Hidden Gem - Barging on a Slow Boat Through Europe


The barge L'Impressioniste with John Wood-Dow and the captains of European Waterways. // Photo by European Waterways
The barge L'Impressioniste with John Wood-Dow and the captains of European Waterways. // Photo by European Waterways


Not every cruise is about having a million activity choices or being on the go from morning until night. Sometimes it’s about kicking back and just slowing down the pace – leaving time to see, hear, experience and engage with the destinations and local folks along the way.

European Waterways (www.gobarging.com), which operates 17 upscale barges throughout Europe, is benefitting from the overall trend of global cruise growth, according to John Wood-Dow, the firm's co-owner and president.

On an upscale barge vacation, guests receive the typical benefits of cruising. They don't have to continually pack and unpack; their accommodations float with them as they explore the countryside.

They also receive great value - as these barge vacations are all-inclusive. Most of all, they receive a highly immersive, experiential vacation. It's more intimate, as each barge carries as few as six guests and not more than 20 guests.

The barge's route typically explores a small targeted area, in contrast to river cruise vessels, which cover more territory. So on a barge vacation, the vessel might cover only five miles on a given day, and on the same day, a typical river cruise might ply 35 miles or more.  

Clearly, the barging lifestyle appeals to travelers eager for something different. "This year, we're about 10 to 11 percent up [in sales] and last year we were more like 15 percent up," said Wood-Dow.

"We've been growing strongly and the growth in the North American market is significantly stronger," he stressed. As clients are becoming aware of and intrigued by the product, a potential new revenue stream for many agents is developing, he said. 

Experiential and Immersive

“We offer a total immersion in a region, whether that’s Burgundy or the Venice area, or the canals in the South of France,” Wood-Dow stressed. “We don’t travel very far – only about 100 miles a week. We only travel at walking pace.”

Barges ply smaller waterways, some with locks, and not big rivers like the Rhine or Danube. With limited accommodations – often for three to five couples - it’s a bit of "a big house party," said Wood-Dow.

Yet, the accommodations are usually well-appointed, staterooms have private bathrooms, and guests savor being on a vessel with just a few fellow travelers. The experience is also decidedly upscale, with fine wine, cuisine, flexible activities, and a slow pace that immerses the guest in the local culture.

That's highly appealing for sophisticated clients who seek privacy, exclusivity and a trip that's not for the masses. As a result, "the North American market is 55 percent of our business,” he said, noting that bookings from the U.S. and Canada are up a whopping 70 percent between 2011 and 2013.

And these aren't cheap cruises. Barge vacations typically cost about $5,000 per person weekly. Agents have potential for very good commission because of the inclusive nature of barging; fares include excursions, an open bar and transfers, among other perks.

For example, clients sailing on a Burgundy barging cruise operated by European Waterways will be picked up at their Paris hotel by private limousine and transported to the barge.

While agents have good opportunities, "very few mainstream travel agents are knowledgeable about the product," stressed Wood-Dow. He believes most agents - 90 percent plus - are unaware of what barging entails.

High-End and Exclusive

What’s life like onboard a barge? This isn't roughing it, by any stretch of the imagination. Far from it, Wood-Dow explained.

Accommodations have en suite private baths; many barges are deluxe or luxury vessels. Guests enjoy an open bar, fresh culinary preparations, wine tasting, specialty excursions to off-the-beaten path sites and a convivial onboard aura.

Crew members are regional experts who will explain the culture, heritage and ecology of the region in which the barge sails.

Wood-Dow also said the crew will explain in-depth to guests about the food, wine and artisan cheeses served onboard. 

In addition, “we will do excursions to places you probably couldn’t go on your own, and certainly couldn’t get into with a bigger group – such as to a private chateaux for wine tasting or maybe to an olive oil press to see how olive oil is made,” he said. 

“In the Venice area, we have a private dinner in a private, stately home and normally 'The Countess' is there to welcome us – all those things that make it a little bit special and I think that is resonating and appealing to some of the more sophisticated travelers that are our target audience,” he stressed.

Potential clients for an upscale barge vacations are often those who appreciate their own private space on a vacation. On a barge that serves eight to 12 clients, Wood-Dow said it’s relatively easy to create an intimate group of friends or a multi-generational family group.

Some clients might want to do a full-boat charter just for themselves. “About half our business is whole boat charter,” said Wood-Dow.

