Don’t know the Rhine from the Rhone? The Main from the Moselle? You
may be letting those big commission checks float through your
fingers. River cruising is one of the fastest growing segments of
the travel business. Not keeping up with today’s latest newbuilds,
high-tech features, special itineraries and luxury amenities could
spell trouble in River City.
“River cruising has become the hottest product in the travel
industry. In fact, the biggest problem our members have right now
is not getting enough space on ships. Many have decided to build
their own vessels,” said Bob Whitley, president of the United
States Tour Operators Association (USTOA).
Why is river cruising so much in demand?
“That’s simple,” said Whitley. “It combines all the advantages
of an escorted tour, with the convenience of cruising. And you’re
surrounded by historic villages and beautiful scenery along the
Today’s river vessels combine the elegance of a small boutique
hotel with features heretofore found primarily on their ocean-going
counterparts, such as balconies, Wi-Fi and spacious suites with
luxury bath amenities. Newer ships also feature elevators, workout
facilities, beauty salons and even jogging tracks. Many lines
catering to the North American (English-speaking) market include
guided city tours in the price of the cruise, as well as
complimentary wine with dinner. And the intimate size of river
vessels (typically from 150-200 passengers) means that crowd
control isn’t an issue.
“To be honest, I think
river cruising has become so popular because people are getting
tired of ocean cruises. Those ships are so large that they’re
really being marketed as a destination in themselves. With river
cruises, it’s all about the real destination,” said Lisa Juarez,
vice president of marketing communications for Viking River
Destination is definitely the key consideration with river
cruising. Some of the world’s great cities lie along rivers,
particularly in Europe. The Danube, Main, Rhine and Moselle provide
a wealth of itineraries and enough fairy-tale castles, medieval
fortresses, majestic cathedrals and bucolic vineyards to tell the
story of Europe in one unfolding vista. The Elbe, Rhone, Seine and
Douro also offer river cruising opportunities, as does the
legendary Volga in Russia. Since river vessels dock right in the
heart of town, your clients can tour the Cologne Cathedral or sip
hot wine at a Christmas market in the amount of time it takes them
to board a tender on a mega-ship.
Europe isn’t the only location where river cruising is thriving.
China’s Yangtze is welcoming more visitors each year, and there are
several touring options in other countries, including a cruise on
the Egyptian Nile that Cleopatra herself would envy. But don’t
forget that river cruising is alive and well here at home, too. The
Mississippi, Ohio, Tennessee, Columbia, Snake and Willamette are
some of the historically and geographically fascinating U.S.
waterways holding potential adventures for your clients.
Jeri Techman, owner of Travel Express in Fresno, Calif., has
taken several groups on river cruises and advises her fellow agents
to experience river products firsthand.
“River cruising is hard to describe unless you’ve tried it
yourself. Most agents aren’t as familiar with river cruising as
they are with ocean cruising. That makes it hard to explain details
to clients, such as which cabin categories are at water level, for
example,” said Techman.
She makes an important point by noting that if agents aren’t yet
developing an interest in river cruising, the public at large won’t
either. Savvy agents are promoting the product to their
“For agents, product knowledge is crucial,” said Techman.
Keeping Track of the
These days, there is a lot more product for agents to keep up
with. For one thing, there’s been a river cruise ship building boom
of late. Several lines have introduced new vessels in the past year
or two, and have plans to add more in the next two years.
Amadeus Waterways, for example, launched the MS Amadagio in
2006, and MS Amalegro this April. The company formed in 2002 by
industry pioneer Rudi Schreiner and Jim Murphy of Brendan Worldwide
Vacations is based in Chatsworth, Calif. Amadeus currently has two
additional ships on order for 2008 delivery MS Amacello and MS
Amadante and another ship, as yet unnamed, due in 2009.
Though tailored to the North American market, guests from
countries such as Australia and Great Britain give Amadeus sailings
something of an international flair. Special touches such as fresh
fish on the menus, an infotainment system that allows guests to
access the Internet from stateroom flat-panel TVs, an elevator,
jogging track and fleet of bicycles are extremely popular with
“There are a lot of choices when it comes to river cruising
these days. Amadeus ships are definitely state of the art,” said
Vincent Veerasuntharam, president of Suvara Travels Canada Inc.
Amadeus itineraries feature the Danube, Rhine, Main and Moselle,
as well as popular holiday sailings that visit Europe’s famous
Christmas markets. This year, those holiday itineraries will
include a special New Year’s Eve celebration in Vienna. The company
also offers river cruises in Russia and Egypt.
