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Tauck’s river cruise operation is an anomaly. It has grown 125 percent in two years, despite having virtually no budget for broadcast or print consumer advertising. Its success stems from a focus not just on customer satisfaction, but also on taking guests so far beyond their expectations that they recruit family and friends upon their return.
The basis for Tauck’s longevity dates back to 1924, when a young Arthur Tauck, while selling his coin tray invention to banks in Massachusetts, decided to share his appreciation and knowledge of the region with leisure travelers. The first tour set the pattern for what was to come, with an emphasis on customer service, creating a life-enriching travel experience and providing it at one all-inclusive price.
Over the next 90-plus years and three generations of Taucks, the company has expanded to six brands, providing access to the world by river and sea cruises, trains, helicopters, buses and more. Based in Norwalk, Conn., Tauck remains family-owned and has expanded as an escorted travel company to 70 countries on all seven continents.
Dan Mahar, CEO of Tauck, says the company’s core purpose remains the same as it was in the beginning: to transform people’s lives.
“We can choose land, seas or rivers as the best way,” he said. “But we have taken the Tauck model to all the segments.”
Because of this philosophy, Tauck is careful about choosing partners on the water. It seeks, but sometimes doesn’t find, other family-owned companies that share a similar focus and standards.
“We have great charter relationships on the Yangtze and Nile, but in some other regions we have found it hard to find the kind of partners we want,” Mahar said.
These areas include Russia and the Douro and Mississippi rivers, where Tauck does not offer cruises. The company already has a successful land product on the Po and Mekong rivers, so it sees no need to launch cruises there.
One of Tauck’s successful partnerships is with Basel, Switzerland-based Scylla, which dates back to the debut of the first Tauck riverboat, Swiss Emerald, in 2006. Family-owned Scylla is Tauck’s river cruising maritime partner, and the two work closely together on the design, construction, outfitting and operation of the river-cruising fleet.
Scylla oversees maritime operations onboard the vessels and employs the hotel and kitchen staff. Tauck places a cruise director and three “Tauck Directors” to oversee the guest experience on each ship, and the company designs and operates all shore excursions, as well as onboard enrichment.
Tauck delivers experiences beyond guests' expectations, such as the Swiss Jewel cycle near Durnstein, Austria. // © 2015 Tauck
Tauck's river cruise line offers passengers a special experience at Palais Pallavicini. // © 2015 Tauck
A cabin onboard Treasures // © 2015 Tauck
Tauck brings passengers to Chateau de Bizy, home of the last king of France. // © 2015 Sergey Prokopenko
The Swiss Emerald in Lyon, France // © 2015 Tauck
Guests can dine in Arthur, an alternative restaurant onboard. // © 2015 Tauck
Tauck specified from the start of the relationship that it wanted features such as a second dining venue on each vessel and a higher percentage of suites than is typically found on most ships — made possible by limiting its capacity to a maximum of 130 guests. The line is very focused on all the little details — from the bedding and toiletries to the book selection in the libraries. Each river cruise ship is used exclusively by Tauck, and deployment is set by the company.
The result is seven vessels, which will grow to nine next year. Five are Jewel Class, built between 2006 and 2011 — Treasures, Swiss Emerald, Swiss Jewel, Swiss Sapphire and Esprit — all carrying 118 guests each. At 361 feet long, they have three decks, with elevators between the Ruby and Diamond levels. Each ship has 14 suites measuring 300 square feet, featuring walk-in closets and marble-adorned bathrooms with tubs. In all accommodations, Tauck uses 400-thread-count linens, Mako cotton pillows with hypoallergenic 90 percent down filling, 100 percent cotton blankets and pillow-top mattresses. All cabin categories also have minibars, robes, slippers and televisions with in-room movies. The ships are designed with floor-to-ceiling windows, and 85 percent of cabins have French balconies. The ships also feature Bistro, an alternative dining venue, in addition to the Compass Rose restaurant.
The newest developments from Tauck and Scylla are two larger Inspiration Class ships, Inspire and Savor, which debuted last year. Each are 443 feet long, carry 130 guests and feature three decks, plus the Sun Deck. Each ship has twenty-two 300-square-foot suites with two French balconies with floor-to-ceiling windows, a pullout couch, a walk-in closet and a generous-size bathroom with a rain shower. Suites and staterooms are all outfitted with Molton Brown toiletries and plush bedding with goose down pillows.
Inspiration Class ships also feature Arthur’s, a cafe with a kitchen that offers light and traditional American selections to complement the more formal main dining room.
Inspiration Class ships introduced a significant design solution to Tauck’s fleet, with four loft cabins set on the lower deck. Staterooms on this level are usually difficult to sell because they have limited light from sealed windows just above the waterline. However, Tauck raised the ceiling and added a raised seating area and a high window that can be opened by remote control for fresh air. Katharine Bonner, vice president of river and small-ship cruising for Tauck, says that agents were initially reluctant to book the new accommodations, but became quite enthusiastic once they saw them.
