Having recognised the negative effects of climate change on the environment, Hans Lagerweij from Albatros Expeditions explains the company’s commitment to improving fuel efficiency and reducing carbon emissions across all its vessels. In the case of visits to Greenland and Antarctica, the company has placed a strong emphasis on responsible travel and challenges its partners and suppliers to embrace sustainable practices.
In this interview, Anula Galewska speaks with Hans Lagerweij, president of Albatros International, to discuss the challenges of planning in times of uncertainty, the importance of listening to employees’ ideas, and the need to embrace diversity.
Anula: Tell us a little bit about yourself and Albatros Expeditions.
Hans: I moved into the travel industry in 2008, before that I worked in a package consumer goods company, so completely different. I have a marketing, sales background and what was interesting I first managed a group travel company from 2008 to 2009 and then in 2010 I was asked to manage a polar expedition company. The interesting thing is that at that time I didn’t know anything about ships, I didn’t know about polar regions, it was just a nice challenge and I accepted it, and then I seriously fell in love with polar regions and all the nice aspects of these areas. I call it the ‘most sexy’ product in travel. I got into ships and managing ships, and I did that until 2017. Then I started working for the owner of Albatros and he asked me to move over here to Denmark to manage expeditions and manage his other international businesses.
So, Albatros Expeditions – we currently have two ships; expedition-style so they are small, maximum of 200 passengers. We mainly operate in polar regions, so Antarctica and the Arctic, and a little bit in between. Although we’re based in a small country, Denmark, we sell globally. If you look at our customer demographics, it’s almost like the United Nations. It’s not uncommon to have 20-30 nationalities on board. Biggest markets – it used to be China, but it’s now more the US, UK, Germany, Scandinavia, of course, Australia. Singapore and Japan used to be big, but the Asian markets are still pretty much close.
Anula: What did the coronavirus crisis teach you about running a business?
Hans: It is interesting that what happened in weeks completely changed our plans and outlook for years. What we have done was navigating short-term opportunities, and we released our future products two and a half years almost in advance. That helps us because we see customers, who have the same uncertainty, like ‘I don’t want to travel the next months’. However, this is a bucket list product, I want to have it, so let’s book for two years in advance. And we have completely changed our perceptions that people will not book holidays 18 months out – Well, they do.
Anula: That’s interesting. What do you think this means for sustainable development? How do you see sustainability in this and what do Albatros Expeditions think about sustainability and sustainable tourism?
Hans: Let me start off with, of course, travel stopped and that was better for the planet for some time. But it’s interesting that just before corona there were some very critical questions around, for example, flying, and in Europe, especially in Scandinavia, there was this concept of flight shaming and now you see that concept has disappeared. I don’t see it coming back quickly because people are really looking forward to travel. But at the same time, I think, people will be more conscious. For example, we put our long-term products out and to our surprise, the longer voyages are booking so much better than the shorter voyages, and we were always an operator with a lot of shorter voyages. And I think that is more conscious travelling. It gave us all some reflection. At the same time, in our business, the older ships were retired, which is a little bit of a clean-up, because older ships and older planes are more damaging. At the same time, in companies before the corona crisis, sustainability was a hot discussion item and an important one, but if the priority is survival. To be honest, in the last two years, we didn’t develop anything further in our sustainability thinking. We just continued with what we developed before, but we simply didn’t have the time, the energy, the resources to make the next steps. So, I see positives, I see negatives.
Anula: I think it is natural that companies are on pause with everything. No clients means also no active sustainability activities and new goals. But at least keeping what you had before is already a lot. Can you tell us a little bit more about what was before COVID, about your green initiatives, and separately about the ship, because this is some great stuff that you are doing?
Hans: I think it’s important to start on that we as the Albatros Group and all the individual companies related to that, we support the 10 principles of the United Nations Global Compact program. Support means that we take them into our daily work and that we report ourselves against it. I actually like that program because it goes further than just the environment, and also covers topics like human rights, labour, taking care of your employees, not only here in the office in Denmark, but also on the ships, or in safari camps in Africa. And also, anti-corruption. Corruption is, I think, a danger to our world. So, it goes further than the environment. That is for us the overall scheme. If you talk about Albatros Expeditions – let’s start that there’s a natural incentive to be green in shipping because fuel nowadays is extremely expensive. It is important, first of all, to optimise your fuel usage even with the older ships that you still have, because that saves money, but it also reduces CO2 emissions. We really looked critically at our itineraries, and they are completely, I would say, fuel optimised. And then the green program onboard started off by removing single-use plastics. Think about individual butter and jam packages, water bottles, little bottles with shampoos, etc. We introduced recycling on board, which is not easy because the ports that we visit don’t always have proper recycling options, so we started lobbying for recycling options in all the ports that we visit. We looked critically at the detergents used, the washing, the laundry. Laundry is actually quite a polluting activity, whether it’s on ships or hotels. Washing towels and linen every day is very damaging for the environment.
