Last week’s announcement by Hurtigruten celebrating the 50th anniversary of its vintage vessel MS Lofoten reminded me of the longevity of expedition ships, and of the market niche that loves them.
The company has a storied 120-year history of transporting both locals and international tourists along the Norwegian coast, as well as offering expedition cruises around Svalbard and, in more recent years, to Antarctica. While most passengers nowadays opt for Hurtigruten’s somewhat larger and newer ships, the 150-passenger Lofoten clearly appeals to a niche of the market with her classic nautical lines, wood paneled interiors and intimate atmosphere. She's created a real identity for herself, and for those looking for something a little different.
There are many other small, vintage vessels that still ply the remote corners of the globe, catering to adventurous travelers. I hope to blog about a few more of them in the future, and how they’re marketed. For now, I want to sort out a fleet of 25-year-old sister ships that do their fair share in taking curious travelers to out-of-the-way destinations on expedition cruises.
The Eight Original Renaissance Ships
I figure I’m not alone in trying to remember what happened to the eight original small ships built and operated by the now-defunct Renaissance Cruises. Who operates them, and where are they? It’s a soap opera of sorts, but with small ships instead of people playing the roles.
Most in the industry associate Renaissance with its later fleet of eight, much-larger vessels, built between 1998 and 2001. These ships are still going strong, too, albeit under a variety of owners and operators. But by the time Renaissance filed for bankruptcy in 2001, the earlier fleet had been sold or chartered off several years prior. Apparently, Renaissance management felt the business model for the smaller vessels wasn’t scalable, and wanted to focus on the newer R-Class ships that carried 680 passengers each.
A Generic Fleet Known by Numbers, Not by Names
Renaissance started cranking out their first-generation of smaller vessels in 1989, at a time when the cruise industry was splintering into distinctive market segments. In some ways, these ships were designed to emulate the status and cache associated with the two 110-passenger Sea Goddess vessels built in the early '80s that were by that time under the management of Cunard Line. (Following a three-year stint flying the Seabourn Cruise Line banner, these two vessels went over to SeaDream Yacht Club, which has managed them continuously since 2001.)
Renaissance’s early-'90s marketing pitch with these first-generation vessels was affordable luxury and glamorous yacht destinations in the Mediterranean, Northern Europe, Caribbean and the South Pacific. Critical to the company’s original business plan were the generous subsidies offered by the Italian government in order to maintain shipyard employment at Cantiere Navale Ferrari-Signani in La Spezia, which built Renaissance I through IV, and at Nuovi Cantieri Apunia in Carrara, which built Renaissance V through VIII.
The two sets of vessels were built about the same time, with minor differences: the first four accommodated 100 guests, were 88.3 meters long and weighed in at 4,077 GRT while the second set would carry 114, were 90.6 meters long and tipped the scales at 4,200 GRT. Oddly, they were given no names aside from their numerical ones.
Visually, the two pairs differed in that the mid-decks on I-IV have walk-around promenade decks whereas V-VIII enclose this space resulting in some slightly larger passenger cabins and public areas. Cosmetic, technical and mechanical upgrades – such as ice strengthening on several vessels – were also made over the years. Renaissance I-IV also featured wing-style or flared exhaust stacks that were left off of Renaissance V-VIII.
Journey to the Present
So, with the Renaissance background behind us, let's see who is managing these vessels today and where they’re trading:
Renaissance I (1989) operated as:
- Renaissance I until 1998,
- Mercury (Renaissance Cruises Malaysia, gambling ship) until 2004,
- Leisure World I (gambling ship) until 2007, and
- Dubawi (currently) purchased by the UAE Royal Family and converted into a super yacht by Platinum Yachts of Dubai.
Renaissance II (1990) operated as:
- Renaissance II until 1998,
- Neptune (Renaissance Cruises Malaysia, gambling ship) until 2004,
- EasyCruiseOne (EasyCruise) offering no frills, Mediterranean and Caribbean cruises until 2008, and
- CruiseOne (currently) but it may be converted into another super yacht by Platinum Yachts of Dubai.
Renaissance III (1990) operated as:
- Renaissance II until 1998,
- Galapagos Explorer II by Canodros until 2013, and
- Silver Galapagos (currently) by Silversea Cruises, offering year-round cruises in the Galapagos Islands.
