Hurtigruten Group has long been recognized as a leader in expedition cruises with sailings dating back to 1893 on its Norwegian coastal express voyages and then to Svalbard in 1896. More than a century’s worth of experience has well-positioned it for its strong growth trajectory as cruise lines navigate their way out of the Covid-19 pandemic’s disruption on business.
Daniel Skjeldam, CEO of Hurtigruten Group, talks about why now is the right time to expand its portfolio of destinations and ships. He also shares the organization’s deep focus on more sustainable and diverse operations and what is in store for the growing brand.
Hurtigruten has been on a fast trajectory to grow the company’s network of destinations, why now?
After joining the company in the fall of 2012, I realized this company had such a history in expedition cruising. It was like a diamond in the rough, but with a lot of dust on it. The company had been loss-making for 25 years, but is now on a mission to change that.
Today’s traveler is ready to seize the day after staying home for so long. They are looking to take more adventurous sailings to bucket-list destinations. Expedition cruises attract people that might never step foot on a larger cruise ship. These are people that usually go on safari in Africa or cultural treks in Europe. We are seeing a trend with people wanting more immersive experiences and adding pre or post-trips on land to really understand a destination. That’s why now is the time to grow.
What is next for Hurtigruten?
Hurtigruten began by expanding around the poles as we grew in Antarctica, Greenland and the Northwest Passage. We have always wanted to bring the company to warmer waters, and to do that we began by looking at potential partners to help us in different regions. In the Galapagos Islands, we began sailing this year and have plans to significantly grow our footprint there next year with four ships.
We are able to do that efficiently thanks to a new partnership with Metropolitan Touring, which is known as the pioneer of expedition cruising in the Ecuadorian archipelago.
As a tour operator, its alignment with our expedition heritage and sustainability values is so close making it a fantastic match. We have taken a 24.9% share for partial ownership in Metropolitan Touring and now are using their 90-passenger MS Santa Cruz II on sailings in the Galapagos. It has 50 rooms and suites including single cabins. Notable upgrades include Nordic design and new vegan and vegetarian menus using local recipes.
Where else do you plan to grow?
Hurtigruten already has several exciting itineraries like circumnavigating Iceland, Antarctica and the Falkland Islands, the Canary Islands and two or three-month, pole-to-pole itineraries that have quickly sold out. The company has more than 250 destinations in more than 30 countries at the moment.
This year, we begin sailing in West Africa to Cape Verde and the Bissagos Islands. Expansion in Asia-Pacific destinations is also on our radar. There are a lot of possibilities. Other companies are growing too, and the more Hurtigruten can build awareness of expedition cruising, the larger the overall market will be.
Sailings to Alaska and the Aleutian Islands are coming this year, which is something we had to postpone from 2020. Hurtigruten wants to expand to more iconic, natural destinations that are popular with adventure travelers. Thanks to partnerships like Metropolitan Touring, we can more easily enter new markets.
Will you continue to operate the Norwegian coastal sailings for which you’re known?
Yes, and we may also add more ships there, too. During the pandemic, Hurtigruten split the coastal express into a separate company like the Svalbard operation. The third arm of the overall brand is Hurtigruten Expeditions, which dates back to 1896 and today is led by CEO Asta Lassesen. She was the youngest female CFO in the world of cruising before becoming CEO. Dividing the company into three sectors enables faster and more sustainable growth. Previously we had two full-time expedition ships and used a third on certain sailings during the year. Now, we have eight.
Hurtigruten recently took delivery of MS Fridtjof Nansen, which will begin sailing full-time this summer along the coast, and the MS Spitsbergen became a fully-fledged, battery-hybrid powered expedition ship.
What makes Hurtigruten different from other expedition cruise companies?
Hurtigruten was the first to have a science center on board. Not only does this allow guests to learn and experience the places they are sailing to, but it also allows research institutions to gather data during our sailings. Citizen science programs are a major part of the experience, and guests love being able to contribute to larger projects in places like Antarctica.
