8 River Cruise Themes to Sell Now

8 River Cruise Themes to Sell Now

River cruise lines offer a range of special-interest river cruises in Europe and the U.S. By: Marilyn Green
<p>Music fans can enjoy sampling local venues. // © 2017 iStock</p><p>Feature image (above): Wine-themed cruises are popular // © 2017 iStock</p>

Music fans can enjoy sampling local venues. // © 2017 iStock

Feature image (above): Wine-themed cruises are popular // © 2017 iStock

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Who knew? There's not just beer, there's hefeweizen and witbier (wheat beer), dunkel and dubbel (dark beer), lambic (wild yeast beer) and krystal (filtered beer). Stuck in a Coors or Budweiser rut? Try brands such as Beer Hawk, Beach Beer, Magic Hat, Left Hand Milk Stout and Pop's Porter.

There's nothing like a beer-themed cruise to introduce you to a whole new world.

Special-interest cruises abound: wine cruises, chocolate cruises, health and fitness cruises, photography cruises, golf cruises and, of course, beer cruises. Simply put, if there's a special interest, there's probably a cruise for it.

In the early days of modern river cruising, themed cruises were so common that it seemed as though every second departure was built around a special interest. These cruises have been used as an incentive to bring first-timers to river cruising, as a way to package a group cruise and as a value-added enhancement to a booking. Today, the best-known choices mostly concentrate on wine, food and seasonal markets. But, there is a broad range of special-interest sailings scheduled this year and next, with far more choices than most agents realize.

Rick Kaplan, president of Premier River Cruises, a travel agency based in Los Angeles, says there is a disconnect between cruise lines and the distribution system when it comes to selling themed river cruises.

"Agents are mostly unaware of themed cruises," Kaplan said. "Few agencies specialize in river cruises, and for them to stay current on all the themes is expecting a lot. There's a training issue here."

Kaplan says that, in general, he sees themed cruises as an added value for his cruise clients.

"They are an extra tool in my sales belt," he said.

Some agents say the themed aspect produces high guest ratings and adds a reason to sail, but that scheduling can be a problem. For instance, Kaplan notes that Avalon Waterways, which has an exceptionally rich assortment of themed cruises, offers golf as a theme, but there is only one departure this year.

On the other hand, Beth Schulberg, owner of Cruise & Travel Specialists in Lake Oswego, Ore., observes that, because cruise lines set up the majority of themed cruises during periods of lower demand, the cruise fares and air are generally less expensive, so the theme coupled with the low pricing can be even more appealing to the consumer.

There are several ways themed cruises are organized: In addition to the ones set up by cruise lines, agents and/or "pied pipers" build themes around existing groups and either block out space or set up a full-ship charter to accommodate clients. Some agents - especially those who normally offer custom shore excursions for their customers with private cars and specialized guides - are providing clients with experiences such as Jewish heritage guides, golf reservations, concert tickets and more. Festivals and performances that take place in destinations close to a river ship port can be used to add special-interest features to a cruise. For example, the Prague Spring Festival (one of the best in Europe's classical music scene), the Chopin Festival in Paris and the Montreaux Jazz Festival, as well as a Shakespeare performance at London's Globe Theatre, are all opportunities to entice fans to book a cruise.

But there are some clear benefits to using a cruise line's dedicated themed cruises: Many of the passengers will share a common interest, and the mix of more general sightseeing along with a specific focus works for all the guests - so the spouse of a music aficionado, for instance, will find plenty to enjoy, too. In the case of active cruising or family sailings, special equipment and facilities may be provided onboard, and lecturers and shore excursions are already coordinated.

The following themes are just a sampling of what cruise lines are offering this year.

Wine cruises are the most popular and numerous themed sailings, with individual cruise lines offering as many as 50 departures this year and next.

Viking River Cruises' weeklong Chateaux, Rivers and Wine sailings in France - available June through October on Viking Longship Forseti, roundtrip from Bordeaux - are a prime example. In the vineyards, farms and towns of Aquitaine, Viking's guests enjoy experiences such as creating a personal blend of cognac at the Camus distillery and tasting the wines in medieval Saint-Emilion. In Pauillac, they explore three of the five famous "first growth" wine names: Chateaux Lafite-Rothschild, Latour and Mouton Rothschild. Travelers sip Sauternes in Cadillac, where the finest bottles are produced; hunt for truffles in Perigord; and taste the superlative oysters fresh from the bay at Arcachon. To top it off, guests dock overnight in Bordeaux.


AmaWaterways continues its relationship with Adventures by Disney in 2017 with the new family-friendly design of AmaViola and AmaKristina. Each has six sets of connecting staterooms that can sleep up to five, and others accommodate three or four people. The company offers seven-night family cruises on the Rhine and Danube rivers, with excursions such as bike tours and folk dancing. The line is going further in 2018, with special "Beauty and the Beast"-themed experiences on six Rhine departures, which will include a themed dinner, onboard screenings of both the live-action and animated versions of the film and a tour of Riquewihr in France, considered a match for Belle's home village in the movie.


