13 questions with … Daniel Skjeldam, CEO of Hurtigruten

We talk strategy, all-inclusive pricing, helicopters, submarines, tuxedos and more

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Last week LATTE sat down with the Chief Executive Officer of Hurtigruten, Daniel Skjeldam, to hear about the company’s growth aspiration in the Australian market, and learn why more and more Australians are choosing the Norwegian company to explore polar regions.

Hurtigruten is the largest expedition cruise operator in Antarctica, by a significant margin, and likewise in the Arctic.

The company’s bold ambition to expand in this region last week saw the announcement that Hurtigruten would establish a larger presence here, with a sales, marketing and operations team to be created, which follows the recent launch of the .com.au website, to provide Australian travellers with greater transparency and live availability.

 

How important is the Australian market for Hurtigruten?

Australia for us now is more and more important. I would say we have a great fit with the Australian audience and our ambition here is to at least quadruple our sales.

What destinations are Aussies travelling to most with Hurtigruten?

At the moment it is Norway, Antarctica, Alaska with a growing focus in Svalbard that is [on] both land and sailings.

What percentage of bookings for Hurtigruten is coming out of Australia?

Australia is now the largest market we have in Asia Pacific. China is growing significantly, but Australia is still larger and we have the ambition to really increase our presence in Australia going forward.

Where does Hurtigruten position itself in the market? Are you five-star luxury?

We are not positioning ourselves in the luxury market as such, but both the ships and product offering are both definitely in that area. We don’t want to have the butler service or more burdensome service level, that is not our positioning. Hurtigruten offers a relaxed atmosphere. We don’t demand people to bring their tuxedos on expedition trips like others.

Expedition Suite rendering | MS Roald Amundsen

What makes your product unique from other expedition cruise lines?

Hurtigruten provides an intellectual cruise experience. It is an experience for people who like to travel a lot. It’s not typically a first-time traveller who joins one of our journeys. It’s people who would either say that they would never go on a cruise or people who have been on many cruises and want something special.

Both these market segments are on the rise and we see that we can capture a lot of the demand that is in the market already but don’t have that product to go on, with expedition teams, and interesting places, with lectures, activity base, that comfort of the ship.

I think you’ll see the comfort of the new ships is at the same or at a higher level than a lot of luxury operators. Because the compartments (staterooms) would be the same size typically, and the public areas are much larger than what you see on the small luxury expedition boats. It feels spacious, it’s large, there’s a lot of space around it, there’s space to do your own thing when the ship is not doing a landing.

Restaurant Fredheim rendering | MS Roald Amundsen and MS Fridtjof Nansen

What makes Hurtigruten’s education and lecturing so different from other cruise lines?

Most companies just have contractors. We’ve had permanent employees as our expedition leaders for years because we think they are so important for the product. Having a contractor that one week sails with Quark, another week sails with Ponant, and a third week sails with someone else … it’s not the kind of product experience we want to give guests.

We have a wide base of true experts in their fields that are associated with us to go to different places. Experts that people are dying to be with in a tender boat for a few hours.

Is Hurtigruten an all-inclusive cruise product?

Historically we haven’t been all-inclusive, whereas our near plan will see that change. We will be all-inclusive for 2020/21. It’s on sale now. That also includes an activity in all the places that we do landings and port calls. Guests have to pay extra if they want to do something special. Wine and beer will be included and we offer a very, very high food offering on board our ships.

How long has Hurtigruten been in operation in the poles?

We have been in Arctic waters for over 125 years and Antarctica for 25 years. The learning between the poles is important for what we do. What we learn from the Arctic helps us deliver an even better product in Antarctica, and also vice versa. So having so much experience in the polar areas, no-one is close to us. No-one has as much polar experience.

For travel advisors and partners, the fact that Hurtigruten has experience in polar waters for over 100 years is reassurance for them when they are talking with clients. They are really taking a bet if they choose someone who does not have that experience. I also think that a lot of operators coming into this market who have zero experience on this is going to find Antarctica tougher than they expected. This is not a landing in a river in Europe. It’s very, very far from it.

Hurtigruten is a safe bet for advisors. Antarctica is probably the area of the world where we have the most experience.

The Arctic and Antarctica are very, very different destinations from the rest of the world. In Antarctica, there are no native settlements. It’s a very uncharted area. If I was a travel agent I would never send a client on a cruise line who has zero experience in Antarctica.

What’s your opinion on helicopters in polar regions?

We’ve made some very conscious decisions on a wide range of other things. We don’t want to have helicopters. It’s an environmental issue and it’s also an issue for the other guests because a large part of the beauty of the experience is to stand on the ship and see the majesty of Antarctica. If a bloody helicopter comes in and destroys the tranquillity and solitude, as a guest, I would be furious. I don’t understand what operators with helicopters are thinking.

Have you witnessed helicopters first-hand in Antarctica?

Yes, and it is a disturbing experience. Operators who are bringing helicopters down to this area have no clue about what they are doing, and their guests shouldn’t go on them. I wouldn’t cruise with an operator that offers helicopter tours. They create constant noise, coming and going, as the helicopters can only take up a handful of people at a time. Hurtigruten does everything it can to make this a silent experience. And it’s not limited to the air.

I see the shore landings of some of our competitors and they have staff in tuxedos standing in boats playing a cello and a butler handing them champagne as they step foot on the ground of a tender.

Who the hell wants to have that kind of experience in this kind of waters? You are just telling the world “I shouldn’t really be here”, whereas our experience is based around people who have a real interest here, and this is luxury for a lot of people. To have that experience in a real authentic way is a new luxury.

I believe a lot of people will choose us from the luxury segment because of the way we operate sustainably. The way we give this immersive, authentic, unique experience, but still provide a high level of comfort, but without all the bells and whistles.

How do you feel about submarines in polar regions?

The submarine is not a disturbing experience. I have more acceptance for the use of submarines than I have for helicopters because the submarine doesn’t intrude on other people’s experience. A helicopter is a massive intrusion, it scares the animal life, it is not good.

Are customers coming over to Hurtigruten from other cruise lines?

Yes. We see people are coming down from the luxury segment and the feedback we are getting is fantastic. They are complimenting us on our food and beverage, saying “this is the best food we’ve had”. They are drawn to us because of the storytelling, the history that we can offer, and they really, really like our product.

How do travel advisors book Hurtigruten cruises?

We have Preferred Sales Agreements with Bentours, Chimu Adventures and 50 Degrees North. With the launch of the .com.au website, travel advisors anywhere in the country can check availability and pricing themselves.

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