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Rolling on the Rivers

June 25, 2012 By: Ruthanne Terrero Travel Agent


Ruthanne Terrero
At the Montage Beverly Hills: Ruthanne Terrero, Travel Agent magazine; Maggie Burnside, German National Tourism Office; Rudi Schreiner, AMAWaterways; Pat O’Neill, Cassis Travel Services; Patrick Clark, Avalon Waterways; Michele Saegesser, Viking River Cruises; Alexandra Imhof, Switzerland Tourism; Wido Schaefer, Travel Store; Susan Shultz, American Cruise Lines: Guy Young, Uniworld; and Chris Coon, Travel Agent magazine.


River cruising has become wildly popular, so much so that cruise lines are adding more and more ships each year with every amenity possible to keep up with the demand.

To delve into what river cruising offers, Travel Agent magazine hosted a roundtable with executives, destination representatives and travel advisors at the Montage Beverly Hills recently.

On hand were Wido Schaefer, chairman and CEO of Travel Store; Pat O’Neill, director of the leisure division for Cassis Travel Services; Michele Saegesser, vice president of sales, the Americas for Viking River Cruises; Patrick Clark, managing director of Avalon Waterways; Guy Young, president of Uniworld; Susan Shultz, director of sales for American Cruise Lines; Rudi Schreiner, president of AMA Waterways; Alexandra Imhof, district manager of the western USA for Switzerland Tourism; and Maggie Burnside, sales manager of the West Coast USA for the German National Tourism Office.


How has river cruising changed over the past few years?

Michele Saegesser, Viking River Cruises: We all joke that we can’t even keep track of how many ships we have anymore, it’s grown so much. What has changed significantly is that ocean cruisers have really started to catch on to river cruising. Viking has put a significant amount of marketing out there, and now TV ads, to show the consumers what a river cruise really looks like. It’s not barging, it’s a luxury vacation. The idea is the consumers will go in and tell the travel agents that they would like to go on a trip like that. It’s moved from a small group that was looking for something different to a group of passengers that comes from even some of the main cruise lines like Princess, Holland America, Royal Caribbean, NCL and Celebrity. We are seeing a shift in where the business is coming from.


Michele Saegesser, Patrick Clark, Guy Young and Susan Shultz
Panelists agreed that river cruising has changed dramatically over the past few years. Shown here: Michele Saegesser, Viking River Cruises; Patrick Clark, Avalon Waterways; Guy Young, Uniworld; and Susan Shultz, American Cruise Lines.


Patrick Clark, Avalon Waterways: River cruising has grown dramatically since 2004 and the growth has been on average compounding 10 percent a year. But we are still talking about 350,000 to 400,000 passengers next year in Europe compared to 15 million to 18 million a year on ocean ships.

CLIA conducted some surveys indicating that a third of those ocean cruisers have an interest in a small-ship or river-cruise experience. So that, coupled with demographics, in that we attract the baby boomer segment, means that the future looks very bright for river cruising.

River cruising gives you the opportunity to go through a country and embrace its culture, its history and its people. The content of its excursions has tremendous appeal and has resonated very well with the customers. So for the travel agents who haven’t embraced it, apart from being extremely rewarding financially, they need to do so because their customers are going to ask for it.

Guy Young, Uniworld: It has been an amazing run for all of us. When I joined the company in late 2006, river cruising was actually one of the smaller business units within the Travel Corporation. We have grown significantly to where today we are probably the No. 1 or No. 2 business within the corporation. There are a lot of different segments entering the market, which are helping it to expand. When we look at our business, as we treaded through the tough years of 2008-09 because we all have fixed assets, we had to fill our ships. I think we still had a lot of exposure to the marketplace and that helped create the awareness for river cruising. Certainly, my hat is off to Viking, which does an awful lot of consumer marketing that helped raise awareness for all of us, which is fantastic.

Susan Shultz, American Cruise Lines: We are seeing the growth of river cruising in Europe and the different things the lines are doing onboard their ships like balconies and sliding glass doors, which here in the U.S. is unheard of. And now we are doing that on our product as well. So if your clients have been river cruising and choose to do a cruise in the U.S., it’s going to be the same product. It hasn’t been that way before.


Michele Saegesser and Maggie Burnside
Michele Saegesser, Viking River Cruises, with Maggie Burnside, German National Tourism Office.


