Ponant, the French luxury small-ship line, is beginning to feel right at home in the Asia-Pacific region. It has released a new brochure for 2016-17 featuring 23 cruises to seven countries in Asia and numerous South Pacific journeys. In less than two years, Ponant has waved goodbye to rival Lindblad and created a firm local footprint, no doubt sweet irony for Ponant’s Australasian chairperson Sarina Bratton, known affectionately as the “first lady of cruise”.
Ms Bratton pioneered luxury expedition cruising with the Orion in 2004, a ship bought by Lindblad two years ago and now sailing the Mediterranean. But all of that is history as Ms Bratton deals with a ship fire in the Falklands and the enviable problem of not having enough cabins to meet demand. The ship fire crippled Le Boreal in November 2015, one of a quintet of superb expedition ships that epitomise the Ponant offering. Luckily, sister ship L’Austral and the British RAF were on hand.
Ms Bratton believes Ponant now has the luxury expedition market almost all to itself, and is keenly building Australasian destinations. She believes Ponant is supreme in the Polar Regions, and ship charters from China are flowing in. “China just wants to take more and more space in the polar regions, if we would give it to them,” Ms Bratton said.
Modern Scandinavian interiors and technology that can turn each ship from a luxury yacht in Europe to an Arctic explorer have given Ponant a competitive advantage. And while Silversea, Seabourn and Regent Seven Seas are also ramping up, Ms Bratton maintains that Ponant is still the only true expedition line around. “We’re very different. The world expedition ships, apart from the fact they’re old most – I think the average age is about 30 plus – cannot morph between expedition and luxury. We can do that anytime. “
The company was acquired recently by Artemis SA, the holding company of France’s billionaire Pinault family, adding to assets such as Christie’s, Chateau Latour and Gucci. Ms Bratton said the company was the sort of investor Ponant needed because the next stage is yet more growth. She believes eventually Ponant will need another four ships.
“The company must grow– we’re just running out of inventory and the sort of position that we’re in now already for 2016 and 2017 is so strong that we’ve got a limitation on inventory, which is a lovely position to be in – however it means that we really do need additional ships to continue to expand the business.
“We’ve got three ships down in Antarctica now, were going to have one of our vessels for the first time doing the New Zealand Sub Antarctica to Macquarie Island, so we are a polar specialist but also we see that, what we term as green and blue expedition having an enormous future as well.”