TORONTO — For someone who’s travelled the world, there are few places left on earth that could stun Frédéric Jansen into silence. But stunned he was when he first sailed into the North Pole onboard PONANT’s Le Commandant Charcot.
During a trial run in September 2021, Jansen, Global Brand Ambassador for the French-owned, small-ship luxury cruise line PONANT, had no expectations prior to his arrival in the North Pole. But even if he did, the remote destination would have exceeded them all with its incredible landscapes and abundance of wildlife.
“You would think that the scenery would be boring and always the same, but it’s always different, always changing,” Jansen tells Travelweek. “We were doing 11 knots and we had two metres of ice. With Charcot being the world’s only luxury icebreaker, the ice shelves come into constant contact with the ship, creating small hills, which was very interesting. The power of the ship breaking the ice was really amazing, and yet everybody onboard said the journey was smooth and vibration-free.”
On the voyage’s final day, Jansen spotted 10 polar bears and, incredibly, a blue whale, not to mention more seals than he could count. Days were spent finalizing activities both on and off the ship, including lectures led by experts and naturalists, kayaking and snowshoeing, and also sampling incredible global fare designed by PONANT’s longstanding partner, 21 Michelin star chef Alain Ducasse. All this was done in preparation for Le Commandant Charcot’s inaugural voyage to the North Pole, which was successfully held in July 2022, marking the first time passengers onboard a luxury passenger vessel had reached the most northern point of the earth’s axis of rotation. PONANT will now be offering four North Pole voyages onboard Le Commandant Charcot every summer.
“Everything about the voyage was special, from the wildlife and excursions, to the landscapes and the food onboard. And the colours – you cannot imagine the colours you’ll see up there. The ship is built in such a way that there are a lot of open windows, allowing you to see this beautiful and wild landscape right outside,” adds Jansen.
North Pole voyages are just a fraction of new offerings for PONANT. In truth, the luxury line, says Jansen, makes it a point to always offer something new, whether it be brand new itineraries, new ports or exciting new activities. New for 2023, for example, is an overnight Polar Trek on East Greenland itineraries for 8-10 guests, which for an added cost, includes a special Inuit village visit.
“We try to have new itineraries and new products all the time. We always try to find new places to amaze you, and to experience them in new ways,” says Jansen.
To help spread the word about the PONANT brand and its incredible product lineup, Jansen is in Canada this week for a multi-city road show with stops in Toronto and Montreal. He admits that PONANT isn’t as well known in Canada as other luxury cruise lines, but he’s hoping that will change now that Canada’s borders have reopened, luxury travel is quickly rebounding, and more and more Canadians are looking to indulge and explore.
“The idea now is to develop certain markets around the world, especially the Americas including Canada and the U.S., because we tend to have an increasing number of guests really interested in our product,” says Jansen. “We actually have three sales reps in Canada now. Canadians have the budget to travel, they want to travel, and they realize that life is going by really fast. So I think we’re here in the Canadian market at the right time, and we have the right product to entice Canadians.”
Part of Canada’s big marketing push is a special travel advisor offer for the entire month of November. Every time an advisor deposits a new booking, they’ll earn a gift card of up to $500 per stateroom, plus their client will receive a 5% discount.
In a sit-down with Travelweek prior to his Toronto visit, Jansen talked about the unique selling points of PONANT, how winter bookings are shaping up and how the cruise line is redefining the term luxury.
For those who are unfamiliar with the brand, what makes PONANT so special?
“I worked for various cruise lines, including ones with big ships, prior to joining PONANT as a cruise director. And I must say, PONANT was a product that amazed me because of the atmosphere onboard. It’s luxury but not uptight. You don’t need to wear a tuxedo or a tie for gala evenings. But it’s still very much a luxury experience because you see the officers very often, guests never feel like they’re just a number onboard, and we go to places few cruise lines go. That is luxury to me, to be where nobody else has been before, like the North Pole.
