Avalon Luminary on the Moselle River. // © 2014 Avalon Waterways
The history of Avalon Waterways, which celebrates its 10th anniversary this year, mirrors the saga of modern river cruising. Like the river cruise industry itself, Avalon has evolved over the past 10 years to provide larger staterooms and suites, luxurious beds, alternative dining options, included shore excursions and a broad swath of destination options.
Family-owned Globus launched the Avalon river cruise brand on the base of its tour business, capitalizing on the company’s 76 years of experience providing land exploration programs. Avalon started operating its first ship, the Avalon Artistry, in 2004. By the end of 2014, the line will have 13 ships in Europe, despite having taken its first five vessels out of service. The company also operates ships in the Amazon, Galapagos, Mekong and the Yangtze. New ships are on tap for the Mekong and Irrawaddy and two more for Europe, all in 2015.
In recent years, the major river cruise lines in Europe settled on distinctive signature designs for their hardware; nearly all the ships that followed those design decisions are sister ships or adaptations. This set up a before-and-after contrast with earlier vessels that creates a challenge for companies trying to keep their fleets consistent — and for travel agents selling the ships.
With the speed of new ship development in the last decade, Avalon has retired its first five vessels. Avalon’s first-generation ships, Artistry, Poetry and Tapestry, and second-generation launches, Tranquility and Imagery, are no longer in service for the line. There had been speculation that these vessels would be moved to another brand within Globus to create a different, lower-priced product that would be sold to the European market, but Avalon ultimately decided to keep only its newer ships.
“You always think of all the possibilities,” said Patrick Clark, Avalon’s managing director. “But we decided to stick with our two styles, both of which are doing very well.”
The two styles are the Scenery class, launched in 2008, and Avalon’s Suite Ships, which debuted in 2011. Both classes are deployed on the same itineraries, but the Suite Ships are sold at a higher price point.
“We’re all about choice,” Clark said. “I just did the President’s cruise on the Paris to Normandy’s Landing Beaches itinerary onboard the Creativity — a Scenery-class ship — and people were very enthusiastic about the product.”
The Avalon Fleet
The Scenery vessels have four decks with all outside staterooms designed from 172 square feet to 258 square feet for junior suites and featuring a very clever arrangement of storage space. The 140-passenger Scenery was the prototype for its class, followed by the Affinity, Creativity, Felicity and Luminary. All five Scenery-class ships have a strong following, and guests give the ships very good reviews on dining and enrichment. The clean, contemporary lines have been a hallmark of the brand from its beginning.
It is the Suite Ships, however, that the company points to as the chief differentiator for the Avalon brand.
A big topic in European river cruising is the style of balconies utilized on a ship. These are prized by customers but limited by the tight size restrictions on river vessels that need to get through locks and under bridges on Europe’s rivers. Square footage on conventional balconies, taken away from footage in the accommodations area of the stateroom, becomes unused space when the weather doesn’t cooperate.
Avalon’s solution to the balcony problem is an 11-foot-wide wall of glass that opens to make the stateroom itself an open-air experience while keeping the living space intact. Avalon launched its Suite Ships class with the 166-passenger Panorama, featuring 200-square-foot all-suite accommodations. The Suite Ships’ public rooms also got a new look compared to Avalon’s Scenery class ships, with a main lounge, a smaller lounge and a covered seating area at the bow.
More Suite Ships followed the launch of the Panorama, including Visionary and Vista in 2012 and the Artistry II and Expression in 2013. Poetry II and Impression launched in March of this year and Illumination is due in June. Two more Suite Ships are planned for next year, Tapestry II and Tranquility II, bringing the number of vessels in Avalon’s Suite Ship fleet to 10.
The size of Scenery-class and Suite Ship vessels sailing on European rivers varies so they can operate in different regions that have different lock limitations. Suite Ships, including Panorama, Impression, Illumination, Expression and Vista, are all 166-passenger vessels. The Scenery-class Scenery and Creativity carry 140 passengers each. However, the Suite Ships Poetry II, Artistry II and Visionary, and the Scenic-class ships Luminary, Felicity and Affinity all carry 128 passengers.
