The Second Coming Of Torstein Hagen: Full Circle In Bergen

On Viking Star Torstein Hagen stands beside a model from the fleet of Bergen Line, where he began his career in the 1970s. © 2015 Ralph Grizzle
On Viking Star Torstein Hagen stands beside a model from the fleet of Bergen Line, where he began his career in the 1970s. © 2015 Ralph Grizzle
For Torstein Hagen, returning to Bergen, Norway, was about much more than christening his new and much-lauded ocean-going vessel, the 930-passenger Viking Star. The event marked a “coming home” for Hagen as well as the crowning achievement of a Lazarus-like return from two potentially catastrophic events in his life.

The first was his being ousted from Royal Viking Line. Hagen had been CEO of the company since 1980. When in 1984 the owners decided to sell Royal Viking Line, Hagen scrambled to raise funding to purchase it with a group of employees and investors. He succeeded in raising capital, but Royal Viking Line’s owners sold the company right out from under him. It must have felt as though someone had pulled the rug out from under his feet. The loss of his beloved cruise line sent Hagen tumbling.

He left Bergen empty handed and somewhat shamed by what had happened in what was then a relatively small town on the Norwegian coast. He stayed away from Bergen until last year, when he began scouting locations for Viking Star’s christening events. The homecoming was bittersweet. Hagen had lost many years in a place that he said he “fell in love with” and where he said he had spent “the best years of my life.”

Understandably, Hagen’s anticipation of coming home and last Sunday’s christening would mean a lot to him. “When I go back to Bergen on May 17, I’ll have made a full circle in my life,” Hagen told reporters on Viking Star in early May, a couple of weeks before the naming ceremony. “That may not be a big deal to you [the reporters], but it means a lot to me.”

In fact, it meant a lot to me too. As a reporter who began my career in cruising in the early 1990s, I watched as Norwegian Cruise Line, then part of the Kloster cruise group, mismanaged the venerable Royal Viking Line and finally dissolved it in 1994. Along with many others, I was angry with Kloster for ruining a company that had set the standard for luxury cruising. I often wonder where Royal Viking Line would be today if Hagen had succeeded in buying out the company back in 1984.

The line’s legacy lives on, however — not only through Hagen’s new Viking Star but also in nearly every luxury cruise line operating today. Christian Sauleau, who runs fleet operations for Silversea and before that Regent Seven Seas Cruises, worked as a hotel manager for Royal Viking Line. Erling Frydenberg, Hagen’s right-hand man from the Royal Viking days, went on to run hotel operations for SeaDream Yacht Club, Crystal Cruises, Silversea and now for Viking Ocean Cruises. Dietmar Wertanzl, hotel director at Royal Viking Line from 1983 to 1989, went on to Crystal Cruises, Celebrity and Tauck and now runs DRW Hospitality Group, a new company that provides hotel services to cruise lines. There were many more men and women who worked for Royal Viking Line who are still serving the industry today.

The second catastrophic event was when Hagen himself went broke in the 1990s. It must have been disheartening. He had lost Royal Viking Line and here he was a decade later “penniless,” as he once told me and other reporters. Then something happened that would change his life forever. Hagen had taken a river cruise on the Volga and had asked himself if river cruising in Russia could not be developed into a successful tourism-based business. He had discovered his own salvation. In 1997, with four Russian river cruisers, he launched Viking River Cruises.

It was a sunny Saturday morning when Hagen sailed into Bergen last weekend. As the ship entered the harbor, Hagen stood with his family at the bow of the vessel he had built. He was returning home like a victor on a white horse but on a Norwegian-flagged ship, which Hagen made sure was also registered in Bergen, a tribute of sorts to the place he loved.

Viking Star was christened on Norwegian Day. “Was it important for you to make the full circle on Norwegian Day,” I asked Hagen in early May. He became pensive. “That’s a hard one,” he said. “I don’t know. It is what it is.” He repeated the last phrase, “It is what it is.”

In launching Viking Star just steps away from where he had been ousted more than three decades ago, Hagen proved himself to be the comeback kid. His is remarkable success story, steeped in a mix of pride (tempered by a bit of Nordic Jante Law) and can-do spirit. “Not everybody gave us a big chance that we should pull this off,” Hagen told reporters in his Norwegian way of speaking. “There have been many people who said, ‘Ah, just wait and see, they can’t build this ship. Let’s wait and see when it comes. They can’t operate the ship, and let’s see how many they’ll have.’ ”

Today, Viking River Cruises is on track to operate a fleet of 100 vessels by the year 2020, along with 10 vessels for the Viking Ocean Cruises fleet. It is an ambitious undertaking but with his Norse resolve, Hagen may well accomplish it. “I’m an old man in a hurry,” Hagen told reporters.

