What kind of job takes you to 150 countries, to Antarctica 67 times, and even means your son, aged four, has been to the White Continent twice? Step forward Silversea’s senior vice president of tour operating, expedition and destination management, Conrad Combrink. In a nutshell, he oversees the entire onshore programme across the fleet, cherry picking destinations, some with new-to-cruise customers in mind, others for seasoned cruisers. I meet him in London, while he's promoting Silversea’s first expedition world cruise among other juicy sounding itineraries.
Combrink joined Silversea in 2007, when the line took on its first ice-class ship, named Prince Albert II, now Silver Explorer. “I planned the whole concept of Silversea Expeditions with the chairman,” he explains. “We had six months to launch the first ship. At first people laughed at us. They couldn’t understand why a luxury cruise company was launching an expedition ship. What did the two have to do with each other?”
Thirteen years later, and Silversea’s expedition fleet will be four-strong (Silver Cloud, Silver Explorer, Silver Origin will replace Silver Galapagos in July and Silver Wind will convert to an ice class later this year) offering cruises in seven continents, while the expedition cruise market is booming, particularly on the luxury side. Who is laughing now, I wonder?
Combrink hails from a small town in South Africa. He studied tourism management but cruising never really crossed his mind, until he won a cruise, aged 20, at a travel agent event. “That cruise, on board Starlauro’s Symphony, changed my life,” he says. “That’s when I fell in love with cruising.”
His first job in cruise was with MSC, but it wasn’t long before a cruise director friend offered Combrink a job with Society Expeditions and he found himself in Antarctica. “I thought that would be a one-off contract,” he says. “But I never set foot on a big ship again.” He then spent a decade working on board ships, in a variety of roles, from zodiac driver to expedition leader. “They were the most rewarding, educational 10 years."
Now based in Miami, Combrink still spends a month every year on board, which is “vital for the job”, and he devotes another four or five to scouting around the world for destinations. These might be pioneering new destinations, such as Bangladesh, for example, first visited by Silversea in 2017, or the reinvention of old favourites, such as Antarctica, to keep things fresh for new customers.
Talking about the growth in expedition cruising to Antarctica, Combrink assures me that tourism there is incredibly well managed and annual visitor figures of 50,000 remain a drop in the ocean for the White Continent. He explains: “The International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators [IAATO] has more than 100 members and we all have a vested interest in sustainable travel to Antarctica. I don’t believe we are close to an overcrowding situation because of the management in place. However, he concedes that with more ships down there, there is a need to find “more Plan Bs and Plan Cs - alternatives for when the weather is bad”. To this end, Silversea has plans to charter a Chilean supply vessel to explore new areas of Antarctica, not currently visited by cruises.
It can take four years to do all the necessary planning and paperwork to introduce a new destination so Combrink undoubtedly has a few secrets up his sleeve, but he refuses to spill the beans on any destinations in the pipeline. He only confirms that the line is investing heavily in destination research. “It’s trying to think of those places that we don’t wake up in the morning and think: ‘I want to go there!’ Our first Northeast Passage cruise in 2019, littered with places no one knew about, sold out within a week and to a high proportion of repeat passengers. They tend to come to Silversea first through Antarctica and migrate to other destinations.”
He is concerned that the growth in expedition cruising will put more pressure on turnaround ports like Ushuaia, where infrastructure is more stretched. And he also predicts a shortage of good, qualified expedition staff: “That’s why we have created the Silversea Academy to plan for that, by training and developing expedition staff. For the first nine months, training takes place on land. Then we give them eight to 12 weeks of practical, hands-on experience on board a ship.”
Equipping staff with the necessary skills is vital in expedition cruising, he says, which often visit the most remote, unchartered places on the planet. “Antarctica hasn’t changed much from when Scott, Shackleton and Amundsen went down there. It’s a dangerous, inhospitable place and to do it properly, you need a company dedicated to the safety of its guests and crew.”
When Silver Explorer sailed the Northeast Passage, the cruise line chartered an ice breaker, which accompanied the ship for 18 days, from Wrangel Island to Franz Josef Land.
Combrink explains: “We felt it was important to do. This was one of the most isolated voyages you can imagine and for five days, we had no contact with the ship, other than by satellite.”
This voyage will be repeated in 2020 on board Silver Explorer in August and is again sold out although there is availability on a Northwest Passage cruise on Silver Cloud. And in 2021, Silversea becomes the first company to operate an expedition world cruise, on board Silver Cloud. “It’s the most spectacular voyage ever designed for an expedition, lasting 167 days, taking in Antarctica, French Polynesia, the Kimberley in Australia, Iceland, Svalbard and so much more.”
Conrad himself will lead the Vanuatu, Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea segment.
“Papua New Guinea is one of my favourite parts of the world. The underwater sea life is incredible – it’s like the Red Sea on steroids!” he says. “Every island is different, the people are so friendly, and you see children, running, swimming, playing in the ocean. It’s a very simple beautiful life – they don’t need the noise and the consumerism that we have.”
Local relationships are important, he adds, especially with the remote island communities of Micronesia, Melanesia and Polynesia where there is no tourism infrastructure.
“We are the only cruise ship to visit an Atoll called Kapingamarangi in the Federated States of Micronesia,” he explains. “It’s a tiny community in the middle of nowhere. They make the most incredible artefacts and we tell our guests: ‘Take 50 bucks ashore and whatever you do, spend it’. Islanders must feel the financial benefit from a visit by a cruise ship. The worst thing you can do is create a situation where they feel exploited.”