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The COVID-19 pandemic has taken a toll on river cruising. While the segment will return, there remains a lot of challenges for the industry to navigate, as well as uncertainty regarding when travelers can set sail again.
TravelAge West recently spoke with travel advisors about what they are seeing now and how they expect the future to pan out.
For Tom Baker, president of Houston-based CruiseCenter, the current outlook for river cruising is bleak.
“River cruises are nearly $3 million in sales for my company,” he said. “We have lost 80% of 2020 with outright cancellations and 20% in future cruise credits (FCC) thus far, and this is for sailings going into the fall. As the virus impact becomes deeper and less is known about its overall impact, elective client cancellations are now starting to roll deeper into the season and even into the end of the year.”
Baker speculates that the elderly demographic for river cruising is fearful of infection and is canceling accordingly, at least until there is a vaccine for COVID-19.
Gloryvette Lichtman, a travel advisor for Cruise Planners, an American Express Travel Representative, has been focusing on rescheduling rather than canceling.
“A good portion of clients who love river cruising are asking me if I can move their reservations to 2022,” she said. “The river cruise companies allowing FCCs to go into 2022 are being smart.”
Still, some European bookings have proven difficult for her as she notes not all travel partners have as much fluidity in their cancellation policies.
“I’ve encouraged my fellow travel advisors to consider how travel suppliers react to the constant changes we are required to complete to ensure the satisfaction of our clients,” she said. “Those whom I’ve had the most positive experience will win my future business.”
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Baker agrees that consistent changes are making it difficult to serve clients.“We have been extremely empathetic to all client concerns and are advocating the best we can as vendor cancellation policies change,” he said.
Once river cruising comes back online, it does have some advantages over ocean cruising regarding any onboard illness — mainly, that it’s far easier to disembark an ailing passenger with shores always in sight.
However, Baker believes the river lines will need to adopt guest safety protocols just as the ocean ones will to ensure any vessels with sick guests are allowed port entry.
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“This is the most difficult situation I have seen in 36 years of travel industry service, and we have been through many a crisis,” he said. “Nonetheless, I tell everyone this too shall pass.”
For now, Baker is making bookings for 2021 and 2022, but admits most are for clients rescheduling with few entirely new reservations.
“I thought by now the pent-up demand would be there, but it is still too soon for many, and negative cruise media continues to persist,” he said.
Travel agents are not giving up, though.
I’ve encouraged my fellow travel advisors to consider how travel suppliers react to the constant changes we are required to complete to ensure the satisfaction of our clients.
“I am trying to create an atmosphere of hope,” said Lichtman, who is asking for clients to share their travel dreams and favorite travel photos.
She said Cruise Planners is initiating a contest encouraging people to send in their pictures to be eligible for prizes.
“Ultimately, the majority of my clients want to feel heard; they want to hold on to as much of their travel money as possible; and they want to hear about what kind of travel I will be planning in the future,” she said. “They are hopeful about their future travels.”
And things, too, are finally hopeful for Lichtman.
“I am in the process of finalizing a group trip to Ireland for 2021,” she said. “So far, half of the 26 people needed for the trip have committed.”