Michelle Daniels explains to Anthony Pearce how the single-ship operator keeps its loyal group of inquisitive travellers educated and entertained
“We’ve been investing more in destination,” says Michelle Daniels, head of commercial at Voyages to Antiquity (VTA), which has carved out a niche for itself as the thinking person’s cruise line. Aegean Odyssey, at just 350 guests, is a pretty little ship,with a loyal following and a calendar of intriguing itineraries. “We have a really high repeat customer factor – 57 per cent of guests that travelled last year were repeat customers. It’s important that we look for new destinations to encourage them to come back,” adds Daniels.
VTA, which is based in Oxford, attracts academics, teachers and general history buffs who want to learn about the world while they see it, and its guest lecturers – from institutions such as the universities of Oxford and Cambridge, and King’s College London – are a considerable draw. Lectures are given the day before a port of call and experts join guests on land, providing an immersive experience that helps them understand the destinations. The guests are usually aged over 60, retired but both physically and mentally active (the excursions can be “very intense”, says Daniels).
“If we get a lecturer who doesn’t know their stuff or is too generic in their delivery, our guests will let them know!” she says, adding that the friendly and intimate atmosphere on board means guests and lecturers often drink and dine together. The line, unlike many others, has also cracked the solo traveller market, and will increase its dedicated solo cabins from 26 to 39 this year.
As “antiquity” implies, the cruise line’s itineraries have traditionally placed an emphasis on ancient ruins – and still do in the likes of Greece and Italy – but VTA has had to adapt. “Before I joined, ancient civilisation was a massive focus for the company: the likes of Syria, Libya, Lebanon, Turkey – all wonderful places which we just can’t get to any more,” says Daniels. “We’ve had to evolve.”
While its cruises are still heavily themed around historical and cultural sights, VTA has added many new destinations, with an emphasis on natural wonders. Last year, Aegean Odyssey sailed around the UK for the first time (calling into Dover), before heading to Iceland. This year, it will make its debut in the Norwegian fjords, while the Baltics is scheduled for next year. Any new itinerary must “have that intense, historical element which is different to what you might get with mainstream cruise lines”.
The cruise line has also expanded its land offerings, having first introduced pre and post-tours last year. “This year, we’ve got our Aegean Experience cruises, which combine a three or four-day land tour to iconic, historic places in Greece, such as Delphi, Mycenae and Epidaurus, before a more traditional Greek islands itinerary.” In Morocco, guests can enjoy a mid-cruise land tour after Casablanca, travelling through the Atlas Mountains before spending a night in a hotel in Marrakech.
Daniels says that agents should visit vtaexpert.com and take the training module to become a “luminary”, giving them the opportunity to visit the ship, take fam trips and find out first about offers.
With ever more itineraries, surely VTA will soon outgrow its single ship? “Never say never,” says Daniels: while there are no immediate plans to start a fleet she admits that it would be “the ideal next step.”