The rich splash out on ships

Wealthy entrepreneurs are carving a niche in the cruise industry with an eye on an underserved demographic

NEW YORK • It was a cold July day in Reykjavik, Iceland, and French arts patron Maryvonne Pinault was at a pier fulfilling her godmother duties for Le Laperouse, the first of six 184-passenger, upscale ships from her husband's cruise line Compagnie du Ponant.

French billionaire Francois Pinault was not there to watch his wife smash a bottle of champagne against the ship's hull in the time-honoured nautical tradition. But it was always going to be her ship more than his; buying the cruise company was her idea, after all.

In 2015, his holding company, Groupe Artemis, acquired Ponant. Now the cruise line, which reports annual revenues of about US$182 million (S$249 million), is part of a luxury portfolio that also includes Gucci, Christie's auction house and famed vineyard Chateau Latour.

The Pinaults are joining a tight-knit community of billionaires in the cruise industry, from newcomer Richard Branson to self-made Norwegian upstart Torstein Hagen.

In an industry very much dominated by top players - Carnival and Royal Caribbean Cruises control 70 per cent of the market - it is mostly niche segments such as Ponant's that are attracting wealthy entrepreneurs, said Mr Brian Egger of Bloomberg Intelligence.

Despite barriers to entry such as the cost and time it takes to build ships, he noted that the industry can be a "good bet", especially if you are going after an underserved demographic.

The potential market is expansive. According to the Cruise Lines International Association trade group, cruising is a US$126-billion industry which has plenty of room to make a bigger splash.

Mr Egger said only about 20 per cent of Americans have taken cruises, and the number is smaller for Europeans and smaller still for Asians. Get new cruisers on a ship, though, and they are very likely to become repeat clients.

Mr Branson identified one such niche before announcing his intention to start a cruise line in 2014: Virgin Voyages.

With significant funding from Bain Capital, he is spending US$2.55 billion to build three adults-only ships for so-called "rebels with a cause", starting with the 2,700-passenger Scarlet Lady, slated for completion in 2020.

It will have a naked mermaid on its hull, mostly serving the Caribbean market and employing a Scarlet Squad that promotes female leadership within the crew.

Malaysian billionaire Lim Kok Thay, chairman of resorts and casinos company Genting Group, has been reshaping the luxury cruise market since he acquired Crystal Cruises in 2015 for US$550 million.

He is not as new to the cruise industry as Mr Branson.

His company also owns Asia's Star Cruises and Dream Cruises and maintains a small stake in Norwegian Cruise Line.

But with Crystal, he is delving into the global industry's top-end sector and making it even friendlier for the world's richest cruisers.

Under Mr Lim's stewardship, Crystal has undergone a lightning-fast expansion. The company, which had just two ships at the time of acquisition, has bought and renovated an existing river ship, built four new, all-suite river vessels to sail the Danube and Rhine, added a charter jet service, purchased three shipyards and ordered an additional ocean-and-expedition ship.

And there is Madame Pinault, who fell in love with Ponant and its environmental credentials on a cruise to Antarctica.

She and her husband are leaning into the niche. In addition to the six ships, the Pinaults have also commissioned the world's first electric-hybrid icebreaker powered by liquefied natural gas.

While the romance and favourable economics of the cruise industry are likely to continue to attract wealthy entrepreneurs, even those with ocean-deep pockets still face risks in the trade.

"Cruise sales are affected by swings in consumer discretionary demand and the price of fuel, the expense for which amounted to between 6 per cent and 8 per cent of Carnival's sales in the past three years," said Mr Egger.

Also, hurricanes and geopolitical events can disrupt itineraries.

"Fortunately for cruise operators, ships, unlike their land-based hospitality rivals, are mobile assets that can be redeployed to avoid stormy weather - both political and meteorological," he added.

If anyone understands why cruising can make waves, that person is Mr Hagen. A cruise industry executive, he took a big bet when he emptied his bank account in 1997 to buy four river ships.

The company he created - to take North American tourists through Russia-Viking River Cruises - has since grown to 64 river ships, with an additional seven due next year.

So large is the reach that nearly half of the North Americans who take a river cruise in Europe do so on one of his ships.

Mr Hagen's secret is anchored in an all-inclusive fare that eliminates such standard upcharges as shore excursions and booze.

Just as important, he designs ships to his own tastes. They serve Norwegian salmon, his favourite food, and boast streamlined contemporary furnishings because those are what he likes.

In plotting the smoothest path for his company, his ships sail with only square wastebaskets in guestrooms - because they are better for catching wadded-up paper.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on September 16, 2018, with the headline 'The rich splash out on ships'. Print Edition | Subscribe