The company was also the first to have a chief scientist on staff. Dr. Verena Meraldi is responsible for collaborating with scientists and researchers on board Hurtigruten ships. She also works to create new experiences where guests can participate in the research.
What is the most popular destinations for Americans?
People have been dreaming about bucket-list travel for two years now and are ready to splurge a bit on big trips. Americans are the third biggest market after Germany and the United Kingdom, and there is tremendous growth potential there.
Galapagos, for example, is huge and that’s why we started and immediately doubled the operation to operate year-round starting next year. Metropolitan Touring has been key for that opportunity. They helped us expand quickly with their solid expertise and reputation as a tour company.
This year, Hurtigruten will operate an “eastern loop” itinerary in the Galapagos, but starting next year, there will be both “eastern” and “northern loop” sailings that can be combined into an 11-day sailing. A “western loop” sailing will also be on offer.
With operations all over South American, Metropolitan Touring is a leader in the market. They have tours across the continent including to places like Machu Picchu and Lake Titicaca. The company also owns well-known hotels like the celebrated and historic Casa Gangotena in Quito and Mashpi Lodge in the Ecuadorian jungle, and these can be paired with a sailing.
How do land-based tours factor into Hurtigruten’s expansion?
Demand for pre- and post trips has been strong, especially as we come out of the pandemic. It’s not only land tours in conjunction with a sailing. Hurtigruten also offers land-only trips in places like Svalbard for those that may not want to cruise. In fact, in Svalbard, 65% of that business is independent travel that doesn’t involve a ship.
Metropolitan Touring is so big in South America, the possibilities to grow that land-based tourism segment are endless. People are moving away from traveling in large groups, and they want smaller ships or independent opportunities to visit less crowded, off-the-beaten-path places. It’s not about lounging on a chair in the sun. Today’s expedition traveler wants content and experiences, and that is a market where there is high growth potential. Metropolitan Touring’s credibility pairs perfectly with Hurtigruten in that regard.
For example, guests on the Galapagos sailings can add on visits to the Ecuadorian Chocó, Andes Mountains or Amazon region. They can also visit Lima or the Inca ruins in southern Peru or the coffee farms of Colombia, which strengthens the overall offering.
How does Hurtigruten plan to boost sustainability efforts?
For starters, the company does not use heavy fuel oil. Instead, we use the more expensive marine gas oil, which is the cleanest fossil fuel that can be used to power a ship and is much better for the environment. Hurtigruten built the world’s first battery operated hybrid ship, the MS Roald Amundsen, which cuts emissions significantly. It was followed by sister-ship MS Fridtjof Nansen and the recently upgraded MS Otto Sverdrup.
In addition, the company uses food waste to produce bio diesel that fuels both the expedition and coastal Norway ships, and many have battery packs.
We are in the process of retrofitting our older ships with six of the seven Norwegian coastal ships being updated now featuring new battery packs and compulsion systems. These cut CO2 emissions by 25% and brings carbon dioxide emission down by more than 80%.
Metropolitan Touring has its own sustainability focus including offsetting carbon emissions and acquiring and managing endangered, biodiverse forests.
By 2030, Norwegian Coastal Express will have its first emission-free ship sailing along the Norwegian coast.
Is it true that you have led some tours yourself?
Yes! I regularly join different Hurtigruten sailings to help the team and learn from our customers. Sometimes, I serve as a guide in places like Antarctica and have a certificate to drive the tender boats. It’s a great way to learn more about what our customers and employees want and need.
Some cruise lines are dropping mask mandates. What about Hurtigruten?
The company follows local regulations in each market so if that destination requires masks, then they are needed on board. If not, then no. It’s a mix of international and local laws depending on the point of departure and where the ship is going.
We believe masks will be gone by early spring or summer as more countries drop those requirements. With PCR testing equipment on board, our ships in Antarctica test daily for the first five days of the sailing, which helped to keep the numbers down significantly. Covid is here to stay. We have to learn to live with it, but a softening of international regulations will make it easier.