Avalon’s smallest ships sail on more exotic river itineraries. The 32-passenger Avalon Angkor debuted on the Mekong River in 2012. Its success prompted the company to add a new 36-guest Suite Ship, the Avalon Siam Reap, to the Mekong starting next year. A sister ship, Avalon Myanmar, will also debut next year on the Irrawaddy River in Myanmar, a hot destination for North Americans. With 18 suites each, the two newbuilds will have 245-square-foot accommodations featuring Avalon’s signature open-air balcony design.
The line also has charters in China on the Yangtze River. The Century Paragon and Legend each have 156 staterooms including 40 suites, all with balconies. Both ships have large indoor pools, fitness rooms, business centers and movie theaters. In the Galapagos, Avalon offers the Santa Cruz, a 90-passenger ship with all outside staterooms.
This year, the company will begin to schedule cruises on the Amazon onboard the 32-passenger Aria, a beautiful ship that looks like a floating framework of huge windows. On the Mississippi River, Avalon works with the classic sternwheeler American Queen, which is designated as a Historic Hotel of America.
Avalon’s emphasis on choice extends to the length of sailings. Clark said the company’s shorter four-, five- and six-night cruises attract first-timers and younger vacationers who are time constrained.
“I’ve talked to people who have tried the three-night Taste of the Danube, sometimes adding hotel stays in Venice and Budapest, and it’s a great introduction to river cruising,” Clark said. “We’re really pleased with the performance of these shorter cruises, and we’re adding more departures.”
The company has also extended guests’ choices with greater flexibility in dining and shore excursions. For instance, guests can have breakfast at the crack of dawn with other early risers, enjoy the enormous breakfast buffet or try what one passenger dubbed the “sleepyheads’ brunch.” Four kinds of shore excursions offer choices including essential sightseeing (including orientation and free time), leisurely guided sightseeing at a relaxed pace, special-interest tours and traditional guided tours.
Clark said there are special challenges for travel agents in qualifying clients for river cruises.
“Agents are knowledgeable about ocean cruising. It’s been around so long, with so much volume, that there are fairly defined categories,” Clark said. “But there isn’t clear category differentiation with river cruising. If a river cruise line calls itself five-star, travelers may expect a product on the level of Silversea or Seabourn, and we don’t have space for that range of amenities or crew to offer that kind of service.”
Avalon is among the river cruise lines providing loyalty programs for the rapidly growing number of repeat river cruise customers. Journeys Club, parent company Globus’ loyalty program, provides discounts on additional cruises, first knowledge of new ships and itineraries and recognition and extra amenities onboard Avalon sailings. Membership is not automatic; travel agents should tell clients they need to sign up on the ship for the program when they sail.
An important point: Journeys Club members receive offers and information on all of The Globus Family of Brands.
“For travel agents, this is a bonus, as it introduces their clients to new travel styles they might not have previously considered,” Clark said. “The Journey Club member will benefit from repeat traveler promotions. It’s a great opportunity to cross-sell.”
In addition to repeat cruisers, Avalon is targeting the all-important first-timer. Theme cruises are doing exceptionally well to attract first-time cruisers to Avalon. Clark noted that theme cruises present agents with an opportunity to book people through their special interests, whether its music, wine, Jewish heritage, World War II or others. He said the 2015 theme cruises are already showing a higher load factor than the norm. And demand just keeps growing.
“We all keep pinching ourselves,” Clark said. “Last year in Europe, our load factors were in the mid-90s, and we are already there this year. This looks like a record year, off to a great start and, judging by the response for 2015, we will break the record we’re setting now.”
Clark sees a strong and vibrant future for Avalon as it enters its second decade of operation.
“Ocean cruising has led the way so people are now geared to unpacking only once and being able to explore multiple destinations,” Clark said. “And there is much more awareness of river cruising now. As long as experiences in the industry continue to be good, we have a wonderful future.”