While traveling aboard Viking Ocean Cruises’ new Viking Sea along the line’s equally new itinerary – Into the Midnight Sun – I had the privilege to exclusively interview the company’s founder and chairman, Torstein Hagen, and senior vice president, Karine Hagen – also father and daughter, respectively.
In fact, today the line is celebrating the five inaugural Norwegian calls that were made during our trip to Tromsø, Honningsvåg, Bodø, Brønnøysund and Ålesund. Speaking at a Viking Explorer Society cocktail party, Hagen said, “Sir Richard Branson says space is Virgin territory. I say Scandinavia is Viking territory. No other cruise line can show you this part of the world like Viking can. I have known for years that there is nothing better than Norway in the summer, and I am happy to now be able to share the beauty of my native Norway with you, our Viking guests.” You can also witness the Norwegian experience we personally enjoyed alongside the chairman in video here.
Royal Viking Line to Viking Ocean Cruises
When I privately discussed with the Hagens just what it took for Viking to get to where it is today, Norway and beyond, Torstein recalls how he has come full circle from operating Royal Viking Line back in the day and now the Viking River Cruises and Viking Ocean Cruises brands currently, saying, “It wasn’t quite meant like that, but it turned out like that. We’re now 19 years into the cruising business … Time does fly. I must say it’s been quite a pleasure to be able to have this.”
Describing his time at Royal Viking Line in more detail, he added, “The background was I was boss, CEO of one of the two ownership companies, and I pushed for the lengthening of the ships in 1979 because they were too small and they had 525 passengers. And it was very hard to make money on that because it meant that you had to have such high prices, and you see that with some of the so-called luxury ships today. When they have that small size they have to have astronomical prices, and nobody likes to pay astronomical prices.
“So we then moved from 525 to 740 passengers and then had three ships after each other … it sounds like small additions at the pace we are now going. But then came the oil crisis in ’79. ’80, ’81, ’82 were bad years – low load factors – so it took a time to make them really profitable, but at least I’d been able to make them really fairly profitable at the time. And of course it would’ve been a great base, and ironically out from Royal Viking Line came Crystal, Seabourn … So lots of things have come out of Royal Viking Line.”
Fast forward to today, and Torstein said, “I really didn’t have any intention of getting back into the ocean cruise business, but then we saw what strong position we have in the U.S. market on the rivers and what brand recognition we have. I thought it was a logical thing to do, and in 2012 no cruise line had the guts to order more ships. And we struck and got a good deal at Fincantieri, and here we are.” Karine also added, “Oceans was somewhat in response to requests by guest as well who wanted to go to destinations that we couldn’t bring them by river: Rome, Bergen.”
Viking Ocean Cruises’ Market Position
On the sea, Viking is really crafting a new cruising category, and Torstein concurred saying, “One tends to classify the ocean cruise market in contemporary, premium, upscale and luxury. I think there’s another dimension to it which is destination-oriented, and I think we are destination-oriented. Many of the big guys say, ‘Don’t worry. The ship is a destination.’ I think that’s the case if you’re on the mega-ships. You have no other choice. And that’s why when we designed this ship, we had to strike a balance between size small or size big. Size means economics for the company, and it means price to the customer. And certainly the big guys, big ships, can offer a low price, but it’s not a good experience.
“So, we found that being less than a thousand people, passengers, was a good spot to be. It also has something to do with the ambiance because when you talk to the guests who are onboard here now and you ask how is it compared to your river cruising experience, first of all they say it’s different in some regards and then they say what are the benefits. Of course, here there are more things to do, more comfortable maybe, but then they say, of course, on the river ship there are 200 people, or 190, and you get to know the other people more quickly. But at least we are very focused on what we’re doing.”
And just was is the demographic Viking targets? Torstein explained, “I think we like to pride ourselves in knowing well who the customers are. It’s the 55-year-old-plus English-speaking couples who are curious people that have an interest in history, geography, culture. They’ve worked hard. They have a reasonable amount of money. They are not necessarily extremely well off, but they know what they want. And it think I know these people. They’ve worked hard. They now have a chance to get to see the places they’ve only ever read about or dreamt about because I think many of the guests we have here are quite normal people. Many have been school teachers, college professors; they continue to stimulate their curious minds.”
Drilling down even farther to pinpoint Viking’s market position, Torstein added, “So, where are we clearly different? We are a new ship of a size that very few other people have.” He cited Oceania Cruises as a competitor that has tested various ship capacities and believes Viking is at the right size.
But specific omissions onboard Viking are also crucial to the experience. “And then I think it’s the things we are not,” Torstein explained. “We have no other cabins than with balconies, but the main thing [I] started my comments about ‘no’s with [were] the casinos. One thing that strikes you about a Viking ocean ship is I think how quiet and peaceful it is: no art auct
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