AmaWaterways Execs Provide Business Outlook and Booking Trend Update

In 2020, AmaWaterways' normal cruise operations were impacted (as were those of other river lines) as the pandemic shut down travel by Americans to Europe. But getting "creative," the line chartered AmaKristina to a German tour operator—so keeping some crew members employed even during the darkest era.

During 2021, as the world opened up, the line beefed up operations—completing 320 cruises in both Europe and Egypt. But after Austria "locked down" in late 2021, AmaWaterways was one of the few river lines that kept operating through year’s end.

Kristin Karst, executive vice president and co-founder, AmaWaterways, explains that the river line did everything possible to keep the ships operating. For example, it hired motorcoaches to transport guests from Bratislava, Slovakia via road to Vienna’s Christmas markets; that was permitted by the Austrian government although cruise calls with guests going ashore in Vienna were not at the time.  

While the past two years have certainly proved challenging, "the last four weeks have started to look extremely positive again when we look at the booking trends,” says Karst. “We are very, very optimistic about 2022.”

She notes that there’s still a little bit of hesitation” with people waiting on the sideline for spring 2022 departures, but beyond that things look very good. In addition, "with Europe getting a little more relaxed once again we also expect an influx of last minute reservations," Karst adds. 

For 2022, travel advisors will have a 36 percent capacity increase for AmaWaterways to sell, compared with 2019. That's because of three new ships—AmaSiena, AmaLucia and AmaDahlia. AmaStella is also back, as are AmaVerde and AmaBella after being gutted and totally updated/renovated.

Optimism About 2022

Chef's Al Fresco Restaurant on AmaWaterways' AmaDahlia
The al fresco restaurant aboard AmaDahlia (Photo by AmaWaterways)

As with many other river lines, AmaWaterways is seeing “huge, pent-up demand,” according to Karst. She cites rescheduled voyages for travelers who were canceled off cruises in the past, coupled with new bookings from consumers who haven’t traveled for two years.

In addition, she says people are looking for smaller, more intimate ships and a more personal onboard aura. That's helping river cruising as an industry segment.

Among the hot spots in traveler demand right now are Portugal cruises on the Douro River, holiday cruises throughout Europe and the new Egypt sailings on AmaDahlia. “That ship is extremely successful,” Karst stresses. “Egypt is just booming all the time now no matter what.” She adds that people who have missed out on so many celebrations with families and friends are contributing to the pent-up demand.

“Everyone is anxious to pack their bags,” emphasizes Karst. They're looking to fulfill their “must do” list and “just a desire to separate from the day to day—to connect with the world. It’s really driving the demand for some of our most spectacular itineraries in 2022.”

In addition, Karst pointed out that special events—such as the international floral exposition, Floriade, planned for the Netherlands this year for the first time in a decade—are drawing many travelers too.  

During the pandemic, wine industry experts report increased wine consumption in the U.S. Now those same consumers desire to visit Europe's wine regions. "They’re very educated about the wines," Karst says with a touch of humor, noting that these consumers want to "combine that with travel."

Looking ahead, Karst also says the line will debut a new ship in 2024 in partnership with Metropolitan Touring. The effort will result in a new sailing region for AmaWaterways—on Colombia’s Magdelana River.

Doing What it Takes

As for the line’s health/safety protocols, Karst says “we’re very comfortable with our protocols." 

The line kept sailing during the tough period of Austria's lock-down late in 2021, as "we wanted to show a positive signal,” Karst adds. “It was also to give our crew members employment to the end of year, and so that they would have a happy Christmas" with their families.”

Karst stressed that “we all know how it is in today’s space to get good people again, so they stayed loyal to us.” As a result, “we didn’t lose any cruise managers and they stayed aboard with us.” That puts the line in a good position from a crew staffing scenario as it moves into the 2022 season.

Alex Pinelo, recently promoted by AmaWaterways to become its new senior vice president of sales (after the retirement of Gary Murphy), says: “We said we were going to operate these sailings and they [the owners] operated them up to the end of the season.” In other words, the line didn’t cancel cruises even though the ships weren’t full.