Anula: Of course, I understand the motivation behind optimising your fuel but why have you decided to go a step further and look at waste and the green program onboard?
Hans: First of all, sustainable travel is in the DNA of this company. What I mean by that is Albatros is a family company, and the head of sustainability overall is actually a family member, so sustainability has a place here in the ownership, in the boardroom and it is put through the whole organization. The second thing is you have to take more responsibility if you visit areas like Antarctica and Greenland where you see the negative impacts we have as humans on the world. I think that gives Albatros Expeditions an additional responsibility to completely optimise our operations onboard, with the ships, with fuel, to have the smallest negative impact possible.
Anula: To clarify, do all the changes on board result in more savings or is it more expensive than just using regular single-use plastics and detergents?
Hans: So, anything fuel-related means also saving money, which is good. The other programs – sometimes you save a bit, sometimes you invest a bit. When we introduced sustainable seafood, that is more expensive. When we introduced all our coffees, teas, and chocolate on board fair trade, that is more expensive. So, there you invest a little bit. With detergents, you save a little bit. With fuel, there’s always a natural incentive, but with all the other programs you have to do it because you believe in it, not because you can save money with it.
Anula: Can you please tell us more about the Ocean Victory ship?
Hans: The Ocean Victory is built with the cleanest engine in the world, that only burns the cleanest fuel, which is MGO (Marine Gas Oil) and that is a nice step forward. It is an important step because the new engines reduce the emission of nitrogen oxides, which is also a greenhouse gas, it is not just carbon, and this is reduced by 75% compared to older ships. You will also see the ship has a very strange nose, a strange bow in ship terms. This is called an X-bow, it is a Norwegian patent, an innovation by Ulstein. It gives big benefits when the seas are rough. Instead of slamming against the waves, this ship cuts through the waves, giving even water movement. It is more stable, more comfortable for customers, but for operators in terms of energy consumption – if you start slamming into the waves it is very inefficient because you burn fuel without hardly moving forward. With this cutting we do with the waves, you maintain the speed and you don’t burn a lot of extra fuel. So, in rough weather, our ship is so much more efficient than the traditional ships.
Anula: Apart from informing what you do, you earlier mentioned that you have to take responsibility especially when visiting ports, and such fragile destinations. Do you somehow raise awareness and educate your partners as well around that?
Hans: Yes, absolutely. To give you an example, with suppliers, the hotel operations on the ship we actually outsource that to another company, but we challenge them to offer us the most sustainable hotel product that is available. That is how we work together with our suppliers. With our partners, we have regular newsletters about twice a month, where we inform them about everything, but also about sustainable projects, progress, plans, etc. What we also do is regular webinars about a range of topics. Our last webinar was actually specifically about Antarctica and the protection of Antarctica. So, webinars, newsletters, and also our social media are our ways to communicate our progress with principally our partners.
Anula: What about guides? Guides are an important element for every tour company. We can do anything, but as long as our guides don’t know and don’t implement it, it is useless. So how do you work with guides to make sure that they also transmit the right message and understand your vision and values?
Hans: Of course, there is a communication perspective where all our guides learn our philosophies and principles, and that includes our view on sustainability and diversity. What we do we provide them with the documents – training documents to the point about our policies. But before we start what we call a season, we bring our guides together on the ship and our team here travels to the ship and presents the important things. For example, our diversity manifest, which is also on our website, is absolutely critical and we want everyone to feel welcome on board. Which means, we literally say to guides, if you are, for example, homophobic, we are not the right company for you. We are quite clear about our expectations in all areas. Regarding sustainability, the beauty is that I would say, 95% of our guides like to do this work not because it earns money, but because of their love for the areas that we visit. They have a natural love and passion for the natural areas where we go to, which means that 95% of them have a natural passion to care for them and our planet. Our expectations and plans come together with our expedition team, and it is almost like a natural match. If guides have ideas it is brought up by our head of operations and if she thinks it is a great idea, she passes it immediately on to me, so it is not that the idea goes through six levels and then it is lost. This is actually something that our guides really value that they can make a contribution to the company. We are very proud of them – we have excellent guides, and they have a lot of initiative, and we listen to them.
