Travelling to the polar regions on a expedition cruise probably tops a lot of holidaymakers’ bucket lists – after all, who could resist seeing polar bears in the Arctic or exploring the vast wilderness and unique wildlife of the White Continent, Antarctica?
Latin Routes co-director Martin Johnson is clearly a fan of the globe’s extreme regions: “It’s difficult to describe how incredible these experiences are,” he says.
“These regions have such amazing wildlife and wilderness. I worked in cruise before we started [sister brand] Latin Routes and expedition cruising is a real passion of mine.”
This enthusiasm is part of the reason for a major relaunch of the Polar Routes brand this week with a new enhanced website and a vastly increased range of destinations.
Greenland, Iceland, Russia’s Far East, the Northwest Passage, the Falklands and South Georgia have all been added to bedrock destinations such as the Arctic, Antarctic and Norway.
While Polar Routes has been around for a couple of years, the relaunch is a serious statement of intent to go after the expanding expedition cruise market.
“We originally launched Polar Routes in response to selling Antarctica cruises through Latin Routes,” says Johnson. “Clients were coming back from these trips and asking us if we sold any Arctic expedition cruises as well.
“We decided we needed a separate brand in response to these requests from both clients and agents. For the last couple of years, we’ve been ticking along quite nicely with Polar Routes but it’s not been our main focus of attention, so the growth has been organic.”
“Now seems like the right time to relaunch Polar Routes because the expedition cruising market has the potential to expand rapidly over the next few years”
Martin Johnson, Latin Routes
That’s all about to change though with Johnson heading up a dedicated team for the relaunched Polar Routes.
He will also lead the development of the operator’s trade sales, with independent agents set to play a crucial part in this growth.
“There’s a huge opportunity in expedition cruising for the trade,” explains Johnson. “We’re creating a one-stop shop for agents – we can use our expertise to compare all of the operators and cruise options to find the perfect fit for their clients.”
Polar Routes is expanding its portfolio to include more than 20 cruise operators including the likes of Aurora Expeditions, Quark Expeditions, Silversea and Hurtigruten, alongside less well-known brands such as Oceanwide Expeditions and One Ocean.
Johnson says Polar Routes will be increasing its profile by taking part in a series of four expedition cruise roadshows, alongside G Adventures, Silversea and Hurtigruten around the UK and Ireland later this autumn. The operator is also keen to explore joint marketing opportunities with agents.
“A lot of clients book all their holidays with their travel agent but don’t know the agent can book expedition cruises as well,” he adds. “There’s a lot of detailed knowledge required because there are so many different operators and ships.”
Johnson emphasises how important the choice of ship and type of itinerary can be on trips to the polar regions – for example, the size of ship directly affects how often passengers can get off the ship to explore Antarctica.
“If you go on a huge cruise ship to Antarctica, you can’t even get off the ship if it’s more than 500 people,” he explains. “All the ships with less than 500 passengers have Zodiacs, so landings are part of the cruise.
“With the ships closer to 500 passengers, they only have one landing a day. But then you can get ships for just 80 people with two or three landings per day. When a ship is under 100 passengers, the whole ship can get off at the same time.”
But there is also a trade-off between the smaller – and often more basic – ships where extra excursions are on offer and the larger more luxurious vessels.
“Some of these small ships are former Russian research ships or icebreakers that have bunk beds and just a dining room and bar,” adds Johnson. “They can be very basic and all the time is spent on landings. The larger ships are more comfortable and you still make some landings. It depends what your client wants.”
As a premium product, these cruises can be a real moneyspinner for agents – Johnson estimates the starting price for a one-week Arctic trip is between £3,000 and £4,000pp, including flights, while a 12-day Antarctic itinerary starts from £6,000 to £7,000pp with flights.
“The Arctic is cheaper because it’s easier to get to, with flights to Norway of around four hours. The Arctic is around two-thirds the cost of an Antarctic cruise,” adds Johnson.
“The Arctic is a great one to begin with – a lot of clients start by going there. It’s a lower price and you get to see great wildlife like polar bears. Then, once they have the confidence, clients often decide go to Antarctica.
“We try to make the prices as competitive as possible but we find that a lot of clients will upgrade anyway to a higher cabin or change the ship to something more luxurious.”
“We’re creating a one-stop shop for agents – we can use our expertise to compare all of the operators and cruise options”
Martin Johnson, Latin Routes
These prices could be about to come down as more expedition vessels are launched into the market over the next few years.
“Now seems like the right time to relaunch Polar Routes because the expedition cruising market has the potential to expand rapidly over the next few years with about 20 new ships coming into the market between now and 2022,” says Johnson.
“It’s quite a premium product but the value is getting better and better as the market develops.”
Polar Routes is also keen to make sure it sells cruises in a “responsible way”, with a commitment to raise funds for the Marine Conservation Society. “By booking with us, agents will be helping the vital work that goes into the protection of our oceans,” adds Johnson.
“We will be making an annual donation to the society and there will be optional donations for clients. There will also be other fundraising plans to support the work they do to protect the oceans.”
This move has been welcomed by the Marine Conservation Society’s Sanjay Mitra, who adds: “We believe it’s important to protect the places we visit, and we’re pleased Polar Routes chooses its expedition partners carefully and responsibly.”
Doing things the right way is clearly an important part of Polar Routes’ ethos and this extends into service standards – even though the new website has the capability to take online bookings, Johnson is not sure they will use it.
“We’re keen to have a conversation to make sure what’s being booked is the right fit for the client,” he adds.
“We don’t want them to book a ship or itinerary that’s not suitable for their clients. We will get feedback before we decide to make the website bookable.”