Another rapidly expanding fleet belongs to Avalon Waterways,
part of the Littleton, Colo.-based Globus Family of Brands. The
company cruises on the Danube, Rhine, Main and Moselle in Europe,
and also offers river cruises in China and Egypt.
This spring, Avalon introduced two new vessels in Europe: Avalon
Tranquility and Avalon Imagery. The vessels, built for the North
American market, are sister ships to the Avalon Tapestry,
christened in 2006. All three ships feature a unique “silent drive
system,” in which the navigational bridge is located in the
“Moving the bridge to the back of the vessel means that the top
deck becomes much more spacious, and the view is phenomenal because
it’s unobstructed. Also, a number of agents on the inaugural cruise
told me they couldn’t believe how quiet the ride was because the
bridge is away from the passenger compartment,” said Patrick Clark,
Avalon’s managing director.
As for other news at Avalon, Clark said a wine-themed cruise in
2006 was so successful that the line has scheduled two of them for
this fall. Avalon will also present a special music-themed
itinerary this year.
Theme cruising is an area we’re planning to expand. There is so
much cultural richness along the rivers of Europe, and we find that
our guests really enjoy that enrichment,” said Clark.
With plans to add new vessels in 2008 and 2009, Clark believes
Avalon has become known for its young fleet.
“Avalon has a constant interest in adding new ships. The demand
is definitely there. Agents who take the time to develop an
expertise in this type of cruise will already have a built-in
market with great commissions,” said Clark. “Besides, if you aren’t
selling river cruises to your clients, someone else is going to.
It’s only a matter of time.”
Most agents are probably already familiar with Uniworld Grand
River Cruises, one of the first lines to cater to the North
The Los Angeles-based Uniworld owns and operates eight vessels
in Europe and partners with another company to provide a river
cruise product in Portugal. Uniworld also offers itineraries on
chartered vessels in Russia and Egypt, and works with Victoria
Cruises in China.
Last year, the line introduced its newest ship, River Royale,
with features that include Wi-Fi throughout the vessel. Recently
completed refurbishments to the other company-owned vessels include
flat-screen TVs, hotel-style beds, Egyptian-cotton sheets, a choice
of pillows and aromatherapy bath amenities. “We’re focused on
delivering a product on par with the world’s best small boutique
hotels,” said Maria Grimardi, the company’s vice president of
Itinerary-wise, Uniworld’s new products include a European
Discovery itinerary, from Basel to Bucharest, and an Eastern
European Explorer cruise from Vienna to the Black Sea.
“We’re the only North American
river cruise company that actually takes passengers on a scenic
cruise along the Black Sea,” said Grimardi. Uniworld is constantly
seeking new ways to improve the quality and delivery of its
product, said Grimardi. She points to one innovation that will make
the line’s guided tours even more enjoyable.
A new audio system, called Quiet AudioVox, equips the cruise
manager and local guide with a transmitter that allows guests with
a receiver to hear the tour presentation, even if they aren’t
standing right next to the guide. Uniworld has also introduced a
new program this year aimed at multigenerational family groups, a
segment well known to the ocean cruise business, but not as strong
a factor yet on river ships. That might be changing now, thanks to
Uniworld’s Family Friendly Program available at no additional cost
on two itineraries this summer: Paris and Normandy and Castles
Along the Rhine.
“The two cruises are perfect for grandparents to share the gift
of Europe with their grandkids, as well as intimately learn about
the valuable history and culture up close and personal together as
a family,” said Grimardi. “We created a program for 8- to
18-year-olds where we have separate tours that appeal to a younger
traveler. We also have activities onboard, such as painting
lessons, where we teach them how to paint in the Van Gogh style.
There’s also a newly created game room with Sony PS2 stations. And
we have special menu choices at dinner for younger travelers. The
adults can enjoy fine cuisine, but the kids can have pizza, burgers
or macaroni and cheese if they like.”
One of the most attractive aspects of the Family Friendly
Program is the family friendly savings. Children between 8 and 18
sail for 50 percent off the cruise-only price when traveling with
an adult on the two itineraries. Another important piece of news
from Uniworld: the company is relaunching its Grand River Cruise
Specialist program to provide comprehensive product and destination
knowledge, as well as essential tools for promoting and selling
A Few Familiar
Agents who sell river cruises are no doubt familiar with Viking
River Cruises, the largest operator catering to the North American
market. Los Angeles-based Viking has 21 vessels on the rivers of
Europe, Russia and China. And, even though it is the largest in the
river cruise field, Viking continues to expand its offerings.