Renaissance IV (1991) operated as:
- Renaissance IV until 1996,
- Clelia II as privately owned yacht, occasionally chartered by Travel Dynamics, until 2011, including programs in Antarctica after 2009,
- Orion II until 2011 by Orion Expeditions, offering expedition programs in the Pacific Basin, and
- Corinthian (currently) by Travel Dynamics, including programs in Antarctica, African coast and Europe. The ship has a Lloyds 1D ice rating.
Renaissance V (1991) operated as:
- Renaissance V until 1997,
- Sun Viva (Sun Cruises, Singapore gambling ship) until 2000,
- Megastar Sagittarius (Star Cruises, gambling ship) until 2001,
- Spirit of Oceanus (Cruise West) in Alaska and Pacific Basin until November 2010,
- Sea Spirit (currently) by Quark Expeditions, with programs in the Arctic and Antarctica. The vessel was modified in late 2010 with ice strengthening and other mechanical upgrades; she has a Lloyds 1D ice rating.
Renaissance VI (1991) operated as:
- Renaissance VI until 1998,
- Sun Viva II (Sun Cruises, Singapore gambling ship) until 2000,
- MegaStar Capricorn (Star Cruises, gambling ship) until 2001,
- Hebridean Spirit (Hebridean Island Cruises) with programs in the British Isles until 2009,
- Sunrise (as private charter vessel) until 2012, and
- Caledonia Sky (currently) by Noble Caledonia, with worldwide programs.
Renaissance VII (1991) operated as:
- Renaissance VII until 1992,
- Regina Renaissance (Raymond & Whitcomb) with programs in the Caribbean and Europe until 1998,
- Renaissance VII until 2001,
- Renai I (as private charter vessel) until 2003
- Sun / Island Sun (Mauritius Island Cruises, Around The World Cruises) until 2005,
- Corinthian II (Travel Dynamics) with programs in Europe, Africa and the Antarctic until 2013, and
- Sea Explorer (currently) by Polar Latitudes and Poseidon Expeditions with programs in Antarctica; and Quark Expeditions with programs in the Arctic. The ship has a Lloyds 1C ice rating.
Renaissance VIII (1992) operated as:
- Renaissance VII until 2001,
- Renai II / Sky (as privately charted vessel) until 2003,
- Island Sky (currently) by Noble Caledonia with worldwide programs.
The Spirit of Adventure
So, six of the original eight Renaissance small ships are now fully engaged in the adventure cruise market. As someone who has marketed destination-oriented, small-ship cruising for most of his career, I'm happy to see this.
Of course, I don’t want to hide the fact that several of these vessels served as gambling and party ships in the Far East for a short time. Hopefully, those days are gone for good.
I find it ironic but not surprising that the real market value in these vessels today, with a couple of exceptions, isn’t based on sensory onboard pleasures, perceived glamour and fashionable, jet set ports-of-call.
Instead, most of them are making their mark in taking curious travelers to destinations that are otherwise difficult to get to: the Galapagos, the high Arctic and Antarctica, the Black Sea, Papua New Guinea and other locales around the globe, many of them places without the mass-market buzz promoted by large cruise ship operators.
Granted, the accommodations and decor provided on these Renaissance ships are a bit more refined, an improvement in comfort and layout compared with a few of the older research vessels and ferries that had been converted in the past for expedition cruising. But there is a strong similarity in other respects. The heart and soul of these ships is now in discovery, providing their passengers with the Four Es that I’ve written about previously: Education, Enrichment and Entertainment, all of which lead to the bigger E, Engagement. Focusing on the Four Es in turn builds brand loyalty, repeat customers and great prospects. It’s all about promoting the destination, and leveraging the expedition ship's assets – including the human assets; i.e. the field guides, educational staff and naturalists – as the best way to experience it.
With small ships, it's vital to create a niche, do something unusual and unexpected, a strategy pointed out by Marketing Strategist David Meerman Scott in a blog post a few weeks back. "A true leadership position comes from serving those who avoid the default position. Do something that enriches other peoples' lives."
I welcome your comments on this topic, and please don't hold back if I've made a mistake or two with the many past incarnations of the vessels in the original Renaissance fleet. Let me know!
Postscript: I updated the status of these vessels in an August 2014 post. No doubt, things will change again!