InFocus: Aurora Expeditions

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Sara Macefield meets Robert Halfpenny and Craig Upshall, managing director and UK & Europe sales director, respectively, for Australian adventure company Aurora


As adventure companies go, Aurora Expeditions has been something of a sleeping giant in the UK.

Last year, this Aussie-owned specialist celebrated its 25th anniversary since being founded by passionate travellers Greg and Margaret Mortimer, but many British agents (or consumers for that matter) will have never heard of it.

Yet, over recent decades, the company’s growing range of intrepid itineraries and innovative Polar activities that now include skiing, snorkelling and even camping have built a loyal fanbase on its home turf.

This, in turn, spread out internationally and started to make an impression among UK expeditionary specialists, which began to sell the Sydney-based company’s products.

It’s a testament to Aurora’s strengthening profile and the explosive growth of the expeditionary sector that the company is now pumping more resources into the UK market: it has appointed its first UK & Europe sales director, Craig Upshall, who joined from Rocky Mountaineer in May.

He was brought on board by managing director Robert Halfpenny, who also worked for the Canadian railtour operator before joining Aurora last year.

It’s an exciting time in the company’s growth as it prepares for the launch of new expeditionary ship, Greg Mortimer, which joins its three chartered ships, Polar Pioneer, Coral Expeditions I and Isabela II.

The new vessel, carrying 160 passengers – despite being designed to carry 180 – is due to launch in November 2019, and is set to be followed by a second ship.

However, the arrival of Greg Mortimer promises to be a game changer not just for Aurora, but expeditionary cruising at large thanks to its revolutionary X-Bow design.

“The way it pierces the waves reduces the movement of the ship, cutting seasickness by 60 per cent and maintaining faster speeds, reducing the time it takes to cross Drake Passage from two to one-and-a-half days,” explained Halfpenny.

With the Drake’s formidable reputation known to deter some would-be Antarctic cruisers, rival lines are sure to be watching this new innovation with interest.

With this, and passenger numbers restricted to 120 on Polar voyages, Halfpenny is confident Aurora’s new ship will fill the mid-market gap between ultra-luxury and more
basic alternatives.

“It’s something different. It is not luxury, although 65 of the 80 cabins have balconies,” he added. “This ship has been built for global exploration.”

Despite initial strong sales, which have seen Greg Mortimer’s inaugural Antarctic season 85 per cent sold, Halfpenny accepts that one of the biggest tasks is getting the message out, although international bookings are steadily rising.

“Around 90 per cent of our business used to be Australian, but that’s now dropped to 70 per cent with North America and Europe making up the remainder,” he said. “Of that, around seven per cent is from the UK and we expect to double it for 2020/21 and then double it again.”

His confidence is well founded, following a marked increase in UK business after Upshall’s arrival and his focus on specialist operators including Explore, Audley Travel and Trailfinders who already sell Aurora. Upshall was also instrumental in the company’s move to join Clia.

“If we want to get brand awareness and move expeditionary cruising into the wider market, this is what we need to do,” he said.

Now, Upshall is pushing a two-pronged approach to target tour operators and step up retail training via Clia, through trade roadshows and working with travel agents.

Aurora has sealed deals with Iglu and is in talks with ROL Cruise. A new sales executive is being recruited and there are plans for a bookable website.

“This year was very much laying the foundation of partnerships,” Upshall added. “Many agents haven’t heard of us, but we are planting the seed and we are very trade focused.  We intend to build our brand presence and help them build an expedition presence in their portfolio.”

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