“This year has certainly been good for us thus far, but we’re
always looking at new programs to further distinguish the Viking
product,” said Viking’s Juarez.
One of those new programs is a Viking Service Guarantee.
“Any customer who is dissatisfied with our service, including
food, personnel or shore excursions, upon first check-in at one of
our hotels or onboard a Viking ship, can notify us within 24 hours
of the start of their cruise-tour. We then have 24 hours to correct
the situation, and in the unlikely case a solution is not possible,
the customer may depart as soon as he/she can, and we’ll refund 100
percent of the cruise price,” explained Juarez.
Viking can offer the guarantee, said Juarez, because it
maintains total control over its river cruises worldwide.
“Other companies may build or lease a vessel, then subcontract
much of its operations. We do everything ourselves, from staffing
to catering and shore excursions, even with our vessels in China,”
she noted. “Obviously, we think ours is a superior product, because
of all the quality controls built in. We also have a unique
history, in that we merged early on with a German line that had
been offering river cruises for generations. It gave us a deep
knowledge of Europe and river cruising in general.”
Looking ahead to 2008, Viking will offer five new itineraries.
Highlights include a 16-day “Russian Rhapsody” voyage, featuring 13
guided tours to cities such as St. Petersburg and Moscow, as well
as a rare visit to Volgograd, formerly known as Stalingrad. The
line has also fully renovated their flagship in Russia, Viking
Surkov, which now offers all deluxe cabins on their other Russian
itinerary, Waterways of the Czars. Viking is also offering a new
17-day Silk Road Adventure in China.
“I think the key thing for
agents to do is to match river cruising with the right clients.
This isn’t for people who want a pool and casino. It’s for those
interested in history and culture. For those types of clients,
river cruising is a great vacation,” added Juarez.
New to the river cruise market but already making a splash is
Tauck World Discovery. The Norwalk, Conn.-based tour operator
introduced a river vessel in 2006, the MS Swiss Emerald, and is
building a second luxury riverboat to sail European itineraries in
The new vessel will feature two hot tubs and a wellness center,
and will carry just 118 guests in 59 staterooms. It also features a
unique design, introduced by Tauck on the Swiss Emerald, in which
the top deck consists only of suites. Fourteen suites, measuring
some 300 square feet each, will boast amenities such as walk-in
closets, floor-to-ceiling windows, tub and shower. Four mini-suites
of 183 square feet will also be located on the top deck. The Tauck
river vessels feature plasma TVs, mini-bars, radio and L’Occitane
toiletries. And the company is offering five different itineraries
in Europe, including a 24-day, transcontinental Grand European
Cruise from Amsterdam to the Black Sea. Tauck also offers three
additional programs in China and Egypt that feature a river
Rakesh Dewan, Tauck’s director of product costing and
contracting, points to the company’s 82 years in the tour operator
business. That experience, said Dewan, gives Tauck an upper hand in
putting together shore excursions. “In some cities, such as Vienna,
we may offer not one but two complimentary tours,” said Dewan.
The line also provides three Tauck tour directors and one Tauck
cruise director for every sailing, available around the clock to
look after guests. “Clearly, river cruising is experiencing
phenomenal growth. It wasn’t our philosophy to be first in the
market. We wanted to take time to do a long-term study of the
infrastructure and needs in the region before we built the Swiss
Emerald,” said Dewan.
European operators, such as the German line Peter Deilmann
Cruises, don’t cater to North Americans per se. Announcements are
made in several languages (English included) and the staff is
multilingual. But 40 percent of Deilmann’s passengers nonetheless
hail from North America.
“We don’t speak against the formulas used by the other river
companies. Obviously, they’re going after an all-American,
English-only crowd. But, we don’t think the discriminating traveler
going to Europe is afraid of being with Europeans,” said Ron
Santangelo, president, North America, for Deilmann. Santangelo, who
is based in Virginia, said Deilmann attracts an international
roster of guests, and service is a big reason for that.
“Everybody describes their ships with the same nice adjectives.
