More importantly, he points out, the travel agent is absolutely the strongest element in the passenger relationship if something goes wrong or there’s a misperception about what’s involved. “I deal with our customer relations issues. If things go wrong, to have a good travel agent who can work with you—especially in those kinds of situations which require a face-to-face with a passenger—it’s a whole lot better than to have to deal with it via e-mail or over the phone. It sounds like a platitude, but it’s really a win-win situation, it’s good for us and it’s good for the travel agent.”
In still another innovation Viking’s become famous for within the industry, they were the first to turn the tables on land operators like Globus and Tauck who came out with their river cruise brands when they saw the potential in the product. A few years back, they formed their own land operation and named it Viking Tours. From the beginning, its intent was to operate as a stand-alone land operation, not necessarily as an adjunct to its sister river cruise company. Although they do tie in with some of the river cruise itineraries as a separate land operation.
“Viking Tours has maybe allowed us to go a little bit beyond our own ships and it certainly helped us grow in Egypt. Quite honestly, the recent downturn has affected what we’ve done recently with Viking Tours as a brand,” Ouendag admits. Still, he adds, while, “…it hasn’t grown as fast as we would have liked, we have now kind of repositioned ourselves in Egypt. And Viking Tours has certainly helped us get some recognition in Egypt and now Egypt is doing phenomenally well for us.”
In terms of 2010, Ouendag says the company has a number of new things on tap including a new itinerary between Passau and Budapest which is probably the segment of European river cruising where there is the most demand and where, he says, the company still sees a lot of room for growth. Viking is also making quite a push for fourth quarter sailings in 2010.
“We found there already was quite a bit of demand for cruising over Christmas and the New Year this year. So what we’ve done for 2010, we’ve taken some of our standard 7-night itineraries, looked at how that would fall over Christmas and the New Year’s holidays and created a series of 9-night itineraries that allow a little bit more time so that we can position people well for Christmas or for New Years—to make sure they’re in a city like Meinz which has fireworks over the river,” he explains. He points out that, “We always used to do this in the U.K. in particular, so we’ve kind of borrowed from that playbook and applied it to the American market. That really just requires some minor tweaking of the itinerary and it really won’t be that much more expensive than a 7-night itinerary. And we find that there’s actually quite an audience for that.”
Also in 2010, the company will be renovating the cabins on the Fontane, which is traveling between Trier and Nuremburg. It’s one of two flat-bottomed ships Viking owns which are very well suited to cruise on the smaller rivers, allowing the Fontane to go all the way up to Heidleburg. “And that’s fairly unique,” Ouendag says. “The Schumann is the other flat-bottom boat we have on the Elbe and with Deilmann out of the picture here in North America, we’re the only company still offers river cruising on the Elbe.”