"This is really an industry within an industry, a niche in its infancy," said Andrea Zito, CEO of Swan Hellenic, during the "Expedition CEO Panel" Wednesday at Seatrade Cruise Global.
When it began, companies were transforming trawlers, research vessels and ice breakers to take on places like the Arctic and Antarctica, and it attracted a hearty clientele.
"The passengers in the beginning were very adventurous because the conditions were I would say rough but the whole purpose was really adventure," he said. "With the new vessels, it's opening up to much vaster clientele and demographic."
Now ships of varying sizes are targeting more people than ever before.
"It's also bringing what I call ‘sofa expeditioneers,’ who have been watching the Discovery Channel or Nat Geo and never thought it was accessible to them," said James Rodriguez, president and CEO of Atlas Ocean Voyages.
He said increased competition in the expedition cruise space has resulted in a diversification in the industry
"You have different products out there that have built for different audiences, and some of the guests who did not think they could do an expedition or were not interested in it, they now have offerings that will allow them to do it," he said.
Relatively new to the industry is Aqua Expeditions, now running five ships, the largest of which can host 40 guests in 20 cabins.
Pandemic drives bucket list trips
CEO and Founder Francesco Galli Zugaro said one of the trends he's seen was driven by the COVID pandemic.
"These bucket list trips are definitely moving up quite a few notches. People are not holding back," he said. "People are bringing their families. They're getting younger. Our average age was 55 and up, and now it's down to 45 and up."
His vessels don't target the poles, but offer curated experiences in places like the Galápagos, Amazon and eastern Indonesia.
"First I scout the destination myself. I even design, build and personally supervise construction of our ships, so these are passion projects of mine," he said. "These are the guests that are wanting the wildlife nature expedition, but without sacrificing the creature comforts of all our ships no matter the size. We're obviously catering to the most discerning, demanding clientele."
Some of that means more connectivity including the use of SpaceX's Starlink internet on the Atlas trips.
"I was on an expedition with four couples who were 'working from home,' from on board our ship in Antarctica," Rodriguez said. He also said the technological advances and commitment to sustainability on the ships has tapped into those who want keep an environmental thread in their travels.
"It attracts those guests who I would call mission travelers," he said. "Those various technologies have really opened the gates to guests who maybe did not want to take a cruise in the past but now want to."
All three CEOs project growth in the future for their models, but intend to remain responsible to the places they visit.
"Expeditions are journeys with a purpose," Rodriguez said.