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Travel agents who formerly booked with just one or two favorite river cruise lines are finding that there is now much more potential to match clients with a specific product — even if the process is a bit more difficult.
Tom Baker, co-owner of Houston-based Cruise Center, notes that agents can’t just pick a default cruise line anymore.
“People booking river cruises really want to talk about what the experience involves; they have a lot of questions,” he said.
In the past, river cruise lines were much more similar, and so were their customers. In Europe, size restrictions for cruising under bridges and through locks meant fairly standard ship design, and tiny galleys set limitations on the culinary side.
Choices became far more complex as lines introduced clear distinctions in accommodations. Reduced engine noise and vibration allowed designers to locate staterooms and public spaces differently, and alternative dining appeared.
Psychographics grew in importance, and increased efforts have been made to woo active travelers. Bicycles became the norm onboard, and serious fitness facilities, infinity pools and extensive healthful eating choices emerged. Culinary and wine cruises turned into river staples, too, as planners capitalized on different regions’ vineyards and distinctive cuisines, utilizing the produce thriving right on the riverbanks.
Cruise lines also started to look beyond baby boomers via designated sailings and accommodations for families. They began to plan for the vast millennial market, exploring both distinctive hardware and onboard experiences.
Today, river lines, and even individual ships, can be matched with customer demands. But pairing a client with the right experience can be even harder than on seagoing ships, since smaller vessels can’t take the shotgun approach of being most things to most people.
It’s clear how complex matching has become as river cruising continues to mature. And it won’t get any easier anytime soon: New cruise lines, new ships and extreme refurbishments are constantly changing the picture.
Active/Healthy TravelersFinding a river cruise for active travelers is easier than ever before. For instance, AmaWaterways is building an extensive program led by dedicated Wellness Hosts. Introduced on AmaLyra, AmaCerto, AmaPrima, AmaSonata, AmaDante and AmaDolce this year, the Wellness Program will expand to all 23 ships in 2019.
People booking river cruises really want to talk about what the experience involves; they have a lot of questions.
Each AmaWaterways ship in the European fleet has a fitness room with cardio equipment and a kinesiology system that can be used to tone every muscle in the human body; a massage room; a walking track; complimentary bikes; and a whirlpool or a swimming pool. Group sessions range from morning stretching and resistance-band classes to yoga and circuit training. Also on offer are discussions on stress reduction and healthful eating choices.
Closer to home, American Queen Steamboat Company’s American Queen has a dedicated fitness room and treatments including a hot-stone massage; reflexology; and back, neck and shoulder exfoliation. The fitness room has weight and resistance training and a kinesis system, plus cardio equipment from treadmills to a static bike.
Crystal River Cruises has brought onboard recumbent and upright bikes, treadmills, rowing machines and free weights, and it offers complimentary circuit classes, yoga, Pilates, stretching classes and an impressive boot camp. The double-wide Crystal Mozart’s Crystal Life Spa will offer manicures and pedicures, hair treatments, massages, a pool, a hot tub, men’s and women’s saunas and steam rooms, a fitness space and a relaxation area. Joggers can use the outdoor promenade.
Sister companies Scenic Luxury Cruises & Tours and Emerald Waterways provide top-deck running tracks, fitness rooms and bikes in port; Emerald also offers a group biking tour on each cruise.
Scenic Opal and Scenic Jasper have divided pools; one side is for relaxation, and the other has an infinity pool for workouts. In addition, Scenic installed three-station therapeutic salt lounges on Scenic Diamond and Scenic Sapphire that are unique to river cruising. This winter, several Scenic ships will be remodeled with expanded wellness centers containing a gym, a hair salon and massage and salt therapy rooms.
Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection’s spa services include Japanese Bamboo massages, Thai massages and reflexology. There are also TRX weight suspension systems for workouts, and guests are offered a complimentary session with a trainer. Antoinette and Queen Isabel have heated swimming pools, and onboard yoga and stretching classes complement bikes and Nordic walking sticks offered in port.
Family/Multigenerational TravelersLike active travelers, family or multigenerational groups have far more options these days on the rivers, including offerings set aside for families only and general cruises where there are family accommodations available.
AmaWaterways has both: It launched AmaStella and AmaViola in 2016 with families and multigenerational groups in mind. Along with AmaKristina, AmaLea, AmaMora (2019) and AmaMagna (2019), each ship has 12 staterooms that can sleep up to three people and six sets of adjoining rooms that can be connected by an internal door, along with four suites with convertible sofa beds that can accommodate up to four guests. Dedicated family cruises are offered through AmaWaterways’ partnership with Adventures by Disney; next year, 21 weeklong cruises will be available on the Seine, Rhine and Danube rivers.