Indeed, he may be “an old man in a hurry,” but at 72 years old, Hagen appears to be having the time of his life. He has proven wrong the naysayers, convinced financiers to fund fantastic fleets and returned full circle to his beloved Bergen as well as realized his dream of what Royal Viking Line could have been. It may have been pure coincidence or it may have been the works of mighty Norse gods that a former Royal Viking Line vessel just happened to be in port on the day of Viking Star’s naming — Fred Olsen’s Black Watch, formerly the Royal Viking Star. Certainly, the irony was not lost on Hagen.

Ahead for Hagen? An expedition fleet to such remote regions as Antarctica perhaps? “There are plans for that too,” Hagen told reporters. What about him? Can he relax a bit? Which cruise would he choose given the breadth of regions covered by his growing fleet? “The most fascinating cruise I can do is Moscow to St. Petersburg,” Hagen told reporters. “That is where I started it [Viking River Cruises]; that’s probably where I’ll end it.”

Then, laughing, he added with a sense of irony: in a “funeral pyre, Viking style.”

I, for one, hope the spark that lights that fire doesn’t come anytime soon.

Another Guinness World Record

Another Guinness World Record

Torstein Hagen accepting an award in 2014 for a record he established only a year earlier — the most ships christened in a single day by a single line. © 2014 Ralph Grizzle

Torstein Hagen's Little Red Book

Torstein Hagen's Little Red Book

"I like to scribble," Hagen said, chuckling as he pulled out a little red notebook. Concepts for Viking's ocean vessels and more have been scribbled in his notebooks over the years. © 2014 Ralph Grizzle

Standing Tall

Standing Tall

Ralph Grizzle with Torstein Hagen.

A Shared Past

A Shared Past

Torstein Hagen's wife reminisces with a Viking River Cruises' employee who had also worked with Royal Viking Line, where Hagen was CEO between 1980 and 1984. © 2014 Ralph Grizzle

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20 Comments

  • What a wonderful portrait of an interesting, driven man. Thanks, Ralph. And very best wishes for the future accomplishments of Torstein Hagen and his team.

    Reply
  • Mr. Hagen, I am a 75 year old retired school teacher who just returned from a horrible experience on the Elegant Elbe Viking river cruise. Our boats, the Astrild and Beyla never left the dock. After spending thousands of dollars of my very hard earned and saved money, we did not move one inch on your boat. I have just read your biography, and you have a right to be proud of your accomplishments, but tell me. How would you feel if this happened to you? No one seems interested enough to even contact me. I hope you will.

    Reply
    • I hope you get a response from the company, and I am sorry for your bad experience. You asked how Hagen would feel? I would hope that he would feel as I do for you: that you are someone who (I presume) gave a life of service teaching kids, that you spent your hard-earned money expecting an experience that was promised but not delivered and that the only thing to do in this case would be to make it right in some way, by offering another cruise in another region where the water was sufficient for river cruising. I hope you get that kind of response from the company.

      For our readers, what are the lessons you learned? What can you advise other readers who may be considering the same kind of trip? 

      I think of one broader issue: We appear to be living in a time of severe climate change. While river cruising on the Elbe is affected by low water, flooding is disrupting life (and river cruising) in Myanmar/Burma. For vacationers, there are future disappointments ahead, for all of us who inhabit this planet, well, that’s another story altogether.

      Reply
      • Ralph, I agree that we are entering into and era some extreme climate shifts which happens about every 500 years. Perhaps the cruise companies need to figure in these possibilities into their plans. Uniworld told my travel agent that we are still a go for our European Jewels Cruise starting Sunday. Still haven’t put anything in a suitcase tho. If our cruise is cancelled, we will try to book another Uniworld cruise for this month, as we are ready for a river cruise where there is adequate water.

        Reply
    • Sorry you had such a miserable time. Retired college teacher myself, and this kind of travel is a special treat for us. Hope someone gets back to you about this ASAP! If it were me, I would post my bad experience on Face Book, Viking does have a page of glowing comments, and anywhere else where people will see it. No company likes adverse publicity and with so many boats now, the competition is heating up. Review your cruise on Trip Adviser and other web sites that review river cruises. I think someone from Viking is bound to get the message and I hope you get a credit for another cruise that actually goes somewhere. Good Luck

      Reply
    • Dear Ms. White,

      We regret to hear of your disappointment in your recent Elegant Elbe cruise. The low river conditions did, as you mention, prohibit the ships from sailing. Though we did advise all guests and their Travel Agents of this likelihood prior to departure, we surely recognize such change is
      disappointing. After seeing your post here we reviewed the notes in your reservation record and saw that after your cruise Customer Relations had a conversation with your Travel Agent; please accept our apologies if you were waiting to hear from us. A member of our Customer Relations team will contact you within 24 hours to discuss the experience further and work with you to reach an amicable resolution. We value our guests and want them to confidently travel with us time and time again. Our goal would be to have you also travel with us again and experience a river cruise with Viking as it was designed — and under less considerable circumstances.

