Yes, the 2018 holiday season is over. Decorations are packed away, relatives have returned home and clients are back into their routine and focused on the new year ahead.
But it’s a good time for travel agents to begin planning for promotion of a future Christmas Markets or holiday river cruise for 2019 or 2020.
Travel Agent sailed on two back-to-back Rhine River cruises on AmaWaterways’ 156-passenger AmaStella last month.
One was a Christmas Markets voyage departing December 17 from Amsterdam to Basel, Switzerland. The other was a holiday voyage from December 24 to December 31 on the reverse Rhine itinerary.
Here are our first-hand tips and insights for travel advisors.
A Highly Social Experience
Travelers taking an intimate river cruise usually enjoy meeting new people and are friendly to fellow guests.
But as a solo traveler, I expected fellow guests sailing during the holiday period to be perhaps a bit less social -- bonding instead as a "couple" or “family unit," a special family experience with a holiday spirit. And yes, they were doing that.
But the nice surprise was that nearly all guests seemed more social than the norm I've experienced on previous, non-holiday river cruises.
Almost without exception, couples and families of six to eight people proactively introduced themselves to me in AmaStella's Lounge and Dining Room. They beckoned me to sit with them, and seemed to relish talking to new people about the "shared" cruising experiences of the day.
Several other single travelers, all of different ages and generations, were also onboard and similarly social. Most were experienced world travelers.
I dined with different people nightly, a nice perk of AmaWaterways' open dining policy. I usually just sat down at a table for six and either a family or one or two couples eagerly joined me. It was an easy and convivial dining experience.
In fact, one night I sat at a booth by myself, wondering what guests would join me. Less than a minute later, another traveler saw me sitting alone, came over, said “What are you doing here? Come over to our table.”
As a solo traveler during a holiday period (which for me could have been a bit sad, thinking about past holidays with more joy), the social dynamic on AmaStella was a real plus.
I met many guests from across the U.S. and Canada, as well as from the United Kingdom, South Africa, Australia, Brazil and Hong Kong.
The lesson learned? Christmas Markets or holiday season cruises are filled with guests who love being social during this time of year – and spreading the holiday cheer.
The Christmas Markets
On my first cruise -- from December 17 to 24 -- a highlight of the AmaStella itinerary was the opportunity to stroll through vibrant, festive Christmas Markets in the heart of European cities and villages.
Visitors and locals alike strolled along booths/stalls (a Christmas Market in Rudesheim, Germany is shown above) with individual vendors selling gluhwein (hot mulled wine), sweet holiday treats, sausages, funnel cakes, holiday ornaments, decorations, hand-made local crafts and more.
Travelers smelled the aroma of cinnamon and cloves; listened to Christmas tunes or caroling; browsed stalls and shops selling Christmas tree ornaments, leather goods, snow globes, souvenirs and music boxes; tasted gingerbread cookies and local beers and wines; and simply immersed themselves in the celebratory aura.
Small children -- and there were a handful on both my cruises -- enjoyed a carousel ride at the Christmas Market just outside Cologne's Cathedral or such down-home activities as viewing a barnyard "village" of tiny houses built for chickens in Rudesheim, Germany.
Travel advisors who want to market and sell Christmas Markets or holiday cruises definitely need to "paint a picture" of the experience. One option is to ask clients to drop into your office or another venue for a "Christmas Markets" event.
Agents could serve gingerbread cookies and home-made gluhwein; rent traditional European costumes for staff to wear; create a station decorated in holiday decor that serves sausages; create personalized ornaments for each guest; and show video that immerses guests in the experience.
When selling Christmas Markets, it's also good to explain that clients won't just have a magical experience that conjures up images of past holidays -- but they'll also create new memories.
For example, storks are prolific in Strasbourg during warmer seasons and we viewed humongous stork nests still in the trees during our AmaWaterways city tour.
So, next Christmas, I will remember the "new memory" created in Europe when I hang these stork ornaments (see photo above) purchased at 3 euros each in Strasbourg, France.
Tip? Clients who desire the full holiday aura and to visit multiple Christmas Markets should cruise before Christmas. Most markets open in late November/early December and most close before Christmas Day.
