UP CLOSE WITH HISTORY
At a London christening ceremony, new Viking Sea officially entered a growing fleet of ships being built by Viking Ocean Cruises. Promising to reinvent ocean cruising just a few short years ago, Viking has done just that and more. It’s the seemingly ambiguous “more” part I want to talk about today and I’ll get to that rather quickly. The Viking Sea Christening event, you see, serves very nicely to illuminate exactly what I am referring to.
Regular readers here know it was just a few weeks ago that Whitney and I sailed Viking Sea’s maiden voyage; the first revenue sailing with paying passengers on board. On Viking’s Empires of the Mediterranean itinerary, we began in Istanbul and ended in Venice ten days later. It was the reverse of a sailing Lisa and I had done last year on sister ship Viking Star, so I was quite familiar with how the experience was likely to play out. Different on the recent sailing, I gave Whitney a free hand to choose: included tour du jour or some alternative from the short list of optional experiences. Doing some of both produced one of the best destination-focused travel experiences ever, one with real meaning to us both.
A highlight of that sailing was an optional home visit tour in Santorini. That brought our new friend Nitsa and a glorious afternoon of destination focused delight unmatched by any other cruise travel experience. Nitsa’s hospitality that day was matched only by the friendship that followed. Back home, via Facebook, she helped us recreate one of the Greek recipes she shared with us that day, extending that experience past a tour and back into our real life.
Another highlight came on Viking Sea herself as we enjoyed a seriously motivated crew, many of whom I had sailed with before on sister ship Viking Star. It was a brilliant move on the part of Viking, staffing the new ship with a 50/50 mix of experienced along with well-sourced new crew members. Perhaps because Disney manager Whitney was along with me (and works at a magical place where storytelling has ultra high value), I thought “good casting”. I found that new crew may have been “new” to Viking but far from new to the world of hospitality. It was right about there I suppose that the secret door to what really makes Viking tick was cracked open a bit in my mind. Slipping through that opening came a brilliant burst of positive energy like sunlight into a room otherwise veiled in darkness.
Fast forward to this short sailing with Viking for the christening of Viking Sea. Like other cruise lines rolling out new ships, Viking invites press along to get a taste of what they do in a very short amount of time. These are usually whirlwind trips that include a sampling of onboard features, dining, shore excursions and more over the course of a few days. There had been a few sailings like this before I boarded, with good reports of the experience weaving their way through newspapers, magazines, travel blogs and broadcast media. Nothing unexpected there. They work hard to produce those results and deserve their story to be told. This sailing I am on though included the christening of the ship in London; something that happens just once.
Appropriately, the christening event is preceded by a press conference, where key people in the Viking organization sum up where the company came from, is at right now and will be going in the future. Viking Ocean Cruises was created to ‘reinvent ocean cruising’. Viking’s inspirational leader Torstein Hagen proposed that the cruise industry had lost its way over the years. More focused on making a buck by luring in travelers with ultra low fares that could not possibly support a quality operation, the focus shifted in a ‘be careful what you ask for, you might just get it” sort of way.
One by one, elements of cruise travel that were included in the experience disappeared or now carried a fee. Others were invented and presented as new options, for a price that was supposed to make sense to those for whom the new element resonated. Alternative dining venues with a cover charge come to mind as one of many examples.
Cruise lines with ships of all sizes offering experiences ranging from fun to luxury became slaves to low prices and something had to give. Rather than a carefully choreographed cruise-line-designed experience that would enable travelers to get the most out of their time on a cruise, those travelers were put in the drivers seat.
Basically, cruise lines gave up.
When they did, when they relinquished control of the experience to the traveler, much of the magic of cruise travel went with it. The lifetime quality experiences so common, the part that was such an important effect of cruise travel faded away. That move totally opened the door for Viking to swoop in and take all the candy; something that is happening right now.
In Viking Sea: The Other Guys Should Have Seen This Coming, I started exploring that topic but did not quite nail the thought. At that press conference before the christening of Viking Sea, what really makes Viking tick, their secret shared by no other cruise organization, became apparent. A colorful brochure highlighting Vikings effort to Reinvent Ocean Cruising ended with a small section which was presented to answer “How Do We Do It?”
Crediting their ability to operate efficiently, not wasting space and leveraging their already in place river cruising organization provided part of the answer. What was not listed there is the ‘people’ element of it all, what is clearly Viking’s distinct advantage in the marketplace. This people element is something we refer to here along with paying attention to detail as key factors found in quality operations.
This is more than that.
Yes, this is the Viking organization sourcing the best people, motivating them to be their own best and challenging them to do better than that best. Stop right there and it would be a win for any other organization. But this is also the Viking organization clearly defining and sourcing their target passenger then carefully choreographing the experience to elicit the best possible experience, a process that never ever ends.
Viking places cruise travelers in positions to learn, expand, focus and enjoy travel as they may never have done before and may never do again; unless they sail with Viking again.
When Whitney and I returned from our Viking Sea sailing a few weeks ago, I thought I was coming down with a cold. I just did not feel right and either did Whitney. The cold never came but a feeling of apprehension like you’re about to get sick continued. It wasn’t until about three days back that I realized it was the age old malady of ‘post-cruise depression’, something not talked about nearly enough these days that was quite common after sailing a decade ago.
We missed our friends on Viking Sea, both crew, and passengers alike. I have not felt that way in years and had forgotten all about post-cruise depression. We had made an undeniable personal connection both on and off the ship. That was not by accident but due to the Viking way of doing business that opens doors other cruise lines don’t even see.
At the christening event, the ship’s Godmother Karine Hagen, daughter of Torstein Hagen and Viking senior vice president paid homage to the company’s Norwegian heritage. Instead of champagne for the traditional bottle-breaking, Viking Sea was christened with a bottle of Gammel Opland aquavit, which comes from the same town in Norway where Mr. Hagen’s mother and Karine’s grandmother was born.
One of the nicest people you could meet, Karine thanked all who worked on making ‘her’ ship possible ending the long list with thanks to the crew and passengers who sail with Viking. This was not a practiced speech read from note cards or following a script but straight from the heart. It’s a great big beautiful heart shared by every member of the Viking organization and a sincerely solid reason to choose a Viking cruise above all others.
It took the above-detailed sequence of events to come to that conclusion. It’s a thought that has kept me awake a night trying to think of how to explain it in a way that makes sense. For those who have sailed with Viking, you probably know exactly what I am talking about, of that I am quite sure. There are a number of other lines headed in this direction against seemingly insurmountable odds. I hope they make it but worry that they won’t.