Starting in 2013, Avalon Waterways (www.avalonwaterways.com) will introduce Avalon Choice, a new concept which allows its river cruise guests to personalize their voyage from start to finish.
Patrick Clark, managing director for Avalon Waterways, says that “from deciding what and where to eat, to selecting room configuration and cruising style; from choosing on-land discoveries and onboard enrichments to making online, pre-sail customizations via MyAvalon, in 2013, with Avalon, every experience – and every nuance – is up to our cruisers."
More Sightseeing Choices
"Avalon's research showed the river line that both the destination and excursions offered are priorities when selecting a river cruise itinerary,” said Clark. “Now, we’re enhancing our guest experiences and discovery opportunities with new Avalon Choice Excursions.”
Steve Born, vice president of marketing for the Globus family of brands (Avalon Waterways, Globus, Cosmos and Monograms), told Travel Agent on Wednesday that the "land experience" came in number one as the most important guest desire in research based on feedback from both past guests and new prospects.
In second place was the "quality of the ship" and, in third place, the "dining and onboard product."
"We have observed that the industry has really developed rapidly with the hardware," emphasizes Born. For example, he said Avalon Waterways itself has two new ships launching in 2013. Other lines too have launched updated or new vessels.
Now that the river cruise industry's hardware is making the grade, river lines are now seeking the next steps in evolving their product.
So Avalon is embracing "the destination" in a more robust way. In 2013, the changes mean that Avalon cruisers can choose from four types of tours ashore - Essential Sightseeing, Traditional Sightseeing, Leisure Sightseeing and Alternative Sightseeing that's focused on a special interest.
Avalon Waterways' Traditional Sightseeing, which is essentially the same type of program that guests enjoy now, will obviously continue. Many guests like this type of sightseeing and those booking a traditional program will still be able to receive an overview of important sites in a destination.
Accompanied by a local certified guide, they'll tour for two to three hours and enter the interiors of attractions or other points of interest. They'll hear expert commentary and, within the sites, typically listen to the guide's extensive discussion of the site's features, history or culture.
In addition, Leisurely Sightseeing will be the same type of trip as the Traditional Sightseeing, but pace is the differentiator. "They'll have the same elements and same style," says Born.
"They'll also go inside [major sites] and have a certified guide, but it will be at a slower pace," he also stresses. "So sighseeing will be relaxed, unhurried, and we'll avoid hills, stairs, cobblestones whenever possible."
Research shows, however, that many clients now prefer more personalized, customized sightseeing options. "We're seeing more and more experienced travelers who are looking for an alternative to Traditional Sightseeing," he acknowledges.
"They may have been to a destination many times," Born says. "They're perhaps very knowledgeable about the destination and they want a cultural immersion beyond [standard] sightseeing."
Thus, in 2013, Avalon Waterways will offer a new category of Essential Sightseeing. It will entail a basic orientation to a destination with exterior viewing of "must-see" sites but also integrate free time for guests to explore.
"Travelers are looking for more free time, whether that's their style or they're more comfortable with it," he says, noting that the Essential Sightseeing will still have certified local guides, but it will be shorter in time than a Traditional Sightseeing in terms of the tour itself.
Guests will get an overview, view the sites from outside, and won't typically sit inside venues and listen to lengthy commentary.
With Essential Sightseeing, the entire overview tour will take about an hour or so, but then the certified guides will turn their efforts to helping individual guests with maps, directions and ideas to spend their time ashore seeing and doing what they want.
Also new for 2013, travelers can select an Alternative Sightseeing experience in some cities. Typically, these might be niche-type experiences that the line pre-packages for select interests.
For example, the guests might learn about a culinary-focused tour for foodies or a history-focused tour for those who love to view Roman ruins.
Guests will learn about Alternative Sightseeing options either in the line's pre-cruise information or onboard. In many cases, it will be discussed in onboard port talks - so guests can decide at that point, based on the discussion, whether it fits their needs.
In addition, Avalon, which already offers guided bike excursions in several European ports, plans to provide Nordic walking sticks for active guest use.
New Avalon Choice Dining
On the dining side, Avalon is introducing Avalon Choice Dining. At every meal, cruisers will choose from a multitude of dining offerings – from experiencing the local culture through cuisine at culinary events to a la carte dining – and at multiple venues both onboard and off the ship.
"In addition to enjoying breakfast, lunch and four- or five-course dinner in an elegant dining room surrounded by panoramic windows, Avalon travelers can take pleasure in a light dinner with local specialties and regional wines in the new, charming Panorama Bistro," says Clark. "This is in addition to the already popular al fresco lunches at the outdoor Sky Bistro. And for those travelers lounging in their rooms, continental breakfast is available via room service.”
Born says the Panorama Bistro will be created within a portion of the main lounge on five ships that are able to accommodate it space-wise. These are the Avalon Panorama, Avalon Visionary and Avalon Vista as well as two ships launching next year, Avalon Artistry II and Avalon Expression.
Panorama Bistro will offer casual dining on several nights each cruise, much as the line today offers Sky Bistro outdoor lunches on select days.
Born describes the dining experience for Panorama Bistro as "smaller, more intimate, more casual, and designed to offer smaller plates and the local specialties of the region."
Guests will learn about the new bistro's offerings in their daily program; they'll sign up onboard to dine on a specific night.
With the new programs being introduced, there will typically be 35 or more different choice elements on a typical Avalon Waterways river cruise.
A new Guest Services team - essentially a rebranded approach that refers to the existing purser's desk crew members - will help clients understand all the choices.
Also new for 2013, in certain cities, the Guest Services team will offer travelers on-shore dining options; guests will experience the local culture through regional food and at a site that's off the ship.
Special culinary events that will continue under the new dining program will include the existing five-course Welcome Dinner, a Captain's reception and afternoon tea. Avalon also continues its "a la carte dining" approach, with some expanded offerings.
“Whether our cruisers are craving a big plate that’s brimming over or a small, healthy entrée, Avalon offers a vast variety of á la carte dining choices and delectable local recipes at each meal,” said Clark. “It’s an approach that encourages travelers to enjoy their favorite dishes, try new recipes and savor their entire dining experience.”
Avalon offers cruisers the chance to choose when they want to dine with everything from daily early- and late-riser breakfasts to night fare, served at 10:30 p.m.
New for 2013, though, foodies will have access to tastings that provide a chance to sample certain destinations' famous delicacies. Also new, a local chef will come onboard the ship at least once per cruise to prepare local dishes and offer tastings.
Born says this will be done during the time the ships are sailing, so in addition to watching gorgeous scenery, guests will have other activities to entertain them. This is a plus for repeat cruisers, as well as others who simply desire a greater cultural immersion.
Culture & Cruise
Next year, as part of the new Avalon Choice program, guests can attend a greater range of onboard Culture & Cruise activities – like food, beer and wine tastings; programs by local entertainers; demonstrations by local artisans, and talks by local experts about the areas through which they’re traveling.
Born says that while the line offers some of those elements now, the new Culture & Cruise program will have even more choices to connect guests to the destinations they're visiting.
Potential river clients and even past guests who love the river experience are saying "tell more more, show me more," says Born. So expect to see even more artisans, chefs, musicians, historians and others coming onboard for programs that make the experience come alive for guests.
"They'll really add to the life that you're experiencing onboard, as it's just not about waiting to get to the next port," Born stresses.
“With Avalon Choice, we’re not just designing our ships and cruises with our travelers in mind,” says Clark. “We are developing them for our cruisers to design and customize themselves. In short, we’re elevating Avalon beyond the ordinary river cruise experience by helping our travelers create an extraordinary small ship cruise vacation.“