The seven ships sail 21 river itineraries in Europe on the Danube, Rhone, Rhine, Seine, Moselle, Saone and Main rivers, as well as the Belgian Albert Canal. The new vessels, combined with two Inspiration Class ships launching next year — Grace and Joy — are increasing the line’s capacity by 125 percent in two years. With zero consumer print or broadcast advertising (Tauck has a very modest online ad budget), how does the company fill its expanding capacity?
Mahar says the line has a more than 50 percent repeat rate and an additional 30 percent of guests coming from referrals, with the overwhelming majority of bookings made through travel agents.
“This reduces rates,” he said. “We’re not charging the customer for large advertising budgets. It makes it difficult for anyone else to compete with us.”
It isn’t only advertising savings that are passed along to the customer. Pricing for 2016 has been announced, with a savings of up to $1,200 per couple over Tauck’s 2015 rates, due entirely to recent foreign exchange gains made by the U.S. dollar against the euro. And the rates are all fully inclusive, with no options sold separately. Fares include shore excursions; gratuities; unlimited onboard wine, beer and spirits; airport transfers; port charges and taxes; luggage handling; and more. It also includes special meals onshore in unusual venues such as castles.
“We’re incredibly proud of the value we deliver to our guests, and when opportunities arise to increase that value — whether it’s by enhancing the experience our guests enjoy or by taking advantage of favorable exchange rates — we’re excited to do so,” Mahar said. “For 2016, we’ve been able to do both.”
The Tauck difference is especially evident in how the company sets up land tours for guests.
“Many cruise lines have a group of shore excursion options, maybe with several different companies, and they hand their guests over to these companies,” Mahar said. “We are there for the guests onshore — our directors go with them, and guides are closely evaluated.”
In addition, partnerships with people such as filmmaker Ken Burns and brands like BBC Earth enrich guests’ understanding of the places they visit. Tauck also arranges special access for passengers in crowded destinations — such as bringing them to the front of the line at the Eiffel Tower — as well as exclusive shoreside experiences.
“Guests always want to be able to see and do things they couldn’t do on their own,” Mahar said.
Exclusive Tauck experiences include a cocktail reception, dinner and music performance in Engelskirchen, Germany, at the 14th-century Schloss Ehreshoven, the former home of the noble Nesselrode family, which is normally closed to the public. Another experience is a champagne reception and three-course dinner with live music in Vernon, France, at Chateau Bizy, the former home of Louis-Philippe, the last French king, now owned by descendants of Napoleon. Tauck guests can also visit Geisenheim, Germany’s historic wine cellar at Schloss Johanissberg in a former Benedictine monastery with 1,200 years of winemaking history. A very popular excursion is a dinner with dance, opera and classical music performances at the privately owned Palais Pallavicini palace in Vienna.
Tauck demonstrates similar attention to detail with its sailings for families. The philosophy emanates from the Tauck Bridges land program for families. While all ages are welcome onboard, multigenerational groups with tweens and teens are an especially good match for the product, according to Bonner. Twice named the best river cruise line for families by Travel + Leisure, Tauck creates a full experience for people with children, rather than merely tacking on a set of family-suited activities to a standard cruise. Parents and children explore together, based on Mahar’s conviction that parents, who are often extremely busy, want more time with their children. Mahar also points out some of the advantages of river cruising for families, such as the intimate ship size and the ability to unpack just once during the vacation.
In addition to family cruises on the Danube and Rhone, this year Tauck launched the eight-day Castles on the Rhine: Family Riverboat Adventure, cruising between Basel and Amsterdam onboard Inspire. Families start with a trip out of Basel, where they ride the world’s steepest cogwheel train to the 7,000-foot summit of Mt. Pilatus in the Swiss Alps. Next, they cruise to Strasbourg, France, and become “French for a Day” with French language lessons, songs, a cooking demonstration and a chocolate tasting. During the trip they also explore the canals of Amsterdam and participate in a riverside cycling excursion.
Tauck is also well-known for its approach to catering to solo travelers, for whom the company offers all Category 1 staterooms without a single supplement.
“We design events so they won’t feel lonely,” Mahar said. “Plus, the culture on the ships is very friendly and open.”
In addition to the river cruise segment, Tauck offers small-ship cruising and promises an announcement in this area early next year. It has itineraries all over the world, including Alaska; Southeast Asia; Venice, Italy, and the Dalmatian coast; the Baltic and St. Petersburg, Russia; and the Panama Canal and Costa Rica. For these, the line uses luxury seagoing yachts from Windstar Cruises and Ponant.
Whatever additions and changes emerge in the future, Tauck intends to maintain its focus on pleasing guests beyond their expectations and anticipating their needs.
“Delivering more than you promise is critical for all high-end travel,” Mahar said. “Then the guests themselves make the claims for you.”