Some two-and-a-half years ago Michael moved from a development project in Asia to join MSC specifically to work with the owners, the Aponte Vago family, to create this new luxury lifestyle brand.
The first of the Explora ships was ordered in mid-2019, and from then onwards they began to develop the brand, starting with qualitative and quantitative consumer- centric research. They spoke to no fewer than 20,000 people, both individually and in focus groups, in Western Europe, the USA, the UK, Canada, China, Japan and Australia. What emerged were the common themes around the value of time, space, privacy and choice, moving away from the materialistic to the experiential, with a focus on purposeful travel whilst leaving a legacy for the next generation - all of which flowed into the brand building exercise. As a result, the Journeys are designed to give plenty of time at sea, and leisurely days in port with late stays and overnights.
The theme of Exploration, from which the Explora name is taken, is key. The cruise line wants to create a place where you can reconnect with yourself and your nearest and dearest alongside a platform for connecting with others, new friends and old. And of course you are also exploring the places you visit and the people who live there. They promise an exciting mix of shore excursions and land programmes, with unique access to private destinations and once in a lifetime experiences. More details should be available in a matter of weeks.
The Aponte family, with 300 years of seafaring heritage from their base in Sorrento, are passionate about this project, which stems from wanting to share their love of the sea. Ungerer told me: "If you have been making a living from the sea for 300 years, you care about it, you have a sense of responsibility, your business focus has to be maintaining what has supported you." Hence the company's focus on innovative technology and development with a net zero ambition.
MSC is working with governments and in collaborative partnerships with a range of stakeholders including yards, ports and energy suppliers, to develop green maritime technologies, based on a belief that seafaring companies have a special responsibility.
"This is the new craftsmanship," Ungerer told me, "core to modern shipbuilding skills. It is a focus on sustainability, in the build, and in the development of fuels, hybrid operations and so forth." This commitment to sustainability is not just in the build. Explora Journeys have just signed an agreement with Travelife, whose certification relates to a range of criteria in the areas of human rights, labour, community engagement and environmental impacts.
More detail about the Explora Journeys product will be announced soon, but Ungerer affirms that as the only private European shipowner in the luxury sector, the mood will be all about European luxury: not old-fashioned but friendly and approachable, full of excitement and exhilaration. He highlights the advantages of being a family-owned company, more nimble and responsive than a corporation answerable to the markets. Furthermore, he asserts, people in shipping think long term - their ships are going to last, so adaptability is key.
The mix is unusual: the huge financial resources of the MSC group, with a proven track record in innovation, are set against the blank sheet of paper of a start-up from scratch, driven by a family passionate about the ocean, and how it makes you feel. They have even named the feeling: an 'Ocean State of Mind.'