Look for the dining room buffet to disappear, new a la carte breakfast and lunch menus to be introduced and new show kitchen stations to appear in the main dining rooms of AmaBella and AmaVerde in 2021, AmaWaterways revealed during its "Returning to the Rivers with Confidence" press briefing this week at Seatrade Cruise Virtual.
Providing a robust "State of the Company" update were Rudi Schreiner, the line's co-founder and president; Kristin Karst, co-founder and executive vice president; and Gary Murphy, co-owner and senior vice president of sales.
Moderated by Janet Bava, chief marketing officer, the discussion also provided "intel" about new itineraries, ship refurbishments, the company's financial position, booking trends and "restart" timing for European cruises that will welcome U.S. guests.
Main Restaurant Culinary Changes
On the culinary side, guests can expect to see some changes when cruising resumes in Europe for U.S. guests. Current thinking? "The whole idea is going away from the buffet and serving all the meals 'a la carte,'” Schreiner revealed.
So, right now the line is working on creating extensive, new, a la carte menus for breakfast and lunch (dinner service is already a la carte).
"I look at classy restaurants here in the U.S., in California," he told the virtual audience. "I go out for breakfast. I don’t get a buffet, I get a menu and I have some good choices.” So, the line is moving moving away from buffets.
AmaWaterways is developing new a la carte menus for breakfast and lunch. AmaStella's main dining room is shown above. // Photo by Susan J. Young
During this lull in sailing, the AmaWaterways team is also "looking at remodeling some of the ships and putting some show kitchens" in the main restaurants, said Schreiner. When that occurs, guests will go up to the show kitchen station, select their culinary picks and the chef will prepare those and put them on the guest's plate.
"We are working right now very intensely on two ships, AmaBella and AmaVerde, and converting them for this new environment," he told reporters. So, for 2021, the ships will have both the new a la carte breakfast and lunch menus and the new show kitchen stations.
Moving forward, the line is expected to extend the a la carte dining to more ships, too. In fact, AmaWaterways has already initiated a la carte dining for all meals in the main dining room on AmaKristina, said Karst. Chartered to a German tour operator, that's the line's only vessel currently sailing in Europe.
Seven or eight years ago, AmaWaterways, which was founded in 2002, "opted to not pay out more dividends, instead focusing on paying cash for any future new ships," said Schreiner.
So from that time forward, "all the [new] ships were paid off in cash and the loans we had finally were paid off last year," he said. "Right now, we actually have a fleet of 24 ships without any loans."
Sailing Europe's Douro River is AmaDouro. // Photo by AmaWaterways
Previous negative events, such as 9/11 and high-water/low-water years on certain rivers, had convinced Schreiner to plan ahead for a future year with the potential for reduced or no sailings: "I wanted to make sure that if anything like this (an unusual situation) comes up that we would be safe."
Enter this year's pandemic: Despite an almost complete cessation of river cruising in 2020 (the exception being AmaKristina's charter sailings), the line has no ship debt to pay. "Now, we can sleep well during this year," he noted.
In addition, Murphy told reporters "we have the depth, the knowledge, the flexibility and the positive outlook to keep us moving in the right direction." "Prior to COVID-19, AmaWaterways had never cancelled a river cruise. We have the depth to keep the company going.”
New River Vessels
In 2021, the line will welcome two luxurious new ships, AmaSiena and AmaLucia. While AmaSiena's delivery was delayed due to shipyard work restrictions, the line reports the ship will be delivered within the next few weeks and will begin 2021 service as scheduled.
AmaSiena's new features will include an al fresco restaurant atop the Chef’s Table Restaurant. Schreiner also said the line is also looking at such new top deck options as barbecues and big sunscreens.
In September 2021, the line's new AmaDahlia will begin sailing a seven-night “Secrets of Egypt and the Nile” itinerary roundtrip from Luxor; guests also will visit Aswan. The new vessel will offer 34 staterooms, a Chef’s Table Restaurant, main restaurant, outdoor pool and more.
Shown above is the pool area of the new AmaDahlia, debuting in Egypt in 2021. // Rendering courtesy of AmaWaterways
"We’re now in the final process of the design of the AmaDahlia,” said Schreiner. "We are really looking forward to going back to Egypt." For that first season on the Nile River, he said the line is already 60 percent to 70 percent full.
Customers hailing from the United States comprise 85 percent of the line’s guests, noted Karst. So, when can they begin sailing in Europe once again?
AmaWaterways' cruises for those guests have been suspended through November 30, 2020, but any "restart" timing for cruises with Americans onboard depends largely on European government policies.
“It’s a little chaotic" in Europe right now, Schreiner acknowledged. Up until two weeks ago, the E.U. had announced which countries' visitors would be permitted to enter in Europe. But that's become more complicated as COVID-19 numbers in some European countries have risen sizably. As a result, different countries have different rules, and "not even Europeans can travel anymore freely from country to country," he said.
Schreiner also explained that this week's confirmed COVID-19 cases in several European countries—Belgium, France and the Netherlands—also come in at much higher comparative rates than the U.S., when factoring in the country's total population.
In Hungary, Schreiner also said that while river vessels could sail into the country, U.S. river cruise guests wouldn't be able to go ashore. He also cited new restrictions in Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Paris and elsewhere.
