Newest Top Tips for Selling River Cruises

What your client experiences ashore can really make a difference. Pictured is Cesky Krumlov, Czech Republic, included on Tauck’s Blue Danube sailings and other river cruise line itineraries.
What your client experiences ashore can really make a difference. Pictured is Cesky Krumlov, Czech Republic, included on Tauck’s Blue Danube sailings and other river cruise line itineraries.

How can river cruise sales both expand your agency’s client base and add to the bottom line? Consider the following highlights from a panel on river and small ship luxury cruising moderated by Charles Sylvia, Cruise Lines International Association’s vice president of membership and trade relations, during the recent Cruise360 conference. These insights and other executive tips and “how to sell” intel can help you cash in on this product for which, according to CLIA’s “2016 State of the Cruise Industry Outlook,” demand is at an all-time high. Capacity is also up: 187 CLIA member line river vessels are sailing this year, compared to 169 just a year ago.

Focus Heavily on the Desti-nation: “It’s really about the destination, rather than the amenities onboard,” says Katharine Bonner, senior vice president of river and small ship cruising, Tauck. “It’s about where you’re going, what you’re going to experience ashore…that really makes a difference.” So, dig deep into the destination experience when chatting with potential river cruise clients. Show your passion for the product or region. Paint a colorful picture of what they’ll see, do and feel while on a river cruise.

Know the Products Inside-Out: Most customers will have done sizable Internet research before they ask you for your expertise. So, the better you can educate yourself about the products and differentiating points, the better off you’ll be. “Be present [with suppliers] and connect with us on a personal level,” says Kristin Karst, executive vice president and co-owner, AmaWaterways. So, take time to make that connection and ask questions. Get on the phone and talk with an inside sales person, BDM or an executive.

Tap into Travel Agent Tools: River lines also offer help from their business development managers, shipboard and regional training sessions and online educational academies. CLIA tools also can help including agent training and a video about river cruising merits at

Navin Sawhney, CEO for the Americas, Ponant Cruises (offering Amazon cruises and small-ship ocean sailings) suggests agents host a Webinar for customers and tap into the line’s experts, who will tell clients about the destinations and “what it’s like to travel with like-minded people.” Karst says that if agents are trying to sell her brand and need marketing advice, just ask. “You are our marketing arm, our sellers,” she stresses. “We will create for you the flyers and promotional materials.”

Give High Priority to Social Media: Patrick Clark, managing director, Avalon Waterways, says normal marketing and sales channels still work, but “we’re seeing the socially savvy travel agents really starting to explore and grow [their business]. They’re reaching so many more people. There are such wonderful opportunities to connect with individuals and groups and push out ideas.” So, create a social media plan, assign someone to handle it or do it yourself with weekly and monthly goals. Then, show your experiential knowledge to those on Pinterest, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn or other channels.

Viking offers agents promotional videos that focus on the food, wine and cultural aspects of river cruising.
Viking offers agents promotional videos that focus on the food, wine and cultural aspects of river cruising.

Realize the Power of Video: Globally, people watch more than six billion hours of online video per month, and YouTube receives more than 1 billion unique visitors, according to, an e-mail marketing blog; it also says that businesses, which integrate video in e-mail, generate 40 percent higher monthly revenues than those that do not. So, e-mail your own video clips or a video link to clients. 

Cruise lines also have videos to assist agents as well. One Viking River Cruises’ video features Chef Rui Paula showing Karine Hagen, Viking’s senior vice president, how to put a nouvelle cuisine twist on Bacalhau, the Portuguese national dish, while another Viking video showcases fine wine, oysters, truffles and cognac within France’s Bordeaux region.

Get Out in the Community: Agents should be proactive in their community. Set up cruise nights, do wine-and-cheese events or support a local charity. Get to know more people in your community, hand out business cards, become a resource, network and support fellow business people. Set up co-sponsored joint events, perhaps at a local restaurant or golf club. Contact local genealogy groups (German, French, Italian, Dutch, Austrian, Vietnamese and so on) and show them how a river cruise can give them access to explore their “roots.”

