New to the River: Attracting First-Time River Cruisers

Lenore Miller, seen here with daughter Heidi Windmiller in Europe, recommends explaining the ease of river cruises.
Lenore Miller, seen here with daughter Heidi Windmiller in Europe, recommends explaining the ease of river cruises.

Clients who’ve taken a river cruise understand the benefits and value, but how do agents entice the “rookies” to sail? Here are top tips and advice from river cruise experts around the country.

Best Hooks for First-timers: What should agents focus on when talking with potential first-timers? Phyllis Dale, co-owner/travel specialist, Great Escapes Travel, a Virtuoso agency, Lake Mary, FL, talks about the intimacy of river vessels compared with most ocean cruise ships and that, while on a river cruise, clients are truly part of the “cruise family,” not simply passengers.

Concurring is Elaine Bylos, franchise owner, Cruise Planners-American Express Travel, Marietta, GA: “When talking with potential river cruise clients I focus on the benefit of being onboard with only 148+ passengers and the ensuing attention to detail and personal attention from the staff.”

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John and Dierdre Bloom at Angkor Wat, Cambodia.
John and Dierdre Bloom at Angkor Wat, Cambodia.

Explain “the overall ease of the river cruise travel experience,” recommends Lenore Miller, owner, Minnetonka Travel and Cruises, a agency in Wayzata, MN. That includes the intimacy of the river boats, the fact that guests are met at the airport and transferred to the boat, and at port, guests simply walk off the boat and right into town. Plus, it’s good to stress any included shore trips.

CruiseOne franchise owner David Betlejewski of Norton Shores, MI, emphasizes the easy travel style (no continual packing/unpacking) and that river cruising is the most comfortable way to see many different places, especially in Europe. “I am also very clear in emphasizing that this is a first-class experience, which provides a level of confidence in my clients,” he says.

“I always try to paint a vivid picture of what the river cruise experience is all about, from the destinations to their cabin on the ship,” stresses John Bloom, co-owner, Travelers Trails, an independent agency of Avoya Travel, Richland, WA. Since European and Asian rivers were old highways and trading routes centuries ago, allowing towns and cultures to develop along the water, Bloom says “customers get excited to know they’ll see culturally rich and historic destinations, and be able to step off the ship right into the heart of the city.”

Julie Davidson, franchise owner, Cruise Planners-American Express Travel, Mount Pleasant, SC, tells clients: “It’s a totally seamless opportunity to travel to the interior of Europe or China with all the creature comforts of an ocean ship but with more included [such as] daily tours, wine and beer with meals, and the benefit of all being in English.”

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Sarah Nelson Wandrey says many first-time river cruisers book another trip within two years.

Sarah Nelson Wandrey says many first-time river cruisers book another trip within two years.

When couples or a few friends are unsure of what to book, Sarah Nelson Wandrey, a top river cruise seller, Travel Leaders, Mesa, AZ, suggests river cruising and compares the product inclusions for river voyages versus ocean products. “Clients who are looking to do a self-drive tour can also be sold on the idea of river cruising because it means that they still get to see the places they want to see, but they don’t actually have to do the driving or worry about a train schedule, and they won’t have to pack up in every city,” she adds.

Seeing the interior of countries with the same ease of an ocean cruise is a big deal, according to Beth Levich, franchise owner, Cruise Holidays of Portland, Portland, OR: “Unpack once and wake up in a new city or country each day. No chance of getting seasick, a wonderful opportunity to make new friends with never more than 190 on the ships, and the price is all inclusive or almost all inclusive. No surprises and no large bills at the end of the cruise.”

Other hooks? Dale also explains “there is always land on both sides of the vessel,” comforting for those wanting to relax and watch the scenery float by, and calming for people a bit fearful of a water vacation.

Best Geographic Region for First-timers: Bloom usually recommends seven-night Danube or also Rhine River itineraries, especially for first-time European visitors: “On these sailings, travelers will go to places they’ve heard about before and the cities, such as Vienna and Budapest, have a magical quality that new and repeat visitors to Europe will love.”

Levich concurs, because “the towns along the Danube can’t be beat.” She cites Nuremberg’s World War II history, Linz’s easy access to Salzburg, Vienna’s Mozart concerts, and time in Budapest and Prague. Similarly, “the best geographic region for first-timers is Nuremberg to Budapest,” believes Miller.

Julie Davidson next to the River Beatrice on Danube River cruise.

Julie Davidson next to the River Beatrice on Danube River cruise.

Bylos likes the Rhine for its romance, scenery and wine-themed itineraries. “From castles to exquisite old wineries, some of which were established in the 1700s, the Rhine has something for everyone,” she says. Davidson concurs, noting that clients can enjoy “Tulip Time” in the Netherlands or view castles and hills of vineyards along the river.

Betlejewski suggests a bit different geographic choice. “For first-time river cruisers, it’s hard to beat a seven-night Paris to Normandy cruise,” he believes, noting that the shorter, more cost-effective cruises give first-timers a very good impression of what river cruising is truly all about.

Closer to home, “America’s rivers are an excellent choice for first-time cruisers,” emphasizes Dale, citing Mississippi River cruises, and particularly lower Mississippi sailings that include New Orleans or Memphis. These strongly appeal to Americans who haven’t traveled overseas, don’t want to fly internationally, or wish to drive or take Amtrak to the embarkation city.

Best Way to Find New River Cruisers: “Follow water,” says Betlejewski. “People who want to go on a river cruise usually live on or near water themselves. So not only do they enjoy it, but they can also afford to spend money on a first-class experience like this.”

Bloom receives Avoya leads but he also looks to his existing clients who’ve previously booked upscale cruises and guided tours. “Describe the tastes, the colors, the sights, and make them feel it,” when broaching the subject of a river cruise, he says.

River cruises often appeal to those 50+ who have done a fair amount of traveling and are looking for cultural immersion, says Bylos, who draws clients from clubs and “meet-ups” that cater to baby boomers, executive women and wine enthusiasts: “I have been very successful doing wine-themed river cruise presentations.”

“Clients who are well-traveled and looking for a different travel experience are wonderful candidates for river cruising—especially empty-nesters,” notes Miller. Many of Davidson’s first-time river cruisers select long voyages because they’re mature travelers and “attracted to river cruises not only because of the lack of time constraints but the ability to go to new places.”

Several agents said it’s highly effective when they partner with suppliers for an informational river cruise event. “We explain as best we can what the difference is between the river cruise companies,” says Levich. “Then we end by saying ‘unless you book one year out, you’ll be lucky to get on any of them.’” Nelson Wandrey also suggests giving an incentive for same-day bookings.

From Dale’s perspective, it’s very important to treat all clients as friends; they should be far more than just a “booking.” That, in turn, creates very happy clients who provide valuable referrals.

Best of all? Nelson Wandrey’s first-time river cruisers usually book a second river cruise within two years. Dale and Bloom both describe the experience of river cruising as “very addicting,” so if clients try it, they’ll usually love it and return to book a different river adventure.

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