When Torstein Hagen, founder and chairman of Viking Cruises, shares the figures that prove Viking’s success since sailing into the cruise market 21 years ago, he calls them “propaganda”.

A warm, straight-talking man, whose inherent modesty never fails to raise a smile, Hagen founded what is now one of the fastest-growing cruise lines in the industry, achieving $3bn a year in revenue.

Making waves: ten ocean cruise ships in under ten years

Originally renowned for its high quality, destination-focused river cruises, the company now has 64 river vessels in operation, with seven under construction.

Despite people telling Hagen it wasn’t possible to start a new ocean cruise line, he took the market by storm in 2015 with the launch of Viking Star.

Viking Sea arrived in 2016, followed by Viking Sky and Viking Sun in 2017. The 228-metre-long Viking Orion, which was christened on 18 June 2018 during the “shakedown cruise” from Rome to Barcelona, makes a five-strong fleet of 930-passenger ocean cruise vessels.

“We have seen a 24% growth in the last twelve months at Viking, demonstrating that there is a huge demand for our product,” says Wendy Atkin-Smith, manager director of Viking Cruises UK. “This is fantastic given our ambitious plans to continue fleet expansion.”

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There are five more ships currently on the order book being built by Fincantieri: Viking Jupiter is launching in February 2019, Viking “VII” in February 2021, Viking “VIII” in February 2022, Viking “IX” in September 2022 and Viking “X” in 2023.

Each ship in the fleet is identical, with a few minor exceptions, such as Viking Orion’s unique Planetarium, which connects with a portable Sky-Watcher telescope and has broken several world records, such as it being the first 3D Planetarium on a ship; the highest definition Digistar Planetarium in the world; and the first mechanically-isolated dome, which means the Planetarium can be used while cruising.

A Viking success story

Life hasn’t always been plain sailing for Hagen. Having first entered the cruise industry in 1976, a failed attempt to take over a Dutch shipping company in the early nineties saw him lose almost everything. He tells the story of how he gained $1m on a tax loss, then made $5.5m on the Russian stock market and went on to raise a total of $8m to buy four Russian ships.

“Good things that are easy to understand – that is luxury.”

That was the start of Viking Cruises, which he now runs with his daughter and senior vice president of the company, Karine Hagen.

Among many other awards and accolades, Viking Cruises was recently voted “World’s Best Large-Ship Cruise Line” by Travel and Leisure magazine readers for the third consecutive year.

Although classed as a luxury cruise line, Hagen doesn’t like to use the word “luxury” to describe the high-level guest experience on board. “Luxury means so many things to different people and there’s always someone you disappoint,” he explains. He prefers “understated elegance” and is a fastidious pursuer of simplicity and attention to detail – such as the simple TV remote controls and the integrated USB plugs next to the beds.

“Good things that are easy to understand – in my simple world that is luxury,” he says.

Viking also defines itself by what it is not: no casinos, no children under 18, no smoking, no formal nights, no Wi-Fi charge, no inside rooms, no charge for alternative restaurants and no charge for beer and wine at lunch and dinner.

Despite the fast-growing success, Atkin-Smith says the biggest challenge Viking faces is ensuring that people understand “the Viking difference”, and its value for money in a “very crowded, discount-fuelled cruise market”.

The first mother in space becomes a godmother at sea

It was the first-rate reputation of Viking’s river cruises that led retired astronaut Dr Anna Fisher to become godmother to Viking Orion.

From being chosen as one of NASA’s first six female astronauts in 1978, to famously becoming the first mother in space on the Discovery flight in 1984, Fisher has just passed through four trailblazing decades. And yet she calls becoming godmother to Viking Orion “the most surreal experience of her life”.

Admitting she wasn’t the biggest cruise advocate in the world, she was persuaded by three friends (Vicky Thomas, Sara Favazza and Hal Mickelson) to take an Amsterdam to Basel river cruise to celebrate her retirement from NASA in 2017, when she was wrapping up her 39-year-long career.

“Along the way my friends held a retirement party, so they [Viking] found out I was an astronaut,” Fisher explains.

