MIAMI — New luxury cruise brand Explora Journeys isn’t counting on experienced cruisers to try out its first ship, Explora I. The new venture created by the people behind MSC Cruises are hunting for people who have never sailed before.
“We have this space for a true European luxury brand that is like a luxury hotel or luxury resort you usually travel to, but on the ocean,” said line CEO Michael Ungerer, speaking aboard the 63,900-gross-ton ship when it arrived to Miami earlier this month to begin a winter sailing season in the Caribbean.
The ship features six restaurants, 12 bars and lounges as well as a chef’s kitchen. The shipwide design is a mix of modern lines, but every space seems filled with unique curiosities that manage to feel like each is on display in a modern museum, not an antique shop.
The color scheme exudes earthy tones. Waltzing through the coffee lounge feels like walking through a caramel-filled chocolate confection. Restaurants have their own individuality such as the monochrome Marble & Co. Grill steakhouse, or the red-and-pink hues with cherry-blossom ceiling found in the Pan-Asian concept Sakura.
The European influence is there as well, from the five kinds of pasta at the buffet to the massive wine displays at each restaurant to the clean marble flooring in the public spaces.
Ungerer says customers it expects to rein in are not necessarily those that have been on ships before, or as an alternative to existing brands because the market opportunity is so huge.
He said before the pandemic, the luxury cruise market had about 800,000 people worldwide sailing, a number that has after the restart grown to 1.3 million. But as teams were surveying potential travelers, the estimated target pool was near 29 million.
“We surveyed about 20,000 qualified potential guests worldwide, of which 97% have never been on a ship yet, and the addressable markets are by selected by high net worth but also by the propensity to travel and by attributes and by benefits ultimately,” he said, and that other research has shown that could grow closer to 45 million.
So with that market research, the first of six planned vessels over the next five years made its debut this year. With a 922-guest capacity and a 1-to-1.25 crew-to-guest ratio, it’s similar to many luxury offerings already sailing.
That includes newcomers Four Seasons and Ritz-Carlton on top of new and revamped ships from existing brands Regent Seven Seas, Silversea, Seabourn and Crystal. Ungerer even welcomes the marquee names like Ritz-Carlton.
“To me, those brands, of course, they need to be in this as well, and it gives validity and importance and permanence to that segment,” he said.
Ahead of its Miami arrival, it made a sailing from Quebec with only about 200 passengers on board.
“I don’t need to price to fill. We said from day one no discounting,” Ungerer said noting the line had already gone through two price hikes so that it’s making the company an average of $650 per person per day. “I would rather have a few suites left and have the right people at the right price.”
That sort of market line in the sand is one benefit Explora Journeys has since it is run by the Italian ship magnate Aponte family, which owns the massive MSC shipping and cruise empire that has been in business for more than 300 years.
“When you build ships and you make a living off the sea, you have to have a long-term view,” Ungerer said. “Especially as a family company and you have only one shareholder you’re responsible to. So they think in generations. They don’t think in quarters.”
With that in mind, the end result is a refined combination of modern luxury, but with detailed touches throughout the ship. That combined with a strategy to sail to destinations on more laid-back itineraries is something Ungerer says will bring customers in.
“That was the idea — traveling slower, lingering longer and going deeper, meaning you have ample time at sea, you arrive later at the destination, you stay overnight,” he said. “I think it’s just the combination of all those factors — that level of thought, and a lot of detail and attention and that sort of planning and curation.”
He pointed out the array of selections on display in the ship’s observation lounge.
“You sit here for instance, and if you look at the materials we use, and the wood floors and the color scheme, and all the different objects, that are not there by surprise or by coincidence. They have been curated. So the owners are very hands-on. It’s also kind of an expression of the way they like to travel,” he said.