Navigating River Cruise Lines

Navigating River Cruise Lines

Choosing a perfect match from a variety of brand distinctions can be challenging By: Marilyn Green
A-Rosa provides complimentary drinks for guests. // © 2013 A-Rosa
A-Rosa provides complimentary drinks for guests. // © 2013 A-Rosa

River cruising has been a growing travel market for quite some time, but categorizing this product and pairing it effectively with clients can still be a real challenge. Greg Nacco, vice president at Cruise Specialists in Marin County, Calif., said that, in many ways, river cruising is a more complex product than ocean cruising, making the agent’s role that much more important.

Rick Kaplan, founder of Cruise Masters, came out of retirement to launch Premier River Cruises in Los Angeles. Kaplan noted that for the average agent, the biggest issue is differentiating between brands.

“If you don’t have the insights or experience to discuss all of the major lines, you end up just talking about preferred suppliers, which is seriously limiting,” he said. “The first task we have is proper qualification of the customer, and you need to know the full range of brands to make a match.”

Agents characterize the major river cruise lines in Europe as luxury, high premium and premium, but they don’t all agree about how the lines fit into these categories. AmaWaterways president and co-owner Rudi Schreiner pointed out that in the 1990s the major lines serving the North American market started upgrading their services to become more and more inclusive, with higher quality dining, wine, beer and spirits, special shore experiences and more. He also  noted that today’s river vessels are being built with more suites.

“We are developing differently from ocean cruising, from the top down, with more and more suites and luxury features — it is getting more difficult to sell entry-level cabins,” Schreiner said. “When people are paying $1,500 to $1,800 per person to fly to Europe, they are not looking for a cheap cruise.”

Because more clients are looking to get as much as possible out of their cruise experience, it is essential to know what all the cruise lines have to offer in order to best suit their expectations and preferences.

Getting to Know the Cruise Lines

AmaWaterways’ ships feature modern decor with a colorful, bright style, and each ship is themed with a different color family. Schreiner likens the concept to the Encore in Las Vegas, “a modern look, not cold but pleasing.”

Features such as a heated pool with a swim-up bar and the line’s signature Twin Balconies (both French and step-out) keep the product on the cutting edge.

In addition to its onboard distinctions, AmaWaterways has developed itineraries in exotic places, including Africa and Asia. Next year, the line will launch the new 56-passenger AmaPura in Myanmar.

“At one time, Myanmar’s Irrawaddy River supported up to 9 million passengers on 600 ships,” Schreiner said. “There is great potential there.”

Viking River Cruises has a different vision. Richard Marnell, senior vice president of marketing for Viking, sees enrichment as Viking’s biggest distinction, with privileged access to people, destinations and collections during its cruises. Viking’s size — it projects a fleet of 100 river vessels by 2020 — gives the line tremendous reach and enables them to employ guides and access supplies exclusively. Plus, the line’s huge advertising campaign has benefitted the entire river cruise sector.

“We have a Scandinavian design ethos, with modern, unobstructed interiors, and the ships’ uniformity has great advantages,” said Marnell. “This year, we all experienced high water in Europe, and Viking was able to move guests from one part of the river system to another by coach, placing them in the same staterooms on identical sister ships.”

Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection takes the opposite stance; not only is each ship completely different from another, but each ship category has its own type of decor.

“When the Travel Corporation acquired Uniworld, it made sure the services, staff, training and design aspects were very individual,” said Wesley Bosnic, senior vice president of revenue management and strategic development for Uniworld. “The line’s excursions offer guests in-depth choices, from standard city tours to active options and insiders’ back streets, small cafes and more.”

Uniworld is increasing its inclusions for seagoing luxury cruises. In 2014, European cruises on Uniworld will cover beer, wine, soft drinks and spirits at all times, as well as all gratuities.

“The demographics have changed, and many guests are not just passively enjoying the cruise,” Bosnic added. “We see a lot of people still of working age, a good number under 50 and, during summer, we often see multigenerational groups.”

Managing director of Avalon Waterways Patrick Clark feels that the company has its own niche with its Panorama-class design on more than 80 percent of its cabins.

“Space on a river vessel is limited, and we chose to have larger staterooms with an open-air feeling rather than step-out balconies,” he said. 

He noted that Avalon offers three 22-night itineraries and a range of specialty cruises, from wellness to World War II cruises, that agents can sell to customers’ particular interests to introduce them to river cruising. The Avalon Choice shore experiences offer a variety of activities for different tastes and comfort levels.

