David Tanguay: Luxury at the edges of the world

February 17, 2020

Quark Expeditions is the biggest polar expeditionary cruise company in the world, combining adventure with opulence and education to create lifelong memories.

Started in 1991 by Lars Wikander and Mike McDowell, the company now has seven ships, including icebreakers, and is the largest polar fleet, carrying 10,000 passengers to polar regions each year.

Tell me a bit about the history of Quark Expeditions

When we first started out as a polar specialist in 1991, our offering was primarily focused on the privilege and exclusivity of visiting these very remote places on ships that were mostly old Russian icebreakers.

Over the years, we transitioned our fleet into more modern ships, offering more amenities on-board for our passengers to enjoy while they’re exploring the polar regions.

The Ocean Adventurer

What makes you stand out?

Quark Expeditions focuses on the client’s experience and we want to ensure that it’s the best in the polar industry. With the current changes in the luxury market, we want to offer the perfect balance between an on-board experience and an off-ship experience.

Therefore, we have transitioned our fleet into a much more modern one, with two new ships: the World Explorer and the Ultramarine.

On each ship we have historians, marine biologists, glaciologists and even a penguinologist – they share their knowledge and passion every day with our clients. For example, if we spot a pod of humpback whales, our marine biologist can offer our passengers a lecture about them.

The level of expertise on our ships is what makes us really stand out. We have individuals that have so much experience in the polar regions – every single day they look after our passengers and make sure they learn about everything that they witness when they travel with us.


Who are your clients?

We’ve identified four different profiles of passengers. Number one is the checklisters – they’re well-travelled, they’ve been to the Galapagos, done African safaris. Now they’re looking for something new. They want to do their seventh continent.

Then we have the learners – people who really like to learn when they travel – which is why we have such knowledgeable guides and educational content.

We have the escapists – people who like to go off the beaten path and experience remote regions. And finally, the adventurers, who want to explore and have more active adventures, which is why we provide activities such as landings on the ice.

So, they're not traditional cruise passengers?

It’s important that we call it an expedition – we’re not a cruise, we’re an expeditionary cruise.

In expedition cruises, the only thing we tell our passengers is where we start and where we end. Everything else changes day by day – weather, ice conditions, wildlife. We want to make sure the experience is once-in-a-lifetime, so our expedition leader and captain make sure every decision maximises the experience of our passengers.

We also offer extra optional adventures. The most popular is kayaking – it’s pretty unique in polar regions – and we have camping, mountaineering, cross-country skiing and stand-up paddle boarding.

Narsag, Greenland

You're building your own ship at the moment

Yes! In 2021 we will be operating our first own-built ship – the Ultramarine, which will be a game-changer in the polar industry.

Not only will it offer the largest entry level suites in the Polar industry, but it will also accommodate two helicopters, allowing helicopter flight-seeing experiences in Antarctica and some Arctic itineraries as well.

With helicopters, we can also access areas further in the polar regions, offering more activities to our passengers, including heli-hiking, heli-skiing, mountain biking and glacier kayaking.  

As we understand that people are also more wellness conscious, we will have an in-depth wellness program on board with yoga and pilates sessions.

The Ultramarine

Do you have any new itineraries?

We will be exploring the Russian Far East, including Kamchatka. We’re also looking at Franz Josef Land – remote locations with incredible landscapes.

We want to innovate, and keep exploring further, and our new ship will help us continue our mission.

Kamchatka, Russia

Is demand increasing?

The polar regions are getting very popular. I started with Quark seven years ago and the number of passengers keeps growing and growing.

We see more and more people wanting to travel to these destinations, compared to seven years ago when agencies used to ask me, “Why would people go to Antarctica?”

Now agencies understand how incredible the polar destinations are. Demand is growing exponentially every year.

Where do your passengers come from?

We have people from all around the world. We’re global and sold across the planet. We have teams in South America, North America, Europe and Australia.

A huge amount comes from the United States, which is one of our major markets. A large proportion comes from Asia, including China, who usually travel in separate charter trips.

We also have people from Europe, South America and Australia. On the same trip a passenger from Europe can meet passengers from all around the globe. With 130 to 199 passengers, the ships aren’t that big so there’s a lot of opportunity to get to know people.

We’re seeing a lot more solo travellers, and a lot of female polar travellers. We’re also seeing more and more people asking for specialist content.

People are hungry for more information, especially regarding the environment. They’re becoming more sensitive about protecting the environment and the polar regions in particular.

