AmaWaterways appeals to active cruisers by offering a fleet of bikes to passengers. // © 2016 AmaWaterways
Feature image (above): River cruising has evolved in recent years, with increasingly luxurious ships and more amenities. // © 2016 Joel Carillet/iStock
It’s no secret that river cruises have been hot for years. Drawing from ocean cruisers, bus-tour travelers and group and incentive clients, the sector has high satisfaction rates along with high, inclusive commissions — a win-win scenario for travel agents. But river cruising’s explosive growth during the past decade has given way to new patterns and, according to river cruise executives, travel agents are missing important opportunities for growing their business.
The three areas in which executives say agents need to update their knowledge are recent changes in the balance between supply and demand, brand distinction among cruise lines and sales techniques that will distinguish successful agents from the rest of the pack.
Patrick Clark, managing director of Avalon Waterways, says travel agents tend to be too reliant on natural demand.
“For years, all you had to do was announce upcoming cruises, and they were gone,” he said. “It’s a new world now, and it requires sales techniques. Agents should be telling their clients about the lowest airfares to Europe we’ve seen in years and the strong dollar. Get cruise night events going and sell.”
Executives also say one of the biggest changes is that in Europe, inventory has pretty much caught up with demand, allowing travelers to book closer in. Katharine Bonner, vice president of river and small-ship cruising for Tauck, says that apart from September (which is pretty much sold out — even for next year), the calendar is more open than ever before.
With a more flexible booking window, planning a river cruise becomes more understandable to blue-water cruisers, who in the past were often dismayed to find that they couldn’t book their desired trips the same year, or even the following one.
Rudi Schreiner, co-founder and president of AmaWaterways, points out that the marketplace changes from year to year are driven not only by capacity, but by political events, airfare levels and the strength of the dollar.
“This year, we have four ships in France instead of two,” he said. “We were doing fine until last November, then the Paris terrorist events froze the market. Just when it was reviving, there were the attacks in Brussels. Now with the unrest and strikes, France is difficult, and agents will find inventory to sell that would have been pretty much gone in previous years.”
Justine Liddelow, chief sales officer for Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection, says the ability to book closer to the time people want to travel — even three months out — makes river cruising a more viable option for crossover clients from sea cruises and land tours.
Another change is that river cruises have become a more flexible product that can please a broader demographic and varying tastes. Bonner points out that the age range has dropped a bit, and there are more active choices, more shore excursions and more dining flexibility.
“Groups may go onshore at 8:45 a.m., but people who want to sleep in can have breakfast later and even meet a tour at mid-morning,” she said. “Our second restaurant is open from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., so guests can come and go as they wish.”
And river cruise lines encourage dining onshore, not only providing insider advice, but in some cases also sending passengers out on adventures or as part of a game to encourage indulgence in local specialties. Tauck, for instance, set up a contest in Vienna for the best “dessert selfies.”
With all that cruise lines have in common, executives agree that agents need to be more aware of brand differentiation than they were five years ago. Joe Moloney, vice president of sales and marketing for the U.S. at Scenic, says he sees too many agents selling cruises as if they’re a simple commodity.
“During the past few years, companies have really sought to differentiate themselves, and we aren’t as similar as we were seven or eight years ago,” he said. “Agents who knew us five years ago saw us as an Australian/New Zealand company with longer itineraries. Now, 60 percent of what we sell is a week in duration, and Aussies are about half our market; the U.S. has risen close to 25 percent, and in a few years is expected to be the dominant market.”
Moloney says agents need to know the current distinctions, and they need to be able to explain the differences clearly and qualify their clients based on those factors. These differences range from ship decor, dining options and opportunities for healthful living to facilities for families and arrangements for solo travelers.
“Standards are going up each year,” AmaWaterways’ Schreiner said. “We cannot sit still; we must offer more choices. For instance, health has become very important — it impacts the food, spa and exercise opportunities.”
Cruise lines also have different approaches to destination engagement, facilitating opportunities for guests to join locals at work, make home visits and meet representatives of the region on and off the ship. For example, on the northern Mississippi River, American Queen Steamboat Company has the mayor of one of the ports take guests on bus tours; on the Rhine River, Viking River Cruises brings a multigenerational family of glassblowers onboard for demonstrations. In Asia, Tauck’s Bonner believes the land tours are an important brand distinction, and agents need to be aware of which brands provide a quick overview of a locale vs. those that offer extensive cultural experiences.
