One-on-One With: Janet Bava, Chief Marketing Officer, AmaWaterways

AmaWaterways recently announced that it will extend its sailing season on Portugal's Douro River through the end of December for both 2022 and 2023. Usually, the season ends in November, but the line's recent decision will add a total of 14 voyages to the lineup.

During the recent Seatrade Cruise Global conference in Miami Beach, FL, Travel Agent spoke to Janet Bava, AmaWaterways’ chief marketing office, about this Douro season extension and other developments. Bava says the line's 2022 Douro River season is nearly sold out, although limited space is still available. As for the extended season, “we’re going to go where the demand is,” she notes.

How will the voyages differ from those earlier in the season? The line had to make a few modifications, given the time of year, says Bava, “because the day is shorter, so we start sailing earlier in the day.”

Other lines have avoided sailing late in the year as often maintenance is being done on locks along the river but, operationally, Bava says the line believes that it’s worked out the details, citing the expertise of Rudi Schreiner, the line’s co-founder, co-owner and president, working with the line’s Portuguese partners

Bava says the line operates two ships throughout Portugal's spring, summer and fall season on the Douro River: AmaVida and AmaDouro. The additional voyages at year’s end will be operated by AmaDouro, on its seven-night “Enticing Douro” itinerary. But, she noted that the line could ultimately add in AmaVida should demand warrant that in the future. 

Western Europe Popularity

Trend-wise over the past year or so, “we’ve seen incredible demand for the western side of Europe,” says Bava. “Oporto [also called Porto] is always super popular and is a warmer destination in Europe for snowbirds.” So, it makes sense, she notes, that river cruisers eager to sail late in the year will also appreciate the normally bit warmer European weather in Portugal during that timing.

Janet Bava, chief marketing officer, AmaWaterways
Janet Bava, chief marketing officer, AmaWaterways (Photo by AmaWaterways)

The growing demand for western Europe sailings began in 2021, says Bava, pointing to the strong demand that year in Provence, France for AmaKristina. Building on that, AmaWaterways worked to create back-to-back cruise opportunities on different French rivers for those cruisers who didn’t want to cross more borders.

Travelers believe that once they arrive in Europe, they deserve a longer vacation. So, AmaWaterways chose to match up the embarkation/disembarkation days for certain French itineraries. That allows some guests to transfer from one of France’s river cruise regions to another easily. Those guests simply get off one ship and board another same day.

For instance, they might sail on the Rhone/Saone and then transfer same day to the Seine River or to the Bordeaux region for a river voyage. From Bava’s perspective, guests are saying: “I want to see as much as possible when I do get to Europe. So they’re taking two or three cruises.” Increasingly, she's also seen guests adding on land packages on a more frequent basis than in past years. 

For those seeking "the full shebang," AmaWaterways established a new "Seven Rivers" itinerary, with guests hopping from one river to the next. Lengthwise and territory-wise, it's akin to a World Cruise on the ocean side. The first voyage in spring 2023 sold out and two more were added.  

Elsewhere, “Egypt is doing phenomenally well,” she said, and the line is now planning to restart Cambodia and Vietnam sailings on Southeast Asia's Mekong River in October 2022.

What's Trending?

In addition, AmaWaterways is beginning to see more families spanning multiple generations traveling together as well as a younger demographic. “That’s always been our goal, not only to attract younger travelers but multi-generational families. Some of those strategies developed pre-COVID-19."

But the line focused on those more during the pandemic, too, she added. “We’re now seeing lots of Millennials traveling with their grandparents,” she added

While “war [in Ukraine] was a big issue in March,” creating slower new bookings on the Lower Danube, “we’re not having too many cancellations now,” she said.

What regions beyond France and Portugal are proving most popular with guests? “The Floriade just kicked off and that’s doing very well,” she said, noting that the Netherlands and Belgium itineraries through the fall are also helping  the line attract a younger demographic.

With loosening European requirements, clients “love that they now don’t have to test to travel” to many countries, Bava said. “Obviously, for now, though, there is testing on the return to the U.S.”

Janet Bava, chief marketing officer, AmaWaterways on the boarding gangway of AmaSiena.
AmaWaterways' Chief Marketing Officer Janet Bava gets ready to board AmaSiena.  (Photo by AmaWaterways)

Capacity on the line’s river vessels. “It’s not 100 percent, but about 80 percent to 90 percent now," she pointed out.

The line is also seeing some signs that working professionals who can work from the road are heading overseas and looking for options like AmaWaterways with free Wi-Fi.

Travel Advisor Tidbits

Travel advisor opportunities? She says “it’s all about personalization. Everyone is so unique and different.” Advisors know that if they can personalize the trip to the guest’s personality and interests, they’re  going to do well, she says. The line has thus developed exciting new technology that is starting to help its reservations agents do that. If a potential guest asks about a river in France plus adding in another week on another river, the technology can provide tips on where to start, where to finish and what can be added and so on. It’s a smart way to suggest this and that to clients.

Normally, AmaWaterways would be integrating that same technology into the travel advisor online booking system, but it will be fall most likely before advisors see that. Why? It's all about timing. Right now, “we’re pausing technology updates until we update the reservations system,” says Bava. 

“It’s an integration process by IT and the view is 'if we do it, let’s do it right,'" she emphasizes. But AmaWaterways' goal is to provide that smart technology to advisors this year. “It will give agents a more sophisticated tool,” Bava says.

During 2021 and 2022, most travel suppliers have had shortages of staff and hold times for guests and advisors calling in. But “we haven’t been hit too hard,” says Bava, noting that the river line has “called back all reservations agents and fixed our call flow system. So, the technology has allowed call wait times and call abandonments to decrease significantly.”

On a extremely busy Monday morning, for example, if there’s a wait time, Bava says that it’s typically 20 to 30 minutes. During normal hours throughout the week, the wait time is typically 10 minutes or less.

The good news for both the line and travel advisors? “The river cruising product overall really has increased in popularity,” Bava stresses.

While that was occurring pre-pandemic, "now consumers are truly appreciating what a small ship, intimate, personalized river cruise can offer," she notes. "That's helped put river cruising on the map."

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