We asked around, and indeed members of the travel agent community agreed strongly that river cruising is on a roll, creating growing sales opportunities.
Consider a sampling of river-cruise thoughts from this quartet of travel consultants.
“going where big ships can’t”
“The biggest challenge about planning a European river cruise is choosing which itinerary to start with,” says Ellen Paderson, founder of Smiles and Miles Travel, who firmly believes that a European river cruise should be on everyone’s bucket list. Travel consultant Paderson rode the early wave into river cruising, taking and selling river cruises for the last eight years, and “every year, we have more and more people requesting them. I find that Viking, Uniworld and AmaWaterways are good cruise choices for any client, and while repeat travelers do not necessarily repeat the same itinerary, they do stay loyal to a brand.”
According to Paderson, the popularity of these cruises is due to several factors: “People who have taken Caribbean cruises are looking for new adventures or a smaller, more intimate and relaxing experience. Nowadays we have a perfect choice: a river cruise aboard smaller boats go where big ships can’t. A river cruise sails into the heart of many great cities; offers shore excursions to historic and romantic places where there is so much to see and do; and provides knowledgeable guides who bring to life the medieval castles, lush vineyards, historic battlefields and great museums. And all the while, your hotel travels with you.” Additionally, Paderson points out that travelers enjoy river cruises because they are all-inclusive, and they offer elegant staterooms and a low guest-to-staff ratio.
Smiles and Miles Travel has a strong business in honeymoon, destination wedding and family travel. When asked if river cruising fits these niches in any way, “For honeymooners, river cruising is a possibility,” says Paderson, “however, while river cruise companies are starting to tap into the family market, I still think it is an adult product.”
Tina Vincent, senior travel advisor at Betty MacLean Travel looks differently on the family market for river cruising. “I have a client who has traveled with me for 26 years and usually books an ocean cruise for the whole family every other year,” she says. “Last year they took their first-ever river cruise and had a phenomenal time aboard Tauck’s 118-passenger Swiss Emerald. Aboard were 19 members from three generations—ages 81 years to 9 years—who occupied 10 staterooms on a trip that started with time in Paris before the 7-night cruise between Lyon and Arles.”
Vincent herself took the same cruise the year before, using her iPad to send impressions and pictures back to her client as she sailed along. “This is a well-traveled family,” Vincent reports, “and there was never any shortage of different things for the family members of all ages to do together and apart, with a lot of guidance from the crew, who bent over backwards in making the cruise a marvelous experience for every guest.”
Vincent notes, for instance, that “the guide who joined the passengers at different ports along the river one day brought along two of her own kids to give my family’s youngsters a different perspective on France.” And Vincent’s clients kept busy: one of the youngsters maintained a daily trip blog, another 25-year-old family member volunteered to give a passenger a briefing on his
experiences in the Peace Corps.
“the first cruise may be the rhine”
Sharel Felger, the founder of Luxe Travel, has been in the travel business for 29 years, however, it was not until a couple of years ago that she started selling river cruises. “Requests just started coming in fast and furiously,” she says, “to the point that European river cruising became an increasingly important part of our business. And it’s interesting. Our clients mostly know exactly where they want to go, what boat they want to cruise on, and often which cabin they want to sleep in. Recently, there are more requests for bigger cabins, and cabins or suites with big balconies.” Additionally, Felger finds that river cruising is an excellent product for repeat business. “The first cruise may be the Rhine, but the next is more off the beaten path. I sell a lot of Russia cruises and those that go to Eastern European ports.”
According to Felger, the agency’s river cruise clientele is mostly in their 50s and above. “They are well educated, really cultural travelers, and they like the idea of being docked in a town where they can join the ship’s excursion, but then go back and explore on their own. They like the flexibility of small ship river cruises, and they like the access to a destination. They want to learn, get to know as much as possible, and experience every destination’s culture and lifestyle right on the scene.”
As a member of the Signature Travel Network, Luxe Travel gets lots of excellent training and support in selling cruises, says Felger. “Within Signature’s special cruise niche, we work with Uniworld, American Cruise Lines and AmaWaterways. But if I have a client who wants to see a specific place at a special time that’s not on one of their cruises, I book whichever river cruise fits the client’s request and requirements.”
“the new adventure”
Virtuoso not only identified “river cruising” among the top five travel trends for 2013 in its Luxe Report, but the luxury travel network chartered AmaWaterways’ new AmaCerto vessel for its eighth annual “2012 Chairman’s Recognition Event,” hosting its top 60 travel agency members. In his welcoming speech during the week-long Danube cruise from Budapest to Nuremberg, Rudi Schreiner, president of AmaWaterways, stated:
“We recognize the importance of the travel agency community and the vital role they play in educating consumers about our products and ultimately placing their clients on our ships.”
Among the attendees, Ruth Turpin, owner of Cruises Etc. Travel, was one of a small group of repeat AmaWaterways passengers. She reports that, “Not only did I find the product really excellent—food, service and tours—but I’ve sold several AmaCerto cruises since returning.”
When Cruises Etc. Travel first began selling river cruises, Turpin says bookings were all from older, retired clients. But this has changed.
“We are now getting the 40s and 50s [in part] because cruise lines are appealing to them. On this Danube cruise, AmaWaterways had plenty of bicycles available for many of our group who biked along the river road from port to port. And river cruise lines are tailoring tours to all levels of involvement. Aboard AmaWaterways, excursions are geared to leisurely, moderate and more adventurous abilities, and the company has developed an excellent program of Celebrations of Wine cruises that appeal to younger travelers.” She says her clients would be interested in an equally strong menu of culinary-themed departures.