Liddelow of Uniworld finds that distinctive ship decor and service are features that separate the lines.
“In some cases, the ship is designed to be an extension of the destination,” she said.
The decor of Uniworld’s Maria Theresa, for instance, is inspired by 18th-century Hapsburg magnificence. Likewise, the ambiance and decor on American Queen reflects the antebellum houses along the Mississippi.
Scenic’s Moloney points out that there is also a lack of awareness in defining what “all-inclusive” truly means — ranging from a choice of red or white wine at lunch and dinner to an open bar and extensive, free tour options.
“At Scenic, we don’t ask for a credit card from guests, because the only thing they could spend money on is gifts or massages,” he said.
Executives contend that too many agents depend on deriving sales from television ads or direct mail. Clark says agents are too reliant on current promotions and should instead ask clients what kind of experience they are seeking, look at their previous travel choices and discuss their expectations.
Bonner agrees that agents tend to sell the cruises people are asking for when they come in the door, when agents should probe and find out where and with whom clients have previously cruised and what hotels they prefer, then match those experiences brand for brand.
The best agents also work with clients to find a great deal. They help them make comparisons and establish their own value, rather than booking a two-for-one offer immediately when clients walk in.
Liddelow, a veteran agent, says she has learned from experience that it’s best to ask questions.
“Top agents are proactive, look for new business, take charge of the sale and are comfortable selling up,” she said.
According to Schreiner, too many agents are price-driven, when it’s value they should sell.
Other executives agree and stress that travelers have far more leisure time on a river cruise than they do with any other mode of transportation. If clients take a road trip, they see cars on the freeway for hours on end, with rush-hour delays and frustration; on bus tours, they must pack and unpack. On a river cruise, there is ample time to explore on land and then to relax, enjoy meals and travel painlessly.
River cruise executives are also clear about what sets top-producing agents apart: education and direct experience.
“An agent who participates as an Avalon specialist outsells nonspecialists two-to-one,” Clark said. “The most successful agents are graduates; they are active marketers and skilled cross-sellers, and they engage with local business development managers.”
Liddelow stresses a professional approach.
“Be the expert — take time to learn, design joint-marketing plans, approach corporate groups and incentives and keep track of clients’ important landmark dates,” she said.
Moloney adds that the best agents have nearly always been on the ships they are selling. He says Scenic prioritizes invitations to strong sellers, but that the line can be convinced to bring new entrants onboard, too.
“Our best-producing agent originally approached us with her small company and a very impressive willingness to commit to a partnership — showing that her clientele was a great match,” Moloney said. “We worked with her, and she’s now doing charters as well. If someone shows a commitment to a partnership, we’re interested in enabling them.”
He says the online Scenic University is the agent’s starting point, but the company has also increased its sales force and its aggressive group promotions.
Schreiner sees AmaWaterways’ top agents selling groups and charters, which together make up more than half of the line’s business.
“We are very flexible and accommodating with groups,” he said. “For instance, if they have 20-plus people, they get their own bus and can customize without a fee.”
Themed cruises are also an important opportunity for agents, according to Schreiner.
“Ama alone sails 45 wine-themed cruises — nearly 10 percent of our total departures,” he said. “A good agent can find a wine host with a strong database. One agent in Sonoma, Calif., who started five years ago now has 20 groups and is booking full charters.”
All executives stress the critical aspect of social media in marketing and say the top agents become visible experts in their community.
“Even a simple announcement is effective,” Clark said. “An agent announced that she had finished our specialist program and got eight customers.”
They also urge agents to seek special first-time cruises to persuade newbies to try river cruising. For example, Bonner notes that because cruise lines generally spread their costs through the warmer months, Christmas market cruises — which book closer in — are a great value.
“They are an excellent introduction to river cruising,” she said. “They are colorful trips outside the heavy tourist season that show how river cruising takes travelers right into the local culture.”
Clark says he still sees too many agents who don’t use their own databases to identify and target ocean cruisers.
“Eighty percent of river passengers sailed on blue water previously,” he said. “River cruises expand clients’ opportunities and produce higher revenue for the agent.”
Moloney says a “blue-water bias” — where the ship is more important — keeps many agents from stressing the importance of destination experiences, which are central to river cruising.
The bottom line is that, as river cruising has matured, agents need to keep up with the changes from year to year: the range of destinations, new options for different cruisers, hardware, itineraries and shifts in the marketplace.
“Bookings will roll in,” Liddelow said. “But it’s not effortless, and the savvy agent gets the rewards.”