Editor-in-chief Paloma Villaverde de Rico interviewed Kristin Karst, AmaWaterways’ Executive Vice President and Co-Owner, for the Cruising the Rivers of Southeast Asia feature in the August issue. This is the full interview.
Paloma Villaverde de Rico (PVR): What unique aspects does AmaWaterways bring to Asia river cruising?
Kristin Karst (KK): We differ in a number of ways, that’s why it’s very important to look closely at the details when considering a river cruise company. First, let me talk about our ships—all staterooms and suites are the largest of any ship on the Mekong River. The suites are a peaceful retreat with quality amenities: individual air-conditioning, elegant Asian decor. Very few ships on the Mekong have a swimming pool, but our ships do on the sun deck; it’s great, especially with the weather over there. We also have the only vessels on the Mekong designed with inside access for each deck. For instance, other ships, you access the cabin from the inside, which allows guests their private balcony…on many of the other ships, guests have to go around and access the cabin from the outside, which doesn’t allow them to offer private balcony and doesn’t give the clients the same privacy.
When it comes to our shore excursions, our tours and local guides are fantastic. They offer the greatest value for the money. For example, our land package in Vietnam includes an overnight stay in a traditional junk on Ha Long Bay, something that other companies charge for. We have also invested in our state-of-the-art quiet audio box system for our guests’ personal headsets, which really enhances the tour experience. When it comes to our service, we all know our onboard service and talented onboard staff. We have a wonderful cuisine, too. For example, for dinner we offer a sit-down course dinner with either a traditional Asian-style selection or Western selection. Guests can always pick and choose. On top of that, we offer unlimited complimentary wine and beer with lunch and dinner, and comped soft drinks, of course.
PVR: Why do you think there is such an interest in Southeast Asia river cruising?
KK: These days, I think people want to connect in a more meaningful way. They want to learn more about different people and cultures, and river cruising is perfect for that because it’s destination-oriented travel. People also find river cruising more convenient because their accommodations travel with them, they only have to unpack once.
PVR: Are you staying strictly on the Mekong?
KK: We are currently developing a new program in Myanmar on the Irrawaddy River. This is a destination that has been off limits to visitors for a long time and now is the perfect time to go there. The political situation has stabilized, development is under control, ancient sites are still uncrowded and there is so much atmosphere and charm and the people are just amazing. Our guests will be eager to see it…. It’s a jewel, it might become the next hot destination. We plan a small ship with about 28 to 30 cabins. Plan is to launch in mid- to late-October 2014.
PVR: How is AmaWaterways working with travel agents?
KK: We are 100 percent travel agent dedicated. We work very hard to maintain our cruise relations that we enjoy with our travel agent partners, and we know how important it is to keep the line of communication open and to provide timely information about our Mekong cruises with webinars, meeting one-on-one with our agent partners, hosting information cruise nights, hosting a travel agent portal on our AmaWaterways website, and supporting the agents with collateral material. For instance, when they plan to do a group with us we provide customized flyers and we also encourage our agents to take a Mekong FAM trip with us. The personal experience with the region and with our product is definitely the best way to get excited and to get passionate about the product.
PVR: Who is the perfect target client and is that changing?
KK: It’s the same clientele that’s interested in our European cruises. People who are intellectually curious and eager to try to new things and want to have an authentic cultural experience with us. River cruises are evolving in the sense that we are attracting younger and younger clients. The Asia river cruise segment is highly appealing to them—it’s almost like an adventure for them to go there. Things are opening up and the world is starting to see Asia as the next big thing. The potential for this market is huge. It is the client that is very open, is a little bit experiential as well, wants to see the world. One thing, though, you do have to be in good medical condition to go there because of the climate, so you have to be part of the more active group in order to completely immerse yourself into the destination and embrace the product.
PVR: Air prices to Asia—any concern there?
KK: It really depends where our clients are departing from and what season they choose. For people coming from the U.S. west coast, the cost is about the same or even lower than flying to Europe; it’s the same or a little bit more from the mid or east coast. Summer time and Christmas time are high season and the fares spike up; however, if you go in the fall or in the spring it’s quite reasonable. The cost of airfare doesn’t seem to be a big deterrent for most of our guests. Asia is on their bucket list and nothing is going to keep them from seeing it. Of course, they like to go longer. Most of our clients don’t just travel for a week to Asia, that’s why they like to book a cruise together with our pre- and post-cruise program.