Nine river cruise ships from six river cruise lines docked along the shores of the Danube River in Budapest this week as the American Society of Travel Advisors (ASTA) and Visit Hungary kicked off the second-annual Global River Cruise Expo, taking place onboard the docked ships and at the nearby InterContinental Budapest Hotel from March 15-19.
Now in its sophomore year, the conference drew 650 U.S. travel advisors (500 of them first-time attendees) and 100 supplier partners for four days of ship inspections, educational sessions, a two-day tradeshow, after-party networking events, sightseeing and meals onboard the ships.
First-time attendee Jackie Friedman, president of Nexion, said her impression of the event is that it’s one of the the industry’s most successful for those wanting to focus on a specific niche, noting that 70 advisors from Nexion were in attendance this year.
"Everyone here is here to learn about a specific travel style,” she said. “They can meet the people, experience the product, taste the food and experience the destination so they can be even more of a resource for their clients. There’s buzz in the room, and discussion and conversations that people are having about what they’re going to take from what they’ve learned here, and [how they’re going to] immediately apply it to their business.”
Indeed, business strategies and selling tactics were a big focus of this year’s content: Many opening general session panels and speakers focused on topics related to sales and marketing, client lead generation and current trends in the marketplace.
Discussion sessions included:
- 10 Tips for Finding New River Cruise Clients
- Successful Strategies to Show Your Value With Aspiring River Cruise Clients
- Converting Prospects into River Cruise Clients
Another event highlight was a special appearance by celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck (who flew straight to Budapest after attending the Academy Awards in Los Angeles last week). During an on-stage interview with Gifted Travel Network’s Vanessa McGovern, he shared his best “recipes for success” and how he developed his businesses using a blend of tradition and innovation.
In terms of educational content, Friedman of Nexion noted that she enjoyed how general session panels had a mix of advisors and suppliers.
"People got so much out of it,” she said. “And the most fun questions they asked [allowed travel advisors to] hear both perspectives. People in this industry love peer-to-peer [interactions]. I think one of the things I love about this industry is how much we’re learning from each other — it’s such a collaborative energy.”
Zane Kerby, president and CEO of ASTA, said he was especially impressed with the number of travel advisors who attended the conference as first-time river cruise sellers.
I know that the trend is that more and more people are going on river cruises, and I had more requests for information.
“We asked people to raise their hands yesterday [at the general session], and what’s really interesting is there are a lot of people new to river cruising,” he said. “More than 500 people are new from last year’s event. So, it’s a brand-new crop of people, and it’s people who understand that river cruises are something that consumers are preferring now. And with the river cruise partners we have here, they honor the travel advisor profession. It’s a shared partnership.”
Robert J. Borowski, president and founder of YOLO Explorers Inc., was one such attendee. Although he’s an adventure travel specialist who focuses on land tours, he decided to attend the Expo this year after getting repeated requests for river cruising from his clients.
“A good friend of mine was [at the Expo] last year, and I’ve had a number of clients and friends who want to go on a river cruise,” he said. “I didn’t have much knowledge of it [before then]. I did mainly group trips to Europe, Asia and South America, but I know that the trend is that more and more people are going on river cruises, and I had more requests for information. So, I thought the best place to come would be here, where you get to see the ships and learn.”
The docked ships included AmaMagna, AmaViola and AmaVerde (from AmaWaterways); Silver III (from Amadeus River Cruises); Avalon Envision (from Avalon Waterways); Riverside Mozart (from newly launched Riverside Luxury Cruises); Scenic Jasper (from Scenic Luxury Cruises & Tours); and Viking Modi and Viking Vali (from Viking). All offered open-house ship inspections and tours throughout the conference, in addition to meals and evening after parties.
“The ship inspections were the most interesting [to me],” Borowski said. “We got to have lunch and dinner onboard the different ships, and there’s definitely differences that you don’t actually realize unless you see the ships.”
In a special ceremony on March 17, Riverside Mozart (the former Crystal Mozart of Crystal Cruises) also held a surprise christening ceremony.
After the conference wraps up on March 19, the ships will set off on post Expo fam sailings, giving advisors another chance to experience the various itineraries and products.