The Holiday Aura Onboard
AmaStella was beautifully decorated for the holidays (as shown in the photo above). Walking into the ship’s atrium, one immediately felt the holiday vibe with lighted garland, a humongous wreath atop the elevator and a grand holiday tree near the purser's desk.
Guest corridors featured holiday wreaths on every stateroom/suite door. Gingerbread houses and a stuffed Santa greeted guests entering the dining area.
Beyond holiday decor, here’s a look at the type of experiences clients can expect on a Christmas Markets or holiday cruise with AmaWaterways:
Gingerbread Cookie Decorating: Guests were asked to sign up in advance, and then ventured to the Chef's Table alternative dining venue aft to decorate (and sample, of course) freshly baked, traditional gingerbread cookies.
One Shoe Out: In Europe, it's a tradition early in December to put out a St. Nicholas boot/shoe in front of the fire or front door. The next morning, the owner will awaken to find small presents inside.
So on one evening, AmaStella's guests were encouraged to put one shoe outside their door, and sure enough, the next morning, it was occupied by a gigantic chocolate Santa. (See photo at right.)
Carol Singing: Using song sheets provided by the line, travelers in the ship's Lounge were entertained as they joined the AmaWaterways crew (standing in the center of the room) to sing traditional Christmas carols and more modern songs, too.
Housekeepers, kitchen workers, bar staffers, deck officers, dining room waiters, engine room workers and others, including the hotel director, food & beverage manager and cruise manager, led guests in the singing.
Some songs, including "Silent Night," were traditional, but others, such as "Feliz Navidad," provided a more modern celebration -- with crew joined by some guests in a conga line around the lounge.
Santa’s Arrival & Gifts: During that same program, Santa buzzed into the room on a scooter, with two angels (crew members) following him and carrying bags of gifts.
Guests (95 percent of them adults – both men and women) loved sitting on Santa’s lap, snapping selfies or their traveling companions taking their photo, and then receiving a gift from Santa’s helpers.
On our cruise, the gifts varied a bit, but many guests received a small lighted wreath with Santa in the middle (batteries were included). This was a nice touch.
While this activity was a big hit pre-Christmas Day, interestingly enough, on my subsequent holiday cruise just before New Year's (but after Christmas), it was still popular with guests.
Christmas Tree Decorating: Guests were encouraged to visit the lounge and help decorate several holiday trees. In addition, the cruise manager provided commentary about some of the holiday traditions in the countries being visited on the cruise.
During the sail by Loreley (sometimes called Lorelei) Rock, the bar team served Rudesheimer Coffee and Schwarzwalder Cake.
Gluhwein & Hot Chocolate: Returning from tours, guests were often chilled -- given outside temperatures of 28 to 40 degrees Fahrenheit. Fortunately, AmaStella’s crew members were waiting for them in the atrium with hot towels and a mug of gluhwein or hot chocolate.
Christmas Eve Transportation to the Cathedral: On Christmas Eve (boarding day for my second cruise) in Basil, the ship remained in port until early the following morning. So the line offered transportation for any guests who wanted to celebrate Christmas Eve mass at the Roman Catholic Church of St. Basel.
Turn-down Chocolates: Each night, the pillows on our bed were topped with a tiny chocolate Santa, and one night, there was a bigger surprise -- two large nutcracker chocolate figurines.
Holiday Movies: AmaWaterways’ complimentary entertainment en stateroom/suite was season-friendly. It included on-demand classics including “White Christmas,” “The Grinch Who Stole Christmas,” “It’s a Wonderful Life,” “Christmas Vacation” and other holiday fare, plus a Christmas in Europe program by Rick Steves.
The system also had many non-holiday movies, documentaries, TV shows and favorite videos, all complimentary.
Celebratory, Social Time: AmaWaterways’ nightly, pre-dinner "Sip and Sail" time provided complimentary beer, wine, cocktails including a cocktail of the day. It was a great “mixer” to help people gather and socialize. The line also serves complimentary wine and beer with lunch and dinner.
Beauty of Back-to-Backs
One tip? Clients who have both the time and money can create a more leisurely pace on their holiday river cruise by booking back-to-back cruises that sail one way and return the same way, visiting most or all of the same ports.
