|Handicrafts are a big part of the attraction for European Christmas markets. // Photo courtesy of Uniworld Boutique Cruise Collection|
It's only four to five months out for the annual Christmas Market cruises on European rivers. Guests sail through the heart of Europe, visiting fair-like holiday markets, checking out local crafts, chowing down on bratwursts and funnel cakes, and sampling mulled wine or a good brew.
But given this year's slide in interest in European travel based on this summer’s terrorist attacks in Nice, Brussels and Paris, do agents have more inventory to sell for 2016's Christmas markets voyages, compared with the same time in previous years? Or, is it business as usual?
From one luxury travel seller's perspective, "we have found that there is more availability [for those Christmas Markets sailings] this year than in the past," says Ruth Turpin, owner, Cruises Etc., a Virtuoso agency in Fort Worth, TX. "Part of this is due to additional boats and the other part is probably some hesitancy in travel because of world issues."
That said, "fortunately we are finding that our travelers are much more resilient than in the past," she stresses. "I do believe people are unwilling to let terrorism define what they can do and where they can travel."
Turpin recently traveled to France and spent two days in Nice: "I spoke to many people who are determined to continue with their lives and their travel even when the world has become a place that no one can be sure of what tomorrow will bring."
"It appears Christmas Market sailings are following the overall trend for Europe bookings," says Scott Koepf, senior vice president of sales, Avoya Travel. "While there are always two ways to look at this news, the ‘glass half full’ view is that there are some extraordinary offers currently available on Christmas Market cruises."
Koepf says clients taking advantage of those offers may bring up booking numbers substantially the next couple of months. He sees not only good space available across multiple river ships, but "the space is available at an extraordinary value."
Yet, Michael Consoli, franchise owner, Cruise Planners, Roswell, GA, sees client interest in Christmas Markets voyages as "somewhat the same" as other years. He noted that some lines may have more inventory this year because they have several new ships and this is increasing the berths on the rivers.
Consoli has seen some impact on travel to Europe this year because of "incidents" but, like Turpin, he says, most of his clients see the risk as worldwide: "They are not afraid to travel to Europe because these incidents can happen in our local towns as well."
|Christmas Market at Nuremberg, Germany // Photo courtesy of Uniworld|
River Line Perspective
River lines paint a rosier picture, although many are offering deals or value-adds to entice more customers. Here's a sampling of feedback as well as anecdotal booking examples.
"In looking at our current bookings for this year’s Christmas Market cruises, we are seeing strong numbers and consistency over previous years," said Kristin Karst, executive vice president and co-owner, AmaWaterways.
Currently, the line is more than 70 percent booked on its "Danube Christmas Time" cruises and more than 80 percent booked on its "Rhine Christmas Time" cruises.
"This is a similar booking pattern to previous years and we still have more than four months until these cruises embark," emphasizes Karst, who says the line anticipates selling out on these cruises, particularly as it's seeing more last-minute bookings.
In addition, the line has reserved space on select dates for fam opportunities, including its "Seminars on the River” series, allowing travel agents to sail on special voyages hosted by the line's sales team.
Scenic Cruises and its sister line, Emerald Waterways, reported that they aren't seeing much difference from previous years related to Christmas Market sailings. That said, Scenic is offering a $650 per person price reduction for its 2016 Christmas Cruise departures.
In looking at several departures of Tauck's eastbound "Christmas on the Danube" sailings on Savor, Travel Agent discovered sold-out space in multiple categories with only limited availability in categories 5 and 6 (for the Nov. 26 departure) and categories 6 and 7 (for the December 10 departure). On the same itinerary date with Joy's December 4 departure, all space, except for limited space in Category 6, was sold out.
"Our sales on holiday market cruises are in line with same time last year," says Guy Young, president, Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection. "We do still have capacity on select departures so would encourage agents to call for availability. Four of our departures currently have a great cruise and air promotion available."
Uniworld's eight-day "Holiday Markets" cruises on S. S. Maria Theresa from Vienna to Nuremberg, Germany, on several December dates has several promotions listed on the company's Web site. Among them are waived single supplements (on certain dates) and $300 in savings for those paying in full at time of booking.
For the December 1 departure, that vessel is sold out for suites and category 3 and 5 accommodations, but space is still available in categories 1, 2 and 4. For the December 8 sailing, space is only available in categories 1 and 2.
Viking River Cruises' website shows nine staterooms available for its December departures of "Castles and Legends" between Munich, Germany, and Budapest, Hungary, on Dec. 5, Dec. 12, and Dec. 19. Through August 31, the line is offering air ticketing from $100 for Category D and above.
Vanessa Parrish, channel marketing manager for the Globus family of brands, says "Avalon Waterways is experiencing a strong year for our 2016 Christmas Cruises. Many cruises are completely sold out while select cruises still have very limited inventory. In fact, many of our 2017 Christmas cruises are already sold-out because of their popularity and limited December departures.
At press time, Travel Agent found that Avalon Waterways' website was reporting “sold out” for the 17-day “Christmastime Zurich to Budapest” cruise, 13-day “Christmastime Frankfurt to Budapest” and 12-day “Christmastime Zurich to Prague” cruise. It also had sold out in both suites and the lowest level cabins on other voyages.
That said, A, B and P “Panorama Suite” space was available on a number of voyages as the nine-day “Christmastime on the Danube” voyage between Vienna and Prague and a five-day “Christmastime in Alsace and Germany." For the 2016 Christmas cruises, Parrish says Avalon is offering $250 off per person on select cabins on the few sailings that are still available.
Plus, the line has other offers, including waived single supplements and free air offers on fall and winter sailings.
Reaping the Benefits
Drew Daly, general manager, network engagement and performance, CruiseOne, Dream Vacations and Cruises Inc., believes "Christmas market are a unique experience lasting only several weeks of the year and there is supply available for agents to capitalize on additional sales" this summer, providing agents act now to see what date, itinerary and ship has the best value and availability.
Then he suggests that agents start by "mining" their existing customer database and sending a targeted e-mail to past customers who would be a good fit for the products and specific sailings. "I recommend for agents to pick up the phone and call some of their past customers and share their tips and deals with them," Daly says.
Parrish believes that right now European travel is very affordable. "In addition to outstanding travel promotions, airfares to Europe are at an all-time low," she says.
With river lines offering great value-adds, "there is no doubt that one of this year’s best consumer values will be river cruises in general, but specifically the Christmas Market sailings," says Koepf.
But while sales opportunities exist, agents still have to deal with client concerns about European travel. Emerald Waterways says focusing on the festivities -- the traditions and beauty of the holiday season -- can help get people's minds off negative events.
It also stresses that its vessels spend little to no time in areas impacted by recent events and that the vast majority of time is spent off-season in remote, off-the-beaten-path areas.
When it comes to the Christmas Markets, "these charming and quaint cruises are encouraging people to see Europe," says Vicky Garcia, COO and co-owner, Cruise Planners, an American Express Travel representative. While her agents are staying abreast of the tragedies across the globe, she says this is not holding back many clients.
For Travel Agents only: Let us know your experiences with Christmas Markets bookings in Europe this year in the comments below.