QuirkyCruise had an e-chat with Niels-Erik Lund, president and CEO of SunStone Ships Inc., a Miami Florida-based tonnage provider. SunStone is building a fleet of new expedition-style cruise ships — called the INFINITY series — in China (by China Merchants Heavy Industry, near Shanghai), with the design, equipment and management supplied by Norway’s Ulstein Design & Solutions. As the ship owner, SunStone will engage in negotiations of long-term charters with existing clients such as Quark Expeditions, Aurora Expeditions and Poseidon Expeditions, as well as other travel companies within the expedition segment. SunStone also specializes in commercial management of existing passenger ships, and the buying, selling and chartering of its managed fleet.
QC: Can you briefly explain the role of charter operators in the cruise biz?
Niels-Erik Lund: For a tour operator or travel agency, it is basically impossible to operate your own vessel if you have less than four vessels on year-round operation. You have to have a significant onshore operation to have the necessary certifications, and to be able to operate a safe and efficient operation. With one or two vessels, it is difficult to find the right crew, get the right prices on purchases, insurances, etc. The SunStone model, where we order a series of vessels, ensure the right price and financing of the vessels, and install our associated management companies — Cruise Management International (CMI) having the technical management and CMI Leisure the hotel management — all ensures a safe, professional and efficient operation. The charterers are in all aspects basically getting the benefits of being part of a large fleet and being able to design their own product, but without the financial burden of building the ship(s).
QC: Can you elaborate on “design their own product?”
Niels-Erik Lund: The charterer decides the itinerary; the shore-based product; the onboard lecturers, entertainment and activities; the menus; the service level; and what is included in the ticket price such as wine at meals, open bar, free Wi-Fi, tips, etc.
QC: We assume then the travel company or tour operator provide the expedition staff for excursions?
Niels-Erik Lund: Yes, this is normally the charterers’ responsibility.
QC: Do expedition cruise guests want more and more luxury on board these days, or is the focus for most people still on the destination and being off the boat?
Niels-Erik Lund: Our different charterers are operating in different market segments, where some are pure destination-focused passengers, and others operate in a more luxury segment. The trend is that as expedition vessels get bigger, they’ll offer more amenities, such as balconies, multiple restaurants, spa, gym, etc., that will attract passengers to the expedition market who want a luxury experience.
For an overview of new expedition ships in the works, read QuirkyCruise.com’s recent post, New Generation Expedition Ships in the Pipeline 2018-2020.
QC: How are new expedition ships, like your INFINITY series, being built to be “greener” in terms of creating a smaller carbon footprint in delicate environments like the Arctic region?
Niels-Erik Lund: SunStone Ships has decided to build vessels that can only operate on Marine Gas Oil (MGO), and not on normal fuel. This is the cleanest you can get for diesel engines. Furthermore we are installing Tier III Engines, which in today’s market are the least polluting diesel engines you can get. All other equipment such as sewage treatment plans, garbage handling and storage etc., is all based on the newest and least polluting equipment.
QC: What are other technology and design trends in the expedition market?
Niels-Erik Lund: From a comfort and safety point of view we have decided to build our INFINITY series with a Safe Return To Port design, which is not required on this size vessel. We also have zero speed stabilizers that ensure comfort for passengers when the vessel is at anchor or is floating. Our ships will have dynamic positioning, which will automatically hold the vessel in a specific position, to ensure a safe and comfortable embarkation for the passengers into the Zodiacs. We have underwater sonar that measures the ice in front of the vessel, again to ensure a safe and comfortable operation. Most of our new expedition ships are being built with the patented X-Bow design (pronounced “crossbow”), an inverted bow that reduces noise and vertical motion and slamming, providing a much more comfortable ride for passengers and better fuel economy.
The other passenger part of the product — such as observation lounges, multiple restaurants, atriums, spas, saunas, steam bath, Jacuzzis, infinity pools, water “toys,” helicopters, submarines, etc. — is up to each operator to design. The vessels will in this respect be quite different.
QC: Can you explain the equipment involved in the “Safe Return to Port?”
Niels-Erik Lund: Basically you have to ensure that a problem in any one fire zone cannot stop the vessel from providing necessary services. The vessel will have two completely independent engine rooms, each having both propulsion engines and generators, with separate switchboards and other important equipment. The vessel will have its normal bridge and an emergency bridge from where you can navigate the vessel in case the normal bridge is out. All main passenger services such as food preparation, serving food, toilet systems, hot water, showers, etc. all have to be “double” systems so that if one system is out, there will be a back up system available. With Safe Return to Port, the vessel will be able to come back to port while the passengers will have the most important systems available to them.
QC: Who are your main competitors in terms of tonnage providers and charter companies?
Niels-Erik Lund: I am not aware of any other companies such as SunStone Ships, which is a pure tonnage provider of vessels to the expedition market, so we do not have any competitors.
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