“But what also sets us apart is the global atmosphere onboard. Everything onboard is done in French and English. A few years ago, I’d say the majority of our guests were French-speaking, but that has shifted to more than 50% being non-French speaking. This makes for a very nice international group onboard, which makes the journey that much more interesting. And this is also reflected in the cuisine onboard – of course, there is excellent French cuisine but there’s also a focus on international fare to cater to all tastes.
“And lastly, I need to point out the size of our ships. We never exceed 240 guests, which allows us to do things you just can’t do on bigger ships. We currently have 12 ships, including Le Ponant, which has a maximum 32 guests, and our six Explorer ships that carry 184 maximum guests, and our four sister ships with a maximum 220 guests, though we limit that to 200 in Antarctica. And finally Le Commandant Charcot, which can go up to 240 but we also tend to limit it to 200 guests onboard.”
How would you describe the PONANT onboard experience?
“If you’re booked on an expedition, whether polar or tropical, all the outings are included. Plus, you’ve got unlimited Wi-Fi, an open bar so you can enjoy champagne 24 hours a day, you can order breakfast in your stateroom – all of it is included. Basically, if you don’t go to the spa or boutique onboard, your bill will be zero at the end of the cruise.
Also, for the moment, we have scientists sailing on just Le Commandant Charcot to provide insight into local landscapes to our guests. But we plan on introducing this program on all our ships starting in 2023.”
Where do you sail?
“We sail all around the world. We have 25% of our itineraries in Europe, including the Med, Northern Europe, Great Britain and Scotland. We go to the Arctic, to Antarctica and of course the North Pole now thanks to our icebreaker, Le Commandant Charcot. We have other itineraries in Australia, the Seychelles, in the Caribbean of course. In North America, we do the Great Lakes, we go to Central and South America as well. We’re seeing a lot of success in the Canadian market with Europe, with the Mediterranean, but also the Seychelles, Central and South America, and the Poles as well. And more and more guests from Canada are now looking at Le Commandant Charcot for amazing itineraries both in the Arctic and Antarctica.”
How are winter 2022-23 bookings so far? Are bookings back to pre-pandemic levels?
“We’re exceeding levels in some cases, but this also has to do with the fact we have seven new ships now: two new ships in 2019, two new ships in 2020, and three new ships in 2021. The company has grown really fast. All our Explorer ships and the Charcot are brand new, and we need to fill them. But we’re doing really well with 80%-85% occupancy. And 2022-23 is looking good as well. In 2019, guests would typically book one and a half years in advance, but now it’s more nine months to a year in advance. With PONANT, the earlier you book, the better it is. You don’t get last-minute deals. You get 30% when we open sales, usually one and a half years before the cruise starts. And then it goes from 30% bonus to 25%-20% as the ship is filled.”
Is there one destination that you don’t currently sail to but would like to?
“We have been trying to go to the Galapagos for years and years and years, but it’s a bit of a geopolitical situation. But at PONANT, we never stop trying or believing. There is always hope – without hope, there is no life!”
What’s your message to travel agents? What do you want them to know about PONANT?
“I would simply say, come onboard. We try to have as many fam trips as possible, we have so many departures at 50% off so please contact your sales representative.
“But the most basic message would be our small ships offer all the comforts onboard, coupled with our amazing destinations. It’s a luxury experience through and through. Our captains will wake you up in the middle of the night for the Northern Lights. They will do everything they can to give guests the best possible experience. And we go to places where we know the wildlife will be there, where local populations are going to welcome you with open arms. Just try PONANT, and you will see the difference.”
To learn more about PONANT’s 2023 North Pole voyages, click here.
To watch a video of PONANT’s first voyage to the North Pole, click here.
PONANT is represented in English-speaking Canada by Cruise Strategies. For more information contact Olga Sebestova, Manager, Brand Marketing, at firstname.lastname@example.org.