It starts off as an exercise of anticipation. First comes the softening drinks and teasing morsels which find their mark. The audience at this promotions gig is well heeled, of an age where they have money to burn, but nowhere to burn it. They have not travelled on a luxurious prison of bliss for eighteen months. The world has been ravaged by a pandemic, and they yearn to be ravished by the flavour, surrounds and excitement that is Viking Cruises.
Cruise liners are not for all but advertise themselves as the unrivalled option of travel for the satisfied life. But every satisfied life comes in gradations, levels, and categories. Pay more and the cabin room expands with magical effort. Pay more and the minibar miraculously replenishes. (Those who opt for the lesser option tend to find themselves having to pay more for other frills and accessories.) The exercise entails an effort to create a microclimate from home: you are away, but you never leave that sacred grove; you are on a journey, but you are still there, with your home comforts. You are, in fact, discouraged of seeing anything new, and anything new is heavily curated, even censored, to remove crinkles and crumples.
Viking Cruises claim to provide an ultrapure version of that experience. The cruise company, founded by Torstein Hagen, began in 1997 with four ships. The fleet ballooned to 82 vessels to gain primacy over ocean and river cruise routes. New markets were founded with buccaneering enthusiasm. In the 2000s, Hagen sensed an opportunity to lure tourists from the United States to Europe. The Chinese market followed. At the start of 2020, 30,000 Chinese passengers were ready to travel with the company. Forget the poor coach operators and the need to use multiple hotels during your journey. Take, instead, to water, your cruising home.
The Scandi flavour is essential. Minimalist décor; warmth and heating in rooms and saunas; ice and stimulation in baths; dining advertised as Scandinavian and American themed. Viking supplies a Nordic version of Ying and Yang, an attempt to awaken and soothe the body. There are also other activities: guest lectures, pursuits of leisure, and tailored cultural excursions that cut out wily middlemen, the proles and most of the locals. There is an unmistakable sense of being in a plush asylum at sea, where the wealthy flirt with change without enduring any, incubated by the narrowest of realities. It is highly filtrated tourism. No riff raff; no queues; no barging. Local flavour and indigenous feeling, eviscerated.
Go behind the gloss, however, and we have a corporate empire that has suffered from occasional villainy and accusation. In November 2019, passengers filed a class action lawsuit against Viking River Cruises division, alleging fraud, unjust enrichment and violations of California’s Unfair Competition Law and Consumers Legal Remedies Act. The main claim: that Viking had encouraged passengers to cough up tips for crew members, 10 percent of which were diverted to a tip account. Naughty.
That same year, another class action suit was filed alleging that Viking Cruises had “sailed through notoriously perilous waters into the path of a Bomb Cyclone where, due to the defendants’ negligence, the vessel lost power leaving the vessel adrift to be battered by high seas and winds as it drifted towards dangerous reefs.” Not the heavily pampered, curated tourist experience the claimants had hoped for.
Then came the novel coronavirus. Cruising on water suddenly seemed less safe. Horror stories were registered about infections at sea with people confined to their cabins. Ships were turned away from harbours as borders closed. In some cases, infected passengers seeded outbreaks. The Diamond Princess cruise ship became a public health experiment in real time, its 3,711 passengers and crew members putative lab rats. Epidemiologists were also thrilled at a chance to study the effects of virus in confinement. “Cruise ships are like an ideal experiment of a closed population,” Stanford University epidemiologist John Ioannidis told Nature.
Such experiments cost Hagen, who saw his personal wealth fall from $6.28 billion to $2.1 billion. His company had to rely on investments from the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board, an asset management company, and private equity firm TPG Capital. CPP Investments’ managing director, Bill MacKenzie, was clearly chancing his arm. “While the pandemic has posed many challenges, we have strong conviction that Viking’s unique global offering in the cruise industry will continue to be sought out by many guests well into the future.”
MacKenzie must have full barrels of conviction, given the losses arising from a global tourist market that went into hibernation in an instant. On March 11, 2020, Viking prided itself in a statement as being “the first cruise line to suspend operations of our river and ocean cruises. Our commitment to our family of guests and employees is that their safety and wellbeing is always our top priority.” Departures for the rest of 2020, and for a good deal of 2021, were also cancelled. The company, in an effort to redress the rot, offered a 125% Future Cruise Voucher to affected customers.
With those realities hovering over the evening’s proceedings at the W Melbourne hotel, there is an air of wishful hope over hard, pandemic worn experience. The two employees of Viking Cruises pushing the cruise product do their best putting on a brave face. They have, at their disposal, videos featuring Hagen, brochures and snappy slide shows.
There is something light about the Norwegian. Hagen appears like an apparition of assurance in these promotions, sedate and softly spoken. The videos feature him praising a brand, and a form of travel, in the time of coronavirus. He insists that his company is ahead of the times: guests will be tested on a daily basis in the least intrusive ways for COVID-19; physical distancing requirements will be policed with rigour. In terms of expertise, he touts the skills of Raquel C. Bono, the company’s newly appointed health officer.
Hiring Bono was very much part of the campaign to assuage customers. The company press release from November last year announcing her appointment brims with praise. “A board-certified trauma surgeon and retired Vice Admiral of the United States Navy Medical Corps, Dr Bono most recently led Washington State’s medical and healthcare systems response to the COVID-19 pandemic.” Her appointment also came in the wake of an announcement that Viking would “become the first cruise line to complete the installation of a full-scale polymerase chain reaction (PCR) testing laboratory at sea.” The lab rats could travel with confidence.
After the presentations come the worried questions. They are almost entirely focused on COVID-19. How would it affect future travel? Why bother with bookings that would have to be cancelled? This was tourism as a precarious contingency. The pleasure classes were anxious. Those charged with promoting the Viking brand could only point to small guarantees about bookings that could be held over. The rest was merely a case of purchasing tickets and crossing fingers.