After more than a year of uncertainty and closed borders, European river cruise lines and anxious travelers are increasingly hopeful for a return to sailing.
Things will be different for the short term, at least, as we live with the COVID-19 pandemic and its aftermath. But lines are overwhelmingly upbeat about the prospect of getting guests back on Europe’s waterways. The reason? The rollout of vaccines and strong bookings for 2022 and 2023.
Before Americans can enjoy European river cruises again, though, the top lines say they will need to overcome a few obstacles. In fact, all the major river cruise operators have announced they won’t resume cruises in Europe until at least April.
Executives from these lines say they are poised to welcome back guests once European governments ease restrictions and can safely open to travelers from North America and elsewhere.
To that end, vaccination programs are ramping up in the U.S., and cruise lines have refined their health protocols. These conditions, plus patience and flexibility, are key to a successful relaunch of European river cruises.
“The situation in Europe remains the biggest hurdle,” said Rob Voss, chief operating officer of Scenic Group (which oversees Scenic Luxury Cruises & Tours and Emerald Cruises), citing spikes in cases, lockdowns, border-crossing requirements and other country-specific factors. “We must be able to supply the guest experience clients are looking for and expect. We need to have some level of confidence that there is a consistent and similar process for each country we cruise through. At this point, Europe is not ready for travelers.”
We need to have some level of confidence that there is a consistent and similar process for each country we cruise through. At this point, Europe is not ready for travelers.
Rudi Schreiner, co-founder and president of AmaWaterways, says he hopes countries will work together to establish similar rules so guests can have the peace of mind that their voyages will go smoothly, without a patchwork of regulations.
Schreiner says his gut tells him that August could be when AmaWaterways offers cruises in Europe for North Americans. His line remains flexible, though, because things can change quickly; a spike in cases, for instance, could prompt enhanced protocols and shutdowns.
In the meantime, lines are putting globally enacted health protocols in place, such as wearing masks when social distancing isn’t possible, frequent COVID-19 testing (before and during the cruise) and gathering closely only with members of the guests’ travel party.
Avalon Waterways, for one, says it’s ready to go as soon as borders open back up.
“Border openings are the next big step required for us to begin operations,” said Pam Hoffee, managing director of Avalon. “We are encouraged that with the vaccine rollout and coordinated testing, it could happen soon.”
Sailing and Selling Changes
When cruising does return, advisors and clients should know that the experience will be different.
AmaWaterways, for example, will accelerate some changes to its dining service that Schreiner says were already in the works. The line will shift to full service in all restaurants, eliminating the full buffet option. This will reduce food waste, according to Schreiner, and give guests more choices. There are also plans to offer more alfresco dining.
Likewise, Hoffee of Avalon envisions a permanent shift to full-service dining, as well as an emphasis on activities off the ships. She points to the line’s Active & Discovery cruises, which offer immersive hiking, walking or kayaking excursions.
Flexibility and patience will be required by both the cruise lines and their guests as new protocols are established and adjusted.
“Flexibility and patience will be required by both the cruise lines and their guests as new protocols are established and adjusted,” Scenic‘s Voss said.
There’s no doubt that both cruise lines and advisors eagerly look forward to getting clients back on the rivers. And with the stress and frustration of mass cancellations, support from cruise lines has been crucial in helping travel agents navigate turbulent times.
“The support, particularly from Viking River Cruises and AmaWaterways, has been superb,” said John Gawne, an advisor with Cruises Inc. in Virginia Beach, Va. “Their offerings for canceling in advance without penalty, and their future cruise offerings for canceled cruises have been very helpful in dealing with clients who are concerned about booking or experiencing canceled cruises.”
AmaWaterways, for one, has kept its support strategy simple.
“Travel agents who had booked clients on any cruise in 2020 — if they moved their guests to another departure in 2021 or beyond — would get their commission at the time of the originally arranged departure,” Schreiner said.
Scenic, meanwhile, is offering a 3% bonus commission for all new bookings, according to Ann Chamberlin, vice president of sales for Scenic. And Hoffee says Avalon Waterways created an early commission payment program, which allows advisors to receive commission at time of payment, providing much-needed cash flow.
Riviera River Cruises, which operates throughout Europe, says it will resume sailing on May 17. In an effort to assist advisors, Riviera is offering incentives to create new bookings for 2021 and 2022. The line’s flexible customer care policy includes free changes to new bookings and cancellation protection, as well as an onboard credit of up to $550.
“Now is a great time for advisors to encourage their clients to look to the future and start planning their next vacation on a risk-free basis,” said Marilyn Conroy, executive vice president of sales and marketing North America at Riviera.
Now is a great time for advisors to encourage their clients to look to the future and start planning their next vacation on a risk-free basis.
Executives and sellers alike say that once the pandemic recedes, the industry seems to be ripe for a boom.
“I think there will be a huge, bright future for river cruising,” AmaWaterways’ Schreiner said. “There will be a lot of demand for small-ship environments and more emphasis on activities like walking, hiking and bicycling. For that, I think we have the right environment.”