Small Ships, Big Reward: Tap Into the Growing Demand for River Cruises

(Copyright by Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA)) Diane Moore of Paul Gauguin Cruises, who served as the moderator for "Small Ships, Big Reward," a program during Cruise360, fields questions to Kristin Karst, co-owner and executive vice president of AmaWaterways.

Intimate ships and highly inclusive products translate into higher fares and great commission opportunities. But how can you dive in and help your clients pick the right product to assure they'll have the perfect river cruise vacation?

At Cruise Lines International Association's (CLIA's) recent Cruise360 conference in Port Everglades, FL, Diane Moore, president of Paul Gauguin Cruises, moderated a small-ship program with insights from seven senior executives of river lines and small-ship ocean and expedition lines.

In this first of a two-part series, Travel Agent presents highlights from the river cruise discussion.

River Experts Sound Off

River cruise speakers included Ellen Bettridge, president and CEO, Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection; Katharine Bonner, senior vice president, Tauck River & Small Ship Cruising; Terri Burke, managing director, Avalon Waterways; and Kristin Karst, co-owner and executive vice president, AmaWaterways

Each of the women had "six minutes" on the hot seat, as Moore fielded questions. First up was Bettridge, who urged the 1,000 travel agents in attendance to put the right customer on the right product, "because at the end of the day, if you do that, they will come back to you … because they will be happy. It’s very simple advice.”

She suggested agents ask these types of probing questions of potential river cruisers. What do they want out of their vacation? Where have they stayed before? Have they stayed at hotels and if so, what type? What do they like to do activity-wise?

“If you know they like to stay at a five-star hotel, then you have to put them on a five-star river cruise product,” Bettridge stressed. “It’s about getting to know your customer and not being afraid to ask them the right questions.” 

But she also added that if they start out by immediately saying “I want to do thus and so,” it’s still important "to make sure you qualify what they really want to do on their vacation." 

What's new this year and next with Uniworld? First, the line recently welcomed the new Joie de Vivre to France's Seine River. Next year, it launches U by Uniworld, a new brand designed solely for Millennials and Generation Xers. 

Appealing to Millennials

Moore asked Bettridge about what agents should do to market to those younger travelers, and how are Millennials different in what they want?

Turns out they truly like the idea of a river cruise, but they absolutely don't want a traditional river cruise product. 

"We heard from them loud and clear through some studies that AAA did, as well as some studies that were done by Contiki,” another sister Travel Corporation brand for 18- to 35-year-olds, noted Bettridge. 

“They want to stay in port longer," she said. "They want more fun all the time. They want to sleep in late…and they want to be connected all the time.” 

Onboard activities also must be different. For example, Uniworld is developing a “silent disco” at which cruisers dance to music they hear through a wireless headset rather than from booming speakers.  

That both satisfies the guest's desire for dancing late into the night and yet doesn't disturb guests who are asleep onboard, those on nearby vessels or local residents who live close to the river.  

In addition, "the dining experience has to be communal tables to bring people together, as they want to connect before, during and after the cruise," Bettridge stressed.

Most important to note? Uniworld's focus group studies showed that Millennials are emphatic: “We want a product that’s just for us.”

So U by Uniworld will be designated for guests between the ages of 21 and 45. “So if you’re over 45, you can’t come,” said Bettridge. “And I’m serious.”

The new brand's ships, the current -- soon to be refurbished and reconfigured -- River Ambassador and River Baroness, will be renamed The A and The B

“We’ll be redoing them completely,” Bettridge said, noting the outside of the ships will be painted all black, and the existing interior decor will be removed. "They'll be completely redone in a cool, hip way." 

Young travelers walk along the Seine River in Paris

One interesting facet? While research shows that Millennials and Generation Xers want to be "different," they also want to be "led." 

Yes, they have their smartphones and they know what’s going on, but they also want the local guide experience.

So, “U Hosts will take guests off at nighttime and take them into the cool little nightclubs and the cool spots where they might not know to go," said Bettridge. 

When talking with potential Millennials and Generation Xers, it's good for agents, as they do for all clients, to find out what these guests specifically want on their vacation, and to outline the many perks of river cruising.

First, it’s an easy method of travel. Clients don’t have to pack and unpack. Also, Bettridge stressed that river cruising takes travelers to quaint, small towns along the river where they can go ashore for authentic experiences. 

