Mark Spillane’s eyes light up when he talks about the time when he saw beluga whales during a Seabourn expedition cruise in the Canadian Arctic.
The unexpected sighting occurred while he was on board Seabourn Venture, a 264-passenger luxury vessel, while on an itinerary from Western Greenland to the Canadian Arctic, at the end of the season.
As expeditions sometimes go, the weather was uncooperative that day, forcing the captain to lean on Plan B, which involved moving the ship into a nearby bay.
The plan was to invite guests to participate in polar plunges and zodiac rides – a sampling of Seabourn’s onboard activities – until that pod of whales suddenly appeared, catching everyone by surprise.
“It was my first time seeing this particular wildlife,” says Spillane, Seabourn’s director of expedition sales. “It was such a unique moment.”
This is precisely why Seabourn’s expeditions, which explore exotic frontiers with comfort and style, present itineraries that are sometimes vague – especially in polar regions, where weather conditions can quickly flip.
It’s not only about managing expectations, but it also has to do with the fact that expeditions are packed with wonder (and surprises), regardless of where you wind up.
“We have an idea of where we want to go, but we don't publicize it because we want the flexibility to make changes,” Jen Martin, director, product development, expeditions at Seabourn, told PAX on Wednesday (April 12) at the Toronto stop of the luxury line’s “Extraordinary Expeditions” roadshow at The Boulevard Club.
“We don't want someone to say, ‘Oh, we're missing this spot. This was a highlight.’ [Rather], they're all highlights, and we have opportunities to go to a lot of different places.”
Opening people’s eyes
That’s just the tip of the iceberg.
Adding to a Vancouver event that took place last week, Wednesday’s Toronto show, which drew nearly 70 travel advisors, offered a deep dive into Seabourn’s fascinating expedition program.
The day had two parts – an afternoon session for travel trade, followed by a consumer show in the evening where advisors could send their clients (and where Seabourn offered exclusive shipboard credits, savings and reduced deposits).
“We’re so excited by the enthusiasm of travel advisors in Canada,” Spillane told PAX. “Not only to learn, but to understand how we’re different in the marketplace.”
On the roadshow itself, which included stops in U.S. cities, reaching some 1,000 travel advisors in total, Martin said “it’s been really nice to open people's eyes” to expedition travel.
“There's an interest in this, but there's also a fear of talking about it with authority,” she said. “[Travel advisors] don't want to bring up expedition if they don't understand it. So, I think this is helping. People are excited to learn.”
The events come at an exciting time for the Seattle-based luxury brand.
Last year, Seabourn launched a new expedition ship, Seabourn Venture, while sister ship Seabourn Pursuit is due this August. This adds to the brand’s five ocean ships, which range from 450 to 600 guests.
With all this newness, some might be led to assume that Seabourn is new to the expedition beat. After all, Seabourn is already known for its high-end ocean voyages.
But that is not the case. Seabourn has been doing expeditions for ten years now.
Its maiden voyage in Antarctica, on board Seabourn Quest, was in 2013, and since then, it has developed thrilling itineraries all around the world.
In 2015, Seabourn extended its expedition-style offering into other regions, on multiple ships, by curating a program called “Ventures by Seabourn,” which offers optional exploration, via Zodiac and kayak, led by guides in Alaska, Australia, Norwegian Fjords and more.
More recently, Seabourn launched expeditions in the South Pacific, going from South America, all the way to Northwestern Australia – including its first-ever visit to the Kimberley region – and to Papua New Guinea, Micronesia, Melanesia and Polynesia.
“A wildlife extravaganza”
Expedition ships can explore remote areas of the Arctic, Iceland, Canada, Greenland, Norway, Ireland, the British Isles, North Africa and many other destinations.
“We pick places people can't pick on their own, but they’re also compelling destinations that are interesting and have a reason for going there,” said Martin.
It could be a remote island with nothing to see – at first glance.
“But in most cases, those are the places where wildlife is uninterrupted. And you get really good opportunities there,” Martin said.
Martin noted one memorable Seabourn expedition to Saint Paul Island in the Pribilof Islands, located in the Bering Sea, where she visited Indigenous communities and was greeted by “hundreds of thousands of birds” that nest there in the summertime.
“I was driving a zodiac in and there were probably 300,000 seabirds flying overhead,” she recalled. “It was a wildlife extravaganza of fur seals, gray whales and birds everywhere. It blew my mind.”
Still, there are misconceptions about expedition cruising.
“A lot of people, when they hear ‘expedition,’ they think it’s a regular cruise, but hardcore. That it’s really hard and difficult,” Martin said. “They don’t understand that the entire concept is a different focus on destination, not ship, and making sure everybody gets to experience.”
Seabourn’s Expedition ships are managed by a 26-person team, comprised of wilderness experts, scientists, historians and naturalists, who interact with guests, offering insights.
Vessels have kayaks and enough zodiacs to transport every guest on expeditions at once.
There’s also two custom-built submarines, each with capacity for six, which can explore the under the sea in upscale comfort.
“We’re taking the proven luxury experience of a Seabourn voyage and putting that on a smaller expedition ship…creating a luxury expedition that isn't compromised,” Spillane said.
The little (but big) things
The little (but big) things, like brand partnerships, keep things upscale.
For example: through an exclusive deal with Helly Hansen, Seabourn provides guests with jackets and backpacks so they can take on the harshest of climates.
Suites, (which all have verandas, by the way), come equipped with long-range binoculars by Swarovski (which guests can use for free, or purchase if they like).
Accommodations also come with a “heated gear locker” to warm that cold and damp parka, towel or your slippers.
“It's those little touches that make us stand out,” Spillane said.
Closer to culture
The luxury market, Spillane added, is behind the post-COVID expedition boom.
“The demand to go further and deeper, to explore and be closer to culture, is what driving [clients],” he said.
Martin added that Seabourn is seeing more “working wealthy” with money and time – including a younger population that’s “not interested in the traditional cruise model.”
The brand sees ocean converts – loyal customers who once enjoyed a Seabourn ocean cruise and have now switched over to expedition.
And for travel advisors looking to build expedition business – “The river client truly is the right client to move over,” noted Shane Buksh, director, national accounts - North America at Seabourn.
“River cruises are very active – I went on one, and I couldn’t believe how many tours I was doing in one day…That truly can be an expedition client,” he said.
Plans for Canada
Buksh admitted the Canadian market for expeditions is lighter “because people think of cold weather.”
Which is the case on some itineraries, but not all.
He said Seabourn will be promoting warmer itineraries in Canada, just to show the full scope of what’s out there.
Beyond expeditions, Seabourn, which just released its 2024-25 schedule, is returning to Japan. It also has a 90-day roundtrip Barcelona voyage that circumnavigates Africa.
In Canada, there are 10 and 11-night roundtrip Vancouver-Alaska voyages in June and September. There's currently also an at-par promotion on select Alaska and B.C. voyages.
Meanwhile, travel advisors have never had better support from Seabourn in Canada.
In Vancouver, there’s Buksh (who looks after the North American account team) and Fiona Schonewille (BDM for Seabourn and Holland America Line).
And, in Toronto, there’s Lori Patterson (a BDM for the two same brands), and Maxine Gundermann, who joined Seabourn last year as a senior manager of national and strategic accounts.
The goal, Buksh said, is to one day have a team of Seabourn-dedicated BDMs.
“It will take some time, but Canadians love cruising,” he said, noting the progress Seabourn has made since Gundermann joined to oversee Canadian accounts and relationships.
“Among the team we have in Canada, you’re seeing a lot more presence than Seabourn has ever had.”