      Best regards,
      Viking Cruises

      Reply
      • I have distinct issues with Viking’s response. I was a fellow passenger with Helen White. The notice that Viking refers to reached me less than 12 hours before we were due to fly out of the US. Obviously, there was scant time to interpret it, let alone to make any informed decision with such a short lead time. Further, there was no mention of the possibility of canceling or postponing in the e-mail. It never CLEARLY stated that there was a possibility of NOT SAILING AT ALL. Some passengers received Viking’s notice only after arriving in Europe. Others received none at all. That no ships would move was only communicated to us by a Viking representative two days after we were booked into our hotel in Prague. Viking owed its guests the basic courtesy of informing them WELL in ADVANCE of any possible problems that could affect their vacation. People choose and pay Viking to travel by water way. Assuming that a bus tour – foisted on people who had little warning or recourse – would be satisfactory is just silly.

        Reply
        • Thank you for the additional insight John. Much appreciated so that we all have a better understanding of what happened. Again, I’m sorry your your trip turned out this way. I would have been disappointed not to be sailing too.

          Reply
    • I’m impressed with Viking’s response. They found your comment here with no prodding from me. I’ll be interested to know how this all resolves. Kudos to Viking Cruises for reaching out to Ms. White.

      Reply
  • I had clients that were to cruise the Elbe on Viking near the end of July. Their cruise was cancelled a few days prior. While this is always devastating to the cruisers…I also think it’s best to cancel completely when ships cannot deliver the river cruise experience as it was meant. People that want coach trips…book coach trips, not river cruises. There is seldom a happy client when these cruises are disrupted and lines don’t cancel them. Mother Nature is always in charge but cruise lines need to tighten up their actions to please THE CUSTOMER…not their bottom line in circumstances like this. In the weeks leading up to this cancellation, we were monitoring conditions for our client as best we could. Viking never once contacted us (the travel agent) to update, until the email they sent cancelling the cruise. A cancellation email was all that was ever communicated. Viking also never followed up with us afterward by email or phone. The bottom line is…most clients complaints are customer relations complaints. Same with the travel agent because WE NEED HAPPY CLIENTS. We all lose in situations like this.

    Reply
    • Thanks for sharing Pete. Nice to hear from all perspectives. Since Viking let you know late, did the incident reflect poorly on you as the agent as well? I can imagine the client was disappointed but there was nothing that you could have done.

      Reply
      • My clients were well prepared in advance, as they had friends cruising the Elbe in the weeks prior to the cancellation. They were giving ‘real-time’ updates to them…and it didn’t look promising. Most clients don’t have access to this type of info. (nor do I, the agent) All I can do is monitor web sites and continually call the cruise line and ask. (very little info is actually available anyway) They don’t make these cancellations until the last minute because things can change quickly. Understood. I like when these cruise lines cancel in lieu of a disappointing trip for clients. They quickly get over it and we begin planning the next trip. I don’t think this reflects poorly on us…EXCEPT, when the cruise lines don’t make good decisions. Then the complaint comes back to us, especially if we suggested this particular cruise line to them. (and other cruise lines cancel in lieu of coach trips) In the end, we all NEED happy clients. Happy clients are REPEAT clients.

        Reply
  • My wife and I were on the same non-cruise as Helen White, a delightful Southern lady. I got an email from Viking River Cruise company less than 24 hours before we were due to fly to Europe suggesting that there might be some problems with cruising due to low water. This was to be our first river cruise. I sent Viking a sharply worded email immediately that afternoon and received a call from a Viking representative the next morning about 8 hours before our flight was due to leave. She mentioned motor coaches, my response was that we call those buses here in the South. The Viking representative never mentioned that we could cancel our trip and get a full refund since we had travel insurance. She also didn’t say that we wouldn’t be cruising the entire trip. I believe that the port of Potsdam was officially closed to commercial traffic 3 weeks before we arrived for our Elbe River Cruise.Apparently Viking’s SOP after canceling a cruise and going to the bus tours is to issue every disgruntled passenger a $ 1,000 voucher towards a future cruise. Where they will make even more money off of us. This is the same offer that Viking extends to the general public. I have spoken to Stephanie Maldonado , the head of customer service, at Viking about my issues with their $ 1,000 voucher offer which all of us non-cruisers (46 people) think is woefully inadequate. I have waited over a week to hear back from Viking with an offer that is more appropriate and have heard nothing. After I got back stateside I did some research and found out that AMA Waterways cancelled their entire 2015 season on the Elbe River due to persistent low water levels. They cancelled their 2015 Elbe River season in 2014 because they want their customers to experience a first class river cruise. As best as I can tell of the 11 river boat cruise companies listed on River Boat Ratings. com, Viking River Cruises is the only 1 with a 2015 schedule on the Elbe River. The Elbe River is a dam controlled river that flows out of the Czech Republic into Germany ending when it flows into the port at Hamburg. The Czechs do not let much water flow out of their dams when the whether is hot and dry. It was/is hot and dry in 2014 and 2015. One couple in our group of non-cruisers sent a 5 page registered letter to Mr. Torstein Hagen a couple of weeks ago. Have they heard back from Mr. Hagen or one of his assistants to date ? No. Stay tuned to see if Viking recognizes and acknowledges the problems that we have with their company.