Avalon Waterways has a generous roster of themed cruises ranging from golf to music, including its new Active Discovery tours, which are expanding next year from the Danube into the Rhine. "Active" is interpreted as physically and mentally active, so hands-on cooking classes in Vienna and a walk along a World War II smugglers' route are coupled with canoeing and biking, a guided mountain climb or archery lessons. There are eight Active Discovery cruises offered between July and October this year, and in 2018, they will be scheduled in June, July and September.

To complement the active approach on its cruises, Avalon is launching the Avalon Fresh dining option this year. Noted Austrian chefs Karl and Leo Wrenkh have developed the menu, which will offer cruisers healthful vegetarian dishes that utilize local, seasonal ingredients from regional small farms.


Jewish Heritage
As a part of its cross-cultural Bridges of Understanding program, Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection is launching a new set of Jewish heritage cruises on River Ambassador this year. The cruises will discuss WWII history in general but also focus on the 2,000 years of Jewish history in the Rhineland, the resiliency of the Jewish people and their hope for the future. The 10-day Rhine-Main Discovery & Munich itinerary sails from Munich to Cologne, Germany, calling in Dachau, Nuremberg, Frankfurt and Wertheim - ports that include synagogues, cemeteries and Holocaust memorials, in addition to museums, historic Jewish districts and other sites significant to WWII. Guides specializing in WWII history lead shore excursions, and Jewish-themed Signature Lectures present topics ranging from "Jewish Intellectuals, Writers and Musicians" to "The History of Jews in Europe."


Talk about tying the theme to the region: American Queen Steamboat Company's nine-day Inside the Bourbon Experience, which departs July 2 onboard American Queen, helps guests dive into the centuries-old tradition of Kentucky bourbon. Distillery tours, onboard lectures, tastings and bourbon-infused delicacies show passengers where the spirit comes from, how it is made and how to distinguish bourbons from different distilleries. Bill Samuels Jr., son of the founder of Maker's Mark, will lead a presentation and tasting, and Don Flinn, a representative of 200-year-old distillery Buffalo Trace, will give enrichment talks. Michael Veach, a bourbon historian and member of the Kentucky Bourbon Hall of Fame, will offer tastings of some of the world's most famous and unique bourbons. In addition, topics such as local music, the Civil War and the history of the region will be discussed.


Jazz and Blues
American Cruise Lines will feature jazz and blues cruises onboard the paddlewheeler Queen of the Mississippi that focus on the region's grand tradition of music. There are special onboard performances, guided tours and exclusive behind-the-scenes visits to museums and recording studios that showcase the great talent along the Mississippi River. Departures are scheduled for April 1 and 8, May 20 and Nov. 11 for the seven-night cruises sailing between two iconic music cities: New Orleans and Memphis, Tenn. Port calls include Oak Alley, Baton Rouge and St. Francisville, La., and Natchez, Miss., where guests enjoy a special concert in the music room of the historic J.N. Stone House.


Christmas Markets
Christmas market cruises, which start in November and run through Christmas, combine a stress-free approach to the holidays with visits to beautiful outdoor markets filled with crafts, delicacies and music. Scenic's 16-day Christmas Wonderland departure on Dec. 14, from Amsterdam to Budapest, Hungary, onboard Scenic Amber offers handmade craft shopping and Christmas spirit in the iconic markets of Cologne, Regensburg and Nuremberg, Germany; Salzburg and Vienna, Austria; and Budapest. This is followed by a festive onboard Christmas celebration.


Tauck's A Taste of France sailing is an ideal option for foodies that combines a seven-night Rhone River cruise onboard Emerald with two nights in Paris. Guests can participate in pastry and cooking classes, gourmet dinners and a tasting tour of Lyon, France's culinary capital. Offered in April, June, August and October this year, these cruises through southern France start in Paris on the Champs Elysees with a reception and dinner at Fouquet's; a chocolate demonstration; and a pastry class designed especially for Tauck guests at the famous Ecole Lenotre. In Lyon, guests sample the wares of the historic covered food market Les Halles and dine at Paul Bocuse's L'Abbaye de Collonges. The cruise takes them wine tasting in Beaujolais; to a lunch showcasing Provencal specialties at a private ranch in La Camargue; and to a cooking demonstration at a prominent cooking school in Valence.

"Themed cruises offer a lot of potential," said Kaplan of Premier River Cruises. "When you qualify clients and ask all the questions that give you a clear picture of their interests and experiences, whether they are foodies or dedicated to fitness, some topics will come up that can be translated into special-interest themes. The burden is on the agent to use this information to close the deal."


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