’s a quiet little cove with excellent hiking trails that will catch their eye. Or maybe it’s a wonderful snorkelling site that entails a zodiac cruise along a particularly beautiful part of the coastline. A waterfall cascading off the cliffs into the ocean.  Sea caves or peculiar geological formations that can be explored by kayak. Expedition cruising really is all about diving deeper into a destination and offering guests a unique peek into local life. However, it must be noted how very important it is that there be a level of consistency to the experiences you choose to offer.

The community must be willing to commit to delivering and be prepared accordingly.

Make Your Destination Stand Out but Be Transparent

When it comes to marketing, social media provides the perfect tool to get your destination out there in an extremely budget friendly manner! Not just that, but it’s also a great research tool too and is a really simple way to find out what people are looking for. Don’t forget to check and follow the tourism or expedition tags to spark ideas and see what really stands out to guests all over the world. Always be honest and transparent in your marketing (this applies to both the destination and the expedition cruise line) and set realistic expectations for guests. Understandably, communities might be a little resistant towards cruise ships and tourism post COVID, so lines must ensure that guests are aware and sensitive to this and that every precaution is taken when going ashore.

Guests should have the correct attire for whatever activities they may be doing. It is the destination’s job to convey this information to the line and ensure that they are prepared. And whilst wildlife sightings can never be guaranteed, they might well be seasonal dependant, so destinations must alert the cruise lines accordingly to avoid guest disappointment.

Make Sure Your Community is Ready

It is also important to involve your local community ahead of a cruise visit and provide them with port readiness training.

Points for discussion should always include managing expectation... What are they hoping to get out of tourism? Where do they want the guests to go? Where do they not want the guests to go? Create clear guidelines, on a community level and from a regulatory perspective to ensure operations are in line with legislation. Infrastructure, what is needed? What is not needed? What kind and size of vessel, what size can still deliver an authentic, sustainable experience?

It is also important to involve key stake holders early and prepare for influxes in sales while tourists are in the community – they should be encouraged to buy local but there must be availability. Think strategically and plan for future growth, there may well be a need for new landing sites in the future.

These are just a few of the things that local communities should consider when planning on welcoming expedition cruise lines to their shores. When preparing for an expedition call, preservation of culture is key and as a destination you can help lines by sharing information to help educate guests before they even disembark.

The Challenges and How We Overcome Them

Of course, no form of sustainable tourism comes without its challenges and the expedition cruise sector is no different - we have already discussed the huge capacity growth experienced during the last 10 years. This is mostly down to the expedition cruise sector’s growing popularity with guests, and its high profitability. It is therefore hardly any wonder that interest in the expedition sector has exploded and many conventional cruise lines are now also offering expedition experiences, so there is a very real danger of overcrowding an already culturally sensitive arena.

Regularity affairs also need to be considered, as do the implementations of sensible small boat regulations and adherence to ISPS. It is therefore highly recommended that destinations and local stake holders work with governing bodies such as AECO and IATTO.

These governing bodies, can, in turn, provide a vital support network, advise on infrastructure, and help ensure that proper protections are in place to keep your destination special.  Your wildlife, local culture, environment, and heritage sites need to be protected from exploitation and treated with the respect they deserve. Operating in a manner that is safe and sustainable is the very heart of successful expedition cruising and will ensure that it can continue into the future.