I also agree about all the awareness that’s come from small-ship cruising over the years. I remember 10 years ago going in front of a panel and asking how many people have sold a small-ship cruise line, and not one hand came up. Or I asked, “Has anyone ever heard of American Cruise Lines?” Not a single hand came up. So we had a lot of work cut out for us, and I think we have come a long way in those 10 years and I see a big difference. I have to commend a lot of travel agents; they have seen the benefit of selling our product, they make a lot more commission and that makes a huge difference.

Pat O’Neill, Cassis Travel Services: We are getting more requests for river cruising, and it’s probably due to the advertising that the cruise lines do. It has also become a more upscale product in the past few years and we cater to that market. People come back very satisfied. It’s a good value for the money as well. We typically do FITs at the beginning or the end of the cruise, too, which enhances our profitability.


Guy Young and Susan Schultz
Guy Young, Uniworld, and Susan Schultz, American Cruise Lines.


Wido Schaefer, Travel Store: Most of our river cruise sales are to previous big ocean cruisers, who now want to get more into the details of the destination. They are attracted to the newer ships with upgraded amenities, the balconies, especially the dining, the bikes onboard, those kind of things. In general, the American consumer has traveled through mainly Europe but also other destinations so frequently that they now want to be out of the big cities, they want to see the countryside and want to experience the smaller cities for the culture and the cuisine. So I think you built the ships at the right time. We have had increases in sales for river cruises; two years ago it was 17 percent and last year it was 12 percent year over year, so it’s doing very well.

Rudi Schreiner, AMA Waterways: The appeal of river cruising is that it gives the traveler double the leisure time than traveling by a motorcoach, by car, or by train. You can cater to the individual needs of your passenger; that means food-wise you can cater to a North American and to an Australian just as much. So you can establish something onboard which pleases the passenger. You don’t have to rush into the traffic on a bus to get into a city; when you arrive in Amsterdam, you step off in downtown.


Wido Schaefer and Pat O’Neill
Our travel advisors: Wido Schaefer, Travel Store, and Pat O’Neill, Cassis Travel Services.


The appeal is that you have luxury, but the destination is still Europe, it is not the ship. So whenever you are in a town, you have a whole day. When you are in the small towns, you are half a day in one town, half a day in another. You can bike parallel to the ship if you want to and catch up with it at the next place. We have 30 bikes onboard all of our European ships. The appeal is to make the destination as easy and as comfortable as possible. Over the last three years we all have developed very aggressive new ship designs with luxurious cabins and fantastic food.

Maggie Burnside, German National Tourism Office: More and more travel agents are talking about booking river cruise groups or telling us that their clients are interested in river cruises. River cruising is a nice way to see all those ports and also to visit the smaller places that maybe aren’t quite on the clients’ radar. It whets their appetite for a larger trip as well as for pre- and post-tours.


Alexandra Imhof, Rudi Schreiner and Susan Shultz
Alexandra Imhof, Switzerland Tourism; Rudi Schreiner, AMAWaterways; and Susan Shultz, American Cruise Lines.


Alexandra Imhof, Switzerland Tourism: For some years, river cruising was seen as a bit of a threat; some of the destinations were saying it was taking away overnights from the hotels. But nowadays, they understand it and we, too, think that it’s a great opportunity because you are bringing people to Europe and you are making them discover Europe.

Who is the river cruise customer?

Susan Shultz, American Cruise Lines: They’re upscale. They are well-traveled; they have been all over the world; and they are looking to do unique destinations.

Patrick Clark, Avalon Waterways: There are plenty of exceptions on either end but it’s in that 50-to-70 age bracket; 80 percent are married so 20 percent are identified as singles. [And] it’s about almost 60 percent women. Typically, they are educated, they are well-traveled as you said, and to me, it’s 80 percent or more big-ship cruisers. They are also land-touring passengers because this is a natural extension. On a recent President’s Cruise, a couple told me, “Our days of being able to do coach touring or get into a car and go through Europe are gone, but river cruising has extended our travel life another 10 years.” That’s because they can choose to participate or not in the excursions and by doing that it makes it easier. Some never even leave the ship.

