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'Small ships are where the magic happens': Ponant's Sam Chamberlain

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Sam Chamberlain sailed on Le Bellot in the Baltic. 'I was blown away,' he said
Sam Chamberlain's been on the go in his first three months as Ponant's CEO for the Americas, meeting with travel partners and his dispersed team, attending events and experiencing the product.

'Sam is a thoughtful guy who understands luxury and is learning how it all applies to cruises and cruise selling. I believe he will be very successful,' said Alex Sharpe, president & CEO, Signature Travel Network.

'Energetic 90 days'

'It's been a really energetic 90 days,' according to Chamberlain. 'I see nothing but opportunity ... Ponant is well situated with the fleet, the deployment, that French flair.' He marvels at the 460 itineraries that stretch from Japan to across Europe, Alaska to Antarctica, Indonesia to the Arctic.

As he put it: 'An experiential offering that goes everywhere' with one of cruising's 'newest, most relevant fleets.'

Chamberlain is just wrapping up a Canadian road show in Vancouver, BC with Le Soléal ship tours and an evening event for the trade and their clients. That followed a Toronto event where Le Commandant Charcot Capt. Etienne Garcia spoke about Ponant's unique icebreaker which will pioneer Canada's first winter cruises on the St. Lawrence in February 2025.

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Ponant's unique icebreaker, Le Commandant Charcot

Enthusiasm for that unprecedented deployment got Chamberlain a rousing bienvenue at the Canada/New England Cruise Symposium in New York last week.

Earlier he attended Ponant's annual international leadership meeting in Marseille that drew team members from around the globe including Deb Corbett, newly appointed CEO Asia Pacific. He was at the Virtuoso Symposium in Dubai in May and at Seatrade Cruise Global in Miami Beach in April.

'Where the magic happens'

And he sailed on Le Bellot in the Baltic. 'I was blown away. I'm very proud of our product. Small ships are where the magic happens,' Chamberlain said.

Highs for him aboard Le Bellot were the 'culinary excellence Ponant is known for' (the great Alain Ducasse, with a career 21 Michelin stars, is the line's culinary partner), the design aesthetic, the captain and crew, and the enrichment (his was a theme cruise with a French partner, Radio Classique, featuring virtuoso musical performances).

'We have a really distinct proposition with our French heritage, the innovative ships, our commitment to sustainabilty and the enrichment we offer,' Chamberlain said.

Sharpe concurred: 'Ponant certainly has its advantages — beautiful new ships and diverse deployment.' Like so many European-focused lines, they come to the US because of the strength of the cruise market, he said, 'but it is a delicate balance in terms of the onboard product.'

Awareness challenge

And Ponant, for all the awareness gained stateside in recent years, remains little known.

Sharpe believes Signature is still selling as much Ponant through third parties like Abercrombie & Kent and Tauck as directly because those tour operators’ brands and reputation are 'more well-known to our customers, plus the perceived comfort of traveling with a group of Americans on the French product.'

Chamberlain aims to continue buildiing awareness in the US and Canada, and access new markets in Latin America, a vast region that's 'almost untouched' for Ponant, with travelers of high net worth who are very adventurous and like to explore in groups and families. He expects one of his first strategic hires to be Latin America-based.

Another task is making sure Ponant is not viewed just as a French brand that has a few sailings for Americans — the entire portfolio is open to all travelers for all destinations.

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Sam Chamberlain has a record of building high performance sales teams

Luxury sales chops

Chamberlain's a good fit for the Ponant role because 'a lot of my background is travel agency sales, building high performance sales teams and great relationships with consortia, travel advisors and host agency owners.'

Most recently he was VP business development on the start-up team of Marc-Henry Cruise Holdings, joint owner and operator of Four Seasons Yachts. Before that he was in private aviation with Wheels Up.

He spent more than a decade in sales with Hilton and Waldorf Astoria that included postings in Bangkok, Ko Samui, Singapore and New York. A California San Fernando Valley native who earned a Harvard degree in economics, he began his career in Bali where he went to pursue his passion for hospitality.

Paul Gauguin integration

Chamberlain also oversees Paul Gauguin, the French Polynesia destination expert for almost 30 years. The plan is to 'protect and build on our positioning,' he said, with Le Jacques Cartier also heading there in 2026.

'Paul Gauguin is the destination expert, a laid back, luxury, resort-type experience, and Ponant's brand identity is exploring and expedition. These are two distinctive experiences that will cater to different kinds of travelers.'

However, there could be more collaboration with Ponant in marketing and sales, sharing knowledge, expertise and client relationships. 'Leveraging our collective thinking is an opportunity,' he said.

Chamberlain would iike to capitalize further on the Paul Gauguin leadership. For example, he sees Susan Robison, GM sales & marketing, taking a larger role in public relations and marketing in the Americas region for Ponant.

And the Ponant and Paul Gauguin call centers are now combined, making a 'great team.'

Spirit of Ponant and Paspaley Pearl by Ponant

Starting this summer, a new fleet addition, the six-cabin catamaran Spirit of Ponant, is due to begin cruising to Corsica. The Seychelles are in the charts for winter 2024/25.

And Chamberlain is 'super-excited' about Paspaley Pearl coming on in January. This 15-cabin boutique motor yacht (formerly Island Escape) first will undergo an upgrade in Singapore, adding four luxury tenders for naturalist-led explorations. Paspaley Pearl will operate in the Kimberley, a region that's 'very hot right now' for Americans, along with Papua New Guinea and the Indonesian archipelago.

'Ciienteling' competency

Though Chamberlain's concluding his whirlwind onboarding travels that have strengthened ties with customers, he's committed to building a 'clienteling' competency that parent company the Artemis Group's luxury brands 'do very well.'

During his interactions with travel partners and their clients, he's heard how many are surprised by the breadth of experiences Ponant offers. It's still 'a secret in the Americas ... We've been doing a great job with the internationalization of Ponant, having the right amount of French flair, that would welcome all guests from all markets. But not all have heard about Ponant, and it excites them that this exists ... a differentiated product with explorer DNA and luxury service.'

Look for Chamberlain to make some promotion and hiring news in the near future.