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For many travelers, the romance of the open ocean epitomizes a cruise vacation. Yet, no matter how popular ocean cruising becomes, there are those who will remain reluctant to give the big ships a try. Fortunately, travel advisors have another weapon in their arsenals for luring first-time cruisers: riverboats. For a variety of reasons, river cruising can provide the perfect introduction to cruising.
River cruisers can explore Europe — or America, or far-flung locations — in comfort, without being overwhelmed by thousands of fellow passengers. They need not fear seasickness and, thanks to the ships’ docking locations, travelers are often just steps from the shores of iconic destinations. For advisors with clients who are hesitant to take their first cruise, skip the ocean-going ships, and suggest a river voyage instead.
But don’t just take my word for it: According to the most recent Travel Agent Cruise Industry Outlook Report from Cruise Lines International Association, 79% of agents cite river cruising as an ideal way to get new-to-cruise travelers on the water.
“Some people don’t belong on a large cruise ship, or even with a luxury boutique ocean brand,” said Danny Genung, CEO of Harr Travel in Redlands, Calif. “But what I’ve seen time and again is that river cruises create a high level of satisfaction with a wide range of clients. With the river products that now exist, I find it much easier to find the perfect option.”
The relatively small size of riverboats does not necessarily affect passenger makeup, either.
Kristin Karst, executive vice president and co-founder of AmaWaterways, says the company doesn’t focus exclusively on baby boomers or millennials, or any other specific demographic; it aims to please all ages.
“While 50% of our clients are over the age of 65, there is another 46% that are between 35 and 65,” Karst said. “Regardless of age, our guests are active people who enjoy regular exercise, are health conscious, have a keen interest in the arts and enjoy exploring a variety of locally sourced, fresh cuisine and wine.”
The line’s upcoming AmaMagna is an example of a vessel that can appeal to a variety of guests, especially those looking for a bit more space. With staterooms that range in size from 355 to 710 square feet, and public areas that include a dedicated Zen Wellness Studio and four dining venues, AmaMagna displays some of the diversity in offerings found on an ocean ship.
AmaMagna is just a small part of the recent substantial growth in the river cruise industry. Viking alone launched a staggering seven ships this year, and it has seven more slated for next year. Even U.S.-based American Queen Steamboat Company, a relatively niche operator, will add the American Countess paddlewheeler in 2020.
With more berths to fill, and new ships entering the market constantly, river cruising offers travel professionals a major potential for revenue.
“The river cruise market as a whole has meant a huge increase to my business and now accounts for 25% of all CruiseCenter’s sales,” said Tom Baker, president of Texas-based CruiseCenter. “We began to aggressively market and position our company as a knowledgeable expert in this arena for the reason that it appealed to seasoned cruises as well as those who typically did not want an ocean-going voyage.”
Today’s river ships are comparable to upscale boutique hotels.Credit: 2019 AmaWaterways
Some cruises visit unique sites such as Paulyn Monastery in Budapest.Credit: 2019 Getty Images
Some river cruise lines are catering to younger travelers with more overnights in major cities.Credit: 2019 Emerald Waterways
U River Cruises features unique-looking vessels.Credit: 2019 Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection
Most riverboats offer a range of dining options.Credit: 2019 Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection
River cruising promotes social interaction among passengers.Credit: 2019 Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection
River cruise lines work at customizing guests’ experience.Credit: 2019 Crystal Cruises
Finding the Right FitSteve Born, chief marketing officer for the Globus Family of Brands, points to the company’s Avalon Waterways brand as an example of a customizable experience that caters to new cruise clients. Avalon Choice presents Classic, Discovery and Active options both onboard and onshore. Classic features all the major highlights; Discovery provides an interactive, deeper dive; and Active is for the most adventurous passengers. (Even the bar menu on the newly christened Avalon Envision offers drink selections that fit these three themes.)
During a recent sailing onboard Envision, I took part in an Active excursion that brought us to the vast network of caves below Budapest, Hungary, where we gazed upon dramatic rock formations before discovering the city’s Hospital in the Rock. The former infirmary is now a museum highlighting the wartime treatments that were provided in the underground shelter. It’s the kind of unique, immersive activity that, until now, hasn’t really been typical of most cruise experiences. Yet these types of active excursions could persuade more clients to choose cruising.
Key to getting new-to-cruise travelers invested in the idea of a river vacation is matching them to the right line and ship.
For instance, corporate cousins Scenic and Emerald Waterways may attract comparable clientele, but they offer different inclusions at a range of price points that appeal to different demographics. Emerald includes gratuities, food, some drinks, Wi-Fi access, excursions and more, while upscale Scenic is entirely all-inclusive.
Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection, meanwhile, provides a luxury experience with a focus on food and wine. It also features wellness offerings, active excursions and family programming. At the same time, its subsidiary, U River Cruises (formerly U by Uniworld), proves there’s still room to innovate.
“We built U River Cruises as a response to a younger generation’s growing interest in river cruising, and because we felt many traditional river cruises wouldn’t be the right fit for them,” said Ellen Bettridge, president and CEO of Uniworld and U River Cruises. “As a result, U offers longer stays in port, so guests can explore cities by night as well as by day; more high-adventure excursions; and more social opportunities to engage with other guests, such as communal dining tables and onboard parties. We’re excited to develop new products such as U River Cruises, which opens up the industry to a whole new market of travelers.”
Closing the SaleUltimately, river cruising offers a broader variety of products than a client might initially assume.
Hardware, especially outer ship dimensions, may appear cookie-cutter, but interior amenities and software help differentiate lines. Travel advisor Genung looks to this range of options when trying to match his customers to a cruise.
“I am now targeting a much more diverse audience for river cruises than I would have a few years back,” he said. “In fact, this is the reason our agency is launching a new brand called River Cruise Corner that’s focused on this segment.”
Genung says that his younger, millennial audience already loves unique and boutique travel options, and they value location of accommodations and authentic experiences. Plus, he finds that the ability to overnight in ports and customize adventures is especially alluring to them.
His approach to selling river travel to those not yet familiar with cruising is simple: Ask lots of questions. By determining clients’ likes and dislikes, in addition to their traveling pain points, Genung can find the ideal river cruise.
“Crystal River Cruises has been my silver bullet recently because they offer so many things that the best land-based boutique hotels offer, but with unrivaled space and personalized service,” he said. “Crystal’s five dining choices, including on-demand in-suite dining, means you no longer have to share a dining time with 190 fellow guests.”
Genung also notes that the line’s suites are exceptional, and having a butler is an amenity a client might expect at a top hotel. Crystal has also reimagined the European itinerary, with shorter and longer itineraries, as well as roundtrip options.
In fact, for reluctant clients, a river cruise offers an experience that is an enticing combination of a cruise, a tour and a luxury hotel stay. And once travelers give a riverboat a try, a whole world of cruise opportunities may open up.