Michele Saegesser, Viking River Cruises: We have added a concierge onboard all our ships in Europe this summer, mostly because you have so many different things that people may want to do. They realize it’s an unstructured vacation but perhaps they want to go to a specific opera, so there is a true concierge that can help get tickets. Or, it could be biking down the river or going off for wine tasting or having dinner in one of the Michelin-starred restaurants in Provence.


Rudi Schreiner, Maggie Burnside and Alexandra Imhof
Rudi Schreiner, AMAWaterways; Maggie Burnside, German National Tourism Office; and Alexandra Imhof, Switzerland Tourism.


Patrick Clark, Avalon Waterways: Some of the shorter cruises will attract younger audience. For example, we can do Burgundy and Provence and it’s one week, maybe nine days if you add some pre- and post. So if there’s a couple or two people working or if there are families and they have vacations to work around, a younger audience will go for a shorter itinerary clearly.

Who should you reach out to on your client list for river cruises?

Michele Saegesser, Viking River Cruises: Look at your database first for someone who has done a cruise in the last two years and who has paid $7,000 or more on the five major cruise lines. Agents would be very surprised to see how much could be converted into sales. We see it all the time now with the agents who really know how to promote river cruising.

Patrick Clark, Avalon Waterways: If there are customers who are interested in destinations, that’s clearly a very strong motivating factor. If there are parts of the world, parts of Europe that they would really like to explore, it’s a wonderful way to introduce river cruising as an option.

Guy Young, Uniworld: Those who like the big ships and all the entertainment are not necessarily river cruise clients. Rather, those who want the destinations as opposed to just being on a big ship are the clients that the travel agent should really focus on.

Susan Shultz, American Cruise Lines: There is an ease about being on a small-ship cruise. Guests come onboard, unpack once and then they are off on these great destinations. All of us here have great marketing tools for them to take with their database and really get that message across to them and that helps.

Rudi Schreiner, AMA Waterways: It’s very important for an agent to physically experience a river cruise because as long as you haven’t done it, it’s hard to describe.

Guy Young, Uniworld: We identify the 55-plus as our key market segment. But there is also a lot of multigenerational travel. That’s a huge untapped market for river cruising.

Susan Shultz, American Cruise Lines: We are definitely seeing a trend toward multigenerational cruising; grandparents have been on cruises before and they want to take their families now. I think they really walk away with a lifetime experience.

Patrick Clark, Avalon Waterways: If you look at the lifestyle people have today, they are so busy. For families to connect, particularly across generations, it’s increasingly becoming a challenge. I think a lot of grandparents/parents are seeing this as an opportunity not only to enjoy a real experience together but really to get connected to their family. Perhaps it’s not so much for the real young children because there aren’t a lot of activities, although I think that some of my colleagues here are experimenting with that, but certainly for teenagers who can really appreciate it.

Guy Young, Uniworld: We’ve actually created some multigenerational programs. In 2012, we have six dedicated family departures with special excursions and some onboard activities for children.

Michele Saegesser, Viking River Cruises: Another really great opportunity is not just multigenerational but “travel with.” We reckon about 40 percent of our passengers travel with another couple. For travel agents I find this is a great avenue to double your revenue and income and get more bookings. You need to ask, “Are you travelling with another couple, can I take care of it for you?”

Rudi Schreiner, AMA Waterways: We see more and more that it’s large families and generally the patriarch or the grandparents want to get the family together. So you see groups of eight, 10 and 12 coming. We have several of them who come every year on a different itinerary. If you look at the school-age market, you only have the summertime and Christmas time. During the rest of the season you don’t see much of the multigenerational cruisers.


Wido Schaefer
Wido Schaefer of the Travel Store.


More and more it’s like Michele said, people come in groups where they have a group leader who researches a product…and they come with 20 to 30 people or they come just two or three couples. Somebody does the research and the others just go along. They could be of a young age or an older age, too. We do quite a lot with the alumni market and that also is multigenerational where alumni take young alumni and also their children on those cruises. We do quite a few charters, and on charters it can be anything.

Maggie Burnside, German National Tourism Office: Just looking at Germany in particular, German-Americans are the largest ethnic group in the U.S. There are a lot of grandparents or parents who want to take the family. We did this in my family, where my grandmother took us all to Europe to see where her dad grew up. It’s a great group to sell to, especially if you have people in heritage groups.