A post-cruise teleconference saw Karine Hagen officially invite Fisher to be the ship’s godmother. “It’s an incredible honour and so unexpected,” she says.

It was Fisher who named the ship Orion. Viking knew they wanted a space theme, so she suggested Orion as it is a constellation important for navigation, and because in her last job, she had been working on Orion, NASA’s deep space capsule. Many of her friends and colleagues – academics, scientists, explorers and fellow astronauts – joined Fisher for the naming ceremony and to explore Viking Orion on her maiden voyage in June.

High-level challenges and a culinary architect

Viking Orion’s stylish Scandinavian design exudes modern elegance and features areas that will spark interaction, such as the stylish and serene Wintergarden and the Explorer’s Bar, as well as relaxation. There are many nooks and crannies to sit and read Viking’s eclectic book collection, and there are photographs and artwork spread all over the ship. There is also a resident historian giving destination-themed lectures, as well as a resident astronomer.

Guests have the choice of two pools: a main one with a retractable roof and an infinity pool in front of the World Café, a dining room brimming with high-level buffet choices such as fresh, cooked-to-order prawns and an irresistible ice cream selection.

“The food service on board Viking Orion is exceptional, ambitious and consistent.”

Other dining options include: the Restaurant (fine dining); Chef’s Table (a multi-course tasting menu that is themed according to the destination with careful wine pairings); Manfredi’s (Italian); the Kitchen Table (regional dishes); Pool Grill (melt-in-the-mouth gourmet burgers); and Mamsen’s (Norwegian-style deli dishes).

The food service on board Viking Orion is exceptional, ambitious and consistent. Anthony Mauboussin, Viking Orion’s director of culinary development, delivers the company’s vision to the guests. Starting as a Chef de Partie under Michel Roux (a two-star Michelin chef at London’s Le Gavroche), Mauboussin has been working with Viking Cruises since 2014. At the beginning, he was planning menus for around 49 destinations, but the new ship additions mean that there are now 242 to manage.

He says that menu engineering for the current ocean cruises fleet takes around twelve months and describes himself as a “culinary architect”, explaining that he starts off by researching a destination’s history (like an architect starts off his building project) and fleshes out more and more details until the menu is ready.

He says that logistics are the biggest challenge to delivering at such a high level: “We usually work with the same suppliers and with the seasons, so we know the products we’re going to get. But itineraries can change for the whole season and end up in Europe, the US or Australia, and this is most challenging part to keeping product quality at the top.”

With wining and dining being such a significant part of the guest experience, menu familiarity is made easier through the Viking Voyager app.

Technology to enhance the guest experience on board

You may not expect a cruise line targeted at seniors to integrate an innovative digital ecosystem into its guest offering. However, the state-of-art Planetarium, on-board digital wayfinding screens, interactive stateroom television and table-top interactive screens for playing games – in addition to the meticulously-designed Viking Voyager app – show how technology is an integral part of Viking Ocean’s strategy to optimise the guest experience on board.

Despite the average age of guests being mid-seventies, Viking’s Innovation Team explains that the guests are very tech savvy, with around 80% carrying a smart device.

Around 90% of guests interact digitally with the company within the first four days of making a booking – through the online guest portal My Viking Journey (restaurant bookings can be made here also during the pre-cruise phase) – and, once on board, 25% of guests use Viking Voyager for an average of 11.5 minutes per day.

Viking Voyager connects to the free Wi-Fi on the ship, and, as well as making spa, excursion and restaurant reservations, guests can access their daily calendar and use the Newsstand (the result of a partnership with PressReader) to access over 6,000 worldwide newspaper and magazine titles.

The Art Guide, also a stand-alone app, is integrated into Viking Voyager to guide guests through the ship’s art display areas (although the artwork itself is ship specific).

In the future, online check-in will be faster as guests will be able to download a mobile boarding pass to their phone, and the team have plans to extend the app across its river cruise vessels.

With so many optimisations in the works, Hagen says the company feels like a start-up. “We’re young, dynamic and we do meaningful things,” he says, adding that time is “the scarcest commodity” so it is important to spend it wisely.