Considerable column inches have been devoted to the travails of the cruise industry. In this column I bring news of a man leading a phoenix-like revival of one of the industry’s most established brands, confident there is a prospective niche despite present difficulties
The Swan Hellenic brand is synonymous with cultural travel. As the name implies, early voyages were around the Mediterranean and to sites of academic and archaeological interest. The brand evolved from a charterer of vessels to an owner of vessels, the first in the fleet being the conversion of a Russian research vessel Minerva. Part of the team leading that project was Andrea Zito. Today as chief executive officer he is leading Swan Hellenic’s present-day revival; the brand having lain dormant following the demise of All Leisure.
The vision for the new Swan Hellenic is to become market leaders in ‘expedition cultural cruising’. A couple of vessels are presently under construction at Helsinki Shipyard, the only yard a year ago with slots for delivery in 2021. The vessels are being built to the Polar Code 5 standard, a decision that allows the vessels to extend their area of operation and its cruising season.
The expedition cruise market has seen a spate of newbuilding orders over the last 2-3 years; however, Mr Zito is convinced there remains a good market. The Polar Code notation – which calls for both hull strengthening and a thicker propeller – also means the vessel should be able to reach remote parts other vessels cannot reach. The designs reflect conventional shaft lines and diesel-electric propulsion. The stabilisers however are outsized: the itineraries will take the vessels into harsh environments. Crossing the Drake Passage, the deep, 1,000-km wide waterway connecting the Atlantic and Pacific oceans between Cape Horn and the South Shetland Islands, is not easy even in summer.
By adding, in Mr Zito’s words, ‘surface and power’ to the stabilisers, the vessels will have better rolling and dampening even at lower speeds. “The problem is that stabilisers are often designed just for higher speed and are not effective at lower speeds,” he says. The upshot is the vessels have to reduce speed to increase the stabilising effect with obvious implications for sailing schedules and fuel consumption.
The vessels will also have large battery packs allowing for noise and emissions-free travel when sailing through protected areas as well as silent stays when in ports. Opting for battery packs also overcomes the lack of supply chain to support travel using alternative fuels and is energy efficient, as the batteries can absorb extra power and release extra power for peak shaving during operations. Mr Zito confirmed discussions with various suppliers of battery packs were underway.
Vessel design is characterised by very large open areas and deck spaces which allow for both free movement of passengers and an unobstructed view. “We want the guests to be fully immersed in the experience.” The interiors have been designed by Tillberg Design of Sweden. The brief was ‘Scandi Chic’ which Mr Zito defines as a functional elegance with none of the negative connotation sometime attached to luxury design.
Our discussion of course took in Covid-19. “This is not the elephant in the room,” says Mr Zito. “It is in fact the room we are living in. It has permeated every aspect of our lives and will permeate everything we do in the future. But keep in mind our industry is resilient. We have been implementing measures to prevent Legionella disease for 30 years and the Nova (Noro) virus for 20 years.” On board, a higher level of filtration has been specified for HVAC and ultraviolet filters in the air conditioning systems. Swan Hellenic will also partner with a (soon to be announced) medical specialist to guide operations when the vessels enter into service. “We are in a better position versus larger ships as we only have 152 guests and being a smaller vessel means we have table service rather than buffets. Of course, expedition cruising means that by definition you are going away from the crowds."
A strategic expansion plan is in place and further announcements are expected. A bright spot on an otherwise challenging horizon for the cruise industry.