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Richard Marnell, the man that’s helped make a name for Viking River Cruises and the river cruising industry, started his travel marketing career more than 18 years ago selling safari vehicles in developing countries.
For the past six years, he’s leveraged more than $400 million to raise awareness of the Viking brand and river cruising industry. As part of our Skift50 launch, we caught with Marnell to learn more about how the brand emerged in a fledging industry and how it combats negative perception of its sister ocean cruising industry.
Skift: Can you tell us a little about your marketing background and how long you’ve been with Viking?
Richard Marnell: I started in travel in 1990 with a company that sold trucks and safaris in exotic developing countries. We were bought out by a larger travel company. I moved into that company and came up in a data-based marketing group adding up to 18 years of travel experience. I became the head of Viking’s North American marketing in late 2007.
Skift: What role has marketing played in bring Viking River Cruises to market and raising awareness of the river cruise industry?
Richard Marnell: Viking has spent more than $400 million [cumulative to date] in marketing and creating awareness for river cruising and for the Viking brand. Viking really was one of the creators of the category and today we have 47 percent of market share.
Back in 2007, it was at 20 percent. That growth in market share has been driven by essentially the awareness, the marketing efforts, and the product enhancements that we’ve made to the experience over the years.
Skift: What were some of Viking’s marketing highlights in 2013?
Richard Marnell: There are two in particular that I’ll cite. In March of this year, we had a naming christening in event in Amsterdam in which we launched and christened 12 Viking long ships, which are our core vessels. It’s a patented revolutionary design of river cruise ship.
We came out with the first ones in 2012, but this year we had the great pleasure of christening 12 at one time. That was big milestone. I was just at our TV/media buyer and they were showing us sentiment in Viking chronologically over the year and that was a very big spike for us.
In May of this year, our chairman Torstein Hagen launched Viking Ocean Cruises. Essentially, we are building a small ocean cruise vessel that is going to go to areas that our river cruises can not. Primarily, it will be sailing in the Baltic and the Mediterranean. We had a launch of the marketing and selling of that, and an unveiling of what the product will be and look like.
Skift: The ocean cruise industry has received a lot of negative publicity over the past two years. How do you differentiate river cruising from the ocean cruise industry? And now that Viking is entering the ocean cruise industry, how do you differentiate the product from Carnival or Royal Caribbean?
Richard Marnell: We are focused on small-ship cruising and the destination. And it is an all-inclusive product. We are essentially spending more time in port and we’re focusing on really bringing our passengers to the destination and facilitating as much time in the destination as possible. The other larger ocean cruise companies look to keep you onboard and essentially to gain as much onboard revenue as possible. What we’re looking to do is really feature the destination that you’re going to and traveling so far to see.
With river cruising, it’s a little bit easier. It’s a much smaller ship with 190 passengers and guests are in a new destination every day. There are no sea days and you are docking in the center of the destination’s old town. With river cruising, it’s much easier to differentiate yourself because it has all the benefits of a touring program with only having to unpack once, and having your transportation be an experience going down the river.
Skift: What are Viking’s most commonly use forms of marketing?
Richard Marnell: We do just about all forms in varying degrees. We certainly are on television, we do a fair amount of catalogues, we have fantastic travel trade partners that we work with and travel agents that we work with. And we have digital marketing.
Skift: Does one platform dominate the majority of your marketing spend?
Richard Marnell: Certainly, but that’s something that I’d rather not share.
Skift: How do you battle the perception that river cruises are for older travelers?
Richard Marnell: By its nature, travel of this sort is most appealing to age 55 plus. We’re okay with that; we’re very comfortable with that. We’ve developed our product with that age demographic in mind. And we don’t try to be everything to everyone. For us, we see that as an advantage as opposed to a disadvantage.
Skift: You’re not interested in getting a millennial traveler or a family onboard?
Richard Marnell: No, that’s an entirely different product and what we’ve done is tailor the product experience for the 55+ culturally curious in mind. It enables a much cleaner, single product that then is very appealing to that demographic. And it’s a more singular marketing message. We’re able to communicate it much clearer and easier.
Skift: Are your marketing campaigns created in-house or by an outside agency?
Richard Marnell: A mix. We do a fair amount of our work in-house, but we also have external partners that we work with. And we have several so I’d rather not name one singular one.
Skift: What role does social media and user-generate content play in your marketing campaign?
Richard Marnell: We have a very large presence on Facebook. We have over 350,000 fans and it is a very active place for our folks that are booked to travel but haven’t departed yet to basically go and talk to other Viking travelers. We see social sharing of our product as be a huge thing going forward and something that we’ll be spending a lot more focus on.
Skift: Do you have new social media campaigns planned for 2014?
Richard Marnell: Yes.
Skift: Can you tell me anything about them?
Richard Marnell: Hopefully it will be successful and to the degree that they are successful then you’ll know about them. The ones that aren’t successful, nothing will happen and you won’t know about them.
Skift: Can you explain the evolution of the “Downton Abbey” sponsorship, how you created ads to fit that audience, and the impact it’s had on bookings?
Richard Marnell: It’s had a hugely positive impact on bringing awareness to Viking and it’s helped enormously with bookings. We saw the Downton sponsorship as an opportunity to create a creative that would pedestal the brand, that would really set us apart. We really tried to match the feeling and the class that masterpiece brings with the style of creative that we did.
We wanted to bring to life the destination that we visit and really make that the showcase, and then also give a glimpse as to the type of accommodation we offer and the type of experience that we offer when you’re with us. We feel that’s gone very very well. We look forward to continuing the partnership as well.
Skift: Has Viking done any partnerships that are similar to its relationship with “Downton Abbey”?
Richard Marnell: Not on that scale. We would certainly consider it were another opportunity to come along, but it is not something that we’ve run into yet.
Richard Marnell: We’re able to offer a better value because of our scale. Let’s say for argument’s sake that they are comparable products, then we’re able to offer it at a lower price because of the scale at which we operate.
Another way is that we market and they don’t. That’s creates an awareness differentiation.
Third is we have preferential docking in many of the towns in which we visit that they don’t have. We have better docking locations closer to the old towns.
Fourth is our vessels. We have a choice of state rooms that is essentially a full range so folks on a different budget can make a whatever choice fits their travel style. We have everything from more economical cabins to Explorer Suites, which are expansive two-room suites.
And lastly, and probably most importantly, we’ve become the employer of choice on the rivers which enables us to retain the best staff that is on the rivers. And in that staff is everything from your program directors to your ship stewards to your wait staff, the graciousness with which they serve our guests is another point of distinction.
Skift: Your competitors don’t market at all?
Richard Marnell: It’s very very limited. They are growing at a much slower rate so it allows us to capture more market share.
Skift: What about challenges for 2014, and for the ocean cruising product?
Richard Marnell: From the marketing perspective, one of the bigger challenges we have is maintaining the balance of demand to make sure that we capture and create the right amount of demand for rivers in 2014. And then keep the awareness and excitement high for ocean cruises even though we won’t be sailing it for the first time until May 2015.
It’s in balancing our marketing, ensuring that we maintain the right balance of awareness. It’s a difficult thing to keep perfect, but it’s an important thing that we’ll watch closely this year.
Discover more of the travel industry’s best marketing strategies at Skift50 – World’s Top Travel Marketers of 2013.