They may fear that in ten or twenty years these places won’t be the same, so they want to see them now. That’s not something I necessarily agree with, but it’s what we’re seeing.

Sermersooq Municipality, Greenland

Can adventure and luxury really be combined?

When we started out 29 years ago, we had old Russian ships. You’d be sharing a bathroom with the rest of the ship and sleeping in a metal bunk bed – it was a real expedition.

Now when someone is spending $20-30,000, they’re expecting a higher standard of comfort. The clientele has changed over time. Clients have always been financially comfortable, but originally it was quite niche and attracted only adventurers.

Now there’s more on offer in the market. We’ve added more luxurious ships to our fleet, such as the World Explorer, an all-suite ship with balconies.

We keep the smaller vessels that are more adventurous, but we’ve also added more modern and luxurious ships to suit the people who want to sail with us.

Spa on the Ultramarine

Are your clients’ ideas of luxury changing?

Definitely. For some it’s adventure in a remote location; but for some it’s also about being on a ship that has larger cabins, a balcony, a spa and fine dining.

We offer this experience on board our ship and we’re diversifying our fleet for those reasons.

The luxury we want to provide is the trip of a lifetime. When you go to a place like Antarctica, 90% of people will go once or twice in their life. They want to make sure their experience is the best. They want to travel with the best and have the best experience with the best team.

You can have the best cabin, the best comfort – but what makes the difference is the quality of the guides with the best knowledge and attitude. They make sure every day is the best experience for our guests.

The number one feedback we get is how amazing the guides are – that’s what makes the difference.

A suite on the Ultramarine

Sustainability is clearly important to you. What threats are facing the polar regions and what can luxury travellers do to help?

We talk about environmental issues on-board the ship, especially in the Arctic where global warming is a particular threat.

Can luxury travel make a difference? Absolutely, yes. When our passengers travel with us, they become more sensitive and more aware about how important it is to protect the environment.

When you go to the Greenland glaciers, or to Spitsbergen, a polar guide will tell you the glacier was twice as big 15 years ago. This makes our passengers more conscious about their consumption, their behaviour, and how they can make a difference when they get back home.

A lot of our passengers say their journey was a life-changing experience, because they understand things about the environment that they didn’t know. One of our missions is to be a responsible tour operator and to educate our passengers, as well as be more sustainable ourselves.

We don’t use any plastic on-board and we serve sustainable food – we try whenever possible to use only fair-trade meat and fish.

We support communities in the regions and organisations that protect the environment. We’re committed to making a difference and we talk about it to our passengers.

Adelie Penguins, Antarctica

How do you ensure you make a positive impact on the communities you visit?

A lot of our guides are involved in community engagement, especially in the Arctic, as nobody lives permanently in Antarctica.

On every departure or ship we operate, we do an auction – the captain’s hat, melted ice from a glacier, a map of the itinerary designed by an on-board artist.

All the money we give back to organisations like Penguin Lifelines, run by Tom Hart, one of our penguinologists. He studies Adelie Penguins and we sponsor this scientific research. We also give money to Polar Bear International, and we give our leftover parkas to communities in the Arctic.

We get communities in Greenland involved in guiding and they pass on their culture and knowledge to our passengers.

What is the single most unique offering you provide to travellers?

A new programme that we have just recently launched for summer 2021: The Greenland Adventure programme.

This will allow people to discover the southern part of Greenland, which I call the Patagonia of the North, and be part of many unique activities such as mountain biking, heli-hiking, glacier kayaking and more.

Another unique offering of Quark is the North Pole expedition. This expedition is for people who are not only looking to be one of the very few who can say that they have been on top of the world, but also to be on-board the most powerful icebreaker on the planet.

This Russian Icebreaker offers a unique on-board adventure that very few people on this planet will experience.


What made you decide to attend TFest?

We picked TFest because of the reputation of Private Luxury Events – we’ve had really good feedback about them.

The expeditionary cruise industry is growing, experiential travel is growing tremendously, and with our new ship arriving we want to increase brand awareness and our distribution channels and make agents more aware of who we are and what we offer.

Taking part in TFest is aligned with our strategy of growing our distribution channels.

We’re looking forward to meeting new agencies, sharing our goals, and letting people know what a unique experience it is to travel with Quark Expeditions.

We want to be on their radar for when people ask them about Antarctica, the Arctic, or simply to suggest somewhere new!

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