Anula: You mentioned diversity, and it is a very important part of sustainability because sustainability is wider than just the environmental aspects. When talking about diversity, the question that comes to my mind is accessibility. Do you have some products for people with physical disabilities or do you have any offers for them?
Hans: It is such a good question. We want to make dreams happen also for disabled people. The reality is that at some point, because of the nature of our product, safety limits on what we can do. But on the positive side, on our new ships we have cabins for people with disabilities, we have elevators, so they should be able to move around the ship well. The challenges come in the big part of our product experience, which is moving to the small zodiacs, the inflatable boats, and going on a little zodiac cruise and stepping on land, where it is not uncommon that you have to get into some shallow water. There we certainly have some limitations on what we can offer to disabled guests. But in my mind, if they cannot join us on every excursion, people can have a great time. Our concept about disabled people is that they will not enjoy our product – no. We have to be open-minded and, of course, there is always a safety aspect, but if they’d like to join us and we can care for them in a safe way, please, they are more than welcome.
Anula: Do you get any criticism for going to the polar regions, because it is a very fragile environment?
Hans: Generally, because we and the associations we are part of, such as IAATO, AECO, have such a good reputation for managing these operations, there is actually hardly any negative comments around it. If there are negative comments, it is from people who do not have a good understanding of what is going on there. Over the years there are always a few scientists trying to leverage the opinion, especially in the case of Antarctica, that tourism should not be a part of it. I was actually part of a discussion forum with scientists from Antarctica, where two of them took this position. Then two other scientists said we have experienced a couple of visits of these expedition cruise ships, and the measures these tourists and tourist companies take in their visits are an example for many of our scientific communities. We can learn from them, how to manage, visit, and have the smallest impact possible. Thinking about it, I thought, that’s a fair comment, because if you start visiting bases in Antarctica, some of them are extremely well managed and clean, but there are also bases where they leave rubbish outside, clearly having a more negative impact on the area than absolutely necessary. So negative comments exist, but we have to work hand in hand with scientists and other interest groups. I think it is important that we go there, and we all have to do our parts to save these areas.
Anula: Have you ever thought about obtaining a certification?
Hans: In these cases, if we talk about the polar regions, there is not something like a certification. If you become a member of IAATO for Antarctica and AECO for the Arctic, they have an extensive line of policies that need to be followed. That includes also additional training for staff. Every staff that goes to Antarctica needs to pass an IAATO test before we can employ them. That is for us, not a certificate, but it is the highest tourism management policy for the areas that we visit. Before corona started, we had a look at these certifications, and we didn’t come to a conclusion on which one is best applicable. Our conclusion at that time was that the UN Global Compact Program is something that is global and is a seriously independent program. You cannot get certified with it, but you have to report against it and you have to report your improvements and work.
Anula: If you could give advice to tour operators visiting beautiful nature areas and not only if they want to start their sustainability journey, why should they, and what would be your suggestion for the next 2-3 things that they can do?
Hans: I would start first with a vision. Where would you like to go and where would you like to be in 2030? But then, if you have good employees and good staff, then you don’t have to create everything by yourself. And as I mentioned our guides and staff – they have so many ideas. So, if you explain where the company should go, just listen to your staff, your suppliers. Listen to your customers, and they will come up with plenty of ideas to act on your visions. A simple tip is to listen. Listen and involve – invite people around you to be part of this journey.
To learn more about Albatros Expeditions, visit them via:
Hans holds an MBA from Erasmus University Rotterdam. In 2008, Hans combined his passion for adventure travel and his expertise in commercial management when he became Managing Director of Sawadee Reizen. In 2010, Hans moved to Toronto and became president and CEO of Quark Expeditions. In 2015, Hans took over responsibility for all adventure brands within TUI Travel, a business that was sold in 2017. In 2018, Hans became CEO of a boutique cruise start-up, which was successfully sold in 2019.