Bicycles are available on many of Uniworld’s ships // © 2013 Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection
When agents talk about Uniworld Boutique River Cruises, the words that come up most often are style, creativity, individuality and glamour — and there are good reasons for that. The interior of a Uniworld ship looks completely unlike any other vessel. How many river vessels are designed around a chandelier, or New York’s Tavern on the Green?
The company’s Antoinette, launched in 2011, is named after godmother Antoinette “Toni” Tollman, daughter of the founders of the Travel Corporation and owners of Uniworld. She designed the ship with strong 18th-century, French influence, and the two-deck atrium was created to provide the perfect setting for its blue crystal chandelier. The Antoinette also introduced an indoor pool to river cruising and features a dedicated movie theater; suite balconies that can be glassed in at the touch of a button; and a top deck bar and alternative dining area that can retract into the deck when the vessel goes under bridges.
President and CEO Guy Young noted that the line’s innovations are breaking new ground for river cruising.
“We led the way in Europe 15 years ago, and we’ve been on Portugal’s Douro close to 10 years,” Young said. “This year we went into Italy on the Po and next year we will be the first river cruise line in Bordeaux, France. We are innovative in our ship design, our itineraries and our services on and off the ships.”
Innovation is at the core of Uniworld’s concept. The company’s roots go back to 1976 with Serbian-born Serba Ilich, a former KLM Royal Dutch Airlines executive. Ilich saw an opportunity to bring the river cruise experience — then a far more basic product than today’s cruises and targeted mostly to Europeans — to the North American market. He began operations in 1993, putting English-speaking crew onboard company ships and designing dining to match North American tastes.
A major turning point for the line came in 2004, when Uniworld was sold to Travel Corporation, redefining the brand. The parent company brought Uniworld together with Trafalgar Tours, Contiki Holidays, Insight Vacations and, particularly important in shaping today’s ships, the luxury Red Carnation Hotels, which include the Mayfair and the Belgravia in London; the Twelve Apostles in Cape Town, South Africa; and the Chesterfield in Palm Beach, Fla.
The 2004 buyout gave Uniworld the financial backing of a large, solid company that made a massive investment in the ships.
“Uniworld got great distribution with the new owners and started pushing into the five-star level with extensive refurbishments and newbuilds,” Young said.
The drastic refurbishment program was completed in 2011, and then Uniworld started looking to new ships, including the landmark Antoinette.
The elegant, highly individual decor of Red Carnation has become the hallmark of Uniworld’s river vessels, and the ships also utilize a distinctive wine program developed by a sommelier from a Relais & Chateaux Red Carnation property. In addition, the line has adopted the Red Carnation service motto, “No request too large, no detail too small.”
In fact, Young refers to Uniworld as “Red Carnation on the waters.” Following the luxury model, Uniworld placed handcrafted Savoir of England beds in the staterooms, stocked the bathrooms with L’Occitane bath and body products and put original artwork on display.
This rich, daring decor and the personal input of the owners is what sharply distinguishes the line’s ships from competitors, according to Young.
“You really see it when other ships are docked next to us,” he said. “It’s like two different worlds.”
Uniworld has grown vigorously and the scope of today’s line is vast, with over 500 departures in more than 20 countries throughout Europe, Russia, China, Vietnam and Cambodia. Uniworld ships carry an average capacity of 130 guests and include shore excursions hosted by local experts, gourmet cuisine and personalized hospitality.
The line’s European cruises typically cater to the 55-plus demographic, but younger cruisers are also coming on board, and there are a number of excursion offerings to suit the active traveler. The company claims the strongest multigenerational offerings among river cruise lines, with family cruises offered during the summer and holidays. These sailings offer separate programs with activities for young travelers. This program is growing on the Rhine, Paris/Normandy and on classic Christmas Markets itineraries.
Also looking to attract foodies, the company has created the Epicurean Adventurer Program, which combines culinary demonstrations, wine tastings and food- and wine-themed excursions on shore.
