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River Cruising's Ultimate BackupMarch 3, 2008 By: David Eisen Travel Agent
A parent company in the land-tour business may be key to success for some river cruise lines
IMAGINE GEORGE W. BUSH without George H.W., Paris without great-grandfather Conrad Hilton, Frank Sinatra Jr. without Frank Sr.—hypothetical, yes, but absent their familial backing, the aforementioned offspring may have never struck gold.
It's similar in business, where name recognition and support from an established brand can be the key to success. In the world of river cruising, several lines were created by tour operators or rely on tour companies for distribution. The bond between the land-based operation and its river cruise "offspring" helps generate business.
One tour operator with a tie to river cruising is Globus (www.globusjourneys.com), the Littleton, CO-based travel company best known for its escorted tours that celebrates its 80th anniversary this year. Globus began building riverboats five years ago and now owns or operates 10 vessels under its Avalon Waterways (www.avalonwaterways.com) brand. It was important for Globus' river cruise outfit to be folded into the family, according to Steve Born, Globus' vice president of marketing. "When we decided to introduce the brand, our approach was: to be successful we had to be hands-on, from selling to reservations to delivery," Born says. "The advantage of us owning is we can control the experience from start to finish."
Other river cruise lines exist independently from tour operators, but are sold in operators' vacation packages. Not Globus and Avalon. "It's difficult to hand over service," Born notes. "To really deliver, we recognized that you should own it, make it yours."
Globus has 37 operation offices worldwide and uses its many contacts to create memorable shore excursions for passengers on Avalon cruises. "Our model is that any experience on land would be operated and supported by Globus," Born says. "We leverage our experience, knowledge and operations base to create those great shore excursions. The bottom line is that we want to be hands-on."
Travel agents have taken note, and some admit to funneling their business toward river cruise lines that have strong backing by a supplier they're familiar with, which, for agents, ostensibly adds another lever of safety and experience.
"We book Avalon because it's Globus," says Neelie Kruse, owner of Cary Travel Express in the Chicago area. Kruse books river cruises only with Avalon Waterways because she's never had any problems with Globus' land tours. To her, they are interchangeable. "The quality assurance of Globus is why we use them," Kruse says. "Globus sells a quality land product, so their river cruise product will be good."
Tauck World Discovery (www.tauck.com), another well-regarded tour company, operates an eponymous river cruise fleet comprised of the Swiss Emerald and, as of this April, the Swiss Sapphire. Keeping its river cruise unit close to the vest has allowed Tauck to slowly, smartly and steadily grow the line. Rakesh Dewan, director of product planning and costing for Tauck, says the company is looking to build more ships but is approaching it methodically. "Small steps for the long term," as he puts it. Tauck banks on the Tauck name in gaining a foothold with agents. "Tauck does stand for a certain brand that we have to deliver to river cruising," says Dewan.
Tauck has been in business for 83 years and—it goes without saying—has a thick Rolodex of contacts and suppliers worldwide. It draws on these connections in developing river cruise programs. "We have the experience in land operation," Dewan says, "which we leverage for things such as shore excursions in Europe. That synergy makes a huge difference in what we can provide the guest."
Tauck's connections with land-based suppliers also gives it more buying power, which translate to value it can pass on to customers. "We have been in the marketplace for years," Dewan says. "We have established relationships and direct more volume, which allows us to contract better rates."
Globus and Tauck operate their own river cruise lines within an industry that has not become too cluttered. Other names in the business draw sales support from tour operators they're not otherwise affiliated with. Then there is the case is Uniworld Grand River Cruises (www.uniworld.com which is a sister company of Trafalgar Tours. They share a parent—The Travel Corporation—but operate separately. Trafalgar does, however, exclusively distribute Uniworld cruises. "We are run as two separate companies, but obviously, with us both having the same parent company, there is a deep-working relationship," says Guy Young, Uniworld's president. "This is particularly true in international markets such as Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, where we do not have consortia relationships or a sales force."