    Reply
    • Certainly sympathize with you folks. Our cruise on Uniworld, European Jewels, was cancelled on August 4, 5 days before it was scheduled to leave. We were very disappointed and switched to August 24th, only time we can go until fall. Have some sympathy for cruise companies because out of fairness they have to give the passengers enough advance notice but if it rains in the meantime, they could have run the cruise if they hadn’t cancelled. Admittedly the Elbe is different than the Danube, but they still have the same problem. Hoping it rains a lot in Germany and Austria this week and the beginning of the next. On the other hand, we love the cruising part, and would hate to be bussed around. Not what we signed up for.

      Reply
  • I was on the “non cruise” that Helen, Buddy, and John were on. Viking should have canceled it. The email that we “were unlikely to sail” was sent after I left the US and was in Europe (with all travel arrangements made through Viking.) I was not able to use the option in my purchased insurance that would have allowed me to cancel for any reason. I would have been happier at home than I was walking and being bused around – instead of having a river cruise.

    Reply
  • Mr. Torstein Hagen
    Chairman and CEO
    Viking Cruises
    5700 Canoga Ave.,
    Woodland Hills, CA 91367
    U.S.A.

    Viking River Cruise booking number 2120573 (Romantic Danube), Patricia Cranston and William Calder

    Dear Mr. Hagen:

    It was with great expectations and on the recommendations of friends that we booked the “Romantic Danube” river cruise. Your brochure boosted our confidence in committing to a Viking cruise describing the Viking experience as: “inspiring destinations, carefully designed itineraries, immersive cultural experiences, state-of-the-art river and ocean ships, fine cuisine, excellent service and remarkable value. We design all of our cruises to meet these exacting standards.”

    Unfortunately, our Viking cruise was a major disappointment and leaves us with two significant concerns – our perception of mistrust and total lack/failure of communication. We received no prior notification via our Viking representative or on the official Viking website that there was a
    problem with the water levels on the Danube and that we might have to take a coach tour versus a river tour. Our beautiful Danube daylight tour lasted one a one hours!!

    In October 2014 we entered into an “agreement” with Viking River Cruises to take the Romantic Danube river cruise. Our commitment to this cruise
    was honoured by partial payment in October and full payment by December 31/14, 10 months in advance of the trip. As experienced travellers we “trusted” Viking to honour their commitment to us to provide the itinerary as described in the brochure and online advertisements. Previous trips with other “upscale” travel organizations did not disappoint us – this is the first “concern” letter that we have written.

    While your brochure highlights “the Viking way,” as one that delivers “the expected and iconic,” to assure customers that “combined with genuine, personal attention before, during and after every voyage – helps you enjoy your Viking experience to its fullest” was not delivered to us. In fact, if we had read
    carefully your “Terms and Conditions,” it would have been clear to us that Viking takes great steps to protect its liability and that there is nothing in
    that particular document that supports customer service. Had Viking lived up to its advertisement our dissatisfaction could have been mitigated by Viking offering one of the three following options:

    1. A 10% – 15% discount to take the trip;
    2. Deferral to a future date;
    3. Cancellation with full refund.

    Viking has offered no apologies, regrets or any compensation for its failure to meet our and “Viking-advertised” expectations. For the above reasons, we
    are requesting a 50 percent refund on our trip (future cruise discounts are not acceptable to us). Future interactions with Viking will be dependent upon your response.

    Sincerely, Patricia Cranston and William Calder ([email protected])

    Patricia Cranston

    William Calder

    Reply
  • Just learned our registered letter to Mr. Hagen is being returned. It was addressed to:
    Mr. Torstein Hagen
    Chairman and CEO
    Viking Cruises
    5700 Canoga Ave.,
    Woodland Hills, CA 91367
    U.S.A.
    How do customers send a letter to Viking Cruises that will be read by Mr. Hagen?

    Reply
    • That’s a question that I am unable to answer. I’m not even sure that I could reach him, though I have seen him on ships, hence the interviews, etc. I believe, but am unsure, that Hagen’s offices are in Switzerland. You’ll need to do some additional research.

      Reply

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