Michele Saegesser, Vice President of Sales for Viking River Cruises, is a veteran of the travel industry with over 30 years of experience. A native of Ireland, Saegesser is a graduate of Trinity College, Dublin where she received the Kell’ s Leadership Award and graduated with degrees in International Marketing and International Law. Her many years in travel include sales and marketing roles with Disney, Princess Cruises, Rocky Mountaineer, Hurtigruten, Luxury Trains of the World, and VIA Rail Canada. Michele has worked with Viking in sales management roles including National Accounts and VP of Sales for the Australia market. Her current role oversees the sales teams for the Americas.
Travel Research Online: What inspires you as a travel professional?
Michele Saegesser: Anyone who works for Viking naturally has to be inspired by how we are growing as a company and as an industry. The daily culture of Viking® focuses on how to always be our best; how to always improve and never get stuck in old ways. It is a thrilling opportunity to be on this ride.
When we do our trainings for agents or cruise nights with their best clients, I must say how I am still inspired by all the stories you tell about selling river cruising or how many times a client has come back after a Viking® journey. It inspires all of us to remember to keep thinking of new ideas and, like our culture, to always be our best.
TRO: What has been your most memorable travel experience?
MS: I started traveling at the age of four. On my fifth birthday my father took me to the Eiffel Tower. And that’s how this all started! It is certainly hard to beat a fifth birthday like that but there have been so many experiences that changed my perspective.
Seven years ago I became very sick and was forced on to dialysis. I had just become the VP of Sales for Viking, and trust me, I was not going to give up. Most people thought I was crazy (maybe I was!) but I needed to make a business trip to China to see our new ship. One of our amazing guides in China took it upon herself to make all of my dialysis arrangements at the hospitals. This all went well and then the “great cultural moment” happened. I was in Chongqing and really stood out because I am not a petite little thing and have red hair! The treatment was in a large room of beds (all men) and their wives would come in after two hours of treatment to bring their husbands tea and chocolate. It was very clear that I was not Chinese and when the ladies left, they all smiled, “goodbye” to me. The very next day, they must have felt sorry for the big American girl in the corner because they had gone out to find Hershey’s bars for me. It was one of the best experiences for me. Every day it still drives home how we touch each other when we travel. I shall never forget those ladies!
TRO: Tell us about your role at Viking.
MS: My role at Viking is one in which I take such pride. I have the great pleasure to lead the finest sales teams in the industry and together we create strategies to assist and support our agent partners and really stretch them to think way outside of their boundaries. We are regularly creating new training programs and cruise night concepts to take our travel partners to the next level. If you haven’t talked to your Viking Director of Business Development, you are certainly missing out on ideas that will make you even more successful.
TRO: Tell us a little bit about the types of cruises and destinations Viking offers.
MS: All of Viking’s products offer a unique perspective on the destinations we visit. We pride ourselves on having the best ships in the industry, including our new Viking Longships®, but more importantly, we feel it is where you are going that matters most. Viking is a destination-centric cruise line that focuses on the cultural & historical aspect of every journey. From the waterways of Europe to the rivers of Russia, China and Southeast Asia, Viking offers journeys that will give you a greater perspective of everyday life in the cities and towns along the river. And with a fleet of 54 river cruise ships, we have plenty of places to show you.
TRO: Viking offers some of the most unique and scenic waterways as destinations, which would you recommend?
MS: Nothing compares to the waterways of Europe—a perfect blend of the ancient and the modern. And what better way to sail the rivers of Europe than aboard one of our new, state-of-the-art Viking Longships? The new Viking Longships maintain our longstanding tradition of setting new standards and since their launch in 2012, they have received acclaim for their innovative design and outstanding quality and engineering. And, these award-winning Viking Longships are the majority of our European fleet.
Their patented design allows for full-size staterooms combined with full-size verandas offering you a choice of stateroom category unlike any other. And the unique Aquavit Terrace—a glorious outdoor seating area at the bow of the ship—offers casual dining while you enjoy the breathtaking views and ever-changing scenery along the banks. (It’s my favorite spot on the ship to relax and enjoy a nice glass of wine!)
TRO: What are some of the differences between river cruising and ocean cruising?
MS: At Viking, we have always felt that cruising should be about connecting you to your destination and river cruising offers a greater variety of destinations than you can find any other way. With the ability to dock right in the heart of the world’s greatest cities, you can spend less time getting there and more time being there. Viking Cruises offers both river and ocean cruises through two product lines and we’ve incorporated the same destination-centric cruising with our ocean line as well. With the launch of Viking Star,® we set out to create a new kind of ocean ship—smaller in size and smarter in design—an alternative to today’s mega-liners. And as a result of strong customer demand, we’ve added two additional ocean vessels to our fleet. Viking Sea® and Viking Sky® will both debut in 2016 and will be sister ships to the 930-passenger Viking Star, which will set sail in early 2015. Viking Sea and Viking Sky will sail in Scandinavia and the Baltic; and the Western and Eastern Mediterranean – as well as two new itineraries for 2016 that explore the British Isles. Leveraging extensive feedback and input from Viking River Cruises passengers, we’ve reinvented the very nature of the ocean cruises and crafted itineraries for more time in port so you can explore and immerse yourself in the history of the world’s greatest destinations.
TRO: What are some of the fundamental principles that keep Viking running successfully?
MS: Our tremendous success has been built on owning and managing our own product. We control quality from beginning to end and make sure to offer a consistent value and service standard—we are also the only river cruise company to guarantee our award-winning service. The result is peace of mind for you and for us too. Being in control enables us to select the very best individuals to work for us, in every area of our business. From stateroom stewards to waiters to Program Directors, our English-speaking staff is trained to the highest standards. Viking is a highly desirable employer with an exceptionally high staff retention rate.
TRO: What is Viking’s relationship with travel agents?
MS: Viking is fully committed to the Travel Agent community and is also the only major river cruise line to offer no NCFs. Viking pays agent commissions on all components of a client’s booking – including cruise and air, government taxes, port fees, air upgrades, beverage packages, gift orders, shore excursions and travel protection plans.
We’ve also extended the same commission policy to the new ocean cruise brand.
TRO: Is there anything exciting to come in 2014 for Viking Cruises?
MS: Last year, Viking set a GUINNESS WORLD RECORD® as the first company to christen 10 ships at once. This year, we’ve set another by christening an unprecedented 18 new ships in four countries in just five days. 2014 marks the first year that Viking’s award-winning Longships will sail in
France. And, to salute the travel agent community for all their contributions to the growth of river cruising, Viking honored seven of our esteemed agent partners by naming them godmothers.
We also launched our new Viking Travel Agent Academy which is designed for the agent who really wants to learn how to sell this profitable and ever growing sector of the cruise industry. The program consists of 7 certification courses from which you will learn about the profitability of river cruising, Viking’s itineraries and destinations, how to develop a successful marketing plan and why Viking is the best choice for you and your clients. This month, we are introducing certification #4. Agents will have the chance to learn about Europe’s most popular destinations in France and Portugal and see what sets Viking apart from the competition.