Avalon Waterways' Patrick Clark: 2015 River Cruise Sales Will Top 2014

Cochem, Germany is a popular port call along the Mosel // Photo by Susan J. Young

Travel Agent recently spoke to Patrick Clark, managing director of Avalon Waterways, about his perspective on the line’s river cruise business, marketplace and itinerary trends, new vessels and agent support. Here's a look at the highlights.  

What's ahead for 2015 river sales? 

I think 2014 is going to be a record year, as virtually everything is sold for the remainder of this year. I also think 2015 will exceed that. In the first quarter, we'll likely see the majority of the cabins sold for the year, given the lead time typically required for purchase of a river cruise. 

Outdoor observation lounges allow Avalon Waterways' guests to peruse riverside scenery in style. // Photo by Avalon Waterways

What new vessels are planned? Is capacity rising too rapidly?

River cruising is a style of travel whose time has arrived, particularly with baby boomers. And, despite the fact that we’re all adding capacity, the number of new river cruise berths industry-wide is still relatively small compared to the berths being added in ocean cruising.  

For 2015, we have two new Suite Ships launching in EuropeAvalon Tapestry II and Avalon Tranquility II. That will give us 10 Suite Ships in an overall European fleet of 15 vessels.

In addition, we’re putting a new vessel on the Mekong River next year, the Avalon Siem Reap, which is a smaller version of our Suite Ships but with the same design and lay-out. It launches in April. A sister ship with the same design, Avalon Myanmar, is also being introduced on the Irrawaddy River in Myanmar in October.

Avalon Myanmar is set to sail the Irrawaddy next year. // Photo by Avalon Waterways

We try to achieve some consistency within the fleet wherever we can. So a guest who has experienced the product in Europe can feel very much at home while they're sailing along the Irrawaddy.

While it’s not been announced publicly as yet, we also anticipate having another 135-meter Suite Ship debut in Europe for 2016.

Top selling itineraries and client trends? 

Right now, Europe is still primarily the number one river cruise destination worldwide. The seven- and eight-night Rhine and Danube itineraries are the fastest selling and, for us, our Suite Ships are outselling everything.

Austria's Melk Abbey attracts first time cruisers sailing the Danube. // Photo by Susan J. Young

Clearly, the seven-night cruises appeal to first-timers while our repeaters like the longer cruises. More and more we are seeing that repeat European travelers are heading for the Mosel. That's particularly the case for people taking their second or third European river cruise.

The Mosel itinerary from Nuremberg, Germany, to Remick, Luxembourg, is a charming itinerary and includes some time on the Main river, a brief time on the Rhine and most of the time on the Mosel.

The Mosel beckons repeat cruisers, says Avalon Waterways' Patrick Clark. // Photo by Susan J. Young

On the Mosel, the river meanders and there is less barge traffic. In addition, much of the beauty of the views and the destinations along the river weren't ruined in World War II

Those on this cruise can also take the train to Paris, France, on one end, and a coach transfer to Prague in the Czech Republic on the other. We see a lot of demand for this itinerary moving forward. 

Also somewhat surprising is the popularity of the Rhine/Rhone combination itinerary, which appeals to someone with more time. I thought we’d just introduce it and see what happens, but we’re getting great early interest. 

Retirees often take a 14-night cruise and then even move beyond that. They seek out cruises that have something they're passionate about such as food, wine, art, music and so on.

Our themed cruises are selling really well, most notably this year, the beer and golf cruises.  Most often women are making the decision about the itinerary, and one way to entice a spouse is to offer either a beer or golf cruise.

Also selling well are our new opera cruises, a cruise with Patricia Schultz (author of the “1,001 Places to See Before You Die” book) and the wellness cruises. 

Guests will enjoy colorful modern decor and slide-open doors that create an interior balcony if they sail next year on the Avalon Waterways' new Artistry II. // Photo by Avalon Waterways

Any space on 2014 Christmas Markets cruises?

This year’s inventory is pretty well sold, although we have a few berths left such as on the 14-day cruise. However, now is a very good time for agents to begin interesting their clients in a Christmas Markets cruise for next year. These holiday cruises need lead time for selling. So it’s time to begin doing the groundwork. 

An opportunity? This type of cruise appeals to segments of the population -- like teachers -- who have time off during the holidays. It’s a good little market for agents to have in their own community and something they may not have thought about previously.

RELATED: Top Holiday Market Cruises for 2014

Any trends for Asian river cruising? 

The Mekong is well up this year; it’s coming of age. What we’re seeing in terms of clients are those who've already taken an ocean cruise or, alternatively, have taken three or four river cruises.

I’d advise travel agents to look at their own database for clients who like the amenities and creature comforts of a river cruise in Europe but also seek that same type of experience in an exotic destination. It’s a great way to shift someone who's already sailed elsewhere. 

What are you seeing for group bookings? 

Our group sales are definitely up over last year. Agents have a lot of opportunity given our good tour conductor ratio and all the sales and marketing training, tools and assistance of the Globus family of brands. We have lots of stuff to help the group producer.

With just five cabins, they can get a tour conductor berth. So I advise agents to go to the country club, go to the rotary club or check with religious organizations, as with a little advance notice you can put together a group and get a lot of support from our company.

Beyond that, the incentive and meetings market has also taken off. The majority of our business there involves full ship charters. We’re seeing that 2016 demand is as high as we’ve ever seen.

I think that's a good indication of the positive signs in the economy. Companies don’t typically commit to a meeting/incentive voyage unless they know they’re satisfying their customers and that their sales people are going to commit to bringing in sales moving forward. 

At 64 cabins, that’s a pretty manageable amount of cabins for a lot of organizations to take. They’ll take the vessel for seven days but perhaps use it only for five. However, sometimes they take the whole seven days, as they can justify it from weekend to weekend.

River cruisers can go ashore in Trier, Germany along the Mosel. // Photo by Susan J. Young

How is the line assisting agents?  

Our Avalon Waterways specialist program has been re-designed to better showcase our marketing campaign. We’ve also added an exotic rivers module. It includes Asia and South America, for example, and it educates the agents on specifically what we offer.

We offer a travel agent portal and we try to make it easier for agents to book online. Plus, Globus has 50 or so outside sales people, so every region gets access.

Also, agents are backed up by a large group of inside sales employees who support those agents who may not get regular visits in their offices. We also have a call center with specialists including group specialists. I think we’re well equipped to support the trade.

On our training Webinars, we’ve listened to the feedback received from agents. We’ve made the training much shorter and much more focused. So these are 15-to-20-minute Webinars that are much more functional and useful to the agent.

We want to show agents how to maximize their river cruise sales. Those who embrace learning about Avalon Waterways and sell three 2015 cruises on our line, get a payoff. They get a free seven-night cruise, so the training ultimately leads to being able to sail on the ship to get the full experience.

For more information, visit www.avalonwaterways.com

Suggested Articles:

The new group tours of no more than 20 visit off-the-beaten-path locations and Italian favorites. Here’s what travelers can expect.

Carnival Corporation issued a financial update today, with details about its liquidity, cash burn, ship sales, delayed deliveries and future bookings.

The World Travel & Tourism Council has launched the #wear2care campaign to herald the the return of safer travels. Learn more here.