“Out of every challenge come opportunities,” said Kristin Karst, executive vice president and co-owner, AmaWaterways, speaking to reporters Tuesday during a virtual media briefing about the line's approach and current sailing status during this COVID-19 era.
In the online session moderated by Janet Bava, the line's chief marketing officer, Karst and other AmaWaterways co-owners—Rudi Schreiner, the line's president, and Gary Murphy, senior vice president of sales—talked about the AmaKristina charter operation on the Rhine River, potential timing for a fleet restart, relations with travel advisors, safety and health protocol steps and booking trends.
Looking forward, “I think it will be a fantastic future in river cruising,” Schreiner said, while Murphy talked about how AmaWaterways' virtual events conducted for travel advisors and their clients are revealing that many ocean cruisers are now eyeballing global rivers as a way to travel to less visited destinations.
Current Sailing Situation
AmaWaterways' normal river cruise operations are suspended in Europe through September 30. Sailings in Asia and Africa, too, have been suspended.
Thinking creatively, though, Karst explained that the river line recently forged a partnership with a German tour operator for chartering of AmaKristina; it's been cruising along the Rhine River since July 5.
“Germany is very strong because Germans love to travel and since they’re restricted in where they can go worldwide, many of them are staying within Germany,” Schreiner stressed, adding that "the big resorts are all pretty much booked up for the summer," and AmaKristina's sailings have been very successful.
An AmaKristina twin-balcony stateroom.
The new venture with the tour company allowed AmaWaterways to become the first U.S.-based river cruise company to return to sailing on European rivers.
Karst also stressed that the chartering also provides employment for some AmaWaterways crew members.
New Health/Safety Protocols
Doing the chartered sailings in the COVID-19 era gives the line experience in putting its safety protocol steps into practice—helpful for when it restarts its own sailings, Karst noted.
Among the steps taken onboard to protect guests and crew are the wearing of masks onboard by crew in all spaces and for guests when moving through public spaces.
Thus far, Karst reports that guests have been “cooperative and respectful.” She said that crew wearing masks have also discovered new ways to connect with guests using body language.
Social distancing measures in the dining room and lounge are also allowing guests—once seated—to go mask-less. Also, guests can order room service for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and since many staterooms/suites have private exterior balconies, guests can dine al fresco, Karst pointed out.
A pre-cruise health questionnaire is filled out by every guest; plus, the line does a temperature check before boarding. Luggage is sanitized before the line delivers it to each stateroom or suite. In addition, every morning before breakfast, the line does another temperature check on every guest. (See the line’s health and safety protocols here.)
One “physical” enhancement for health/safety of guests on AmaKristina? It’s the addition of see-through plexiglass installed in several spots around the ship. Schreiner said the plexiglass was installed around the hotel manager’s desk, the purser’s desk and other spaces.
In a new video, the line showed reporters how the onboard experience looks and feels. Travel Agent noticed that guests seated back-to-back on a curved sofa in the ship's lounge were able to chat without masks, given the Plexiglas between.
Another likely comfort to guests is that "exclusive transfers" are provided when cruisers purchase their flight through the line; Murphy said people traveling together—such as couples, several solo traveler friends traveling together or family members traveling as a small group—will be transported in a private vehicle to the ship. They won't board a vehicle that holds 30 people.
The Latest Booking Trends
“We’re really having a wonderful booking period for 2021 and 2022,” emphasized Schreiner. The line opened 2022 sailings a bit earlier than normal. “June was actually the strongest month ever for booking the next year," he said, noting that some were, of course, rebooked cruises but also the line experienced strong new bookings, including new groups and charters.
Moving forward, "I think the interest is going to be on the small cruising environment,” Schreiner said. He told reporters that river cruising is within a country (not coming from international waters into the destination), people are close to shore so “you can get off right away” as the vessel is traveling in local waters, and “it is a safe environment."
Murphy added: “Even before COVID, we were cruising within the country, so we have to follow closely the guidelines and protocols of that country. “They come onboard and inspect the ships without any advance notice because we’re in port, which really sets a different standard," Murphy said. "We’re not in international waters; we’re within the countries and I think that bodes well in this environment.”