Another option is to pitch a barge cruise to a company or organization for a corporate retreat or brainstorming event. That might particularly appeal if a company is already sending employees to a conference in Europe. The barge "retreat" option could be an add-on.

"Some of our cruise areas are quite accessible from London and Paris," Wood-Dow noted.

European Waterways has hosted a couple of destination marketing companies onboard its barges; they chartered the barges so managers could have a quiet, reflective atmosphere in which to brainstorm about marketing plans. A company might even charter one barge for a week, and then split that into two separate sailings for different groups of staffers.

Another hot trend for agents to tap into? Wood-Dow sees soaring interest in family and multi-generational charters often “funded” by grandparents who want to take the entire family away.

Activity-wise, “for families, we normally can find something for everyone,” he said. Some adults might enjoy sitting on deck, while their grandchildren use bikes on the adjacent towpath. Or, kids might help steer the barge under the crew's supervision. Parents might enjoy "couples time" to taste wines, go on a hike or attend a local event in a nearby village.

Barging is a flexible product, so the crew can adapt activities to clients' special interests, such as golf, walking or bicycling.

Honeymooners are another potential market for agents to consider. They can charter a small boat and the company can put a tandem bicycle onboard for the couple to use. “Most people have never tried that,” Wood-Dow noted: “It’s a bit of a romantic adventure.”

Some barges even have telescopes. “A lot of people haven’t done any star gazing, so it’s a different way of thinking,” about vacation activities, he said.

New Barges and Itineraries

This year, European Waterways has a new luxurious, six-passenger vessel, Clair de Lune, on the Canal du Midi of France. The 300-year-old Canal du Midi skirts Mediterranean shores before meandering inland through ancient villages, Roman fortifications and vineyards.

Wood-Dow described the Clair de Lune as bright and airy. This barge provides accommodations in three contemporary double or twin staterooms, each with a private bathroom.

Clair de Lune also has a comfortable, stylish dining area and saloon with picture windows and a large sundeck with a spa pool from which guests may admire the countryside.

Previously, “we didn’t have a six-passenger barge for smaller barge groups,” he said. Now, the firm does and it plies a route that takes guests to such sites as the walled city of Carcassone and Narbonne, home to a 13th century cathedral.

The region is unique, he said: “It’s different from Burgundy. It’s more pastoral.”

New for 2013, European Waterways also said it offers the first hotel barge cruising to Castets in Bordeaux on the eight-passenger Rosa. While other barges sail Bordeaux waterways, Wood-Dow noted that this part of the region is a bit further west.

Rosa is a Dutch “Clipper” barge refitted in 2010. Outside is a sun deck with loungers. Inside, the air-conditioned vessel has a dining room, saloon, bar and four staterooms. Two staterooms have double beds and two have twin beds, all with en-suite private bathrooms.

Rosa’s itinerary allows for tastings of foie gras, local fine wines and Armagnac, together with guided tours of the places where they are produced. The cruise route also requires the captain to negotiate the inclined water plane at Montauban and the 1,000-foot aqueduct over the River Tarn.

In addition, the company is promoting a cruise through the champagne wine region west of Paris. The 12-passenger barge Panache operates this itinerary. Built in classic Dutch design, Panache is furnished with such traditional ship appointments as brass and mahogany.

Panache features six air-conditioned junior suites, all with private baths that have oversized showers with massage jets and double sinks; guests have a choice of twin or double bed configuration.

The barge’s main salon features comfortable sofas, books and music, as well as dining facilities and an open bar. The sun deck has a heated whirlpool.

If agents want to learn more, European Waterways has fams and also a special travel agent site at www.gobarging.com/travel-agents. After agents receive a log in, they may download photos, videos and brochures.

At the agent site, European Waterways introduces its reservations team to agents, who may also request training assistance. Using the firm's online reservation system, registered agents may check availability, review rates, create a booking or make payments.

Wood-Dow clearly hopes more travel agents will become familiar with - and ultimately sell - barge vacations in Europe. That said, he quips that he also likes "just a bit" that barging is the “hidden gem of the travel industry.”

For sophisticated clients who seek an off-the-beaten path option, maybe a slow boat - not to China but within Europe - may be just what appeals to those needing to de-stress from their fast-paced, everyday world.  

Keep visiting www.travelagentcentral.com for the latest river cruise news, trends and updates.