Kristin Karst with Rudi Schreiner (right) and the captain of AmaKristina // © 2017 AmaWaterways
Feature image (above): Austria’s Aggstein Castle is often a stop on Danube river cruises. // © 2017 Getty Images
Noticing high-touch changes in the river cruise industry? Perhaps it has something to do with the female executives leading many of the top river cruise brands. Although these women have arrived at their positions through different routes, they have a few things in common: a strong work ethic, a talent for teamwork and a conviction that travel serves an essential purpose.
Executives such as Edie Rodriguez — who until recently was the CEO of Crystal Cruises as it made a big splash with its entry into the river cruise buisness — are powerhouses who are bringing in new ideas, conceiving novel concepts from their personal and professional lives and incorporating them into the river cruise product.
Ellen Bettridge, president and CEO of Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection, says she feels that she has two families: one at home, and one at work.
“When I came to Uniworld, I was able to bring in people I’ve worked with before,” she said. “I think women have a tendency to depend on a team. I like to be challenged by mine — it really does take a village.”
Bettridge came up from the front lines at American Express, making the move from corporate travel to leisure travel. Later, as president for the Americas at Silversea Cruises, she discovered what a small-ship luxury line could do to make customers feel special.
“Then, at the inaugural of Uniworld’s S.S. Antoinette, I found river cruising,” she said.
“The ships are so small and so individual. When Brett Tollman [CEO of The Travel Corporation, Uniworld’s parent company] asked me to take over here, I couldn’t hesitate; I jumped at it.”
Bettridge is overseeing some dramatic moves, including the launch of U by Uniworld, a product designed for the expansive millennial market. She is also finding new ways to maximize the space on vessels in Europe, where size is limited by locks and bridges. Uniworld’s Super Ships now have progressive dinners, hosted by the hotel manager and the captain a few nights on each cruise, with appetizers in the laundry room, dinner in the wheelhouse and more, along with treats such as outdoor movies on deck.
Other changes that Bettridge says clients can expect to see across the fleet will draw on the technology used on U by Uniworld vessels. For instance, the headphones that are part of the onboard silent disco will allow two or more activities to be offered at the same time without encroaching on one another.
“You can have one person listening to classical music, another to jazz, one hearing the soundtrack to a movie being shown and others dancing to the music in their headphones,” Bettridge explained.
Kristin Karst, executive vice president of AmaWaterways, agrees that the experiential side of travel is what guests are looking for in redefining luxury — with personalization, time, service and space front and center. A co-founder of AmaWaterways with her husband, company president Rudi Schreiner, Karst says she is dedicated to teamwork.
“We are a family; every team member is a partner,” Karst said. “We are the United Nations. In the past, people hired staff like themselves because it was easier, but different cultures make different contributions and bring multiple talents to the table.”
AmaWaterways team members are empowered to come up with their own initiatives, and Karst says she and Schreiner have been surprised by the staff’s creative ideas, such as a full vegan menu. The crew has also generated ship and shore programs after reviewing feedback from the increasingly multigenerational and family-oriented passengers.
Karst, like Bettridge, emphasizes that female executives often bring a different perspective to the industry.
“Rudi deals with facts and hardware; I deal with service and filling the ships, which is the people side,” Karst said. “I think women take care of family first; we tend to anticipate needs, make people feel special and nurture and respond to trends at different stages of life.”
Among these recent trends is a higher demand for healthy lifestyle options while on vacation. This has led AmaWaterways to add an extensive onboard wellness program with a dedicated wellness leader. By 2018, the line will have at least one ship with this program on every river, and reservation agents will help guide advisors to the vessels that best suit their clients.
Looking past the trends, there’s a universal point of river cruising, Karst says: Travel makes people more tolerant and the world a better place.
This concept led Karine Hagen, senior vice president of Viking Cruises, to enter cruising and river cruising. Despite her father’s ownership of Viking, she was not, as some might imagine, groomed from the cradle to become part of the industry.
“I worked a long time in other areas,” she said. “I had a career with accounting firm Arthur Andersen [and I was part of] a startup in Silicon Valley. I didn’t grow up with a dream to be involved in travel. I joined my father’s business because of the role travel plays in debunking preconceived ideas about other people and enabling people to engage with one another. Observing is not enough; there needs to be real engagement.”
