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At the 27th annual Virtuoso Travel Week, Edie Rodriguez, president and CEO of Crystal Cruises, described the company’s entry into river cruising as “breaking the mold on river cruising.” And, indeed, the cruise line’s foray into the sector is taking distinctive shape, though Rodriguez noted that she doesn’t want to offer too many details competitors can copy since “it doesn’t take that long to build a river vessel.”
What Crystal has disclosed is that it is scheduled to launch two ships in Europe in March 2017; each will feature 70 cabins (140 passengers, double occupancy) with 250-square-foot suites, as well as two 500-square-foot penthouses. Accommodations with American king-size beds, double vanities and walk-in closets will distinguish the vessels. Crystal also promises spacious public areas, including the Palm Court with a dance floor and glass-domed roof and a fitness center and spa.
Scott Koepf, senior vice president of sales for Avoya Travel, pointed out that the river cruise ships will be the first look at the newly designed Crystal hardware.
“Crystal has been so centered on software for so long — because they haven’t had new ships — that they’ve built their enviable reputation on service,” he said. “It will be interesting to see what they will do now that they have from-the-ground-up hardware, as well.”
Fresh from Crystal’s 24th annual Sales Achievement Awards Gala, Tom Baker, president of Houston-based CruiseCenter, says he believes Crystal’s river cruises will greatly elevate the culinary experience, featuring options such as full-menu room service available to all guests.
Rick Kaplan, president of Premier River Cruises in Los Angeles, agrees.
“Crystal rebranded themselves as the leaders in cuisine at sea, and I believe they will do something exceptional that takes the culinary side to new levels on the rivers,” he said. “I also expect more than one true alternative dining facility.”
Baker predicts that Crystal’s itineraries will also be an eye-opener, with distinctive ways to experience destinations in France, Germany, Switzerland, Holland, Belgium, Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, Croatia, Serbia, Romania and Bulgaria. For example, guests can explore independently — by electric or manual bicycle, Segway and kayak — through Crystal’s new Active Exploration Adventures. A luxury yacht tender will be available for private excursions by water.
“Crystal hired Claudius Docekal, who has been in the business since its infancy, as vice president of deployment, and the company studied its competitors’ itineraries, then designed ones that are far more in line with the Crystal customer,” Baker said. “For one thing, there will be overnights in major centers such as Budapest, Hungary, and Vienna, sometimes more than one night, taking away the pressure for pre- and post-cruise land stays that compromise the comfort of one-time unpacking and packing.”
The overnights, coupled with some sailing in daylight hours, will help avoid congestion in port. Additionally, evenings in port will allow guests to partake in the nightlife of the different destinations and enjoy local cuisine and Michelin-starred restaurants, and Crystal will raise the entertainment bar by showcasing local talent in cultural presentations. Baker also noted that the line is looking at coordinating its seagoing and river cruise itineraries for smooth transitions.
Detailed itineraries, fares and bookings for Crystal River Cruises will be available beginning Dec. 1, although travel agents predict that there will be little inventory left the first year from past Crystal guests.
Koepf believes the new river ships are not likely to draw clients from the existing brands.
“Crystal has such a strong database; I don’t see share shift, but high-end customers coming in who are new to river cruising,” he said.
Still, in the long run, this this is a golden opportunity for agents. According to Rodriguez, 96 percent of Crystal’s bookings come through agents.
“I would be delighted if it were 100 percent,” she said.
Veteran agents are definitely aware of the possibilities. Beth Schulberg, owner of Cruise & Travel Specialists in Lake Oswego, Ore., reports that 75 percent of her business is now river cruising, and Crystal’s move allows her to reach more of her customers.
“Most Crystal clients only cruise on Crystal,” she said. “This opens up a whole new line to sell them.”
Kaplan echoes Schulberg’s sentiments.
“We’ve been talking for five years about the growing need for a real luxury entrant in river cruising, which is mainly deluxe,” he said.
Kaplan hopes Crystal’s announcement will wake up other “sleeping giants.”
“I see no reason why the Big Three [Carnival Corporation, Royal Caribbean Cruises and Norwegian Cruise Line] should not expand into river cruising,” he said.