La Marguerite set out on its first Mekong River cruise in late 2009
Travel Agent chatted recently with Rudi Schreiner, president of AMA Waterways, about this year’s river cruise season, what’s ahead for 2011 and overall trends in North American sales and the river cruise industry. Here’s a synopsis of our discussion.
What’s your take on this year’s river cruise season?
Overall, 2010 has really been an excellent season for everybody in river cruising. In 2009, we were dealing with the recession, but for 2010, prices stabilized and there was much less discounting than last year.
Pretty much all the lines are operating pretty full. That’s good for everybody. This year we’ll have more than 350,000 bed nights onboard our vessels. In addition, we’ve seen almost a 50 percent increase in revenue from last year [a combination of a capacity increase and an improving economy].
Fleetwise, what’s up for 2011?
We will have 12 ships in the marketplace for 2011 – one more than this year. The newly renovated and reconstructed AmaKatarina will replace the Tolstoy on sailings between Moscow and St. Petersburg. She’ll offer a capacity of 212 passengers in 106 spacious staterooms, and 75 percent of those will have balconies. That compares to a capacity of 150 guests for Tolstoy.
In the Mekong region, we will add our second vessel, the AmaLotus in September 2011. Both the AmaLotus and La Marguerite, our first Mekong vessel, are booking very strongly. We have quite a lot of charters.
The new AmaVerde will be completed in February 2011 and begin operations in Europe in March 2011; it’s chartered for the Australian market in summer and sold through our partner APT on both a group and FIT basis. It will serve the North American market in spring and fall. This new, 161 passenger riverboat has staterooms averaging 214 square feet, and the majority have a double-balcony design with both a full balcony and a French balcony.
In addition, we’ll be removing the AmaDouro from our schedule of sailings in 2011. While the area of Portugal and Spain it sailed in was very interesting and that ship was the newest ship on that river, the ship just doesn’t cut it when looking at our requirements. So we will not have a vessel on the Douro River next season.
Why do you think the Mekong has taken off for AMA?
The Mekong region is a complete destination with several very interesting places— Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi, Vietnam, as well as Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, Cambodia— featured on our 16-day “Vietnam, Cambodia and the Riches of the Mekong” land-cruise program. We also offer a seven-day cruise only sailing.
Ho Chi Minh City, formerly called Saigon, is a booming metropolis. Plus, on our voyages guests explore small delta villages. We do a lot with excursions along the route so overall it puts together a memorable experience for our guests. Every day, they see great new interesting sights.
And almost all the FIT people take two nights [on land] in Hanoi and sail overnight in Vietnam’s Halong Bay on a fantastic junk. Then they fly to Siem Reap in Cambodia for three nights and explore Angkor.
The Mekong product is a very high quality product. We’re constantly working hard on finetuning it. That effort never stops. For example, during this past season’s summer break [when Mekong voyages are typically never operated due to weather conditions], we finetuned the menus and also brought our Mekong staff onboard our ships in Europe for more training.
What type of travelers are you getting on those Mekong voyages?
If people book the Mekong, they’ve usually done a lot of traveling. They’ve done the ocean cruising. This itinerary attracts the lady who’s been to 120 countries. These guests are usually extremely experienced travelers and are searching for new things to see and do.
Any plans for a third Mekong vessel?
Yes, we’re continuing to think about building another ship after AmaLotus.
What’s new for 2011 on European rivers?
The Rhine and Danube Rivers are still our [prime sailing region in Europe] with voyages between Amsterdam and the Black Sea. In 2011 specifically, guests onboard our Rhine voyages have the opportunity to visit the Garden Show in Koblentz from mid-April through mid-October. All of our Rhine cruises pass through Koblentz.
Otherwise, we see continued steady growth throughout Europe. The river cruise market in Europe is becoming more active. We are promoting more active voyages with walking tours and bicycles [the line carries onboard for guest use]. River cruising in Europe does attract many retired people, but we are seeing a younger age group as well.
Our market is very broad, though. It doesn’t make a lot of sense to target a certain demographic given that we as an industry haven’t even scratched the surface. The river cruise industry puts 4,000 people on riverboats in one week – while one ocean line does that with just one ship every week. So there is great potential for river cruising.
What about themed cruises? What’s AMA doing in that regard?