Hagen leveraged her relationships worldwide to open the doors for Viking guests to see things such as the Herimtage Storage Facilities in St. Petersburg, Russia, and to meet local Russians who lived through the Cold War.
“These are mutually rewarding experiences,” she said. “People such as the Countess of Carnarvon at England’s Highclere Castle enjoy meeting the guests who gravitate to Viking — those who are curious and interested.”
Hagen says it’s a great privilege to connect people in this way and give them a positive experience in a world that often stresses negativity.
“We offer our guests these Privileged Access experiences and opportunities for learning, but we also continually look to them for feedback as we evolve our onboard and onshore programs each year,” she said.
Joni Rein, who recently joined Scenic as vice president of sales and marketing for the U.S., shares a similar view of the industry.
“River cruises really are full-immersion, in a way that nobody who has only done ocean cruises could grasp,” she said. “And people onboard get to know others who are from different places; they become more open-minded.”
Rein speaks from 33 years in the cruise industry; she most recently served as vice president of worldwide sales for Carnival Cruise Line, and she now oversees all of Scenic’s operations in the U.S. market. She says one of her main focuses is to provide dreams and memories; another is to deliver even more than promised.
“With these core beliefs, everything else falls into place,” she said. “It’s what I believed when I started at Scenic in October and what I still believe now. Other things have morphed, but that still stays the same.”
This includes being a good partner to travel agents.
“We need to spend time and educate agents, who are working with dozens of suppliers,” Rein said. “We are a small — but rapidly growing — segment of their business, and we need to pause, educate and explain. You have to be passionate to thrive.”
That passion also fuels Katharine Bonner, senior vice president of river and small-ship cruising for Tauck. Bonner joined the industry at a time when river cruising was changing dramatically.
After she served as director of partnership marketing at AAA, where she worked with cruise lines and tour operators, Bonner had taken a position with a tour operator in Boston. Then, she was ready for the next step.
She sent a letter that stressed her knowledge of the business and her experience with cruising and tour operators to Tauck’s then-president, Robin Tauck, when the company was first entering river cruising. Bonner joined the line just as it was launching its inaugural vessel, Emerald, and river cruising was embracing hotel-style amenities.
Bonner has also seen the refinement of the product over the years, as Tauck moved its emphasis away from simply filling up river vessels and instead toward larger accommodations and fewer passengers — and she attributes some of that finesse to the women in charge.
“River cruising grew up more from the tour side,” she said. “And there are more women on the tour side than the larger cruise industry. It’s a highly collaborative product; you can’t deliver unless marketing and operations are strongly aligned. And it’s more of a high-touch industry, and women tend to be good at that. It’s not so much glitz and glamour, but authentic experience that requires sensitivity.”
That kind of sensitivity has allowed Terri Burke, managing director of Avalon Waterways, and Pam Hoffee, chief product and operations officer for the Globus Family of Brands (Avalon’s parent company), to move into extended leadership positions.
Burke began as a frontline agent and has held executive positions with brands such as Norwegian Cruise Line, Holland America Line, Cruise Planners/American Express and AAA National. As director of national accounts for Avalon, she brought the cruise line’s specialist program for agents to Globus, where she led the brand’s key retail partnerships with Paula Hayes.
Hoffee, meanwhile, is adding Avalon’s worldwide operations to her responsibility for Globus’ product and operations in North America and outside Europe. She began her maritime career as a shore excursion manager on a Semester at Sea in Alaska and Central America.
Both women say they are seeing a rise in the growing trend of linked products.
“We’re leveraging the family of brands,” Burke said. “Combined travels with Avalon and [Globus brand] Monograms, which include transfers, are up over 40 percent.”
“Once people have paid to cruise in Europe, they want to add a land component,” Hoffee added. “On a city stay with Monograms, clients go to a different city than where the cruise ended; for example, they may disembark in Paris and add a city tour in London.”
Burke points out that Globus aggregates agent commission on all brands, so advisors can essentially reach a higher commission level four times faster. The women also note that they’re expanding Avalon’s rich offering of special-interest cruises, increasing this segment by 54 percent next year; for 2018, there will be 71 such experiences.
Along with diversifying their product, Burke and Hoffee — like many other female river cruise executives — regard their positions as a culmination of their careers.
“I was able to create the perfect job for myself,” Hoffee said.
And Burke feels similarly.
“You will never see me anywhere else,” she said.