Debbie Marshall from Silver Travel Advisor talks to Laura Cochrane, Head of Marketing for Noble Caledonia, about the history of the company, its latest addition to the fleet, and her personal favourites.
Noble Caledonia is truly a family business. Can you tell me how it all began?
Twenty years ago, Andy Cochrane (current Managing Director of Noble Caledonia) telephoned Christer Salén in Stockholm, the then owner of the small expedition ship, MS Caledonian Star and suggested they form a company in London that would be responsible for the marketing of his vessel. This was at the time the first Gulf War when travel was in the doldrums and when perhaps most ship owner’s response would have been to lay up the vessel and wait for better times. Not so Christer, with just one ten minute call an agreement was reached to form a company, and so began Noble Caledonia.
Within the week Andy and Christer had agreed on the company name, had the company registered, accommodated in offices in Charles Street, Mayfair and advertisements ready for the weekend papers. Brochures were hurriedly produced and by the beginning of the next week Noble Caledonia was ready to receive bookings. I am not sure if this is a record for quickest set up of a travel company ever, but it must be high on the list. Today, with all the additional bureaucratic requirements it would not be possible, but just twenty years ago it certainly was, albeit with some luck and much goodwill from many quarters.
Speed was of the essence, our expedition ship, the MS Caledonian Star, was tied up on a dockside, fully staffed but with no passengers. At breakneck speed, itineraries were planned, expedition staff employed and advertisements placed in the Telegraph, Times and all number of publications. The MS Caledonian Star was by far the most important factor in our initial success. Many of our clients will remember her with great affection as we operated cruises as far away as the Russian Far East, Indonesia, New Zealand and the South Pacific. At the time the cruises we were offering were unique in the UK.
Which is your favourite ship and why?
There are so many to choose from, all with their own unique qualities and selling points but my favourite would have to be our very own MS Island Sky. She is the perfect size for the style of ‘small ship cruising’ we promote. Small enough to access remote ports and bays or drop anchor in any suitable spot yet large enough to offer every comfort from all-suite accommodation to single sitting dining in the restaurant or on deck. Whenever I am onboard the Island Sky, I am always so grateful when we arrive back to the vessel after an excursion to be able to walk straight onboard as opposed to having to queue up to embark like we see the passengers do on the big ships. The atmosphere onboard the Island Sky is more akin to a country house hotel rather than what people may expect onboard a typical cruise ship and with only 100 or so fellow guests, you quickly make friends with passengers and the crew. A typical day involves an excursion, lunch back onboard and then either another excursion in the afternoon or a wander around the town, a lecture from one of the onboard speakers followed by dinner which, when weather permits is on the lido deck. After dinner there is usually some music in the bar. I also like the informal dress code onboard which is actually similar on all of our cruises, there are no black tie events and people just dress a little more formally than normal for the Captain’s Welcome and Farewell dinners.
I’ve heard that your clients are very loyal – why do you think that is?
We count ourselves very lucky to have such loyal clients and the success of the company is built on their unfailing support. Many thousands of our regular travellers have completed between three and five trips, many hundreds between five and ten trips and considerable numbers have travelled 10-30 times in the past twenty years. We get to know our regular clients and learn from their feedback. Through regular mailings to our substantial list of past passengers we have been able to build a strong base as well as keeping the post office profitable! We endeavour to always have something different on offer for our regular travellers, whether that be river cruising, small ship and expedition cruising or voyages under sail. Being a privately owned business operated by seasoned travel professionals rather than accountants, we have the freedom to create and operate trips for what we consider to be the right reasons. Of course the bottom line is important, but first and foremost we are travel people and when devising a new trip we take much more into consideration. Having such an outlook has kept our business fresh and buoyant even through the recent tough market conditions. I believe another reason clients continue to travel with us time and time again, is that when we do occasionally encounter issues with our cruises, whether delayed flights, civil unrest, bad weather etc, we ensure our clients are well taken care of and do all in our power to ease any anxiety.
Which is your favourite cruise destination?