Next up on the six-minute hot seat was Tauck’s Bonner. Certainly, Tauck has a long history in tour operations, but a decade or so ago it added small ship and river cruising.

Moore asked questions like these: How do you manage marketing for these products? Is it the same way people market to tour clients? Are they the same clients? Do you find your tour guests want these types of products? Or, is it a product for completely different people?

“We’re a 92-year company that definitely has our roots in giving extraordinary land experiences to our guests, and yes, we found that there were destinations better served by river cruising or small ship cruises,” said Bonner. 

So Tauck introduced that style of travel and, at first, found it could fill the ships primarily with repeat travelers. But as the company’s cruise product burgeoned with new and updated ships, providing more itineraries and choices for guests, it needed to bring new guests into the fold. 

Bonner said that was a prime reason why Tauck joined CLIA several years ago. It wanted cruise selling agencies to get to know Tauck better and sell the products. She cited Cruise Planners as a great example of how that's worked very well.

Solo & Family Travelers

Moore asked whether Tauck's river product is appropriate for singles? Or, are they intimidated? How do you sell it?

In fact, many river lines are working to attract single travelers, and Bonner said, from her perspective, the product fits extremely well for solo travelers. Tauck has introduced "no single supplement" for Category 1 cabins on every single vessel of its river cruise departures.

“That was very successful, and what happens is that you have six or seven solos on every departure, they get to know one another," Bonner noted. "It’s not intimidating."

She says guests aren't walking into a huge crowd at dinner. The maître d’ knows them and the best spot to seat them -- often with other solo travelers they've met onboard. "So, it’s a much, much more comfortable experience," said Bonner. 

Multi-generational travel is one growth opportunity, and Tauck's Bridges program, started in 2003, was designed to “bridge” the generation gap. It's also extended Bridges as a concept to the rivers, and this year there will be 20 targeted river departures.

"It’s the perfect marriage, because [river cruising] is an easier way to travel with families,” Bonner emphasized. Parents don't have to contend with kids leaving their toys, clothes or shoes, and families don't have to continually pack and unpack.

“For Tauck, it’s not family-friendly departures," said Bonner. "It’s about departures specifically designed with kids in mind. Because you know if the kids are happy everyone is happy. If they’re not, everyone is miserable.” 

Onboard, she said Tauck's directors work with the kids and activities are active. Ashore, "we take them to a castle and they get to put on the garb that was worn 200 years ago and play the games that children of that era would have played," said Bonner. 

Then Moore queried Burke from Avalon Waterways: "What makes river cruising so special?" How do agents find clients? 

“Eighty-four percent of our river cruise guests -- and it’s about 80 percent overall in river cruising --  come from ocean cruising,” Burke said. 

In addition, 76 percent of Avalon Waterways' river cruise guests have taken tours in the past. “So you already have the database out there,” she says. “You already have all of that information available to you.”

She also said she’d be remiss if she didn’t point out the obvious -- the difference between ocean cruising and river cruising is "size."

So when an agent is selling a ship with 36 to 166 passengers, and there are only three different types of cabins, "that’s wonderful to not have to memorize so many different categories," said Burke.

Talk About Destination Immersion

When talking to potential river cruise clients, show guests how they can immerse themselves in the culture. Paint a picture. Burke says it's about getting to those destinations that you couldn’t really get to on ocean cruising, or you couldn’t get to on land.

She cited Myanmar's Irrawaddy River where Avalon Waterways sails north of Mandalay. It's a very remote area where no tours typically go and is untouched from a tourism standpoint. So river cruising can bring you to those authentic, little-visited or quaint destinations. 

Agents should also lay out the inclusions, whatever the brand. For Avalon Waterways, that's complimentary beer and wine for lunch and dinner, free Wi-Fi, bicycles carried onboard for guest use and much more. 

"So many different things are included in river cruising, and what is that to you?" Burke asked the audience. "That’s money... because you’re compensated on that total cruise price.” So that's a bigger check than for a mass-market, less inclusive product. 

Sometimes, potential guests focus on the dining, say they don't want to be seated with people they don't know, or there's no room service, said Moore. She asked Burke about how agents can overcome those objections.

“So that’s a misperception.” Burke responded, “I think it really is,” and described the onboard dining as akin to an intimate restaurant experience.

On a recent European cruise, Burke took time to count the tables in the main restaurant. She discovered there were 17 tables for two, 19 tables for four and three tables for six. 