With the Antoinette and the upcoming Catherine (2014), Uniworld is using the largest ship design that can function on the European rivers, with vessels 443 feet long and 37.5 feet wide.
“We carry 159 guests on these, compared to other competitors that have 190 passengers,” Young said.
Uniworld has used the additional space to create innovative public areas and extra spacious staterooms and suites. Five suites are designed at 305 square feet and the Royal Suite is 410 square feet. Category one staterooms and suites have full open-air balconies, while category two and three staterooms have French balconies. All suites and staterooms have impressive marble bathrooms with towel warmers, bathrobes and slippers and are equipped with hair dryers, bottled water, safes and flat-screen televisions with infotainment centers and satellite channels. Suite guests also receive special butler services.
The Catherine’s public areas reflect the French artists who are associated with the regions where it will cruise, with names including the Van Gogh Lounge, the Cezanne Restaurant and the Matisse Terrace on the top deck. The designers also are bringing over from the Antoinette the whimsical Leopard Lounge, with its leopard print furnishings and elephant-head bar rails. The al fresco outdoor dining terrace will allow guests to take in the surrounding countryside with their meals, and the bistro offers another dining choice. A colorful mosaic-tiled pool and spa will help guests exercise or relax.
“I have no doubt in my mind that the Catherine will continue setting the standard in luxury river cruising in the South of France along the Rhone and Saone,” said Young. “It will allow us to offer more passenger capacity to support our Burgundy and Provence itinerary, which is one of our most popular programs.”
Creating ships such as the Catherine allows Uniworld to have complete control of the product, but, as with other cruise lines, maintaining the company’s standards on its far-flung network of ships is tricky. All ships in Europe, except in Portugal, are owned by Uniworld, but in Russia, Portugal, China, Vietnam, Cambodia and Egypt, Uniworld charters its vessels. On the Douro River in Portugal, river cruise lines must lease the ships, so in preparing for the new Queen Isabel, Red Carnation representatives met with the designers and owners to keep the look and feel consistent with the amenities and decor of the mainstream Uniworld vessels in Europe.
“It takes more time and more training,” Young said. “We have a great partner in Russia, and in exotic destinations such as Vietnam and Cambodia we work hard to keep the product consistent. Our European office in Switzerland keeps up service standards and tweaks the product as necessary.”
The parent company is so serious about maintaining the level of service that it approved the purchase of a small hotel in Europe to be used for staff training.
The all-inclusive aspect of the cruise is considered central to Uniworld’s luxury positioning and very strongly approved by guests. Next year, the company is upping the ante.
“We took a look at seagoing luxury ships and at our passenger feedback and decided to include all beer, wine and spirits and all gratuities on the ship and on shore, including pre- and post-cruise stays,” Young said.
Most shore excursion options are included in the fare, and the ships carry a fleet of bicycles for passengers to use without a fee.
“You sweeten the end of the experience when you eliminate the last-minute gratuities, and there is more sociability in the evenings if guests can enjoy drinks after dinner together without a discussion about who pays,” he added.
An important aspect of this decision is the higher commissions for agents, and Young said 97 percent of Uniworld’s business comes through the trade.
“Our success is dependent on our agent partners,” he said. “Because of the all-inclusive commission, the average commission this year is $1,600 per booking, and it will be $1,800 in 2014. There is great financial potential here. And agents can expect fantastic feedback from their clients.”
Because the agent community is so important, Uniworld offers carefully constructed tools in its online training with the River Cruise Specialist program, and maintains a 15-member sales team of managers in North America. Young added that agents who have not yet connected with the cruise line and want to boost their Uniworld sales can go online and determine which sales manager is best for them.
With the new ships in Portugal this year and France next year, Uniworld is expanding carefully, following customer input and trends while predicting the next choices of the river cruiser.
“Uniworld doesn’t want to be the biggest company, but the best company,” Young said. “We want to be a six-star operation.”