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EXPLORA I set sail on her maiden journey from Copenhagen on Aug. 1, and because we wanted to hear first impressions directly from the Explora Journeys executives, we caught up with Michael Ungerer, CEO, and Chris Austin, chief sales officer, during Virtuoso Travel Week.

“It was amazing,” Ungerer tells Recommend. “Very exhilarating and totally rewarding. It’s hard for me as I don’t like to brag, but now I can give you actual feedback. Some travel advisors commented to me that ‘we actually felt that you overpromised, but you actually overdelivered on the overpromise.’ They understand the brand now, the product, the boutique hotel vibe, the cosmopolitan feel, the attention to detail, the variety and caliber of the food, and the hosts [crew]—we recruited from luxury hotels and that they really understand.”

Adds Austin, “The ship exceeded my personal expectations. One of the most common words we heard was ‘wow.’ There’s a wonderful arrival experience, beautifully elegant and then you enter the lobby, the heart of the ship, and it’s absolutely spectacular. This is where you really feel the European design…it’s a dramatic space.”

Austin notes that the travel advisors he spoke with were blown away, with many telling him that he had told a bold story, but that EXPLORA I truly “overdelivers.” One of the most notable design elements throughout the ship is how it invites the outside in, keeping to Explora Journeys’ “ocean state of mind” mantra. “The continuity of the design is fabulous,” says Austin. “It’s very calming, it all harmonizes very well.”

When it comes to the ship’s F&B offerings, “be prepared to put on a few extra pounds,” says Austin with a smile. “We over-exceeded expectations. We have six restaurants and there’s a lot of variety across those venues. One thing I want to say about our restaurants, we require reservations at three and that gives the impression to some of our guests that those three are better than the others, but we really do not have restaurants that are better than others. [That said] there’s Anthology, which you could say is our signature restaurant and whose chef runs his own three-star Michelin restaurant in Italy. It’s exceptional and requires a dining experience fee, with guests telling me that ‘you can charge three times as much as you’re charging.’

“The other five restaurants don’t have a dining experience fee, but two require reservations—Sakura and Marble & Co. Grill—due to size. It was delightful when guests were saying to me on their third or fourth night, ‘I finally got to Fil Rouge, didn’t need a reservation and it’s become my favorite restaurant.’ By the way, all the steaks at Marble & Co. Grill are from Europe as it’s a European steakhouse, so you’ll get steaks from France, Germany, Sweden…. It’s quite unique. The culinary experience across all the restaurants is amazing actually.”

Guests and travel advisors, continues Austin, were also wowed with the suites. “They noticed the space—the lead-in suite is 377 sq. ft.—they noticed the amount of light pouring in and the beautiful terrace with the Italian deep-cushion daybed facing directly out to the ocean because of the space. There’s plenty of storage, with every suite featuring a walk-in closet.”

The ship is set sail across the Atlantic Sea via Greenland to spend the autumn in North America, the winter in the Caribbean and spring on the U.S. west coast and Hawaii before returning to Europe in summer 2024 for a collection of journeys in the Mediterranean Sea. EXPLORA I offers 7- to 11-night sailings that are all combinable, with non-conventional arrival and departure times combined with overnight stays in port.

Value Savings for EXPLORA I

Many travel advisors were waiting to see the ship launch and waiting to see what the experience would be like, but now, says Austin, “we need the travel advisors to support us. In terms of our partnership with travel advisors, we came out very bold. We pay commissions very fast on deposits—one of the few companies that do that. If advisors take advantage of the Explora Early Booking Benefit (EEBB) guests get a 5 percent value savings and advisors get 100 percent of their commissions within 21 days of receipt. The cancelation on a fully paid booking is basically zero because guests are so invested and they love the value savings. We also have a mantra—we don’t discount. Value savings at the beginning before anyone has paid us is not a discount—discounting in our world is when you discount a month or two before sailing to try and fill a ship. That creates a bit of an upset.”

Austin also reminds travel advisors that “guest can book on board, and they’ll save 2.5 percent of the journey fare, and they can combine that with other offers as well, with full commission going to the advisor. The advisor will get the notification that their clients have booked on board.”

EXPLORA II is currently being built at Fincantieri’s shipyard and will come into service in August 2024. EXPLORA III will become the first of two LNG-powered vessels to join the Explora Journeys’ fleet with the ship due to be delivered in 2026 and EXPLORA IV in 2027.

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