As Crystal launched its river cruise product two years ago, many voyages were longer cruises, designed to appeal to Crystal’s loyal past ocean guests. But Crystal discovered that more than half of its luxury river cruise guests were “new” to the brand, so it’s adjusted schedules, cut some longer river voyages and added more seven-night to 10-night river cruises.
Walter Littlejohn, the line’s vice president and managing director, Crystal River Cruises, told agents sailing on the annual sales gala on Crystal Symphony that for certain seven-night sailings on Crystal Bach and Crystal Ravel this year, clients will get a $500 per booking bonus savings and the agent will get a $250 per booking bonus commission.
This year, on Crystal Bach, Crystal Mahler and Crystal Ravel, “we’ve created a series of voyages that are six to nine nights in length on the Danube and Rhine River,” he noted, citing such options as Amsterdam to Mainz, Mainz to Frankfurt, Amsterdam to Regensburg, Germany; and Regensburg to Budapest.
For 2019, both Crystal Mozart and Crystal Ravel will offer a new seven-night itinerary that’s roundtrip from Vienna. Plus, Littlejohn is particularly high on the line’s new 10-day “Enchanting Moselle” voyage operated by Crystal Bach between May 2019 and the Christmas Markets season.
Sailing roundtrip from Amsterdam, it will call at ports along the Moselle including Trier, Germany, for two full days, so guests can both explore Trier’s Roman ruins and visit Luxembourg. Less-visited Rhine River destinations on the itinerary include Dusseldorf and Bonn.
During the annual trade gala, Littlejohn also provided his perspective on the Crystal brand and luxury as a whole:
Luxury Customers Set the Standard: “I as a supplier don’t get to decide the standards of luxury. You as the retailer don’t get to decide the standard of luxury. It’s the client who does. And if you or I don’t understand what that luxury travel wants, they often go somewhere else.”
Littlejohn also said luxury within the travel industry as a whole isn’t always about being all-inclusive, or having big rooms or having ornate décor. Many products have those and aren’t luxury, he said.
Stellar service and brand integrity are critical, he said: “Today, Crystal is about integrity – more than any time in its history. We are not about overselling our experiences…We’ve always been about underpromising and over-delivering, so that you have a client who comes back and says, ‘wow, that was an amazing perspective.’”
Differentiating Features for Crystal: He provided his “take” to agents about Crystal’s differentiating points, a few of which we’ve summarized here:
- Crystal operates its river vessels in house, and it is one of the few doing that (Viking and Uniworld are others)
- For the past two-plus decades, Crystal has been a luxury hotelier, “operating five-star luxury hotels that just happen to float,” said Littlejohn.
- Check-in ambience is akin to checking into an upscale boutique hotel. A team of check-in personnel with iPads are waiting to escort guests personally to their accommodations and check them in along the way. The key card is already in the room.
- If many people are coming from the airport at once, say on three motorcoaches, the line – which runs its own motorcoaches – simply directs the coaches to take different routes to show up at different times.
- All Crystal crew members are employees of Crystal, not contractors.
- The spa is run-in house.
- Butlers are “proper butlers,” says Littlejohn, and they don’t do housekeeping.
- And there are more points of differentiation, outlined in the line’s recent collateral materials, he said.
Luxury is about Intimacy: “One of the key drivers as to why people want to experience river cruising is because they’re craving more intimacy,” noted Littlejohn, who said Crystal Bach and its three sister ships carry only 106 guests, who are served by a crew of 68.
Freshness & Choice in Dining: Crystal’s river vessels offer up to four dining experiences per ship. Even in the buffet (or, as Crystal calls it, the Marketplace concept) for breakfast and lunch, everything is created from scratch. He stressed that it’s not banquet dining.
“We don’t bring on anything frozen, prepared or pre-cut. That’s not our thing. We begin peeling the potatoes when the order is placed – at that moment.” Produce, fresh fish and meat are locally sourced.
