Sven Lindblad: focus on the outside not the inside

Sven Lindblad on Ellesmere Island, August 2014, Canadian Arctic, Northwest Passage, Canada, iphone photo, photographer unknown

The Quest is the first ship we will have built entirely from scratch – the rest of the ships we have we acquired and modified. We are able to think: what do we want? How can we get on and off the ship as quickly as possible with zodiacs? Where do we store kayaks and zodiacs? It’s just so much easier to build in everything you need. We’ve got sister ships coming in 2018 and 2019; the first two are coastal and the third will be open water, similar to the Explorer. The partnership with National Geographic is about 12 years old.

I’ve had a relationship with the company forever, in a variety of ways, and I went to the CEO and said, ‘Look, you guys are about disseminating the world and everything in it, and we’re about taking you there, right? This should be a natural partnership’. And they said, ‘Alright’, and it’s been a great partnership ever since. It makes extraordinary sense. It also expands our knowledge base, we have National Geographic photographers on our ships, two of them permanently, and lots of explorers and scientists.

DL091611cLindblad is small cruising; our largest ship takes about 140 people, so that’s still pretty small. It makes a huge difference. We spent a lot of time talking to our staff and we spent a whole day on one subject: at what point does the quality of the experience diminish because of capacity? Because we’re building new ships, we wanted to really hone in on how big they should be. There’s a certain economic drive to make them larger, but there’s a practical limitation, too. If you get beyond a certain size the experience totally changes. And we came away totally convinced we shouldn’t go beyond 150 – and ideally fewer – passengers.

In Antarctica, there’s a restriction on how many passengers can be on the ice at once – that’s 100. So we also do a lot with zodiacs, we have kayaks, there’s often a kayak activity going on; no one is ever waiting around to go ashore.

Our largest ship takes about 140 people, so that’s still pretty small. It makes a huge difference.

The travellers we get on board are really diverse these days. However, the baby boomers are still the largest audience, people in their 60s. We get more and more younger people, particularly in the summer in Alaska and the Galápagos; it’s dominated by families. We don’t need to worry too much about entertainment for kids because our orientation is looking out. The ship is a mechanism or a vehicle for getting there; I see it like a Land Rover – the focus is what’s out there, not what’s inside. The cruise industry in general is more focused on what’s inside. I’m not saying that as a criticism, but it’s a different perspective.

In Alaska, you get hundreds of thousands of people going to visit each year, but they go to very predictable places – and they go just to have a look. They’re not going ashore and into the wilderness. We can spend a whole week in southern Alaska and not see another ship – it’s certainly possible. Even if you do, then it’s far away, and they’re not going to be going where we’re going. They can’t go and put their bow under a waterfall, but we can because our ships are small enough.

We see ourselves as an adventure company. It’s amazing how many cruise lines are beginning to refer to having an expedition programme, but I think a lot of them will find it more challenging than they realise. To do it well in relation to the expectations of the travellers who want this type of thing, it’s not easy. You have to understand geography, you have to have a team that really know what they’re doing. That doesn’t just happen overnight.

We have experts in marine biology, history, biology, in whatever it is that’s of interest in wherever we’re going. We recognise that people come in all shapes, colours, interests – we want to provide the framework for individual opportunities for those people. So they’re not all a big herd – that’s also not easy.

Some of our customers wouldn’t be caught dead on another cruise ship, but some are ‘refugees’ from other lines and want to try something different. Some like the idea of, ‘Oh my god, I can travel without packing and unpacking’, but also want something more adventurous.

We’re always looking for new places, but also new answers within places. For example – is the South Pacific a new place? Not really, because we’ve been there on numerous occasions, but is some of what we’ll try to do there on Quest new, and based on new knowledge? Absolutely! You’re not going to discover a new place, but it’s a business of nuance.

There are a small number of people who will go back to Antarctica periodically. A lot of people use the term ‘I’ve done that’. It’s nice when people don’t think like that and return to a destination, and a small number do, and with somewhere like Antarctica, the geography grabs you.

Sven Lindblad is the owner of Lindblad Expeditions

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