Cruise Line Chairman Talks Unprecedented Expansion Plans

December 11, 2012

(1:40 p.m. EST) -- When is ordering 24 new ships, with an option for eight more within three years not a gamble? When you're talking about river ships and the demand is far-outpacing the supply, Torstein Hagen, chairman of Viking River Cruises, told Cruise Critic.

In fact, despite having just increased its ship order by 10 (two for delivery in 2013 and eight for delivery in 2014), Hagen said the river cruise company is barely keeping up with the demand. "There may not be enough [capacity] to meet the demand we have [for 2013]…We're having such phenomenal success that we took options for eight vessels in 2015. We're making sure that we have the capacity that we need."

Viking embarked on its ambitious expansion in 2012 when it launched an unprecedented six new Viking Longships. Next year, the line will launch 10 and in 2014, eight more.

"It's our consumer that is driving this increase," Richard Marnell, the line's senior vice president of marketing said. "We are practically sold out for 2013 with the exception of next year's Christmas Markets."

There is plenty of room on Europe's rivers to satisfy the demand for more river cruises as well, Hagen said. "If everybody left on a Saturday it might be a problem, but we are able to space out our days of departure, not just weekend departures, but some Wednesday departures and so forth."

The fact that Viking owns 65 docking spots along European rivers also helps. While the other lines have to share a limited number of ports, Viking does not, though Hagen was quick to point out that any scenario in which too many ships share too few ports is still far away. "It's not an issue," he said.

The 10 ships on order will be practically identical to the six delivered in this year, Hagen said. "We're making some tweaks, like moving a wine rack in the restaurant to make more space." But all ships will have the same numbers and types of cabins and public spaces.

Eventually, Hagen added, Viking's entire European fleet will be in the Longship style, with the exception of in Russia, where the design of the ships needs to be different.

Viking will inaugurate the first eight Longships of 2013 in a simultaneous christening ceremony in late March in Amsterdam.

Branching Out

While the unprecedented river ship expansion might sound like a safe bet, Hagen's second expansion– into the ocean cruise milieu – seems marginally more shaky, especially now that he has ordered two more ocean-going vessels.

According to Italy's Fincantieri, and confirmed by Hagen, Viking Ocean Cruises has ordered two more ships even though the first two ships are not even due for delivery until March 2015 and March 2016, respectively. The third and fourth ships are scheduled for delivery in 2017.

The first two ships are in the design stages, and Hagen said he expects the first steel cutting to take place in the next year.

Both ships will be deployed in the Mediterranean and Baltic, will be about 48,000-gross-tons, and will have a capacity of 888 passengers.

Most importantly, Hagan said, the two ships will be the antithesis of what big ship ocean cruising has become.

"Ocean cruising has become a drinking man's cruise, and river cruising is a thinking man's cruise. That's what we're trying to offer on our ocean ships…Our customers are so tired of being on big ships, of queuing up for everything, to get into bars, into tenders and the elevators and the buses.

"If a cruise line really wants to have people use their ship as a sightseeing tour, you have to be able to get off the boat in a moment, and you cannot do that on a boat with more than a 1,000 people. You have to be less than 1,000 passengers…so I believe we have really hit the sweet spot for destination cruising."

--by Dori Saltzman, News Editor