It's a great way for guests to see the sites within the destinations, but also have time to relax onboard and avoid feeling frazzled or rushed.
In fact, many guests on both our cruises opted to stay onboard certain days to relax, enjoy a massage, have their hair cut and styled, or just sleep in after a long international flight (and no pre-cruise stay) as they acclimated to time zone changes.
But those staying onboard did miss a port day. Back-to-back sailings on the same itinerary, simply in reverse, solve that issue.
For example, after a long overseas flight and no pre-cruise stay, I slept in the next morning -- thus missing the Amsterdam canal cruise, but I simply picked it up on the return trip, given my back-to-back routing.
With the itinerary -- totally within the European Union -- I also did not have to get off the ship, clear customs, talk to immigration or change cabins between my two cruises. That made the back-to-back experience a breeze.
Holiday River Cruise Tips
(AmaWaterways' AmaStella enters a Rhine River lock, shown above)
Here's a look at some of my observations during my two-week Christmas Markets and holiday cruise adventure:
Savor the Holiday Sights Ashore: While a cruise through the Rhine River Gorge is charming and picturesque at any time of year, that's racheted up even a bit higher with shoreside views of holiday trees, Christmas Markets and lighting displays.
Bring Business Cards: Cruisers may be on vacation, but it's a great idea to bring along a slew of business cards and/or pieces of pre-printed paper that size with name, e-mail and address. At the end of the cruise, clients may wish to exchange information with many new-found friends they've met onboard.
Bring Remembrances of Home: It's satisfying for clients to bring along small things that remind them of past holiday memories. For example, I brought along video clips of past holiday cruises with my parents and other family Christmas events -- watching those from my laptop computer on Christmas Eve.
Create New Memories: Decorate the stateroom/suite. I bought a little fit-together tree and a toy train in AmaStella’s gift shop and put it up in my cabin. The result? I smiled every time I opened my cabin door and saw this small, festive display. (See photo at right).
Tap into Onboard Staff: The cruise line’s hotel director, cruise manager and purser’s desk staff are happy to be a personal resource for guests. They're adept at answering questions for touring tips, ordering private taxis, setting up reservations in Chef's Table and so on.
AmaWaterways' hotel director, Adile Wirth, was "the best of the best" and couldn't do enough for ALL guests. I routinely observed that when a guest approached her, she often got up from her chair, came out behind the desk and talked with them face-to-face.
Purser Viktor Szanto and his crew were also excellent and couldn't do enough to help guests.
Go to events onboard: Clients may not like every type of onboard event or activity but encourage them to try different ones. By sharing experiences with other guests, bonding opportunities and a sense of "extended family" develop.
Head Out for Holiday Shoreside Activities: Besides taking walking tours through the Christmas markets, look for specialized holiday evening events -- such as a Rudesheimer Coffee Tasting in Rudesheim, Germany. Seeing the destination after dark adds something to the experience.
Opt for a Pre-Cruise Stay: On a one week cruise, it was clear from chatting with guests that those who booked a pre-cruise stay started their cruise "raring to go" from the first day onboard.
Those who didn't and had long international flights often couldn't get moving -- given time zone changes -- for several days, missing much of the included sightseeing. Pre-cruise stays help the body adapt to the time zone differences.
Be Prepared for Cool Touring: Some guests brought jackets, but not hats and gloves. When day-time temperatures in late December are in the 20 to 40 range, warm clothing and accessories are a must.
Also, guests should be prepared for rain, drizzle or even snow. It snowed in Amsterdam the day prior to my arrival and there was snow and frozen vegetation spotted at ground level during day-time sailing along one German stretch of the Rhine.
Plus, if clients aren't fond of cold temperatures while touring on walking tours, a summer cruise might be a better choice. Most guests on my cruise, though, loved the cool weather to put them in the holiday spirit.
Savor No Cooking and Chores: Many guests who typically host family/friends in their own homes for a week or so during the holidays told me they loved enjoying the Christmas holiday without any cooking, cleaning, laundry or other household tasks.
So, with just 11 months to the next Christmas Markets and holiday season cruises, it's a good month to begin planning how to promote these river cruises to your client base.
Also, stay tuned here in the coming weeks for our ship review of AmaStella, which sails the Rhine River throughout the year.