Left to right: Rudi Schreiner, Kristin Karst and Jimmy Murphy, founders of AmaWaterways // © 2011 Volker Corell
River cruising has been transformed completely during the past 20 years — from utilitarian two- or three-night journeys on the Rhine River to luxury vessels plying rivers throughout the world — and Rudi Schreiner, president of AmaWaterways, has been involved in virtually every defining move.
Schreiner, born in Vienna, Austria, extended his knowledge of the world’s rivers during months of research in the Peruvian Amazon. After earning an MBA from Loyola University, he moved to Los Angeles to become vice president of Student Travel International, a tour operator specializing in European bus tours for college graduates and alumni. In 1992, he joined Uniworld as vice president of product development where he became involved in river cruises from Russia and the Ukraine to the Amur River in Siberia and the Yangtze River in China. He recalled a day in 1993 when he read an article about the opening of the 106-mile Rhine/Main/Danube Canal and instantly recognized its implications for river cruising.
“This was the number-one key development in Europe,” he said. “It’s a project that was first planned by Charlemagne in the year 793 and it has since opened up a network from the North Sea to the Black Sea.”
Although the canal was constructed for freight shipping, it ushered in the era of tremendous growth and development that we see today. The canal has expanded the two- or three-day routes on the Rhine to a Europe cruise itinerary that includes 15 countries and hundreds of ports inaccessible to seagoing cruises.
An Industry Is Born
Uniworld chartered the Blue Danube in 1995, another milestone for the industry and a signpost for today’s river cruise experience.
“The first ship different from them all was the Blue Danube, which introduced hotel-style beds, great attention to dining and was designed specifically for longer cruises on the canal,” said Schreiner. “It changed everything.”
He set up an itinerary that is now a staple of river cruising: the 14-night route between Amsterdam and Budapest.
“I had no idea about schedules. I had maps taped around my walls and worked it out — and we sold out instantly,” he said. “In 1996, we chartered from Peter Deilmann and, then, we found we needed more and more vessels.”
Uniworld began contracting its own ships and, over the next few years, Schreiner developed programs for all major European waterways, including the Rhine, the Main, the Danube, the Elbe, the Po and the Douro.
Between 1994 and 2000, Uniworld grew from carrying 100 passengers a year to 18,000. In 1998, Torstein Hagen, chairman and founder of Viking River Cruises, started up his line, and Schreiner started chartering from Viking. However, the relationship was eventually severed, at which time Viking approached Schreiner, who joined the line as president. In March 2000, Viking opened offices in Woodland Hills, Calif., with about 15 people.
After two years, Schreiner left Viking and, together with chairman Jimmy Murphy and executive vice president and co-owner Kristin Karst, founded AmaWaterways.
Schreiner said a year after AmaWaterways was founded, Globus wanted to buy it. The two companies had good relations, so they exchanged shares, with each holding 30 percent of the other company’s stock. Schreiner became a consultant for Globus’ Avalon Waterways during the line’s first two years.
This was the first step in developing Schreiner’s fleet of river vessels.
“Globus realized how fast the sector was growing and wanted to exit the agreement,” he said.
The negotiated settlement financed AmaWaterways’ first ship, the AmaDagio, in 2006. Schreiner’s shipbuilder, Koert Kamphuisen of Holland, has continued to work with him and is building AmaWaterways’ latest vessel, the AmaCerto, which debuts next year.
Each AmaWaterways partner has added an important piece to the new company. Murphy, born and educated in Ireland, spent nine years with a retail travel agency in Dublin before moving to the U.S. He then served as a sales executive with Aer Lingus for 11 years. In 1969, Murphy was one of the founders of Brendan Tours, an important distribution partner for Uniworld when Schreiner was there. He also served as national treasurer of ASTA for four years and was the founding president of the United States Tour Operators Association.
Karst’s experience includes eight years with American Express, first as the manager of leisure travel in Dresden, Germany, then as manager of special groups in Zurich. In 1999, she moved to the U.S. and became manager of groups and incentives at Viking. She is now AmaWaterways’ chief sales executive, responsible for driving national and international sales and charters. She supervises an in-house staff of reservation agents, sales managers and directors, as well as an outside staff of business development managers throughout North America and the vice presidents of national accounts, business development and marketing.
The three share the tasks of overall management, planning and oversight of today’s AmaWaterways, which will be 10 years old in 2012 and has nine ships in Europe on the Danube, the Rhine, the Mosel and the Rhone, while AmaVoyages has a ship on the Volga River in Russia, two on the Mekong River in Vietnam/Cambodia and one on the Chobe River in Africa as of next year. The company’s staff includes more than 60 employees in North America as well as offices and onboard staff in Europe and Asia. AmaWaterways’ clientele is clear: It specializes in the English-speaking market worldwide.
Schreiner has brought his travels and his expertise in the river cruise industry to bear on opening new areas for cruising. The company’s successful entry into Mekong cruising has sparked announcements of operations there from several other major cruise lines, while AmaWaterways has expanded its presence to two ships.
Next year’s AmaCerto will bring the new Twin Balcony design — full balcony and French balcony — to the North American market. Also, in June 2012, the company is launching new safari cruises in Africa on the Chobe River, which borders Namibia and Botswana, with four nights in Chobe National Park followed by two nights at Victoria Falls.
“Game drives by boat are amazing,” said Schreiner. “The animals — herds of elephants, crocodiles, everything — come down to the river to drink. From the boat you see them much closer than you can from land.”
There’s another new ship planned for 2013, and Schreiner has an arrangement in the works on the Douro River for 2013 — a product that will be a close match to the rest of the European vessels.
He describes the past couple of years as an exceptionally creative period for the whole river cruise industry, with the four major players carrying 250,000 passengers this year and engineers in Europe being pushed to create ships with unheard of amenities.
In AmaWaterways’ case, these include most staterooms with French balconies or AmaWaterways’ new Twin Balconies; elegant dining programs; spacious marble bathrooms with multi-jet showers; hotel-style bedding with down pillows and duvets; flat-screen televisions offering satellite channels; personal headsets on daily tours; free Wi-Fi access; no charge for wine, beer and soft drinks at dinner; and complimentary bicycles for in port exploring. Ships today even feature pools and glass elevators.
Meanwhile, Schreiner said that he appreciates the new product offerings of his competitors and believes that the richness of the new ship designs and itineraries will stimulate the river cruise market and increase its visibility among both agents and consumers.
“There’s room on the rivers for plenty of cruise lines — competition is healthy,” he stated. “Look at the situation in Australia with AmaWaterways’ partner APT River Cruises and Scenic Tours — both advertise in the weekend newspapers, which is creating very strong demand. Each line is a stimulus for the other one. It is very important to maintain good relationships — we generate business for one another.”