River cruising through Europe has exploded over the past few years, growing from niche market to luxury bragging right. The trend seems poised to grow: With the recent economic downturn, people are looking for ways to relax and de-stress without breaking the bank, and an all-inclusive cruise—offered by such lines as AMA Waterways, Uniworld River Cruises and Viking River Cruises—is an ideal way to go.
As with any blossoming industry, suppliers are eager to see where customers’ demands will lead them.
The Danube continues to be a leading destination for European river cruises
AMA Waterways will be building two new ships per year until 2010, and is adding several new cruises throughout Europe to its offerings. Among the new destinations this year was a train-and-cruise package from Paris to Lyon and down to Barcelona. Introduced for next year is the “Romantic Danube” cruise, which offers three days in Prague and a cruise from Vilshofen to Budapest. “We give our clients more time in the Wachau Valley in Austria, which is the most beautiful wine country in Austria,” says Kristin Karst, vice president and co-owner of AMA Waterways. This package is in addition to AMA’s two existing Danube cruises, the “Legendary Danube” and the “Blue Danube Discovery.” Both cruises travel between Budapest and Nuremberg and offer extended stays in Prague at the beginning or end of the trip, depending on direction.
Also on the agenda for AMA is a second Christmas cruise. The “Winter Wonderland” package takes travelers on both the Rhine and Moselle Rivers, going from Amsterdam to Trier (the oldest city in Germany) and finally to Paris. “We really, truly believe that France and Paris are coming back strongly,” Karst says, adding that this package is ideal for clients “who have maybe done the Danube during Christmas [and] would like to do a different itinerary.” In 2010, AMA will offer Rhine cruises from Amsterdam to Basel. “The Danube is still, for us, at least, the most popular, but we get a lot of requests for the Rhine,” Karst says.
Karst believes that the ships contribute just as much to river cruising’s appeal as the itineraries do. “It’s an almost all-inclusive product,” she says. “We believe that everything that you have at home to be comfortable, that’s what you should have free of charge when you cruise with us.” AMA is, she adds, the only line that offers free Internet access onboard, making the trips ideal for people who want to get away from it all—but not too much.
Karst acknowledges that bookings became slower as the economy became shakier, but she is still optimistic for the future. “River cruising is very popular, and it’s still going strong, whereas other products are having a harder time,” she says. As a sign of AMA’s success, it recently became a preferred member of the Signature Travel Group, and a member of CLIA a few months ago.
Viking River Cruises recently unveiled the Viking Legend, a “green” ship with hybrid engines, and the newly refurbished Viking Kirov. “Viking Legend will be operating on 15-day cruises for our most popular European itinerary, the Grand European,” says Skip Muns, director of trade marketing at Viking. “This itinerary cruises from Amsterdam to Budapest along the Rhine, Main and Danube Rivers transiting the Rhine/Danube Canal, and visiting five countries with 14 guided tours included.”
To encourage bookings, Muns says, “there are quite a few offers agents can make. Along with the usual Early Booking Discount of up to $2,000 per couple, we are offering an additional ‘Ocean Cruisers’ discount. Agents can let us know when and on what ocean cruise line their clients sailed, and [we’ll] save them $1,000 per couple.” Muns adds that, according to Viking’s records, more than 90 percent of its repeat passengers rebook with their original travel agency. “We will continue to offer our past-guest incentives to make sure that agents benefit from this,” he says.
Muns also mentions Viking’s commissionable beverage packages, and adds that they are looking at additional commissionable products as well. “We have taken note of the recent trend in the industry to exclude items from being commissionable,” he says, “and are exploring ways to reward the agent for the efforts they make—not finding ways to decrease their pay.”
Like Karst, Muns emphasizes the all-inclusive nature of a river cruise. “Shore excursions are included,” he says, “and commission levels start at 12 percent with an opportunity for overrides. We even pay 5 percent commission on our air packages. Consumers can count as well on the U.S. dollar value of their vacation being kept static no matter what currency fluctuations take place.”