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In anticipation of a return to service in the fall, Avalon Waterways is highlighting what sets river cruising and its brand apart from the world of ocean cruising. Pam Hoffee, managing director of Avalon Waterways, chatted with TravelAge West to share her perspective on the biggest differences.
Besides those discussed below, Avalon also emphasizes its dedication to sustainability. The line does its utmost to save water, reduce waste and foster environmental responsibility among its crew and guests. This extends to support for Ocean Cleanup’s efforts to improve international oceans and rivers.
How does an Avalon river cruise differ from an ocean cruise?Size is a huge and key differentiator, but there’s a lot more that makes river cruising — and, in particular, an Avalon river cruise — different from an ocean cruise.
In Europe, our ships carry an average of just 150 guests, either 128 or 166 to be exact. On the Mekong, the number is just 36. A piece of that also is our crew-to-guest ratio at just one crew member to every three guests. That’s the reason why we get incredible reviews of our service onboard. Our travelers receive plenty of attention to detail from our crew. They are always available and happily catering to guests’ needs at any moment.
The other advantage of sailing in inland waterways is we have ready access to local health and medical services if they are needed.
Another big difference, of course, is that ocean cruising offers a plethora of large-scale entertainment and activities onboard. A lot of the reason that people ocean cruise is for what’s happening on the ship. Ocean lines built their ships to cater to the hundreds or even thousands of guests that they have.
River cruising is really just different. We’re very destination-focused, with local guides who come to help our travelers experience and connect with the world around them. At Avalon, we’re really centered on creating itineraries that take our guests off the beaten path. We visit small fairytale villages and quaint town squares. We engage with family-owned wineries and bakeries and all sorts of other businesses along the way.
On a river cruise, you’re never out to sea. Rivers wind through the heart of fascinating countries with amazing views around every bend. We’re always within a few feet of the shore, passing castles, villages and capital cities. Our guests are treated to incredible views every day and night, and they enjoy easy access to ports of call, which I think is the most important thing. We’re able to take advantage of immersive experiences that we can bring to life with our included daily shore excursions.
Not being out to sea has the further advantage of not worrying about being seasick. The other advantage of sailing in inland waterways is we have ready access to local health and medical services if they are needed.
Are there any additional Avalon-specific advantages for those looking for safe and healthy travel?The reality is that our ships are held to high health and safety standards, and river cruising has the advantage of small-size ships. Another big advantage that Avalon has is in how our ships are built.
Those who are familiar with us know about our award-wining Panorama Suites, which make up 80% of our inventory. They feature a wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling window that opens 7 feet wide. This wall of glass opens into what we call our Open-Air Balcony, which gives travelers the opportunity to receive fresh air, and that’s one component of healthier travel.
But the important piece of this is that each stateroom has its own air system. No air is circulated between staterooms.
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How confident are you in a Sept. 1 sailing restart date?A lot really depends on how the border openings between countries in Europe goes. I think most people who are following the news know that this is all happening now. Our global health and safety team is constantly monitoring the situation and the changes that are happening every day, and so far, there seems to be positive news.
The biggest question in terms of our ability to operate is if guests from outside Europe will be allowed to travel, because that’s Avalon’s source market. We’ll be able to start once non-Europeans are able to travel to Europe.
At Avalon, we are prepared with our Avalon Assurance plan. It’s based on the current environment, and it’s totally flexible to adapt to the situation as it unfolds. Of course, the prerequisite is that borders must open; flights have to be allowed; and venues have to be open and ready to greet our guests. While safety is our top priority, a great experience for our guests is also very important to us.
It’s not our intention that guests would be wearing masks their entire cruise, though we do currently have a plan that our crew will wear masks whenever interacting with guests.
How much will capacity be reduced to ensure social distancing onboard?Rules for spacing and social distancing, as well as how many people can gather, vary per country. In Austria, there’s currently a maximum of 100 people allowed to gather together, and the social distancing requirements in restaurants call for 1 meter (about 3 feet) between tables. In Germany, hotels, restaurants and bars are still currently closed, and gatherings of 100 or more people aren’t allowed. These rules will define what we are allowed to do, as most of our cruises sail between multiple countries.
We’ve laid out what social distancing looks like at 6 feet (about 2 meters) in our dining room and our lounges, as per U.S. rules.
We’ll follow the guidelines that are in place at the time we begin sailing. It could be about 60% capacity based on that 2 meters, but it could be more, dependent on what the situation looks like in a few months.
The most important thing is we have a team that is watching this. They are constantly able to amend our plans and are ready to do what’s right to ensure that we have a great and safe experience for our guests.
With social distancing in place, will masks be required for guests to wear, or will they be optional?This rule also depends on the local requirement. We will follow requirements in place, and currently masks are required when you’re not able to social distance in some places that we sail. That would mean that we would have to require them to be worn at certain times, such as when disembarking. That would be a time when social distancing would likely not be possible, as people might be crowded together as they’re leaving for excursions.
We’re looking at how we can do safety drills differently to provide more room per person, such as doing it by deck instead of everyone together. That would be a time when it would make sense to require guests to wear masks.
How are you protecting travel agent commissions at this time?With our Peace of Mind plan, which is our plan for when we cancel a sailing, we are offering our guests the ability to move their booking forward. When they do that, advisors are paid their commission at that time. Rather than waiting for the cruise in the future, we’re paying commission on that future cruise now.
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