Another good point to make with clients, according to Burke, is that the smaller size of river vessels enhances the experience.

Avalon Waterways' chefs will come out and talk one-on-one with guests about their needs for gluten-free, dairy-free, no-fish, no red meat, and so on, and then cater to all of those needs.

Burke also said her line line has four different dining venues onboard [some ships] and 11 different places that you could eat during the day. For culinary buffs, the line just introduced Avalon Fresh and also has a full complement of themed cruises to entice. 

From left: An Avalon Waterways chef consults with European culinary stars Leo Wrenkh and Karl Wrenkh for the line’s new “Avalon Fresh” program.

When it comes to groups, agents have great opportunities, Burke said: “I can’t think of a better product than a river cruise...You have the ability to give [all members of] the group the same stateroom," referring to her line's Panorama Suites, now on 80 percent of its ships.

What's the takeaway for agents? Burke said groups can have price parity for the accommodations. Agents needn't worry about allocating certain high-end staterooms to some guests but more modest accommodations to others. Everyone can stay in the same category.

Other opportunities? “We all in this segment do a great job of special interest cruises," said Burke. "That’s like a built-in marketing campaign for you.”

She cited beer, wine, history, golf, World War II or Christmas Market cruises, among many others. Christmas Market cruises attract many multigenerational travelers, and Avalon Waterways has tripled the number of those sailings to meet demand. 

From AmaWaterways perspective, Karst is readying for the christening this year of AmaKristina and she'll be the godmother. “Finally I have my own ship,” she quipped with enthusiasm.  

With river cruising growth by all lines, Moore asked Karst: “Are you worried that’s it is becoming too saturated.”

“Actually, not at all,” said Karst. When the Rhine-Danube Canal was built in 1993, originally for freight, she said there were at least five times more barges on the rivers than river cruise vessels.

During summer, “the roads are pretty much congested, but a river cruise is pretty much a perfect vacation for guests of any age, Karst stressed. 

Growing up along the Elbe River, Karstin says she finds herself always coming back to that river and others: “That’s how we founded AmaWaterways 15 years ago because it’s the most magical way to experience the most beautiful cities and waterways -- not just in Europe but in Asia, Africa and all over the world."

Attracting New Audiences

Karst believes river cruising will continue to attract new audiences. For example, “the new family market is pushing in,” Karst said, referring to AmaWaterways' successful partnership with Adventures by Disney on certain European sailings.

In the last 15 years, growth in the river cruise industry has been steady, but sometimes the industry could barely satisfy the demand, she noted. Now with more and more river vessels, there is more need for marketing and promotion and, most of all, for agents to differentiate the products. 

“We will offer everything you need for your clients as you are our sales force,” Karst said. As with the other executives, she stressed that it’s so important to “match the right product with the right client."

Also carefully consider the right season for clients to travel, depending on their needs and desires. October is Karst’s favorite time to cruise with all the colors and the vineyards, but she stressed that spring offers pretty blossoms and tulips.

Christmas Markets, too, have their own season late in the year and offer a different experience and in cooler weather. “But if you like long days and short nights, then summer is a fantastic time to visit,” she said.


Just understand that summer in popular destinations like Passau (shown above), Germany, or Vienna, Austria, can be more crowded.

Karst said Durnstein, a quaint Austrian village of just 300 locals, might draw 1,000 river cruise passengers daily during summer. But it's still fun. Agents should just explain the experience to clients.

Moore said some potential guests may object to river cruising -- particularly those who’ve sailed on big ships -- because they believe there isn't enough to do. 

Karst disagreed: "Our clients [return from a river cruise] and say, ‘I need a vacation from my vacation.'”

Guests can indulge in such activities as shore excursions, bicycle tours, culinary tours, hiking and much more.

Onboard, they might sun on the top deck, take a dip in a small pool (such as on AmaCerto), enjoy wine tasting, go to a lecture and much more.  

Stay tuned to for Part 2 of the "Small Ships, Big Reward" discussion, featuring tips and insight about selling small-ship oceangoing and expedition products. 

In that story, agents will hear from John Delaney, president, Windstar Cruises; Joe Leon, vice president of field sales, Silversea Cruises and Silversea Expeditions; and Navin Sawhney, CEO, The Americas, Ponant Yacht Cruises and Expeditions.

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