“The Zambezi Queen, it’s a small ship, just 14 cabins—28 passengers on the Chobe River, close to the Zambezi River, about 50 miles from Victoria. We do four nights on the ship, plus two nights referral package,” Schreiner explains. “Then we have three separate pre-cruise extensions we feed to the ship. One is Cape Town, then Kruger National Park and then to the ship; another is Cape Town and two Orient-Express camps in Botswana and then the ship; and the last one is Kenya on the Masai and then the ship.”
On the cruise itself, Schreiner says, “You do game drives along the river in Chobe National Park. All the animals, the elephants, they all run down to the river to drink and you’re right in front of them and you’re going from one herd to another. I’ve never seen anything like that before—really and truly fascinating. It’s fairly low in numbers because it’s only 14 cabins and it’s starting in 2012 with a number of departures and then we’ll increase those to a fairly large number of departures in 2013. That’s something I’m really excited about.”
“It’s part of the whole growth that Avalon has gone through since we brought out our first ship in 2004, which signals not only what we are doing but I think also the travel style and how rapidly that’s growing,” explains Patrick Clark, director of operations for Avalon Cruises. “We’re not the only ones adding ships, they’re continuing to come on line and they’re continuing to come on line because the demand is there and the prospects look pretty good.”
And, he adds, he’s pretty confident the market will not only be there for some time to come, but will continue to grow, despite the economy. “The demographics of the customers attracted to the river cruise style still tend to be experienced travelers. They’re individuals coming to the latter part of their working careers, some are in retirement already and they’re in situations where their children are already out of the house, their homes may be owned and have secure incomes in the sense they don’t have a lot of other things to support other than themselves. So that’s leaving them time to travel. That’s the good news because even with the size of the baby boomer generation that’s around 75 or 80 million, depending on what statistics you’re looking at—just a tiny portion of that is all we need to keep river cruising going for decades. That’s what’s driving the new ships.”
Speaking of new ships, “Two of our 11 ships in Europe are going to be delivered in 2012 and that’s the new standard with the Panorama where we’ve got this 200-sq.-ft. stateroom with a wall of glass that opens up 7 ft. wide and the customers are responding. The new Panorama sold out this year and those three new ships have the highest load factors for 2012,” Clark says. “A lot of the companies are adding balconies but we said, wait, if we put a balcony on there, we take space away from the stateroom. But if you create an indoor balcony by adding the glass wall with a 7-ft. opening and with sitting areas there, you’ve got the larger staterooms. At night, when you close the drapes you’ve got all that space usable for in-room dining or having drinks with friends. People responded because they’re well appointed with plenty of amenities.”
Clark also points out the company has added some new theme cruises, one of which, the Jewish Heritage cruise, doesn’t even depart until October of next year but the majority of the space is already sold. The focus is on those cities on the Danube, particularly Vienna and Budapest where they take people to the Jewish museums with expert local guides who really understand their Jewish history. The world’s second largest Jewish synagogue is in Vienna and in Regensburg there’s a Jewish quarter and there’s a synagogue with excavations underneath it.
“We’ve also got a U.N. diplomat who’s going to be on our European history and political cruise and he’s an expert on European history so he’ll be doing four lectures,” Clark adds. “He was stationed—not only with the U.N. now—but he was at the American embassy in a couple of central European cities and he was attached to the E.U. so that should be interesting and it’s new for this year.”