How to Entice First-Time River Cruisers: Sellers' Secret Sauce

Picture-perfect European scenery is a big draw for first timers eager to explore the continent. // Photo by Susan J. Young
Picture-perfect European scenery is a big draw for first timers eager to explore the continent. // Photo by Susan J. Young

What do river cruise sellers cite as their "secret sauce" in selling a river cruise to a first timer? We talked with multiple agents across the country from Washington state to Florida, from Michigan to South Carolina. Here’s the “top tip” from a plethora of sellers.

  • “Agents need to paint a very vivid picture of what the client will experience, leaving no detail out. Describe the tastes, the colors, the sights, and make them feel it.” – says John Bloom, co-owner, Travelers Trails, an independent agency of Avoya Travel-American Express, Richland, WA.
  • “I first thank them for contacting me. Then I work on their request and give them an answer within 24 hours.” – Phyllis Dale, co-owner/travel specialist, Great Escapes Travel, a Virtuoso agency in Lake Mary, FL.
  • “My top tip is showcasing the inclusions and ease of the river cruise experience.” – Lenore Miller, owner, Minnetonka Travel and Cruises, a Vacation.com agency in Wayzata, MN.
  • “It has to be portrayed as something entirely different than anything they have done before. Comparing it to an ocean cruise is not going to work. Don't spend a lot of time focusing on the cabins and instead focus on, first, the destination and, second, the first-class nature of the experience.” -- David Betlejewski, franchise owner, CruiseOne, Norton Shores, MI

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Guests enjoy high-quality accommodations on river vessels; this is a suite onboard Viking Forseti. // Photo by Susan J. Young
Guests enjoy high-quality accommodations on river vessels; this is a suite onboard Viking Forseti. // Photo by Susan J. Young
  • “Promote the benefits of the river product and all that it includes making it a true value that the client can relate to -- as opposed to other travel possibilities that are not as inclusive and client friendly.” -- Julie Davidson, franchise owner, Cruise Planners-American Express Travel, Charleston, S.C.
  • “Know your products. Know the difference between each river cruise company and sell the right product based on your interview with your client. Take the time to go through the courses the river cruise lines have gone to the trouble to create for us. Once you complete them you can say you are truly a river cruise expert.” -- Beth Levich, franchise owner, Cruise Holidays of Portland, Portland, OR
  • Clients should be told: “Once you decide on a destination that makes your heart sing, make your choice of itinerary based on value and not price” -- Elaine Bylos, franchise owner, Cruise Planners-American Express Travel, Atlanta, GA
  • “The most important thing you can do is to show the client what they are actually getting for their money. Many travelers are still unaware of what to expect from a river cruise, so if you lay out what makes river cruising a unique product and why it's worth the cost, it makes clients more at ease with making the booking, and makes them a happy client.” -- Sarah Nelson Wandrey, owner, Travel Leaders, Mesa, AZ.
Many of the stops along a river itinerary are places with no crowds, allowing guests to stroll, soak up the culture and enjoy the scenic beauty. // Photo by Susan J. Young
Many of the stops along a river itinerary are places with no crowds, allowing guests to stroll, soak up the culture and enjoy the scenic beauty. // Photo by Susan J. Young

Once They've Sailed, How Do You Get Them to Rebook?

About 90 percent of the time, Dale closes a sale with a first timer if there’s availability and the price is within their budget. Top reason? She makes them feel very comfortable: “I always, always check all promotion options before quoting a cruise fare. I believe in showing them that I will give them the service they deserve and that I really care about them – they are not just another client. I treat them immediately like a new friend.”

So when they return and are possibly interested in a second river cruise, “they’ll know that I will always stand by them,” says Dale. “That is so important. My motto is: “A client is a friend or becomes one.”

Once clients sail, clients more or less sell themselves on another river cruise, believes Bylo, noting the “destination becomes second to a unique and luxurious itinerary that offers experiences not available to the masses.”

John Bloom of Travelers Trails says to paint a vivid photo for guests of the experience; for example, they might gaze upon fresh strawberries in a local market or smell freshly baked bread. // Photo by Susan J. Young
John Bloom of Travelers Trails says to paint a vivid photo for guests of the experience; for example, they might gaze upon fresh strawberries in a local market or smell freshly baked bread. // Photo by Susan J. Young

Davidson also plants the seed before they sail on their first river cruise as to what other opportunities might await them next time. That's advantageous, since river vessels are smaller, with fewer passengers than big ocean ships. Reservations are typically further out to secure optimum accommodations and a desired location within the ship.

“Advising past river cruisers that an interesting new itinerary has just opened for sale has been a win-win and clients don’t miss the opportunity to be choosy on their cabin or category,” says Miller. Russia and Normandy are popular with her clients who have previously sailed the Danube.

For Betljewski’s clients, a river cruise tends to be more a once-in-a-lifetime vacation. “There is no question that the level of quality is being delivered by the cruise lines, but usually my clients will move on to a different experience afterward, usually in a completely different part of the world,” he says. “Nonetheless, they are awesome at giving referrals and, in a sense, that represents a second-time-around from my perspective.”

Both Dale and Bloom used the word “addictive” to describe river cruising. “River cruise clients tend to be very good repeat clients, usually booking another river cruise…but I find they’re great repeats in general, Bloom says.

Second timers are just coming back to Levich’s agency; the good news is that she’s personally booked 100 river cruises in the past two years and says the river lines’ loyalty programs are helping close those second time sales. “A 5% discount is quite a discount on the cost of a river cruise,” Levich adds.

Timingwise, “we find that once a client has sailed on one river cruise, that they will be booked back on another ship within two years,” reports Nelson Wandrey, and she says the search for a second sailing often is when clients begin to consider more exotic river options.

“I got tired of my clients asking me if I sold river cruises so I started a division of my company so everyone would know I am an expert in river cruising,” Levich says. She has partnered with river operators to hold informational meetings with potential clients and “we explain as best we can what the difference is between the river cruise companies..

Then Levich says, we end by saying ‘unless you book one year out, you’ll be lucky to get on any of them.’”

Editor's Note: This original article "complements" a separate story with additional advice and sales that's running in today's print edition of Travel Agent Magazine. Agents may read that April 7 story here:

New to the River: Attracting First-Time River Cruisers

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