Katharine Bonner, vice president of river and small-ship cruising for Tauck, suggested that clients who stay in upscale properties, such as Four Seasons and The Ritz-Carlton, are a good fit with Tauck. The line also gets crossover from luxury cruise lines such as Silversea Cruises, Regent Seven Seas Cruises and Seabourn. Tauck’s all-inclusive policy covers gratuities, including those for special onshore dining and the exclusive shore experiences.

Tauck concentrates on destination experiences and personalized service, with three onboard cruise directors in addition to great local guides. The ships have an intimate atmosphere, carrying only 118 or 130 passengers on the same size vessels that other lines use for up to 190 people. On the two newbuilds scheduled for 2014 — Inspire on the Rhine and Savor on the Danube — the line is introducing light and airy 225-square-foot loft staterooms on the lowest level, with 1½ decks of windows that open partially to create a light, fresh environment.

Joe Maloney, vice president of U.S. sales and marketing for Scenic Cruises, said that the line is responding to two strong travel trends — all-inclusivity and flexibility — to accommodate two different client demographics simultaneously. Owner Glen Moroney has brought the ships to a uniform configuration, and 80 percent of staterooms feature Sun Lounges, private walkout balconies that can be glassed in during bad weather.

Scenic places itself in the luxury category and is adding a new brand next year as a premium product. The line will launch two 182-passenger Emerald-brand ships to broaden its reach to a younger, more active market, keeping the price point competitive by offering complimentary alcohol only at mealtimes and a smaller palette of choices for shore excursions.

The most recent entry into the North American market is A-Rosa, marketed in the U.S. by David Morris International. Morris, previously a major sales executive for Cunard Line, Crystal Cruises and Silversea Cruises, is no stranger to the luxury market. He said that, when working with A-Rosa to prepare for the 2013 season, they decided to differentiate the brand in a way that would appeal to a broader, more active range of clients, with a Swiss-operated full spa (two or three treatment rooms), a fitness room with Technogym equipment and shore excursions ranging from traditional tours to extensive bike tours and kayaking. In addition, A-Rosa includes Food Network chefs and a top French chocolatier in its onboard enrichment. A-Rosa is all-inclusive for all aspects of the cruise except spa services, at a per diem under $400. Drinks are complimentary; all excursions and gratuities are also included.

Reborn in 2000, American Cruise Lines sails the rivers, canals and sheltered waterways of America on the east and west coasts with a fleet of small vessels and an extremely loyal clientele. The company is known for its spacious staterooms, and it brought balcony accommodations to the U.S. rivers. In 2012, American launched a new sternwheeler on the Mississippi River system: the 150-passenger Queen of the Mississippi, which follows the company policy of offering destination-rich itineraries. In June, American will launch a seagoing ship, Pearl Mist, as the first vessel in its Pearl Seas Cruises brand, offering what president Charles Robertson calls “pampered exploration” in the Canadian Maritimes, Great Lakes, Atlantic Coast, St. Lawrence Seaway and in the Caribbean/Bahamas.

The American Queen Steamboat Company is expanding its capacity next year, adding the Columbia and Snake rivers to its cruising regions with the acquisition of the 223-passenger American Empress. The company launched on the Mississippi River system last year with the 436-passenger renovated American Queen, featuring a variety of dining venues to accommodate the cuisine of celebrity chef Regina Charbonneau. Their partnership with the National Trust for Historic Preservation enhances the enrichment program onboard and off. A large dedicated theater allows a great variety of entertainment onboard, and the company has a dedicated fleet of luxury coaches providing complimentary shore excursions in every port.

After nearly 40 years in the river cruise business with 37 vessels, CroisiEurope has recently moved into the American market, opening a call center in New York. All ships except for three in Russia are company-owned and operated. The brand is distinguished by a mix of European and American passengers and a tremendous variety of itineraries in Europe.

“We are the only line that sails from Seville and we have been in Bordeaux for two years. We have cruises out of Venice, including two for Carnival in February, and we are on all the major rivers and many tributaries,” said Michel Grimm, international sales director. The company recently added two 24-passenger hotel barges, extending the product line further.

Travel Agent Familiarity

Cruise line executives and agents alike said it is vital to get agents onboard the river cruises to see the product for themselves.

“It is crucial to bring strong agents on board,” said AmaWaterway’s Schreiner. “We recently hosted Virtuoso’s annual executive conference and, of the 50 people onboard, only 10 had been on a river cruise before.”

Greg Nacco of Cruise Specialists sees this era as a special time for river cruising.

“River cruising is in the glory years now and differentiation is going to depend a lot on partnerships,” he said. “One challenge is that they are sold out. The client may not get his or her first choice when you have qualified them, unless they book far in advance. Impulsive travelers are not going to have much choice. But that’s a good problem.” 

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