How to Sell River Cruises in Portugal and France

Pinhao is situated on the banks of the Douro River. Its countryside beckons wine aficionados.
Pinhao is situated on the banks of the Douro River. Its countryside beckons wine aficionados.

We reached out to some top river cruise sellers to get their sales and marketing insight into the pros of selling two river systems that often appeal to more experienced travelers — Portugal’s Douro and France’s Rhone/Saone rivers. They offer advice on clients that are best for these rivers, the rivers’ top draws, and how to sell and market these rivers. 

On the Douro: Carolyn Nemia, a CruiseOne franchise owner, Mays Landing, NJ, recently cruised within Portugal on AmaWaterwaysAmaVida. “The Douro River is one of the most beautiful rivers in Europe,” she stresses. “In some areas of the Douro, all you see are lush, landscaped terraces of vineyards.” Although she adds that “lush” depends on time of year. She also cites picture-perfect quaint, old villages.

Among the best clients for this itinerary? Look for those who are lovers of art and history, she stresses. “The entire Douro region is a UNESCO World Heritage site, as is Salamanca,” and it has the beautiful Mateus Palace (whose image is on the Mateus wine bottle) with landscaped grounds, she says. Other Douro draws? Nemia says it’s good to talk about Gaia’s port lodges, plus the city of Porto for its architecture, particularly the Porto Cathedral, the train station and the hand-painted tile murals that grace the walls of many buildings.

She encourages her clients to be sure to see the rabelo boats once used to transport barrels of port from the vineyards to the port lodges in Gaia. In addition, cruisers love traversing the D. Luis Bridge that links Porto to Gaia.

A big attraction to mention is Salamanca, a Spanish Renaissance city and UNESCO World Heritage site; it’s also home to the University of Salamanca. Nemia also says wine-focused experiences draw wine aficionados. She talks to clients about Quintas, where they can visit the vineyards and taste the Portuguese wines including ports. Those wine-focused experiences are a big plus, she stresses, also citing the clients’ ability to dine at the quintas.

To promote Douro cruises, Nemia suggests agents host wine cruise nights; promoting group cruises through flyers and cruise nights for Q&A; keeping a blog; and sharing photos from personal experiences.

For add-ons, “you definitely want to spend a few days in either Porto or Gaia for more in-depth visits of the port lodges and to experience cultural sites in more depth,” says Nemia, adding that some port lodges have hotels associated with them. “Additionally, a perfect add-on for a pre-cruise stay would be in Lisbon, Portugal’s capital.”

On the Rhone & Saone: Luelle Robinson, an independent agency of Avoya Travel, Round Hill, VA, has built a successful business by specializing almost solely in river cruises and, particularly, European sailings. She emphasizes that the Rhone/Saone in the Burgundy and Provence area of France would most appeal to clients who have already done a river cruise or two. “These are people who have enjoyed river cruise travel, and are looking for a little more adventure,” she says.

Robinson suggests agents look at clients who have already done the Danube and Rhine. “It is a great itinerary for those who love France, art, food and wine,” she says. “Travelers get to visit the countryside of France which is a whole different adventure from the Paris and Normandy trip.” That said, for those able to get away for two weeks, travel agents can consider combining the two river experiences.

In Burgundy, Robinson tells her potential travelers that they can enjoy great restaurants, local wine festivals, and historical sites such as the Fontenay Abbey, village of Vezelay, rock of Solutre and Morvan. She also relays details about the beautiful villages and towns, including Charité-sur-Loire, which has some of the finest Romanesque art and architecture in Burgundy.

Robinson’s clients on these itineraries also enjoy Provence and particularly Avignon, Cannes, Cassis, St. Tropez, and the medieval village of Eze. “Provence has lots of historic abbeys and Roman ruins and beautiful geography,” she notes. “There are 28 UNESCO World Heritage sites in France and several in Provence, including Arles, Avignon and Devil’s Bridge.”

S.S. Catherine docked at Tain L’Hermitage, on the Rhone river in France.
S.S. Catherine docked at Tain L’Hermitage, on the Rhone river in France.

What about add-ons? Robinson says the historic city of Aix-en-Provence is a very popular add-on to the southern end of the region since it is a short trip from Avignon where the cruise starts and ends and is accessible to Marseille for a client’s trip home.

“Travelers can visit the Granet Museum and the Mazarin district or take a city walking tour to learn more about the town’s history, art, and architecture,” adds Robinson. She suggests Paris as a pre- or post-add-on destination, given that it’s usually a scenic train trip to either Lyon or Avignon.

Robinson doesn’t market, as Avoya Travel does that and sends her live leads, but “what I find helps to sell customers on this type of sailing is my first-hand experience and expert knowledge on the products,” she says. Because river cruising is a different type of vacation, and because she has experiences with the individual destinations and ships, “I can describe the cities, the food, what they’ll see, and paint a vivid picture of their vacation so they get excited and feel confident booking a river cruise with me.”

Recently she experienced Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection on a Marseilles-to-Lyon itinerary. She says the cruisers were able to then spend the last day, a Saturday, at the market in Beaune after the very interesting visit to the Hospices de Beaune. “When you do the sailing in the other direction, the open air market is in Arles, and while it is nice, it is not as extensive as the market in Beaune,” Robinson says.

Another hook, says Robinson is to tap into the newer vessels as a sales tool to entice repeat cruisers. The Rhone / Saone cruises are a must-do for river cruise enthusiasts,” she notes, citing Avalon WaterwaysPoetry II on this itinerary, as well as Uniworld’s S.S. Catherine, one of its newest ships; and “Viking River Cruises has four of their new long ships doing cruises on the Rhone.” Other lines also combine Burgundy and Provence.

The good news? Robinson says the regions remain less crowded for travelers than sailing the Danube and Rhine.

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