"Right now it’s a little chaotic scene," he said. "There is a resurgence [of COVID-19 cases], so we don’t know where it will go." Also, he said, fall is here, winter is coming and it's getting colder, and with fewer activities to do outside, the line is waiting to see what happens moving forward.
“We don’t know when we can restart again,” he acknowledged. “Hopefully by March…We are ready. The moment people are ready to fly, we are ready to start our cruising. Hopefully, it’s sooner than later.”
When guests do begin sailing again, Karst said this year's AmaKristina charters have provided the line with "real life" experience in practicing and perfecting the line's new health and safety protocols.
Guest ratings for those cruises are "excellent," she reported, so "we can put in place all these precautions for the health and safety of our guests and crew, without really diminishing the wonderful river cruise experience. She believes "travel will rebound as soon as the travel restrictions are eased.”
Travel Advisor Engagement
Hosting the call, Bava told the virtual press audience that the travel advisor community has been “incredibly challenged” this year. To support the trade, AmaWaterways has conducted more than 2,000 virtual sessions in conjunction with travel advisors, some of those attended by the advisors' clients, too. These sessions have ranged from virtual cruise nights to Webinar Wednesdays and “Sip & Sail” cocktail hours. AmaWaterways has also focused on inspirational videos and digital sales tools.
“Travel advisors are our extended marketing arm and sales force,” said Karst. “It’s all about partnerships." Characterizing advisors as "family," she said the line is both engaging with advisors and helping them engage with their clients.
In doing the various sessions, "we’ve now met over 3,000 different travel advisors," Murphy said. "They’re reaching out to us...We recognize that they know where the clients are, and when business comes back, they’re the people that we will work with to reach out to those clients and get them on our ships."
As for advance bookings, “the trend for 2021 looks very, very good,” said Schreiner. Bookings made in June 2020 for the coming season in 2021 were the line's best ever.
But of late, AmaWaterways is seeing a slow-down for 2021 spring cruise bookings (for next March, April and May). But advisors likely won't see a marketing push right now, as Schreiner said he still isn't sure if vessels will sail at full capacity when cruising resumes.
“But bookings for the next European season's summer, fall and winter period look promising, he said, particularly late fall and Christmas Markets cruises. "Holiday cruises are doing extremely well," Schreiner noted.
AmaStella decked out in holiday decor during a Christmas Markets cruise. // Photo by Susan J. Young
(Travel Agent previously sailed on a Christmas Markets cruise; here is an extensive slide show and article on that AmaStella sailing.)
Other tidbits? The two river vessels on the Douro River for 2021 are "filling very, very quickly," he told reporters. Also, AmaWaterways opened its 2022 season about six months earlier than usual and is seeing strong demand and much charter and group business.
Ocean Clients are Heading to Rivers
From information the line is gleaning in 2020 from travel partners, one marketplace trend is that "the deep ocean clients—the big-ship clients—are looking for smaller vessels and that leads them onto river cruising," stressed Murphy. "They’re discovering it for the first time.”
In particular, those ocean cruisers are looking at AmaMagna, because it's twice as wide as a typical Danube River vessel and has spacious public areas and larger suites.
Shown above is AmaMagna's Grand Suite. // Photo by AmaWaterways
AmaMagna's average suite is 355 square feet and higher-level suites range from 474 square feet to 710 square feet. “These are really appealing to the ocean cruisers who are accustomed to the space on the large ships,” according to Karst.
The executives also said they're seeing bookings from past ocean cruisers who are concerned about being quarantined out at sea and not being allowed into the destination. “With river cruising, you’re already within the destination itself so that is not an issue and clients are recognizing that," said Murphy. The ship is not in international waters.
Right now, AmaWaterways is seeing more consumer interest in such less-traveled destinations as the Douro River and Lower Danube River from Budapest southward to lower Romania and Bulgaria. It's also seeing tremendous interest in France, Karst said, and in 2021 will position two ships on both the Rhone River (allowing the line to also sail the Saone River) and the Seine River.
The executives said that ocean cruisers are liking the concept that guests can explore ashore in small groups. Many itineraries visit smaller towns and villages without any crowds.
And when river cruisers tour ashore in small groups, Murphy stressed that local residents generally don't change their daily lives for the ship’s arrival: “They’re not setting up stands or welcoming the masses. They’re going about their daily activities and we’re part of the community as we go ashore.”
AmaMagna's swimming pool. // Photo by Susan J. Young
Big-ship amenities, such as multiple dining venues are also drawing ocean cruisers and new-to-river-cruise guests. Karst cited AmaMagna's Sun Deck with a swimming pool, humongous chess board, walking track and wellness classes, plus the fitness center's outdoor space with spinning machines.
Millennials and Gen Z
Historically, river cruising has attracted Baby Boomers, but Bava said recently "we have skewed younger overall because of the active nature of our product," with bicycles carried onboard for guest use, hiking and biking tours, and health and wellness activities.
That said, she said the line also sees many Millennials and Gen Z guests onboard because they're part of a multi-generational group created by Boomers.
Murphy added that 60-plus themed "Wine Cruises" each year are attracting “the youngest average age that we have.”
(This briefing this week was the second major briefing that Travel Agent has covered for the line since August; here are highlights from the first.)
Looking to the future, Bava said: "Needless to say this has been a challenging year for all of us in the travel industry and we’re adapting and navigating our way with little visibility into the future but a lot of positivity and hope."