Fresh lobsters are flown in from Maine or Canada once per cruise, while oysters from France are also flown in once per cruise. Look for more updates on dining in another story later this week.
Luxury and the Destination: Littlejohn said Crystal’s guests don’t want to feel obligated to attend a nightly port talk, fairly common within the river industry. Instead, each Crystal river vessel has four onboard destination experts who can answer questions about the ports and help customize the guest’s time ashore.
Crystal River Cruises also spends lots of time in port. For example, all vessels sailing to Vienna spend at least two full days and one night there, and some itineraries stay even longer.
On a typical seven-day Danube cruise, he said Crystal offers up to 28 shore excursions, while the premium river lines typically have about 16 excursions, and mass-market lines offer about eight shore excursions.
Introducing New Shore Options: This year the line introduced a new series of shore excursions, allowing guests to tailor the vacation to their preferences. It also added a guarantee that on those programs there will be no more than 15 guests for every guide.
Littlejohn says that takes the experience from more of a “me too vacation,” where everybody is doing the same thing, to a trip where different people in a family or friends’ group are all doing different things. Then they can come together at dinner to talk about their different experiences.
More Signature Events: Crystal has also developed seven new complimentary Crystal Signature Events for guests going ashore. “Now that we have a fleet of five ships, we need more Signature Events,” Littlejohn says. The line now has a total of eight such events in eight different cities.
In the line’s new River Atlas it puts a full detailed description of those events and which itinerary the event is assigned to. Littlejohn says that as the season progresses, the line will get video footage of those events and make the video available to the trade.
Positioning for Excursion Yachts: In the past, the line’s vessels carried at least one 32-foot private excursion yacht; Crystal Mozart had two of them. But “we’ve decided to change the concept of the yachts,” Littlejohn said. “We’re no longer carrying the yachts on the back of the ships.”
That solves the problem of licensing issues in certain ports, and it also will allow better scenic views from the ship’s pool. Instead, the line will position the yachts in ports along the way that allow their operation, weather conditions permitting.
Two excursion yachts will be positioned in both Amsterdam and Budapest and one yacht each in Belgrade and Vienna. The line is working on new shore excursions for the yachts.
One is expected to take guests on a voyage along Amsterdam’s canals, complete with a butler to serve champagne. Guests will then tour the Museum of Bags and Purses and have high tea at the nearby Waldorf Astoria Amsterdam, before returning to the yacht.
Next winter, when the ships aren’t sailing, the line will also take the "carried" workboat, also aft and visible from the pool, and move it lower. “Then the view will be completely unobstructed, and we may even build a little terrace out there so guests can use that deck space up there,” said Littlejohn.
Ship Ratings by Guests: So how are the ships doing? On their first revenue voyages this season, Crystal Bach had a guest satisfaction rating of 94; Crystal Mozart had a 96; Crystal Debussy (on her maiden voyage, in which half the crew were new) scored a 95, and Crystal Mahler scored a 98.
Tom Wolber, the line’s president and CEO, was in Germany just a few weeks ago to accept delivery of the fourth sister ship, Crystal Ravel. That vessel will sail its maiden voyage on May 10.
Better River Content on Website: Crystal’s main website is being totally redone, but for now, Littlejohn said, “We have been working on a placeholder project to refresh the [river cruise] content on the current website.”
Look for that existing site to be soon loaded with experiential detail and photos of onboard dining, the spa, entertainment, land programs (shore excursions and pre- and post-cruise options), the ships, signature brand hallmarks and more. Both photo and video galleries also are being loaded.
“We apologize that you don’t have this content on the current site, but it is something we are working to address,” he told the trade audience.
New River Cruise Video: Crystal also didn’t previously have any video that talked about the river cruise experiences. But now they do, and Littlejohn showed it to the trade gala agents. It will also be refreshed with more new footage from Crystal Bach later this year.
His philosophy? “For me, good is never good enough, great is never great enough,” he stressed. “We’re always, always, always striving for more.”