Any Crystal Vessel Interest?

Given the recent shut-down of Crystal Cruises, Travel Agent asked Karst if her line would be interested in buying those vessels. While she believes they are beautiful in their own right, as well as the Crystal brand being well regarded, "no, there is no interest that we have in these vessels,” she says.

One reason is that "you do not have ‘the view,'" Karst mentions. She explains that those guests sitting in AmaWaterways vessels’ lounges have “this beautiful view to the front and the Crystal ships don’t have that.”

So, those vessels wouldn’t fit the AmaWaterways style of what it likes to offer. In addition, “we love to create our own ships,” Karst says. “We love to design them.”

She stresses that Rudi Schreiner, the line's president and co-founder, is also an architect deeply involved in design and building of the AmaWaterways' vessels. “So, we really want to live up to our own expectation and stay true to our own product," Karst notes. 

Pinelo also says guests need that connection to the destination which his line’s ships provide as they’re “outward facing and we bring the destination inside in such a special and unique way.”

For 2022, Karst stressed that “we will have our entire fleet in operation again and the line expects to resume cruising the Mekong River in Southeast Asia in October.

AmaMagna will begin the European season on March 6 with a charter. Karst points to the industry organizations that are heading to Europe. Those should help draw both trade and consumer attention to the river vacation options.

For example, the American Society of Travel Advisors (ASTA) will hold its 2022 Global River Cruise Expo in Budapest, Hungary from March 16 to 20. The CLIA UK RiverView Conference is slated for March 20-22, 2022.  And the ASTA Presidents Cruise will unfold on AmaMagna during March 20 to 27, 2022.

So, what else is Karst seeing on the booking trend side? She cites the following: Couples bringing along friends on vacation; many girlfriend getaways; reunions of friends wanting to celebrate; and multigenerational family event groups such as for retirements and birthdays. In addition, she reports many solo travelers. “Maybe they lost a spouse or their partner cannot travel anymore, but the desire to travel is still there,” Karst says. Solo traveler promotions have also fueled the demand. 

Karst also says many middle-aged couples are now taking a mother or father along to celebrate a milestone anniversary. That’s often because they haven’t been able to travel together for awhile and “they don’t know how much longer that parent will be able to travel,” says Karst. “So, they want to do it now.”

Karst says anyone who is vaccinated can sail on AmaWaterways; that includes children who are at least 4 years of age, although the lines recommends kids be at least 6 years of age to sail. Even last year,  many children did sail, according to Karst.

More Back to Back Cruises

Another booking trend is that the river line is seeing longer requests for back-to-back cruises. Guests desire to stay on vacation for a longer period of time. Thus, "it's very popular to combine our French cruises with each other because you are in one country,” says Karst, referring to the lack of additional entry requirements, testing or protocols that exist when, in contrast, guests are moving from country to country.

So, the line has purposely scheduled all its ships in France to have the same embarkation days. So, guests can get off the Rhone River cruise in the morning, head to Paris and on the same day board a Seine cruise. Or, alternatively, head for Bordeaux, again with same day boarding.

AmaKristina will host a portion of the "Seven Rivers Journey" (AmaWaterways)

The line’s 46-night "Seven Rivers Journey," the river line's equivalent of a World Cruise in terms of length of voyage and multiple rivers/destinations, sold out immediately. The second one that was added is now almost fully booked, Karst reports. The third one now planned for fall 2023 still has some availability, she says.

Another trend that Pinelo is seeing in this era is that “traditionally, people would book the ship from the bottom up,” going for the entry level accommodations first. “Now we’re seeing people booking from the top down,” he says. “We’re telling our travel advisors: 'Get those bookings in early because those suites are going quickly.'"

AmaWaterways operates its own air department, and Karst says that advisors appreciate that they don't have to deal with air cancellations, schedule changes  or protocol changes. “They love to put the air in our hands,” she notes. 

Increasingly, consumers are seeking the best. "We see an increased amount of guests booking business-class air or premium economy because they all feel they deserve it," Karst stresses. "They want to travel in style and to have the best experience from the beginning to the end.”

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