Take Them To the River

The hottest ticket in travel is a river cruise, so agents had better study up

By: Ana Figueroa

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 way.”

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 Cruises.

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 clients.

“For agents, product knowledge is crucial,” said Techman.

Keeping Track of the Options
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 guests.

“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 stern.

“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 American market.

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 marketing.

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 river cruises.

A Few Familiar Players
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 2008.

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 cruising component.

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,” said Santangelo.

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 and others.

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,” said Santangelo.

The Yangtze and Beyond
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 Administration.

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 shop.

“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 Philadelphia.”

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 Whitley.

So, whether it’s fairy-tale castles or antebellum mansions your clients are interested in, there is a river cruise for everyone.

The Exotics
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.


Amadeus Waterways Europe, Russia, Egypt

Avalon Waterways Europe, China, Egypt

Hapag-Lloyd Gambia River

International Expeditions Amazon River

Majestic America Line Domestic Rivers

Peter Deilmann Cruises Europe

Tauck World Discovery Europe, China, Egypt

Uniworld Grand River Cruises Europe, China and Egypt

Viking River Cruises China

Viking River Cruises Europe, China and Russia