Wido Schaefer, Travel Store: There is nothing comparable where a family can really get together and nobody can get lost or disappear. Children from a certain age will be interested in and participate in family activities.

What are you doing for agents?

Michele Saegesser, Viking River Cruises: Travel agents…are overwhelmingly the majority of our business. We do everything we can to push people into working with the agents. We do a lot of direct mail; that’s not a secret. But on every back panel of every mail piece, it has the Viking passenger name and it has the agency name and phone number, and we do that complimentary. We spend millions every year in free marketing on behalf of the agents.

There are simple techniques for agencies when you look at how to sell this niche: It’s a simple question of, “Have you considered a river cruise?” to your client. You might be amazed at how that one sentence opens up a whole world, “Well, yes, I saw something on TV” or “I got a mail piece.”

As far as training goes, I have a staff of 25 that are dedicated to the trade. Their job is not to just train but to help the travel agents on the marketing and the strategy side. And we have webinars four days a week throughout the year. So for someone who really wants to reach out and learn, there is always something.

Patrick Clark, Avalon Waterways: The Globus Group, which includes Avalon, has focused on the travel agents for as long as they have been in business. Looking at the literature we provide and at our website, all of it focuses on encouraging the customers to go to the travel agents.

Even the commissions and the incentives provided are focused on encouraging the agents to develop more business. We have an Avalon specialist program designed to help the agents learn about river cruising. Once they qualify and become a specialist, we provide incentives.

Guy Young, Uniworld: For Uniworld, we simply cannot be successful without travel agents. A year before I joined the company in 2005, about 25 percent of our business was consumer. With the acquisition by Travel Corporation, it went back to trade…97 percent of the business [now] comes through travel agents.

We have a cruise specialist program with a lot of great benefits once they complete the program, including if they sell six cabinets within 60 days, they get a free cruise for themselves. We also do…consortia fam trips every year. We also have great travel agent discounts to draw more agents onboard our ships, because that really is key to our success.

Susan Shultz, American Cruise Lines: With our product, you can’t just go to the website and book a cruise, so we do need to work with travel agents. We do cruise only; we don’t do air. So our passengers need travel agents to help them coordinate.

We have just revamped our website; we are doing a new agent portal so they will actually be certified on our site as well. We know travel agents are very short on time so we did a three-week webinar series for 10 minutes at a time; it was a big success. We are here in the U.S., so you can come tour the ship. We go on 35 different itineraries in 28 different states.

Rudi Schreiner, AMA Waterways: We don’t do any direct consumer marketing. We work pretty much exclusively with travel advisors. I think a good travel advisor is very, very important to today’s consumer. So I think it’s essential to work with true travel advisors. Cruise nights are something else we do. We [also] do a lot of webinars.

Maggie Burnside, German National Tourism Office: We no longer do any consumer work at our sales offices. We have a trade-dedicated hotline, so if agents have any questions it will automatically route them to whichever office is in their district. If you have clients who are doing a longer trip or pre- or post-cruises, we can always make suggestions on where to go.

Alexandra Imhof, Switzerland Tourism: Because of Switzerland’s diversity, we need travel agents; we need their expertise. So it’s really a key point for us. [We] teach them how they can have a better sales return and make more money. My colleague and I go into the field and visit travel agencies. We also have a hotline they can call on.

We have weekly webinars and we do fam trips. We are on Facebook, Twitter, and we just launched a LinkedIn group. It’s open just for travel advisors or members of the tourism industry. We have someone dedicated to feed this new community.

If a person hasn’t taken a river cruise, what is the one thing you would tell that person to convince him or her to do so?

Wido Schaefer, Travel Store: I would talk about how different the experience is from other types of vacations. I like the personalized aspect, the access to smaller towns and the ability to always be in the center of the town, to be able to just walk off the ship. It’s a luxury experience…for the more sophisticated and affluent traveler who wants to have his own travel experiences without regimentation.

What do you think of this $type?


About the Author

Ruthanne Terrero
Ruthanne Terrero is the Vice President/Editorial Director of the Questex Hospitality + Travel Group, which includes Luxury Travel Advisor, The Informed Traveler, Travel Agent...

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By Ruthanne Terrero | June 25, 2012
Travel Agent-hosted roundtable outlines the current trends of the river cruise marketplace.