Tauck Bridges offers four river cruises for families on the Seine, Rhone, Danube and Rhine rivers. These include shore excursions and onboard activities. Ships sailing these itineraries contain numerous 300-square-foot suites that each have a sofa bed. Alternative casual dining also pleases family and multigenerational groups.
Uniworld, too, provides exclusive family cruises with activities tailored for children, tweens and teens. Its Generations sailings have kid-friendly menus and offer onboard activities including crafts, language lessons and family talent shows.
Limited-Mobility/Wheelchair UsersLimited-mobility travelers are perhaps the most controversial client for river cruise placement, as many agents contend that river cruising is not suited to this traveler at all, even on ships with elevators.
“In general, it depends on how great the limitations are,” said Baker of Cruise Center. “But if they are severe, river cruising is not for that client. The problem with limited-mobility is docking — there are mudbanks, high grades and narrow streets. U.S. cruise lines must be ADA compliant, but in Europe, there’s nothing comparable. So, buses used are not ADA-equipped.”Rick Kaplan, president of Premier River Cruises in Los Angeles, agrees.
“Even if a person can leave the ship, there are cobbled walkways and narrow gates — it just isn’t a good fit,” he said.
Another issue is the practice of sometimes “stacking” river cruise vessels in port, where passengers may have to cross from one ship to another before reaching shore. If the traveler cannot walk, he or she will have trouble on a river boat.
Some agents feel that U.S. river cruising may be the best bet for these clients, and American Cruise Lines’ ships each have one or two handicap-accessible rooms. American Queen Steamboat Company has accessible accommodations on the Mississippi River onboard American Queen, and on the Columbia and Snake rivers onboard American Empress.
However, there is certainly availability in Europe: Scenic has accessible cabins on all of 13 of its ships in Europe and Russia, and CroisiEurope has wheelchair-accessible staterooms on 18 river vessels sailing on the Douro, Seine, Loire, Elbe, Danube, Rhine and Rhone rivers, and on four barges sailing French waterways.
Culinary TravelersIn contrast, matching foodies to river cruises is like pairing peanut butter and jelly. But those who focus on culinary exploration can be very choosy about their dining and hands-on experiences.
Leslie Fambrini, owner of Personalized Travel Consultants in Los Altos, Calif., sends these clients to Crystal River Cruises.
“Crystal’s cuisine rivals onshore Michelin-star restaurants, featuring local farm-to-table sourcing and every meal prepared a la minute, which we don’t customarily see on the rivers,” she said. In addition, Crystal offers paid shore excursions where guests can experience a Michelin-starred restaurant in the region, and its Eat Like a Local choice takes guests to insider restaurants.
In France, Scenic’s Diamond and Sapphire each have dedicated culinary centers onboard, unique in river cruising. Scenic Culinaire has cooking stations and a cheese and wine cellar, equipped with large screens that display every step of the instruction, all included in the price of the sailing.
Tauck’s French programming offers guests a private pastry class in Paris’ Le Cordon Bleu and experiences such as a truffle hunt with specially trained dogs in Grignan, or wine and chocolate tastings and an exclusive dinner at a duke’s castle in Uzes.
MillennialsRiver cruising is a natural fit for millennial travelers, who tend to spend their money on experiences and prize travel that provides close contact with local culture.
Uniworld designed two ships for this market with its U by Uniworld product, though it is now opening up these cruises to all age groups. Amadeus is preparing to launch millennials-only cruises on its existing fleet, centered on activities ranging from meditation to meeting locals. And, according to agents, CroisiEurope has quietly moved into this market with its value orientation and international focus.
Cultural TravelersCultural exploration is the essence of river cruising, and every line has emphasized bringing together clients with local culture. Immersive experiences draw most travelers, who can now take a painting class, help farmers with their crops, learn Croatian or Hungarian and go behind the scenes at iconic attractions.
According to agents, Karine Hagen — senior vice president of product for Viking and the face of the brand — models the relationship that travelers seek with local arts and culture. A set of enrichment videos show her training with a tai chi master; introducing the cats who live beneath the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, Russia; and making Portuguese creme brulee, for starters. Avalon Waterways offers exceptional engagement opportunities via its new Active Discovery cultural adventures. In Germany, for example, guests can wear Roman clothes at a workshop in Xanten, or they can get to know Dusseldorf on a treasure hunt.
Crystal’s new program of excursions includes Personal Connections — one-of-a-kind tours hosted by local residents, artisans and experts — which range from a home cooking class in Kehl, Germany, to canoeing the canals of Strasbourg, France.
Kaplan of Premier River Cruises emphasizes that with the many river cruising options now available, agents should let the client’s underlying dream guide the travel recommendation.
“The challenge for the travel agent is finding out why a client is taking the trip and what the goal is,” he said. “And then you need to be very, very informed about what is available.”