Themed cruising is a long-term commitment. Once you focus on a special group, it will take awhile to develop the clientele. This month, we have Jewish Heritage cruises as well as a wine cruise celebration highlighting famous vineyards along the Rhine and Mosel Rivers.
We’ll have Jim Clendenen, a master vintner and owner of the internationally acclaimed Au Bon Climat Winery, onboard that wine cruise. We offered an incentive on this cruise. It’s pretty interesting [in terms of response], so for the future, we’re looking at doing more of this type of themed program.
As for the Christmas market cruises, they typically start at the end of November and operate in the four weeks prior to Christmas. Usually the first three weeks are doing very well. But now there are more and more markets in every town. The Christmas markets used to close December 23 or 24 and some now stay open through January 6 or 7.
We get a different group of people for these Christmas market themed cruises than for those during the regular European sailing season. We get lots of families, especially over the actual Christmas and New Year’s time frame.
What about kids on board? Do you welcome them and what do you have to entertain them?
We do not allow children under age 2 to sail, and we really don’t recommend that parents bring children under age 6. We don’t really encourage children onboard, but each summer, we do have children sailing with us, particularly with their grandparents. On Christmas cruises, we might at times have 20-25 children on a particular cruise.
While we don’t have any specific children’s programming, we do arrange to meet the kids when they first come onboard and then we do certain things with the crew to involve the kids [but it’s not a babysitting or kids’ club concept as with the big ocean lines].
What length of voyage is most popular right now?
It depends on where guests originate from. Australians take mostly two week voyages. In North America, though, it’s mostly one week with a few extra days on land. For example, a seven-night Danube cruise with three added nights in Prague is a good example. Some North Americans do take a two-to-three week cruise but those numbers are very small.
What’s your ‘take’ on how the river cruise product has evolved?
I started with the river cruise product in the early 1990s. At that time, a majority of the ships had a small cabin with two bunks on the side. Certainly, the accommodations are enhanced, and the trend continues toward more of a luxury product.
It’s really the same development people are seeing on the ocean cruise market side, as people expect more luxury, they expect more choices, they expect better quality and they want better services. When I started in the 1990s we had only 30 crew serving 120 guests; today, that’s running around 40.
The river cruise cabin size has increased sizably and the dining facilities have increased. AmaBella, for example, has the majority of its cabins at 230 square feet with either a full balcony or a French balcony. The vessel also has a wine bar and a swimming pool.
The evolution on the design side will continue. Once you go to that step [and guests see the enhanced product], there is no way to go back.
What’s the top perk of river cruising, from your perspective?
It’s a highly inclusive product. Especially for North Americans and Australians, going to Europe involves a big expense in getting there. So people don’t want to be cheated on the experience when they get there.
Older people also like to upgrade to be more comfortable. With river cruising, the customer says, ‘We’re not just going to Europe but we’re going to see it in style.” So we’re constantly looking at how to make it more comfortable and what else can we do.
Our shore excursions are included in the cruise fare, as are champagne with breakfast; wine/beer and soft drinks at dinner; complimentary WiFi and Internet; complimentary movies; complimentary bottled water, which is replenished daily; and so on. The concept of all inclusive is very appealing.
How should U.S. agents position and sell river cruising?
The U.S. travel agents who are doing well in selling river cruises are the ones who are working with groups and can organize groups. In North America, our charters [typically] could be from alumni groups, consortia or some agencies who take individual cruisers and market a sailing to create a group. We also typically have special interest charters that go to Holland for the flower markets.
We pay very high agent commission, starting at 15 percent on FITs and 18 percent on groups. And the product is all-inclusive, so you get commission on the wine people drink and the shore excursions they take.
Groups also get one free tour conductor berth for every nine full paying passengers, so the 10th berth is free. A group organizer with 50 people ready to cruise can almost make a decent living for a year.
But for a travel agent to effectively sell river cruises, it is a ‘must’ for them to experience a cruise, as the experience is so different than an ocean cruise.
In terms of messaging, a river cruise is different than an ocean cruise. It’s a comfortable means of traveling between cities within the heart of a region. Agents need to communicate that to their clients. Another key element for agents to emphasize to their clients is the leisure time that guests have onboard a river cruise.
If they’re seeing Europe or another region by motorcoach, car or train, they’re always on the move, always packing and unpacking, but on a river boat you don’t have this ‘rush hour.’ Suddenly, there is more leisure time.