CruiseOne Conference - 25 Top Tips to Help Agents Sell More River Cruises

CruiseOne and Cruises Inc. river cruise panel

Photo by Susan J. Young

Last Saturday, Kristin Karst, executive vice president and co-owner, AMA Waterways; Kristen Steele, business development manager, Globus Family of Brands (including Avalon Waterways); and Mike Wiersema, vice president of national accounts at Viking Cruises, spoke to 700-plus agents attending the annual CruiseOne and Cruises Inc. conference.

RELATED STORY: Solo Travelers Turning to River Cruises

Conducted onboard Norwegian Breakaway, the conference included a panel discussion by the trio of river line executives. Here are 25 top tips and ideas provided to agency owners and associates about how to sell river cruises more effectively. This also includes some ideas from travel agents who attended the panel discussion.

1. Broaden Your Sales Horizons: New European river cruisers typically head for the Rhine, Main or Danube in Europe. But once they’ve “been there, done that,” Karst says repeaters seek new opportunities – everything from Saone/Rhone or Seine in France to the Douro in Portugal or even to more exotic locales such as the Mekong and Irawaddy Rivers of Southeast Asia or the Zambezi river in Africa. So be sure repeat river cruisers know all the new options for the coming years.

2. Think Younger, More Active: River cruises formerly attracted lots of oldies but goodies. But, the big news is that the demographic is dropping. It isn’t just guests who are 65 to 85. Increasingly, many younger guests in their 30s, 40s and 50s are taking river cruises, especially if the voyages focus on wine and culinary topics. These younger travelers also love that the lines carry bicycles; lines are also providing "active" options for shore trips. 

3. Don't Overlook Mature: But while many younger clients are booking, don’t overlook mature travelers in your data base. And, as boomers continue to age, the pool of retirees will become larger and larger.

4. Pitch Your Ocean Cruise Guests:  Peruse your data base for big ship cruisers. Wiersema emphasizes that 90 percent of Viking’s river guests come from the ocean side.

5. Showcase Differences between Ocean & River Cruises: Stress that river cruising is inherently different than ocean cruising – focus on intimacy, sailing schedules, inclusiveness and lack of crowds.

6. Stress the History/Culture: Particularly for older guests, emphasize the historic and cultural perks of a river cruise. It’s a great way to cruise into the heart of a destination with history unfolding before your eyes - in the form of castles, monasteries, ancient ruins and so on. Be passionate about exactly what they'll see and do.

7. Focus on Ease of Travel: Stress the ease and convenience of a river cruise. Guests relax, converse with friends, have drinks or dine while the vessel floats from destination to destination with fabulous scenery along the way. Explain exactly how the vacation is "experienced" from walking tours to culinary and cultural presentations.

8. Grab a Topic and Run with It: Special interest cruises are extremely hot right now, according to Avalon Waterways’ Steele. She cites themed cruises – everything from golf to yoga and beer – as top sellers for 2014. Not surprisingly, her firm's most popular cruise is the beer cruise.

9. Partner Up: For culinary and wine cruises, partner with a local business in your area. Talk to a bistro, culinary school or wine club to share clients and create a one-of-a-kind cruise with a local expert onboard.

10. Look Close to Home Too: While European river cruises are highly popular and many of the lines offering them are expanding into more exotic locales, don’t overlook some voyages close to home. For example, Avalon Waterways will have new Mississippi River cruises this year as well as Amazon voyages. Agents also say there are many options in 2014 for sailings of multiple lines on American rivers.

11. Pitch Tour Clients:  Target your past guests who may have taken a premium or luxury tour; they may not wish to travel the same way they did a decade ago. Yet, they still want to travel, just in an easier manner. A river cruise is a great way to float from place to place without packing and unpacking throughout the vacation. And clients still walk off the river boat into the center of a city so exploring is easy. Most river lines include guided tours within the cruise fare.

12. Use the Power of Video: Many lines create videos to showcase their vacation experience. Most videos can be accessed from cruise line Web sites; others may be available on DVDs. It's important to show video because many clients still don't really understand what a river cruise is all about. Video perfectly demonstrates what is sometimes difficult to describe as an experience.

13. Know the Products First-Hand: Agents absolutely must sail on a river cruise to get first-hand knowledge. The result will be a more effective sales pitch that really fine-tunes what the experience delivers, plus you'll be more passionate about the product. Passion builds sales. 

14. Build Your Base of River Cruisers: For non-river cruise clients, why not send them a handwritten note and something to review focused on a river cruise product, whether that's a brochure or special offer? The note should say: “Have you thought of a river cruise?”

15. Be More Visible in Your Community: Get out there. Market your brand and your agency at local events and programs. Spread your business cards around. Volunteer for charitable events or club programs. Get to know your business neighbors and build your base of people who may turn to you for their future vacation needs.

16. Be accessible for client questions: Sometimes clients discuss a potential vacation and want to book. So if you’re only available from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., you’re likely missing business. In addition, answer the phone. Clients seeking a river cruise who call your agency and get a recording, may go elsewhere.

17. Educate Yourself with Specialist Programs: While there are similarities, each river cruise product is different. It's your ability to explain the nuances and the details that makes you an expert. Sign up for specialist programs.

18. Tap into Social Media: Start conversing. Don't hard sell. Put up tips and photos. Be the friendly expert. Answer questions from others. Encourage interaction. Build relationships that may help you later.

19. Pick the Right Partners: Seek high quality lines to sell, and remember that hardware (i.e. a new ship) is great, but it’s the software – the line’s people, innovation, passion and high service levels – that are just as important.

20. Focus on Accommodations: Really dig down to expose the detail of the high-quality accommodations on various lines. Clients may be very surprised at the spacious, amenity-filled staterooms and suites found on today's river vessels. For instance, the river lines have everything from sliding glass doors that create an open-air, indoor-outdoor balcony to free Wi-Fi Internet and a computer to use in the stateroom. Staterooms have high quality bedding, private baths and some even have butler and concierge services. This isn't your grandfather's version of river cruising. 

21. Think Early Spring and Late Fall: Don’t just pitch the late April to early October river season in Europe. That always sells well, but it can be hot and crowded. Spring and fall are optimum times to see the sites. It’s easier to tour and the cities can seem more beautiful without the crowds. Many clients will love Christmas market cruises too. 

22. Earn What You're Worth: River cruises typically pay commissions with commas. That’s a plus for agents, particularly those selling $499 ocean cruises. For example, the average agent commission check paid by Viking Cruises is $1,800. So if you’re trying to move your agency’s revenue stream upward, promote and sell more river cruises.  

23. Explain the Inclusions: River cruising is highly inclusive. Make sure you explain all the inclusive value items including wine with dinner, shore trips, taxes and gratuities, or whatever else in included; that varies by line, but the industry as a whole is very inclusive. Guests will appreciate not being “nickeled and dimed." 

24. Talk about Industry Growth: People like being part of a hot trend or going on a vacation that creates buzz with family and friends. So talk about river cruise industry growth. Explain that cruise companies would not be building so many new ships and increasing capacity if the popularity of the experience wasn't soaring. Also explain that high guest satisfaction is driving that. More and more travelers are falling in love with the river cruise experience.

25. Sell the intangibles:  Focus on the client's quality time with a spouse, friends or relatives. Help clients truly visualize the experience. Paint the picture. Showcase the dream.

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