River Cruising Continues Expansion

Agents need to be aware of new ships, itineraries and competitors By: Marilyn Green

River cruise lines are reporting a record year for 2012, with 2013 looking even better.

Viking River Cruises will bring in 14 new Longships in two years, with eight on order in 2013. The company could have built two or three more this year to meet demand, according to Michele Saegesser, vice president of sales, the Americas. She described 2012 as a huge year, adding that things look “phenomenal” for 2013.  Viking is also introducing four new itineraries next year in Europe and China.

Similarly, Guy Young, president and CEO of Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection, characterized 2012 as “a great year.” He said 2013 sales are up 35 percent compared to 2012, and only Egypt is not doing well.

Uniworld has seen particularly strong growth in China with a 100 percent increase for 2013.

“We’ve had lots of change in the product,” said Young.  “The two new Century ships have branded Uniworld decks, and we have upgraded hotels and meals on shore.”

Southeast Asia is also up significantly with two ships sailing in 2013, and the new vessel on the Douro is expected to be strong.

Managing director of Avalon Waterways, Patrick Clark, said this year was a record one for the company, which is placing its Panorama-class features on earlier ships and increasing its demographic with a wide range of cruise lengths. Avalon is also focusing heavily on its shoreside product in 2013, and themes focus on wine and food (already heavily booked), jazz and Jewish heritage.

Katharine Bonner, vice president of marketing at Tauck, said themed cruises, such as culinary cruises in France, are doing very well and that Tauck’s move to drop the single supplement from all Category 1 staterooms next year is bringing a substantial rise in solo traveler bookings.

AmaWaterways is polishing its land programs, with three levels of activity, a late riser’s option and experiences such as its Culinary Delight program. President Rudi Schreiner said wine cruises are now up to around 22 departures and will continue to be increased. With heavy bookings for its seven-day roundtrip Paris cruises, the line will move Amalegro to the Seine River next year.

New entrants
As competition accelerates, international cruise lines are moving into the North American market. One such company is A-Rosa, which will dedicate three of its ships to North American passengers in 2013 and has enlisted Marilyn Conroy and David Morris, both veterans of Cunard Lines, Crystal Cruises and Silversea Cruises, to prepare them to compete and to get A-Rosa in front of agents and consumers in North America.

Starting in June, A-Rosa will offer Americans cruises on the Rhine, Danube and Rhone rivers, as well as Christmas market sailings. Conroy said everything is included in the pricing, and agents are commissioned on cruise fares, shore excursions, gratuities, transfers and unlimited beverages; air is backed out at $1,700.

The line plans to attract a younger affluent guest with active and unusual shore excursions and a theme for every cruise to attract special interest guests. A-Rosa will have a dedicated salesperson, launch an agents’ site, offer webinars and seminars and promote “old fashioned banging on doors and setting up relationships,” Conroy added.

Scenic Cruises, which launched as part of Scenic Tours’ Australian operation, has become so popular internationally that it has appointed a new director of global sales and marketing, Anna Wolferstein, who says the company now carries around 30 percent of its guests from outside Australia and has seen double-digit growth in the North American market this year. Scenic is setting up agent resources in the U.S., the U.K. and Canada.

“We are taking baby steps, because relationships must be built carefully,” said Wolferstein, who has worked in the travel industry in the U.S. and Europe. “We are looking at a dedicated agent website, agent advisers, webinars and a clear system for fams.”

On North American rivers, American Cruise Lines’ new Queen of the Mississippi launched on Aug. 4, and Charles Robertson, chairman and CEO, said the ship is full every trip this year. American is building a second new sternwheeler for 2014 and will have a new agent website coming toward the end of this year or the beginning of 2013, when Queen of the Mississippi begins sailing in the last week of February.

Tim Rubacky, senior vice president of sales, marketing and product development for American Queen Steamboat Company, said the company had a “phenomenal start” in April and quickly doubled the size of its reservations team.

“We have seen a shift in the tide of guests from veteran steamboaters to new people, most of whom have done ocean cruises and European river cruises,” he stated.

The company has a relationship with Tauck and just announced that Avalon Waterways will sell American Queen globally.

“So there are 10 or 15 different ways to sell American Queen, through the various tour and travel partners with land packages and signature features, back to back, with individually designed experiences generated by the agency, etc.” said Rubacky.

The increasingly complex product lines represent an opportunity for agents to help clients make choices.

“I think there is a river cruise for everyone,” said Bonner, “but there is not enough awareness that, like ocean cruises, different companies operate at different levels.”

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