Turpin has done a lot of cruising in Europe, where her company also sells Viking and Tauck cruises. She is particularly enthusiastic over the new cruise product for the River Douro in Portugal, “although the new AmaWaterways vessel is almost totally sold out.” Another high enthusiasm is for China, where she personally discovered that “Viking has a terrific product. This river cruise is a great way for clients of all ages to experience the highlights—Beijing, Shanghai, Xi’an and the Terra Cotta Warriors, and cruising the Yangtze. And the company’s two new ships—doing a 14-day program including Hanoi, Siem Reap, Ho Chi Minh City and the Mekong River cruise—are ideal for people looking for a really new adventure.”
As Turpin points out, “I have been selling cruises for 35 years, and many of my clients have really almost done it all as far as where you can go on an ocean liner. They truly love the new adventure of being able to explore many countries of Europe, as well as some corners of China and Southeast Asia (as well as other places from Egypt to the U.S. waterways) from the comfort of a river cruise. From excellent food and wine to the assortment of tours at each stop, clients love that the price of the cruise or cruise-tour is very inclusive.”
Shirley Linde, editor of the well-known SmallShipsCruises.com website, offers a dozen reasons why river cruises are one of the fastest-growing sectors in the world of cruising. They range from “giving clients the historic experience of getting to know small towns along waterways that once served as avenues to settlement and trade, to worry-free and relaxing travel, waking up each day in a new location without having the hassle of getting there.” And she reminds us also of another advantage of river cruising that may be important to some clients: “Without waves, you don’t get seasick.”
a longship fan
Anne Scully, president of McCabe World Travel, points out that “25 years ago, river cruising was not for everybody. In fact, it was a very European product booked mostly by Europeans.” She credits Torstein Hagen, president of Viking River Cruises, with “being a visionary in developing what the American market needed: the right boats.” Her most recent cruise outings were two with Viking on the Danube River, one aboard one of the six new 95-cabin Longships that made their debut last year. “To me, Hagen is the Frank Lloyd Wright of river boats. He just uses the same space all river boats have, and with the Longships, made that space better.” Scully notes that the new design “moves the center line to create, for instance, great balconies and hotel-style suites with wraparound verandahs.” Other special features include the Aquavit Terrace at the bow of the ship for indoor/outdoor viewing and dining, as well as environmentally friendly hybrid engines, solar panels and a sun deck herb garden. Viking plans to launch on European waterways 10 more Longships this year, and eight in 2014.
And Scully plans to continue to encourage her bevy of ocean-cruising clients to begin to “think river.” She mentions several factors that lead to her enthusiasm over river cruising. She points out that a European river cruise puts clients in the heart of the great cities of Europe, not in different ports that require transfers; the ships not only offer luxury cruise comforts, but their small size provides a congenial place passengers want to be; and, for an all-inclusive, deluxe European experience, you can’t beat the actual value for the U.S. dollar.
CLIA thinks “small”
“River cruising is the fastest growing segment of the industry,” says Christine Duffy, president of Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), “gaining in popularity because of the up-close and personal experiences offered when sailing on the world’s legendary rivers.” According to Duffy, CLIA recently conducted a survey with member travel agents and found that this category of cruising already represents 5 to 45 percent of agent business, and almost 60 percent of respondents described it as a growing sales opportunity. In support of this market, “CLIA developed its Specialty Cruise Collection initiative to promote river, as well as small ship, coastal, luxury and adventure sailing member lines. Our efforts encompass marketing and public relations strategies, travel agent training, and other activities designed to heighten consumer and trade awareness.”
According to the CLIA survey, agents find the factors that drive consumer interest in special cruising range from social interaction and friendships made with fellow passengers to price, value, specialized culinary experiences on board and ashore, interesting shore activities and sightseeing, and perception of greater degree of personal services. Agents responding to the survey also note that older and more affluent consumers are presently the prime customers, and looking ahead, agents predict that this specialty cruise segment would be characterized by more shipboard amenities and activities, greater focus on cultural activities, more luxury and more ships purpose-built for river, as well as coastal and adventure travel.
The Specialty Cruise Collection presently embraces 13 CLIA member lines; the four river cruise members are: AmaWaterways, American Cruise Lines, Avalon Waterways and Uniworld Boutique River Cruises.
Cruise Connoisseurs Consider…
Christine Duffy, president of CLIA, was on the Danube just last spring. She is looking to the “exciting Asia-Pacific world where I would love to cruise on the Mekong River, for example.”
Rudi Schreiner, president of AmaWaterways, favors certain waterways for certain reasons: “The Douro River shares with the Moselle my vote for most scenic. For cultural highs, the Danube has the great cities, and the Mekong shows off Cambodia’s exotic antiquities.”
Patrick Clark, managing director of Avalon Waterways, taps “the meandering Moselle River, with its castles, vineyards and charming villages with half-timbered houses. Plus, there is less barge traffic so the pace is easy and less-congested.” And Clark has cruised on the Irrawaddy River in Myanmar; he can’t wait to repeat the experience.
AmaWaterways: (800) 626-0126; amawaterways.com or amawaterways.com/agent/Login.aspx
American Cruise Lines: americancruiselines.com or americancruiselines.com/travel-agents
Avalon Waterways: (877) 797-8791; avalonwaterways.com or agents.globusfamily.com/login.aspx
Cruise Lines International Association: cruising.org
Tauck: (800) 468-2825; tauck.com or agent.tauck.com/Pages/default.aspx
Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection: (800) 733-7820; uniworld.com or uniworld.com/Agency/User
Viking River Cruises: (800) 706-1483; vikingrivercruises.com or vikingrivercruises.com/agents/index.aspx