Trends & Tidbits: One-on-One With Avalon Waterways President Pam Hoffee

As American broadcast journalist Meredith Vieira christened the new 166-passenger Avalon View on Europe’s Danube River this past spring, travel advisors and other guests attending the event felt an aura of excitement about the ship launch. At the same time, there was also a familiar look and feel to the vessel—that’s because Avalon View is the 14th Panorama-class suite ship in Avalon Waterways’ river fleet, the first of that ship class, Avalon Panorama, having launched in 2011. Based on more than a decade of smooth sailing with this ship class, the line's perspective is clear: “Why change what’s working so well?”

Simply put, "advisors love selling this," says Pam Hoffee, president, Avalon Waterways, adding that they don't have to pick and choose” between two, three or even more classes of European river vessels when considering Avalon for a client's vacation. That said, “every ship has little differences not necessarily noticeable to guests," she points out. For example, Avalon View sports a slightly lighter color scheme than the line’s other ships. 

In addition, “we commissioned two Dutch artists to create art that complements the colors of the ship,” she says. And on the sustainability side, Hoffee says that each new ship offers the most efficient engines.

But generally, Avalon View doesn't break the mold. Instead, it offers “everything our guests love about an Avalon ship, especially the panorama views,” she believes. From the food floor to the Panorama Lounge, the space is completely open.

Avalon Waterways' new Avalon View is a Panorama-class river vessel with the bed facing "the view."
One brand characteristic of Avalon Waterways is that beds in accommodations face the view.  (Photo by Avalon Waterways)

“That is what our design is all about—taking in the view,” Hoffee emphasizes. Beds are positioned directly facing the water. So, guests can enjoy breakfast in bed while admiring the river and destinations along its banks. On Avalon View, another "tweak" from previous Panorama-class ships is that the open-air balconies now have a glass panel (versus three metal bars separating the glass). That offers an even better view. 

During a recent one-on-one discussion, Travel Agent also asked Hoffee about other river cruise happenings. Here's a summary of highlights. 

Any Interest in Crystal's River Vessels?

Just last week, A&K Travel Group, Ltd., owned by Geoffrey Kent and Heritage (an industrial holding company chaired by Manfredi Lefebvre d'Ovidio, former executive chairman of Silversea Cruises), announced its purchase of Crystal Symphony and Crystal Serenity, plus the Crystal Cruises brand name. So, we asked Hoffee if Avalon Waterways has any interest in Crystal River Cruises' vessels? 

“They’re beautiful ships, there’s no denying that,” says Hoffee. But “the number of staterooms and the finances that go with that, [considering the] guest-to-crew ratio, that’s not likely to work for us.” For example, ultra-luxury Crystal had many more crew members to serve fewer guests. As a result, the Crystal vessels were constructed with fewer guest staterooms, compared with the European river vessels of other lines.

Bottom line? "They would never fit into our fleet,” Hoffee acknowledges.

Return of Asia River Cruising 

Avalon Waterways' river vessel, Avalon Saigon, sails along Southeast Asia's Mekong River.
Avalon Saigon will soon restart cruising the Mekong River from Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, to Phnom Penh, Cambodia. (Photo by Avalon Waterways)

Right now, Avalon Waterways’ European river vessels have all returned to cruising with guests aboard. In addition, "we’re poised to start operating in Southeast Asia in October," says Hoffee. She refers to the 36-passenger Avalon Saigon, the line’s newest ship in the region. That intimate vessel has 18 245-square-foot staterooms. And yes, the beds “face” the view.

Hoffee says that Avalon has been in contact with its guests to advise them that—assuming the everything is open from the country standpoint—the line will begin operating first from Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam, on October 13, 2022.

That cruise will sail along the Mekong River to Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital city. From there, Avalon will transport guests via plane to Siem Reap so they can explore Angkor Wat.

Avalon Saigon offers accommodations with beds facing the Mekong River scenery.
Guests will discover beds that face "the view" on Avalon Waterways' Avalon Saigon, which sails the Mekong River. (Photo by Avalon Waterways)

Operations Elsewhere

Avalon Waterways operates its own ships in Europe and Avalon Saigon in Southeast Asia. For other exotic itineraries, it charters space aboard other ships and operates Avalon itineraries from those. For example, in India, Avalon Waterways charters the Ganges Voyager. On South America's Amazon River, it does the same for Delphine 3. And in the Galapagos, Hoffee explains that the line charters the 16-guest Treasure of Galapagos, a small catamaran: “It’s a great little yacht experience.”  

