Rivers of Gold

Its popularity makes it all the more important for agents to learn how to sell the product and understand that its appeal is changing its demographics and more importantly, that the time is ripe for agents to develop more first-time river cruisers and get out of the mind-set that it’s a limited market that only draws older, retired clientele.

Virtually every river cruise company has expanded its fleets worldwide with an emphasis on more spacious accommodations, dining, fine wines, service and activities with more appeal to a broader marketplace, which means more opportunities for agents to turn over clientele from their databases who’ve tried ocean cruising and land tours throughout the world.

avalon waterways Patrick Clark, managing director of Avalon Waterways, a division of Globus, points out ocean cruisers are indeed a good target for first-time river cruisers, because “…70 percent of our onboard customers that respond to our onboard surveys—and that’s a substantial number—tell us that they’ve had two or more big ship cruising experiences.” The selling point for small ships, he says, is the intimacy and the opportunity to meet like-minded travelers; the more extensive shore experiences; and the mostly inclusive costs where you’re not being nickeled and dimed through the whole cruise.

Avalon has seen a change in demographics, offering a broader range of traveler to sell in that first river cruise category. “The shorter cruises clearly skews younger now. If we’ve got 14-, 17-day or longer cruises, the demographic will average 70 because of the retirees. The shorter ones will skew more towards 50—that’s an average, you’ll also get the 40-somethings, and some in their 60s. Those are people typically still in the work place and getting a week, 10 days or a couple of weeks at most that they can carve out, particularly when it’s a couple who each have their own careers,” Clark says. “We also find that the shorter cruises, particularly theme cruise—we do wine, food, music, etc.,—those definitely skew younger. We also get people taking kids along, or grandparents taking a couple of college kids.”

The company has a fleet of 10 vessels running the rivers of Europe and has inked agreements to launch five more vessels by 2010. “A guest can go to a lecture or an excursion or choose to read a book on the sundeck or in the lounge. They can nap, go to the fitness center or make a hair appointment in the onboard hair salon. There are a lot of independent choices.”

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Clark recommends Avalon’s 7-night Romantic Rhine between Amsterdam and Basel (from $1,989 pp dbl, plus air) as well as the 10-night Legendary Danube between Nuremberg and Budapest, including Prague (from $2,399 pp dbl plus air) for first-time river cruisers.

peter deilmann cruises Ron Santangelo, president, North America, at Peter Deilmann Cruises, points out that only 20 percent of Deilmann’s customers have never been on a ship of any kind, and easily 60 to 70 percent have been cruising before. Most of their passengers have been to Europe before and now want to experience the continent in a different way. “Very few would choose a river cruise on their first visit to Europe,” he says. Peter Deilmann Cruises runs eight different vessels through a broad range of rivers and routes so there is a 30 percent return factor among the passengers, who want to try different tours.

For first-time river cruisers, Santangelo stresses it is much easier for agents to sell and for clients to digest a route with familiar sounding names. “The Danube is the most easy to sell. People know Vienna and Budapest, and these places, though familiar, remain intriguing. Some of the places we go are places people may not be able to pronounce, but once they experience the Danube they have less apprehensions about anything esoteric. The Rhine is the second choice because it is also familiar. But the Seine a little less known, and the Rhone and Elbe are even less known and harder to sell.”

Deilmann has a 7-night Danube cruise that starts and ends in Munich starting from $1,610 pp dbl that is well recommended for first-time river cruisers, Santangelo says.

tauck Tauck’s CEO Dan Mahar points out that river cruising has been the fastest-growing segment of Tauck’s business for the past several years, and its 2008 departures were over 70 percent sold-out by late last fall. The recent launch of Tauck’s Swiss Jewel is expected to help satisfy the high demand for Tauck’s river cruises, Mahar notes, as the company increased its river departures by 25 percent for 2009.