But, the number of crew really tells the tale ... The single
biggest difference between Deilmann and other companies is the
number of crew members. We have 2½ crew members per passenger,”
Deilmann introduced its ninth and newest ship, the 110-passenger
MV Heidelberg in 2004. The line is known for its broad range of
itineraries that includes sailings on the Danube, Rhine and
Moselle, as well as the Saone, Seine, Elbe, Neckar, Vltava, Oder
Current trends with the company include a push toward more
active shore excursions, as well as theme cruises.
“We’ve been very successful with special-interest cruises that
emphasize activities such as cycling or golfing ... That’s been the
major change with us over the past two years, and we expect to
expand on those,” said Santangelo. Deilmann differs from most of
its North American counterparts in that it does not include shore
excursions in the price of the cruise.
“Again, we find that discriminating travelers aren’t interested
in a city tour. They may want to take a hike in the Vienna woods
instead,” said Santangelo.
He also sounds a particularly optimistic note, as far as booking
patterns. “Guests are buying earlier again. It’s back to the levels
we were seeing in 1996 when I started in this business. People are
booking nine months in advance, and that is certainly a positive
thing,” said Santangelo.
One of the reasons Santangelo cites for the earlier bookings is
the continuing weakness of the dollar against the euro.
“Where else can you pay for a European vacation a year in
advance and do it in U.S. dollars? It’s the bargain of a lifetime,”
The Yangtze and
In Asia, it’s the opportunity to experience the sweeping scenery
of the Yangtze and Three Gorges region that attracts passengers.
Victoria Cruises operates and manages the largest fleet of vessels
with a five-star rating from the China National Tourism
Victoria is an American company, founded in 1993, and based in
New York. The line markets its Yangtze River cruise product under
its own name, and also works with major tour operators, such as
Uniworld, Tauck, Avalon, Pacific Delight and Ritz Tours. Although
tailored for the Western traveler, Victoria also attracts
passengers from Asia, Europe and Australia.
Last year, the line introduced the new Victoria Anna, featuring
154 cabins and highest number of suites of any vessel on the
Yangtze. All Victoria vessels feature Internet access, satellite TV
with HBO and CNN, plus Sky Sports from Hong Kong. All but one of
the line’s vessels also features balcony cabins to showcase the
magnificent Three Gorges scenery. Victoria ships also include a
beauty salon, fitness room, mini-spa, reading room and gift
“The big news for us right now has to do with dining,” said
Larry Greenman, Victoria’s manager of public relations and customer
service. “We are refurbishing the entire fleet so that each vessel
will have a separate a la carte dining room, offering the same
cuisine as the Victoria Anna, Victoria’s first vessel to offer a la
carte dining. To upgrade our menu choices and introduce new dining
concepts, we also hired celebrity chef Walter Staib from
Victoria has also added new shore excursions on tributaries of
the Yangtze, increasing the overall cruise experience.
“Our product is very serene and relaxing. It gives people a
chance to relax and unwind on what is normally a hectic itinerary.
But, then, the Yangtze has so much more to offer than other types
of cruise experiences,” said Greenman. Of course, if your clients
simply want the pleasure of being on the rivers, but don’t relish a
long plane flight, consider the close-to-home options.
Seattle-based Majestic America Line, America’s largest river and
coastal cruise company, has a number of offerings on America’s
rivers. The company, which was formed in 2006 by the acquisition of
Delta Queen Steamboat Company and American West Steamboat Company,
features a U.S.-flagged fleet. Pacific Northwest offerings on the
Columbia, Snake and Willamette provide a living history lesson in
the journey of Lewis and Clark, and the pioneers of the Oregon
Trail. And paddle wheelers of the former Delta Queen are back in
full force with itineraries on the Upper Mississippi, Ohio,
Cumberland and Tennessee rivers.
“River cruises are the secret of success for travel agents who
want satisfied customers and repeat business,” said USTOA’s
So, whether it’s fairy-tale castles or antebellum mansions your
clients are interested in, there is a river cruise for
So, your clients want something different from the Danube? And
they’ve already seen China? Consider the wonders along the Nile in
Egypt. Uniworld offers a river cruise product on the Nile, as does
Avalon Waterways. And what about the Amazon? Alabama-based
International Expeditions offers year-round trips on the upper
Amazon in Peru. The line’s fully escorted trips begin in Lima. And,
for what is perhaps the ultimate river adventure, consider
Hapag-Lloyd’s October offering on the Gambia River through West
Africa, on its 164-passenger expedition ship, MS Bremen.