Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

CRUISE NEWS: Viking naming ceremonies break record

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AMSTERDAM -- You know the kind of travel day when you're swamped, things going wrong and you fall so far behind you fear you'll never make the plane on time? That's the kind of day I had as I left Canada for Amsterdam to cover the launch of 10 new Viking Longships in the fast-growing river-cruise industry.

As I checked into the KLM counter at the airport, I was told I'd been bumped -- more fear. Relax, Phil, it was "bumped" up to business class. That's when my travel day of anxiety changed. Food selections, fine wines and pampering were all wonderful, but my biggest thrill was hitting one button that turned my seat into a bed. For the first time in a long time, I arrived in Europe raring to go to work.

And there was a lot of work to do.

Waiting in temperatures that hovered around freezing near the train station on the Rhine river were rows of Viking River cruise ships -- dubbed Longships -- soon to be officially named. Four were here in Amsterdam, along with others launched last year -- and six more had champagne smashed on their bows at the Neptun Werft Shipyard in Rostock, linked by satellite to the Amsterdam festivities.

The 10 ships (all prefaced by "Viking") were christened Aegir, Atla, Bragi, Embla, Forseti, Jarl, Rinda, Skadi, Tor and Var, all named after Norse gods and each with a godmother, representing art, education, exploration and discovery. Each ship was also given a nautical blessing before the ribbons were cut.

Torstein Hagen, the outspoken chairman and CEO of the board and majority owner of Viking River Cruises, is the industry leader. Launching his 10 river ships on the same day broke the Guinness world record for such a feat, and my guess is he'll break it again next year when he launches 12 more Longships. By 2015, Hagen claims all Viking's older ships will be gone.

The average age of Viking cruisers is 66.

"We cater to boomers, and our marketing efforts are aimed at Canada, Britain, Australia and the U.S," he explains.

Hagen keeps his Longships simple. They don't feature pools, spas, gyms, hair salons, or even bicycles for shore excursions. His keep-it-simple philosophy maximizes cabin space, and allows him to sell, he says, about 15 per cent below the market. It must be working -- only 600 staterooms remain for 2013.

Viking has the most balconies on the river, plus two-room suites created by an offset hallway that leaves room for balcony cabins on the other.

En route to "owning the river," Hagen has implemented marketing and advertising studies that he says have created a 64 per cent awareness of his brand, compared to only 19 per cent for his nearest competitor.

The squaring of the ship's bow allows for an indoor-outdoor terrace for light fare. There's just one dining room -- he believes you can create good food by putting all efforts into one kitchen. Solar power helps propel his electric hybrid engines, making for a quieter ride.

There's no doubt Hagen wants to be known as King of the River and right now, he is.

-- Postmedia News

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 6, 2013 D2

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