In Egypt, the river line operates its own itineraries with guests enjoying a cruise on the elegant Sonesta St. George, one of the Sonesta Nile river vessels operated by Sonesta Hotels. Sailing for four nights roundtrip from Luxor, “it’s almost the same thing that everyone is doing in seven nights,” stresses Hoffee. Another option is for guests to sail from Luxor to Aswan, as well as to continue on to Jordan.

Avalon also uses The Farah on the Nile.

Pam Hoffee, president, Avalon Waterways
Pam Hoffee, president, Avalon Waterways (Photo by Avalon Waterways)

2022 River Sales Trends  

All 14 of Avalon’s European ships are back in operation and “we’re seeing record sales,” says Hoffee. In particular, France's rivers and the Rhine River are selling well,

That said, "Omicron affected us in the same way that it affected everyone," Hoffee acknowledges. In addition, "the war in Ukraine is still causing some slow down on the Danube."

Hoffee continued: “I hope that people reconsider their concerns there [the Danube] and reconsider the need to support those destinations and countries.” That’s why she encourages advisors with reluctant clients to explain the reality. 

First, “there is no State Department warning,” she says.

Hoffee also reports that her line has operated for several months now on the Danube with “absolutely zero concern.”

Current Booking Trends

As guests return to Europe in 2022, they're staying longer. "It's definitely a trend that people are doing 'back-to-backs' with us or staying longer on their own,” Hoffee says. “A lot of people haven’t taken a trip in a couple of years.”

For their first big trip post-lockdown, “they have several years of vacation spend in mind for one trip,” she explains. 

Hoffee recommends people do their research, understand any requirements of countries and ports and also buy travel protection that covers quarantine, just as a precaution (if they'd test positive at any point in the journey).

“But I do think, compared to last year, this year is totally different,” she notes, citing the elimination of many of the travel hassles that consumers encountered in testing and entry requirements. For example, the CDC recently eliminated the pre-flight test requirement to enter the U.S.

Similar to what Travel Agent has been told by other river line executives, Hoffee sees accommodations selling from the top down and not the bottom up. For example, "the Royal Suites, other suites and the largest staterooms are selling first,” she notes.  

Relaxed Luxury, Active Discovery

In 2022, global river lines are showing even more differentiation among themselves than in the past. That's helping broaden the river cruise marketplace.

“Avalon Waterways skews about five years younger than the average river cruise line,” according to Hoffee. “Overall, our style is relaxed luxury, which speaks to a younger Baby Boomer who looks for luxury but in a different way.” She says her line’s guests typically aren’t looking for butler service with white gloves but instead friendly personalized service. They're seeking service in which crew members "address you by name, know what you like to drink" and so on.   

One pandemic-era trend? “We’ve heard from advisors that some of their true ocean cruise clients aren’t quite ready to get back on a big ship,” says Hoffee. “For 2022, we’re seeing a bit of that.”

In addition to some new-to-brand guests transitioning from other cruise lines, the line is seeing new-to-cruise guests. “If guests are new to river cruising, the key reason why they are choosing Avalon is our 'Active and Discovery' programming," says Hoffee. She describes the "Active and Discovery" sailings as “a little more immersive and engaging.” They’re designed for people looking for hiking, biking, cooking classes and so on.

For example, the “Bites and Highlights” tours" offered on those cruises deliver a more immersive way to tour a city. Hoffee explains that “it’s a city tour but with stops along the way to taste the foods and learn about the culture and city by learning about the local cuisine at the same time.” Similarly, the "Active and Discovery" cruises' biking tours are not only about exercising but also about stopping along the route and learning. One of the guides for a Belgrade, Romania bike tour, for example, guides the group but also chats about being a teenager in the city during the 1990s.”

Parting Thoughts

As Avalon reaches the mid-year point, Hoffee sees a bright future. The river line’s 14th Panorama-class ship, Avalon View, is now sailing the Rhine River, plus “Active and Discovery” sailings and celebrity hosted “Storyteller” cruises are attracting new guests.

The latter, for example, are enticing guests with the opportunity to interact with such creative luminaries as Diana Gabaldon, bestselling author of the Outlander novels; Christopher Moore, international bestselling comic fantasy novelist; and Candace Bushnell, bestselling author of the Sex in the City anthology.

In addition, Hoffee says the line’s sustainability messages and strong support from parent, the Globus family of brands, in that regard are “resonating with the bit younger clientele.”

Avalon has a sizable river cruise operation, but it's not in every European river region. For example, it doesn't operate in Portugal’s Douro River Valley nor France's Bordeaux areaBoth are popular regions of operation for other major European river lines. 

Is expansion in those areas or elsewhere in Europe planned?  “I think there’s absolutely room for growth,” Hoffee emphasizes. “We want to be where our travelers want to go.”

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