Dynamic Business Logo
Home Button
Bookmark Button

Smooth sailing for Sarina Bratton and Orion Expedition Cruises

When injury cut short the outstanding sporting career of Sarina Bratton, a work holiday in Europe proved the world of tourism her next calling. Bratton, founder of Orion Expedition Cruises shares her own expedition through a sea of opportunity.

Bratton’s vision to develop Australia as both a domestic and international cruise destination with innovative itineraries began on her first cruise voyage through the Caribbean. Struck by the economic benefit generated by the ship’s visit to these remote island nations, she began to question the possibilities for Australia’s remote and regional communities. The Australian based five-star cruise line now provides year round expedition cruises to the Kimberley, Arnhem Land, Papua New Guinea, Melanesia, New Zealand, Asia, the Great Barrier Reef and Antarctica.

Q. How did Orion Expedition Cruises eventually come about?
A. After many years working in the industry with Holland America Cruises and Cunard Line, my passion to develop Australia as both a domestic and international cruise destination strengthened. Unfortunately, there was little interest in Australia by any of the major cruise lines. So, in
January 1997, I embarked upon developing an Australian-based four-star cruise operation.
We launched Norwegian Capricorn Line in 1998; a joint venture with the Norwegian Cruise Line (NCL) of Miami and another investor. The Norwegian Star then entered service in Australia in December 1998 and so began my first entrepreneurial venture.
In the year 2000, NCL was involved in a hostile takeover and we agreed to dissolve the joint venture. However, I believed we had proven the concept and still wanted to pursue my vision for an Australian-based cruise company. After visiting the Kimberley coast on a friend’s yacht, I saw an
opportunity to do something really special by tapping into remote and unexplored regions of Australia and the Antarctic as cruising destinations. Given the lack of infrastructure and pristine wilderness of these areas, I realised we needed to be small, enabling any development to be environmentally sustainable.
At the time, the industry was focused on large scale, overseas cruising and many told me the concept simply would not work. This made me even more determined. It took me two years to find the right ship, ORION.

Q. What advice did you seek when you started the business?
A. Nearly 30 years’ experience in the cruise industry has provided me with the extensive knowledge required for the technical operation of running a cruise ship, as well as an understanding of the key success factors in developing and managing a successful company. One of the great pitfalls in starting any business is increasing your staff levels to cope with the
excessive start-up demands. I did some research on US-based start-ups and got a feel for the key elements and roles required from the outset.
Also, the Kimberley region is one of the most challenging operational environments in the world with its inadequately surveyed or unsurveyed waters. I needed to provide comfort to our insurers that we had adequate expertise in the area and mitigate risk, so I sought the advice of one of our investors, Nick Paspaley, who owns pearl farms throughout the Kimberley coast.  

Q. How do you differentiate yourself from competitors?
A. Orion has no direct competitor in Australia. We have developed a market niche balancing on-shore experiences and adventures with onboard levels of luxury and pampering that provides an environment unique to us. Orion is not just Australia’s, but the world’s newest purpose-built expedition cruise ship. This therefore, has seen us internationally recognised as providing one of the best expedition cruise experiences in the world.
Others require a degree of compromise on technical capabilities, space, numbers of service personnel, accommodation, food and wine. Locally, no other service has gone as far as providing an onboard hair dresser, boutique, gym, sauna or masseuse, while Orion manages to offer all this and more.
Certainly, there are other good Australian operators, however they offer very different styles of products to us and they don’t have a five-star ship capable of travelling to the Kimberley, Papua New Guinea and the Antarctic.

Q. What do you enjoy most about what you do? What do you enjoy the least?
A. I love reading the valuable feedback from our guests. From day one, I have insisted on seeing every passenger comment card completed by guests. This way, I maintain a close relationship with guests and get a feel for any operational aspects that may require my attention. Our guests are quite forthright so this is one way to maintain and raise standards.

Q. What’s the biggest mistake you’ve made so far (and how did you rectify it)?
A. Fortunately, we haven’t made too many mistakes in the development of Orion Expedition Cruises. This is primarily due to lessons learned in the Norwegian Star set-up. The biggest mistake then was having the major shareholder providing ship and technical management.
The importance of having the right ownership structure in place can never be understated and it’s important not to become too emotionally attached to the success of the venture. I spent a lot of time considering the right mix of investors, avoiding partnership with any other cruise company.
Each of my original investors brought certain skills and/or knowledge to the table. Now that we are embarking on expansion, we need to bring a strong capital base to underpin the expansion plans and activities. Hence the major shareholder now being KSL Capital Partners, a US-based private equity firm specialising in high-end travel and leisure enterprises.

Q. What’s your biggest ongoing challenge?
A. Finding exciting new destinations to visit in a culturally and ecologically sensitive way is quite challenging for us. The process of finding and including new destinations is very involved. We work closely and cooperatively with local communities, respecting their land and culture to ensure they gain benefit from our visits.

Q. What is your proudest moment so far?
A. Locally, we have received numerous awards in our four short years of operation and of course I am very pleased with the ranking of Orion as the second best expedition cruise ship in the world by the Berlitz Guide to Cruising. To me, this means that with determination and perseverance, we can achieve the number one ranking in the world. This is what drives me.
However, more recently, I would have to name the signing of the KSL agreement. This has provided an attractive return for original investors, and means we can move forward with strong financial backing and grow the company by building or acquiring another ship or two, as well as expand into  the markets of North America and Europe.

Q. At what point did you know you had made it as a business owner?
A. The most tangible moment was mid last year when I began to receive unsolicited approaches from internationally famous brands to acquire Orion Expedition Cruises. It was then that I really came to appreciate we had developed a brand and a product that stands proudly on the world stage.
Sarina’s Business Advice
-Seek advice from people you trust
-Make sure you are open to new ideas and opportunities
-Be prepared for major setbacks and learn from them
– Maintain your vision and remain true to your principles and objectives throughout the long period. This will get the venture off the ground and through challenging times
-Maintain a positive attitude, even when things do not go according to plan
-Most importantly, believe in yourself.


What do you think?

    Be the first to comment

Add a new comment