QuirkyCruise.com had a chat with Hans Lagerweij, president and CEO of Victory Cruise Lines. It was founded in 2016 with the 202-passenger VICTORY I to ply the Great Lakes and other waterways in the US’s northeast. The line will debut a second nearly identical ship, the 202-passenger VICTORY II, in July 2018. With two ships, Victory will offer cruises to the Great Lakes, Canada and New England, plus Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula and Cuba.
QC: When was Victory Cruise Lines founded and what was the impetus?
Hans Lagerweij: Victory Cruise Lines is a relatively young cruise company that sailed its first season in 2016 on the Great Lakes. It was started with the support of some tour operator partners, because there was a lack of capacity in the market, especially in the small ship luxury all-inclusive segment.
QC: Tell us a bit about your background.
Hans Lagerweij: I have a marketing and sales background, and worked for the travel multinational TUI Travel with their adventure travel companies back in Europe. In 2010 I moved to Toronto to manage a turn-around at polar market leader, Quark Expeditions. That was my first exposure to cruising, and I loved it. Since then I also managed TUI’s subsidiaries Zegrahm and International Expeditions, until TUI sold all their adventure and travel specialist brands last year.
QC: What makes Victory special and different from other small-ship lines?
Hans Lagerweij: There are so many things!
- We are destination focused; all our in-depth shore excursions are included, and we focus on immersive authentic experiences in the places we visit.
- We are all inclusive, covering food, drinks, shore excursions, and even wifi.
- We are the market leader on the Great Lakes, offering more voyages, itineraries and departures than anyone else.
- We surprise and delight our customers with unexpected experiences, local entertainment and exceptional intuitive service on board.
- We have small intimate ships that are easy to get around on, a friendly atmosphere, and great personal service. It is a home away from home for our guests.
QC: Apart from Blount and the relatively new Pearl Seas, the Great Lakes has seen very few cruise lines over the years, often just one season then no return the next year. Why do you think there has been so little sustained interest?
Hans Lagerweij: It is an interesting observation. In the last 20 years Americans have started to travel more globally, but they are only recently discovering the jewels that they have in their “backyard.” The Great Lakes offer a great combination of interesting cities, great cultural experiences and fantastic nature. It is safe and easy to travel to, without tiresome intercontinental flights and multi-hour time zone changes. Destination cruising close to home for mature American travelers 60+ is one of the hottest markets in travel. This demographic loves small, intimate and easy-to-get around cruise ships. These Baby Boomers are staying closer to home in search of new destinations that the Great Lakes certainly provides. We believe in the growth potential of the Great Lakes; for example, our passengers have almost doubled from 2017 to 2018. I would not be surprised if we have to add a third vessel at some point in the near future.
QC: Why do you think the Great Lakes will sell? What are the special characteristics?
Hans Lagerweij: The Great Lakes offer a fantastic variety and choice of different experiences — from whale watching in Tadoussac to Niagara Falls, Mackinac Island, and Michigan and Parry Sound in Ontario to the Henry Ford Museum in Detroit to The Rock & Roll Hall of fame in Cleveland.
QC: Mackinac Island and Chicago may be known, but do you think there will be interest in Little Current and Thunder Bay?
Hans Lagerweij: We certainly have some education to do, but Thunder Bay is fantastic! It’s at the western end point of the 1,900-mile long Great Lakes to St. Lawrence Seaway, and therefore has an interesting history of fur trading. It is also probably the best birding spot in Ontario.
Little Current is one of my personal favorites. It is located on Manitoulin Island, the largest freshwater island in the world, and part of stunning Georgian Bay’s famous archipelago. It also offers an introduction to the native American Ojibwe culture.
We understand that the above destinations will never be as big as our “backbone” Chicago to Toronto and Detroit to Montreal runs, but they offer an interesting new perspective, ideal for returning clients. As the market leader on the Great Lakes, we believe we have to offer our customers enough choice and variety to come back!
QC: One of us (Ted) has sailed aboard Victory I as Cape May Light along the St. Lawrence. What non-cosmetic changes did you make to the vessel, and especially to Deck 5 that as originally built, saw little use.
Hans Lagerweij: The ship was completely refurbished and renovated in 2015. Deck 5 is a fantastic observation deck — most expedition cruise vessels would be jealous of the space and views from this deck. We have put chairs and sun beds up there, so guests can relax and enjoy the views.
QC: Tell us something about your second ship, the Victory II.
Hans Lagerweij: It will debut at the end of July this year on a Montreal to Detroit trip, an itinerary that due to huge demand will increase significantly in the number of departures in 2019. For this year, we will also visit French Canada, the St. Lawrence River and New England. In the winter beginning in January 2019, VICTORY II will sail from the Port of Miami on a new cruise and land safari to the Yucatan Peninsula — “The Grand Mayan Experience.” This all-inclusive 11-night program features a 9-night cruise and a land safari to Key West, Puerto Morelos, Valladolid, Chichen Itza, Izamal, Merida and Campeche with a full 3-night all-inclusive stop in Campeche.
QC: Where will your passengers come from?
Hans Lagerweij: Last year we were 99% from America, but for this year we see a strong interest (with bookings) from Australia, New Zealand and the UK. One source market to further explore for us is Canada; we hope to announce within a few weeks a preferred partnership with a travel consortia that serves this market.
QC: Do most of your passengers book directly by calling or going on your site, or do most use a travel agent?
Hans Lagerweij: Most of our business is with tour operators and travel agents, and we offer competitive commissions.
QC: How does the Great Lakes Cruise Company, a firm that sells several lines’ cruises, fit into your bookings?
Hans Lagerweij: They are one of our trade partners. They have one of the most knowledgeable staffs in Great Lakes cruising.
QC: We see your two-week Cuba itinerary has 4 sea days and 4 ports. How is the time allocated in the ports?
Hans Lagerweij: We will sail our first cruise to Cuba next month in May. We deliver a full people-to-people experience. All our cruises are complete circumnavigations round-trip from Miami. All ports include a minimum two-night stay (two days for every port we visit), so we spend more time onshore than any other cruise line. Due to that, our program doesn’t feel rushed, and provides enough time to experience the “Real Cuba.” We also offer (and include) lunches in local restaurants, and passengers have the opportunity to go ashore in the evening, or to stay for the entertainment on board.
QC: Is two ships your sweet spot? Can you envision a third?
Hans Lagerweij: If demand keeps growing at the current pace, we will need a third vessel in 2021 or 2022. However, I have in my life seen various over-ambitious cruise companies fail, so we will first prove we can run a solid year-around program on two ships.
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