This is a very hard question and whilst I have seen many of the vessels we use, I have only been on a few cruises although there are many on my wish list! My favourite to date has to be a cruise aboard the MS Island Sky to the Indian Ocean and Madagascar. It was my first visit to mainland Africa and an experience I will never forget. To be out in the Zodiacs at sunrise and being surrounded by pods of dolphins was without doubt one of the most amazing experiences of my life and then to land on remote stretches of coast in Tanzania and Mozambique and visit the national parks in Madagascar with our onboard ornithologists and botanists made me realise why people become addicted to expedition style cruising. You really do feel privileged to be visiting areas off the well beaten tourist track and places inaccessible by any other means than small ship and/or zodiacs. Closer to home, I joined a cruise around the Scottish Highlands aboard the MS Quest three years ago and simply couldn’t believe how beautiful the landscape was and how peaceful the lochs were. I am not even your typical outdoors type of person, but one of the highlights was a soft hike on Tanera Mor in the Summer Isles which was simply stunning and we also landed on Rhum and saw such an array of wildlife. We visited Iona which had the most unique atmosphere of anywhere I have ever been. I had read about the spiritual feeling which many experience on the island and as soon as I set foot on the island could understand what they meant. The highlight of that cruise though has to be St Kilda, a truly remarkable place and somewhere that is hard to find the right adjectives to describe (even for someone in marketing!). For me that is the joy of small ship cruising, the fact you can access such places which are otherwise inaccessible with ease and in comfort and accompanied by experts.
What is your best tip for a stress free journey?
Pack light and always have a good book! The main thing which causes me stress when travelling, especially when using budget airlines or travelling around a lot while on holiday is having too much luggage. I have lost count of the amount of times I have over packed only to return home with a case full of unworn clothes so I now make a conscious effort to only pack what is necessary and constantly remind myself that there are very few places in the world where I will be unable to purchase anything I need or run out of! I also always ensure I have a good book or two to while away the hours waiting at airports. To be stuck without a book would be a nightmare for me so I am reliant on my kindle when travelling.
I’ve heard that you have been busy buying a new ship recently. Are you able to tell us more about this?
Yes we have recently acquired the MS Caledonian Sky which was formerly known as the Hebridean Spirit. The vessel is just perfect for us as she is sister ship to the MS Island Sky. Having both been built at the same ship yards at similar times, they share the same excellent attributes. She is currently in Sweden being treated to seven months of TLC ensuring she is in fine form for her arrival in London in May 2012 and for her first cruise with us. The vessel was in excellent shape when we acquired her but her recent history as a private yacht has meant we need to make certain changes to the suite arrangement and public areas. We are all very excited to have two sister vessels operating in different parts of the world and therefore be able to offer something for everyone. The long term plan is for the MS Caledonian Sky to be based in the Pacific and operate cruises around New Zealand, Australia, the South Pacific, Japan, Indonesia Alaska and the Russian Far East. All areas where we have chartered vessels before and know to be perfect for small ship expedition cruising so to have our very own vessel there is very exciting. However for her maiden voyages she will be in the British Isles, Iceland, Norway and the White Sea before making her way across to Greenland, Eastern Canada and the Americas.
Any predictions for cruising in the future?
I would like to think that the realm of small ship cruising, which is still relatively unknown will become more familiar to first time cruisers and to those who perhaps don’t see them as a typical cruise people. The strength of so many of our itineraries are the experiences that are to be had while onboard and with the digital age well and truly upon us, these type of experiences are far easier to convey to people through the use of online video and imagery.
Why do you think Silver Travellers would enjoy a Noble Caledonia cruise?
Well, at the risk of sounding like a broken record, first and foremost I believe it is the size of our ships which is most appealing followed closely by the fact we know our clients. To travel with 100 or so fellow travellers and an experienced expedition team or guest speakers creates such a convivial atmosphere onboard where everyone gets to know each other. The size of our vessels also mean that more often than not we are able to moor in the heart of towns and cities as opposed to at the bigger ports out of town and when possible, we always try to either moor overnight or leave cities such as Dubrovnik late at night after the big ships have departed so we have time for a pre or after dinner stroll without the crowds. Then there are the in-depth itineraries. Even after ten years I am still often taken by surprise at the amount of planning some of our more detailed and demanding itineraries entail and this is something I personally believe we excel at. A prime example being our cruises along the western coast of Africa aboard the MS Island Sky. On one cruise you can visit 11 countries and to liaise with land agents in each port of call demands intensive planning and well orchestrated execution. That is not to say the itineraries are too packed or tiring, I think based on the fact we know our clients and what they enjoy, we have the mix between interesting excursions and time spent at leisure or exploring the towns and cities at a relaxing pace just right. It is also the calibre of our onboard staff which is second to none whether it be the crew, expedition team or captains. We all work together to ensure we offer best of service and this creates a rounded style of operation which is necessary for the smooth running of a small ship.
And finally, what do you do in your spare time (if you have any!)?
I am lucky to be in the job I am as travel is my passion. On my to do list this year are the Galapagos islands and hopefully some of the Baltic states. Having written so many brochures on the Baltic, it is an area I am keen to explore in reality as opposed to from my desk!
Silver Travel Advisor recommends Noble Caledonia