The ever-modest Torstein Hagen shares Viking Cruises’ secrets of success on both river and ocean
The multi-billionaire founder of Viking Cruises is one of the most enigmatic figures in the world of cruise. Having started his company in 1997, it has gone on to become the biggest name in river cruise. We joined him on the launch of his third ocean ship, Viking Sky, to find out the secret of his success, what’s next and ask his advice for travel agents.
Cruise Adviser: Are there any changes on your new ship?
Torstein Hagen: There are very, very tiny changes on board this ship, but we do not talk about them. We say that every ship is exactly the same. When you have something that’s perfect, why would you change it? Messing with perfection only creates imperfection.
What makes the ships so perfect?
We spent a lot of time thinking about it. People spend so much time saying what they’ll do in the cruise industry – they are always adding things on. Instead, we took things away. So, we should be known for what’s not included. Number one is no casinos. The second is no children. The third is no umbrella drinks. No photographers. No art auctions. No formal nights. No butlers. No smoking. No charge for beer and wine. No charge for alternative restaurants. No charge for wi-fi. No charge for the laundromat. No charge for the use of the spa – and our spa staff will not sell to you after a treatment. When you rule those things out you’re left with a quiet and peaceful cruise. Our customers like to explore physically and mentally and we like to do things to appeal to them.
What is your main focus?
We are destination focused. If people want to go to Scandinavia then they should go with us. They shouldn’t give it a second thought. Richard Branson’s slogan for Virgin Galactic is “space is Virgin territory”. We say: Scandinavia is Viking territory.
What are the challenges facing Viking?
None. We just need to build enough ships!
What exactly would you class as ‘enough’?
We currently have three in operation, three under construction, two under offer and two extra optional ships. By 2020 we will be the biggest small-ship cruise line in the world. Our repeat booking rates are about 40 per cent.
Was there a fear that the ocean product would cannibalise your river product?
It was a fear and I think it probably has cannibalised it a little bit because it can only go one way, given our new-build programme. That will reverse though. We’re as close to perfection with these ships as possible – in my not so humble opinion.
What do you think is the secret to your success?
There are three characteristics of a good company. You should be loved by your staff. You should be loved by your customers. And you should be hated by your competitors, but at least respected. Then everything else will follow. And screw the shareholders.
Why did you launch the ocean line in the first place?
I’ve been in the cruise business since 1974. I was an adviser to Holland America in 1974. I ran Royal Viking Line in the 1980s. I was on the board of HAL until we sold to Carnival and have also been on the board of NCL. We started this company 20 years ago today, as a river operation. I’ve had two lifetimes in cruise. When I started, I was the youngest and now I’m the oldest. I’ve seen what happened and saw that there was a gap in the market. It was bloody obvious to me. The ships kept getting bigger and bigger and the industry said that the bigger you get the less you have to charge but you can fleece them when they get on board. I found that borderline immoral because you had a captive audience. When you add everything together with our ships you have a very fair price
Tell us more about Egypt
Egypt sells like hot cakes. People have fear and the Egypt fear lingers on, but those travelling have asked why they should let these people stop us. We first went there in 2011 when no one dared go. We did the same in Russia when it was a bit dicey. We contracted these ocean ships in 2011 when no one else dared place an order. The yards were falling over themselves to sign our orders. We have always been a bit contrarian and that has helped us.
What about America?
We have a long-term plan for being on the Mississippi. We’re trying. Protectionist legislation makes it difficult, but we might make it.
What advice do you have for travel agents wanting to sell more cruise?
A travel agent should sell the product his customer wants. The moment you put a spin on what the travel agent should sell you should start to worry. If you are to be a trusted adviser you should sell what the customer needs most rather than what makes you the most money. If you get it right then the repeat business will follow. Agents should step up their level of aggressiveness. With digital marketing now there is so much
more you can do.
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