In conversation with: Robert Halfpenny, Aurora Expeditions

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As the old saying goes, strike while the iron is hot, and that is exactly what Aurora Expeditions plans to do. We join MD Robert Halfpenny to discover how…

A lot has changed in the 25 years since Robert Halfpenny joined the travel industry.

Aurora Expeditions, Robert Halfpenny
Aurora Expeditions’ MD Robert Halfpenny


Back in 1994, for example, a certain Mr Tony Blair had just ascended to the top of the UK Labour Party and was on his way to becoming the nation’s darling (for a period, at least). The Premier League was only two years old and not the all-consuming machine it is today. Social media wasn’t even a dream; people still spoke face to face.

When it comes to the travel industry, the key difference between then and now boils down to attitude. The idea of a traveller going on a journey – not just in the literal sense – is now ingrained in the industry.

“People started off backpacking, then it was family holidays, then touring on buses and the like,” says Halfpenny, who is away from his usual base of Australia for a series of key meetings in London.

“Now they want more authentic, real experiences. That’s what we’re offering. The world is getting smaller and people want to get out and see it before it is spoiled, I suppose. People want to see the remoteness and to have experiences. Some 20-odd years ago we were happier with just getting abroad. Today everything is so rushed.”

Hello, Greg Mortimer

What certainly hasn’t been rushed is the development of Aurora Expeditions’ new ship, Greg Mortimer – named after the company co-founder – which sets sail on its inaugural voyage on 31 October this year to Antarctica, carrying 100 passengers.

Aurora Expeditions, Greg Mortimer
Greg Mortimer has a bow structure unique in cruise ships


The ship will offer expedition cruising in its purest form. There is a certain level of comfort on board but first and foremost is the idea of adventure, or as Halfpenny describes it, “our secret sauce”.

“A lot of thought has gone into this. We offer the extremes, such as polar diving, but for others a Zodiac ride is enough. We bring it all together and give them a nudge. Lots of people have kayaking but with us it’s not a little side thing. Everyone chooses their own customised adventures.”

This is the difference, says Halfpenny, between Aurora Expeditions and the competition, as more cruise lines seek a slice of an ever-growing pie. He elaborates: “As long as we focus on positioning ourselves in a certain segment, we should be all right.

“When I came in [to the business in 2017] and we spoke about the new ship… it was kind of polarised. We had the new entrants with the luxury expedition ships, then the more authentic operators with Russian vessels, like us.

“However, there wasn’t really anything in the middle and that’s where we wanted to position Aurora Expeditions. We have gone from a small garage band to getting on the main stage.”

Being part of the middle ground requires more interesting ways of thinking. As Halfpenny says, it’s not an old-school Russian vessel, but nor is it dressed up in the luxury sense.

As exhibit A, take the X-BOW, which “wasn’t being used in expedition travel”, he explains. “We chose it because of its efficiency, as you can get through a 3-4m swell in the Drake Passage and maintain 12 knots. We can use less fuel and reduce sea sickness, as the energy is dispersed and we’re piercing the waves.”

Visit Antarctica with Aurora Expeditions
Experiences such as treks into Antarctica are high on many people’s wish lists. Credit: Paul Pichugin


Going once… going twice… sold

Whether or not such a development truly appeals to guests is almost irrelevant. It’s good for sustainability and is good PR, for sure. In any event, Greg Mortimer has sold so exceptionally well – “it sold out in the first nine months” – that Aurora has confirmed plans for a second new-build ship, to be delivered in autumn 2021.

“We needed more capacity,” says Halfpenny. “The challenge is, do you build a bigger ship? No, that doesn’t align with our core values, hence the sister ship. What will be different is that it will have the next four years of technology development and innovation.

“It will be delivered in September 2021, so we’ll have two seasons of running the Greg Mortimer. For the name [of the ship] we’ll be running a competition, a trade and consumer competition.”

Aurora Expeditions
Aurora Expeditions offers everything from Zodiac trips to polar diving and kayaking. Credit: Jennifer Prerau


Boaty McBoatface? No thanks

And if the second ship sells as well as Greg Mortimer? “There is a possibility [of a third ship]; we are talking about that. It’s really about making sure we don’t cannibalise the business we have, but there are plenty of destinations in the world to go to that we’re attracted to.”

Book early

Halfpenny is full of praise for Craig Upshall, Aurora’s sales director for UK and Europe, who joined in March 2018. At the time, about “85 per cent of sales were from Australia”, Halfpenny says. But in 2021 the line is expecting about 40 per cent from the UK and North America, 60 per cent from Australia.

“That’s been very impressive – even more so when you consider that UK and North America are typically later in booking,” says Halfpenny. “That’s the message to agents – get them in early and don’t miss out. The best offers are always the early ones.

“We want people to go to these places and come back as ambassadors. That’s the legacy – it’s not just about pleasure, but also learning.”

That, more than anything, is perhaps the biggest change in the past two and a bit decades.

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