Selling Theme River Cruises

Theme river cruises provide great opportunities for a local experience By: Marilyn Green
A Christmas markets cruise is one of the most popular theme cruises. // © 2012 Avalon Waterways
A Christmas markets cruise is one of the most popular theme cruises. // © 2012 Avalon Waterways

Selling theme cruises on the rivers of North America and Europe is different from selling seagoing ones. The ships are typically smaller, and the opportunities for charter are more manageable. Also, because the river cruise lines typically dock in the heart of their ports and travel short distances between destinations, lines can easily take on local experts for an evening and have great resources for special-interest sailings.

From wines to Civil War, tennis, golf and Jewish heritage, the river cruise lines are adding to their list of special-interest offerings each year. In addition, once-in-a-decade events such as Floriade, the international festival of horticulture, food and the arts in the Netherlands, sell out very quickly, while jazz and arts cruises tend to bring back repeat customers.

The great rivers of America bring guests to a number of prominent Civil War sites, and offerings for such cruises have increased dramatically this year with the entrance of sternwheelers from American Cruise Lines and Great American Steamboat Company.  Cruises from August through December visit sites such as Vicksburg’s National Military Park, Shiloh National Military Park, New Orleans’ Civil War Museum and battlefields along the rivers, with experts on board including Ric Burns, who co-produced the PBS series “The Civil War,” in addition to actors and cuisine reflecting the era.

In the Pacific Northwest, the emphasis is on Lewis & Clark and on the wineries along the major rivers. American Safari Cruises and American Cruise Lines are two companies that offer both features, with private wine tastings and onboard experts to provide enrichment.

Wine cruises in Europe are clustered around the harvest time from August through October, on the Danube and Rhine and in Burgundy, Provence and Spain. All the major companies offer such sailings, sometimes paired with food themes, as in Uniworld’s epicurean cruises, and they are a favorite theme for presidents’ cruises.

Floriade, the Netherlands’ international outburst of stunning gardens, arts and food held every 10 years, runs through the beginning of October and, although the highest concentration of cruises are during the opening this month, cruise lines, including Avalon Waterways, Tauck River Cruises, Scenic Cruises, Uniworld Boutique River Cruises and Viking River Cruises, offer sailings all summer.

Avalon has a particularly broad range of themed cruises, from wine to art and Impressionist cruises in Northern France to jazz, classical music and eight-day Paris to Normandy’s landing beaches.

AmaWaterways has been offering Jewish Heritage cruises for years, with alternate activities available for other passengers during special tours in cities including Regensberg, Nuremberg, Vienna and Budapest.

All the major river cruise players schedule colorful holiday cruises, departing on and before the end of year holidays with seasonal concerts, onboard feasts and the opportunity to shop at some of the most beautiful Christmas markets in Europe. They are offered on varying itineraries, mostly in France and Germany.

For upscale clients, luxury barge operators offer very in-depth programs. European Waterways, for instance, offers theme cruises featuring everything from antiques and arts to tennis, golf and family-specific cruises. Usually, there is one crew member for every two passengers, including a skilled chef, a captain and housekeepers. The eight-passenger Magna Carta sails antique cruises in England between Hampton Court and Henley on Thames, with an open bar, extraordinary cuisine and wines, bikes and a spa pool included. Guests visit dealers, merchants and galleries. Travel agents can put together a charter with eight friends or family members who will have an exclusive experience coupled with a personal chef. Tennis buffs can also cruise in England and play at riverside clubs, including the Royal Berkshire and the Windsor Lawn Tennis Club.

As far as selling both ocean and river theme cruising, cruise lines and successful travel agents agree that the most important tool is the agent database, with client interests, membership in organizations and notes from interviews all offering insight into the appeal of a particular kind of special interest cruise. Using social media to attract new clients, the travel agent can also sell different angles such as a golf cruise for a family or a Christmas market cruise for a mother and daughter or a pair of friends. By connecting the cruise experience to a special interest the guest already has, travel agents make the client an active part of the cruise, a very satisfying experience for the passengers and the cruise lines. 

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