Right now, Europeans are sailing on European products on the rivers. Schreiner told reporters that this week there are 58 ships cruising rivers throughout Europe and “the largest number is on the Rhine River or the Danube.” That’s followed by the French rivers, the Seine and Rhone, and one ship is sailing from Bordeaux. “Five ships are cruising on the Douro River,” he said.
He said the tour operator only began marketing in June and AmaKristina is pretty much booked up through the end of October. “So, things are looking good,” Schreiner said.
Return of U.S. Guests
Schreiner said that's it’s unknown when U.S. guests will be able to return to Europe but it will be determined by the number of COVID-19 cases. The European Union (E.U.) looks at the numbers of cases per capita of every country in the world every two weeks; that determines whether visitors from a particular country are permitted to enter the E.U..
So, for now, he said the U.S. numbers are not where they need to be, “but numbers have been going down,” he added. “In the last three or four days, it looks a little more promising.”
Bottom line? “We still hope that we can get some cruising in by the end of this year,” Schreiner told the reporters, “but we are not 100 percent sure.” The line will start up cruising for 2021 in March
Schreiner hopes that by then there will be COVID-19 medication and, possibly a vaccine; 35 vaccines are being tested, some in the third phase of that process. “So hopefully by spring next year, we’ll be in a much better environment already,” he emphasized.
Karst added that “luxury travelers are looking for trips to less crowded destinations and opportunities to be closer to nature, to be surrounded by fresh air.” So she said the line’s options for hiking and biking fit well into that desire.
For next year, Karst says AmaWaterways is seeing very strong booking trends to the lesser-known destinations or regions, such as the Lower Danube with guests wanting to explore Romania and Bulgaria. “They were not so much in the spotlight in the past,” she said, but now the line is “experiencing some very, very strong booking trends” for those itineraries.
River cruising offers many outdoor opportunities, Schreiner added, and said guests can sit outside in spring, summer and fall, and many times even in winter. “Our ships have 80 percent [accommodations with] balconies,” he said.
“Traveling through Europe, you don’t really want to sit on a motorcoach, and spend hours and hours on a motorcoach" or even necessarily travel by train or car, he added. On a river cruise guests float along through the countryside and into cities, while seated outside on a balcony or on the top deck of a river vessel with nature and fresh air.
Both Murphy and Schreiner stressed the “choices” that guests have on a river cruise. Murphy said when river vessels are in destinations, “almost half the clients after dinner, go back into town and experience the local environment.”
How is AmaWaterways helping travel advisors during this challenging times? Bava reiterated the strong commitment to travel advisors and Karst pointed to 1,000 individual virtual cruise night and "Sip n’ Sail" sessions the line is doing with travel advisor partners, many of whom invite their clients.
The line talks about destinations, health and safety protocols, experiences and dreams: “We only have one life,” Karst said, noting that while the line isn’t doing heavy selling, “we are planting the seed. Everyone is planning into the future."
“We’ve been in this business a long time,” said Murphy. “We’ve been through challenges—not as big, probably, as COVID but different world events that impacted our business, and we recognize that when things settle, the business comes back… quickly.
“We have our res team intact, we have our sales team intact, we have our marketing team intact to stay engaged, and that’s what the travel advisor is asking for."
He continued: "Just as important, we know that the best person to be working with is our travel advisor partners because they know where the business is… and how to introduce them to river cruising." He said those Q&A sessions on virtual events show that ocean cruisers are interested in river cruising, often for the first time.
“They’re oceangoing cruisers and they’re asking questions about river cruising,” Murphy said. In that way, river cruising is an additional market for growth opportunities.
Schreiner was asked about ship design features for the future, and how the pandemic is shaping that. He did say the line was looking at dining, and that few upscale restaurants ashore have buffets and that hotels may have breakfast buffets. One option in looking at the buffet concept is to replace it with individual stations for food, but he indicated right now the line was evaluating options.
He also talked about low water levels in past years and continuing to work on having ships that can navigate even in low water conditions.
But what's the biggest trend in river cruising? "In the last 25 years, the number of guests have dropped and the crew [numbers] grown," and that's what the line did on AmaMagna, Schreiner noted. "That's where I see the future of luxury cruises."