Show Your Passion with Actual Experience: If you have the chance to take a river cruise fam trip, go for it. Consider air fare paid by your agency as an investment in your future business success. Line-sponsored agent fams with seminars give you both first-hand exposure to the experience and product knowledge from the line. “We are all entrepreneurs, we all started from scratch, so invest in yourself,” Karst stresses. “Come on this river cruise [agent seminars], and you will get the passion and motivation. You become the expert and that’s what it’s all about.”

Use products such as American Cruise Line’s Queen of the West to show clients that high-end cruising is available in the U.S.
Use products such as American Cruise Line’s Queen of the West to show clients that high-end cruising is available in the U.S.

Grab a Group: “Our most effective agents really go after groups of people,” says Carter Robertson, vice president, communications, American Cruise Line and Pearl Seas Cruises. “One of our biggest challenges is that people just don’t understand that you can take a high-end cruise in America.” So, consider both close-to-home river cruises, such as those from American, as well as Un-Cruise Adventures, American Queen Steamboat Company, French America Line and others.

When putting together a potential group, Bonner suggests adding a local partner. She recalls one agency that created a themed group sailing on Tauck by partnering with a local chef. It was marketed in the chef’s culinary newsletter and the travel agent put together the air and some other amenities. “The first year there were 70 people onboard and this next year there’s an entire charter,” says Bonner.

Calm Any Fears with Facts: Most river vessels don’t sail on tidal waterways nor are guests far from land. So be sure to promote river cruising to clients who won’t book an ocean cruise because they fear seasickness or losing sight of land. “River cruising offers them the opportunity to get off every single day and experience the local culture in an easier way,” Bonner says.

Tap into Special Interests: Nicola Iannone, executive vice president, USA & Canada, CroisiEurope River Cruises, tells agents in attendance that from big ships to small ships, from river cruises to barge voyages in France, there’s something for everyone, plus agents can tap into myriad special interests. So, if you have clients interested in culture, history, culinary and wine, sports, crafts, golf or any other themes, develop a group cruise around that, or, suggest individual itineraries to clients based on that interest.

Uniworld’s bicycle excursions are one example of tapping into the active cruiser market.
Uniworld’s bicycle excursions are one example of tapping into the active cruiser market.

AmaWaterways and Backroads just announced they’ll offer more than 100 “active” river cruise departures in 2017 with adventure biking, walking and hiking tours. In addition, the Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection has new golf themed sailings and, separately, Guy Young, Uniworld’s president, says a recent partnership with Butterfield & Robinson on select 2016 “Enchanting Danube” departures means cruisers can head out for an exclusive biking excursion along the Danube River bike path led by skilled guides.

Realize that Clients Progress: Clients may start with a three- or four-night ocean cruise from a U.S. home port, to see if they like cruising. But, as they age and progress in experience on ships, they may want to explore farther out, says Iannone. So, as they look to Europe, don’t just consider big ship cruising, but also river cruising for its intimate, hassle-free and easygoing way to cruise within the European continent.

As they get older, clients also may desire to try a different river product based on lifestyle or interest changes, or they may wish to upgrade to a luxury product for a special occasion. For example, a couple who loves Emerald Waterways (and wants to continue sailing on that European line in the future) still might splurge for their 50th anniversary with all-inclusive luxury on sister line Scenic Cruises, perhaps a nine-day 2017 “Enchanting Rhone” itinerary from Paris to the Cote d’Azur. Or, clients might want to go really exotic for a change, such as on Pandaw Cruises’ off-the-beaten-path itinerary on Indonesian Borneo’s Kapuas River System.

To increase sales, incorporate these tips into your plan for the week. At the end of the week, how many have you tackled with specific goals?

First-Hand Knowledge: What makes a successful agent in tapping into the river cruise trend? “The river cruise industry is growing and changing constantly, so knowing the differences between the cruise lines and what they offer is so important,” says Debby Hughes, franchise owner, Dream Vacations, Big Bear City, CA. She tags clients in her system if they’ve expressed interest in river cruising so that she’s on top of things if a good match develops; when that occurs, she sends the clients both an e-mail and a direct mail message.

“I’ve also recently sent a direct mail piece focusing on river cruises — with the help of our corporate marketing department — to the clients in my database who meet certain past booking criteria,” Hughes says. In addition, “I’m using Facebook groups and pages to market a cruise that I’m personally escorting which is focused on my family’s Czechoslovakian heritage,” she says.

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