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I was sitting on the top deck of a river cruise vessel, watching the storybook scenery unfold around me. Chatting with me was a travel agent who had recently tripled her river cruise business.
“River cruise lines have done an incredible job with the hardware,” she said, sipping a latte. “If they do a few more things, I’ll sink the boats with all the clients I put on them. You can’t beat the commissions.”
What further additions is she looking for? Prestigious partnerships, great culinary offerings and shoreside experiences that her clients can’t arrange for themselves — and it turns out that she’s not the only one with a wish list for this expanding market.
Not only have the river cruise lines been adding ships, but the lines have become better at differentiating themselves from each other. Meanwhile, the customer demand for river cruising is growing faster than ever, with many travelers having previous experience with land tours and seagoing cruises. Enthusiastic customer satisfaction and high commissions have gotten agents’ attention, and they are working with potential clients to book well in advance to get the cruises they want.
Agents report that their clients, who are typically experienced luxury travelers, would like to find menu items created by well-known chefs in the region. Similarly, they would like to see top regional entertainment onboard or on shore, as well as the opportunity to select overnights in ports to enjoy the nightlife. Many stressed the importance of the all-inclusive experience as a key factor for river cruising, and others want more comfortable docking arrangements.
To underline the importance of river cruising in her business, Beth Levich, owner of Cruise Holidays of Portland, Ore., started a spin-off company last year, All About River Cruises. A July event at a local country club, partnering with four river cruise lines to tell prospective clients about river cruising, attracted 130 people who were completely new to her business.
Levich particularly likes shoreside experiences that involve meeting locals.
“I love excursions that include having a meal at someone’s home,” she said. “And I’d like to see something where you go to a festival with the locals, so you don’t feel like an outsider.”
She would also like to offer her clients the option to select tours where they have cars, maps and instructions and can explore at their own pace, meeting for dinner at the end.
“As people who travel become really well traveled, you have to offer something very special, or you won’t get repeat business to an area,” she added.Tom Baker, co-owner of the Houston-based CruiseCenter, selected by Conde Nast Traveler as a leading cruise specialist, has also found his company’s river cruise business growing fast.
“I would like to see guest chefs or more signature items from top chefs,” he said. “Perhaps hiring a Jacques Pepin type, as Oceania did, to oversee the culinary experience.”
Baker added that the food in the main dining rooms of some river cruise lines needs to be on par with the alternative restaurants onboard.
“They can all do better with the culinary offerings,” he said.
He also suggested enhancing guest experiences with more pre-booked tours for couples or small groups in advance of travel. These private arrangements would attract more upscale clients who are not interested in the larger bus tours, no matter how good they may be.
“The one who invents this will be the winner in the end,” he said. “Since none of the brochures indicate that this can be arranged and most agents do not have as many contacts for guides in Central Europe as they do in the Mediterranean or Baltic regions, this is a huge missing link.”
For Vivienne Kouba, vice president of the Leisure Travel Division of Peak Travel Group based in San Jose, Calif., access to cultural experiences and the ability to do something special and in-depth are key. She sees the luxury client as the right fit for river cruising and believes that agents could sell much larger suites on ships with fewer passengers if the river cruise lines would build them.
“If clients are coming from the penthouse on Regent or Crystal, there’s a disparity in the guestrooms in European river cruising,” she added.
Kouba would like the lines to offer culinary tours similar to those on seagoing ships, where a local chef takes the passengers to a market or a restaurant to sample regional cuisine.
Chris Morse, president of The Travel Center USA in Glendale, Calif., characterizes the appeal of river cruising as the opposite of seagoing cruises: a relaxed atmosphere, a limited number of passengers and great ports along the greatest rivers in the world. He believes that in order to maintain relationships between clients, agents and river cruise companies, river cruising should offer more overnight stays and a chance to sample top-rated restaurants in particular cities as part of the cruise program. Morse added that, since 79 percent of river cruisers drink wine, they should be able to enjoy special selections from each city that they visit, not just the standard brands brought on at the beginning of the cruise. He also feels that some of the docking locations are less than adequate.
Similarly, Boise, Idaho-based Tonia Long, CTA, cruise and tour specialist for AAA Idaho, urges cruise lines to manage the number of vessels calling in a port at the same time, in order to minimize the crowds and prevent stacking the ships at the dock. She and several other agents observed that clients who have paid for a high-category room or suite complain that they may end up peering into the windows of another vessel in port, and have to climb over other ships to get off and on their ship.
Susan Fetterly, senior travel consultant for Peak Travel in San Jose, Calif., emphasizes the superiority of ships with fewer passengers, as well as those that are truly all-inclusive.
“This is very important to the luxury customer,” she added.
She also wants to see more ships visit smaller, more unusual ports where others are not going.
Like many agents, Joan Cook, owner of Travel Discoveries in Watseka, Ill., would like to see overnights beyond the pre- and post-cruise offerings.
“It would be nice to have a few late-night stays when the boat is docked in a larger city,” she said. “Or, if there is sightseeing in an area farther away from the river, an excursion could be included if the docking time was extended.”
Susan Reder, managing partner of Frosch Classic Cruise & Travel in Woodland Hills, Calif., wants to see the cruise lines offer more for a high-end younger demographic — people in their 50s and 60s.
“I would like to see really active excursions,” she said. “Serious hiking would be good, as well as guided bicycle tours.”
Although agents have targeted the luxury and premium client for river cruises, most of them do not see the demographics staying with the 60s and 70s age group, but broadening at least to clients in their 40s and 50s. The opportunities for cross-selling are huge, they say, adding that tour clients appreciate the land programs without having to pack and unpack or having to sit for long periods of time. Seagoing clients make the transition easily if they understand the differences, and first-timers feel secure about sea sickness and being close to the land as they travel.
“Our river cruise business has soared,” Baker of CruiseCenter said. “Thank goodness we have embraced it.”