Cruising from Penguins to Polar Bears

Tell your friends that you’re off on a cruise and topics pertaining to beaches, the Bahamas, Barbados, the Balearics and sunbathing usually form the follow up conversation; but not if you’re on a CMI Leisure managed cruise. Instead, polar bear, penguins and the phrase ‘blimey, isn’t it cold?’ are more par for the course. Daniel Barnes reports on this speciality cruise management firm that has mastered the art of ‘Ocean Safaris’ from Pole to Pole. 

 There was a time, not in the too distant past, when travelling to the Arctic Circle or down to Antarctica was reserved initially for ill-fated frostbitten explorers and at a later date, hardy scientific researchers. But with more people opting to ditch the bikinis and beach shorts for thermals, waterproofs and binoculars, the cruise industry in these challenging destinations is heating up at, thankfully, a faster rate than the ice caps. 

“The expedition segment is delivering once-in-a-lifetime unique experiences by visiting totally remote destinations that bigger ships can’t get to. There's a trend for people who are experienced cruisers who don't want to be on the big ships, of choosing our trips in order to see more meaningful destinations,” said Dietmar Wertanzl, President of CMI Leisure.

“Our Antarctica season, operating cruises out of Tierra Del Fuego in Argentina, goes from November until mid-March. Then we re-position the ships to the Arctic from April to September, visiting the likes of Iceland, Greenland and Spitzbergen in northern Norway. Our ‘Ocean Safaris’, as we like to call them, move from visiting penguins to polar bears!”

CMI Leisure may be the new name in this market but for the company’s management, vessels and crew, this niche industry is old hat. Swiss-based FleetPro Group’s ocean passenger ship management business, FleetPro Leisure, was acquired by a group of four Danish investors in 2015 and renamed CMI Leisure.

CMI Leisure manages hotel operations for seven ships previously managed by FleetPro Leisure: Ocean Diamond, Ocean Endeavour, Ocean Atlantic, Saint Laurent, Sea Adventurer, Sea Endurance and Sea Spirit. The CMI partners also formed Cruise Management International to assume technical management of ten ships: Freewinds, Grand Celebration, Oasia, Ocean Atlantic, Ocean Diamond, Ocean Endeavour, Ocean Nova, Sea Adventurer, Sea Endurance (the renamed Quest), and Sea Spirit. The two companies are based out of Miami (in the previous FleetPro Leisure offices) and retain the same shore and land based staff as the previous company.

“We are trying now to build the new brand; using not only the same ships and previous customers, but also looking towards the future, keeping our eyes open to any opportunities that may arise,” said Mr Wertanzl.

Adventure Focussed Expeditions

“We are mostly operating our adventure focussed expedition cruises with our partners - tour operators. The vessel sizes range from 100 to a maximum of 200 passengers as there is a restriction on how many passengers you can take ashore at any given time to protect the environment.”

Mr Wertanzl, who has worked for many years in the high-end hospitality and cruise industry, said CMI acts as a “boutique hotel management company that provides the hotel services to ship owners and tour operators.

“In our case, we have ship owners, and they then hire the technical management (all the crew), and then commercially, chartering out the ships to tour operators who do the sales and marketing. Then the tour operator or owner includes the hotel operations as a separate entity, or service, which can be outsourced.”

The corporate office in Miami, which employs a dozen people, handles all the key functions. “The lead functions are really operations, and then the food and beverage side, the purchasing, logistics, human resources, finance and accounting,” said Mr Wertanzl. “We also do our crewing all by ourselves with our worldwide hiring partners, from the Philippines, Europe and Australia to Central America - the crew for each ship is very international. In total, we have over 400 crew members on the ships.

Remote Logistical Challenges

“The main difference between the cruise and hotel industries is the remoteness of our ships and the associated logistical challenges,” said Mr Wertanzl. “Once a ship leaves port, let’s say, in Antarctica, you cannot re-supply anything because there are neither ports of call nor airports as such, to get anything on the ship. So the planning, in terms of logistics and supplying the vessels, is the biggest difference and challenge.”

Speaking from the CMI’s sunny Florida nerve centre, Mr Wertanzl said the overriding objective is to deliver the experiences on each and every ship that its passengers not just expect, but will never forget. 

“To achieve this we need to know everything about each ship,” he said. “We have constant interaction with our charterers and our tour operators in terms of special requests, services, menus and other requests before the passengers book the cruise.

“We are constantly communicating, but then the main thing for us is to time, lead, and supply the ships with everything they need; they are integrated with us.”

A Different Mind-Set

While Mr Wertanzl may have spent the best part of two decades residing in the Miami sunshine, he isn’t just an advocate of these winter wonderland type cruises; he is a keen and regular passenger too. But while the president of a company involved in such a niche cruise sector is understandably on board to the idea, what message does he have for the cruise loving majority who, perhaps through a lack of realising its viability, have yet booked, or even considered a holiday in colder, yet arguably more stunning, environments?   

“From a marketing point of view, it’s a completely different mind-set. The guests we have on the ships are running around with binoculars, are up early in the morning looking out for wildlife, plus the Zodiac RIBs is a key difference here. We don’t have any big shows or anything on the ships; people go there because they want to be educated about the region and about marine wildlife. It’s as I say ‘different strokes for different folks’. It’s not for everyone.”

With the CMI brand still in its early days, the objective sailing forward, said Mr Wertanzl is all about increasing awareness; not just from a company point of view, but promoting the entire market to a global audience. Concluding, Mr Wertanzl said both company and the specialty cruise market have great potential.

“We are very optimistic that the speciality cruise segment is going to grow, and we will have more opportunities to find more ship owners/operators and to provide our services to them. We’d hope that the segment will grow in size, maybe even double, in five to ten years.”