Top River Cruise Trends for 2014

Panorama Suites on Avalon Waterways’ Suite Ships afford unfolding views of river towns.
Panorama Suites on Avalon Waterways’ Suite Ships afford unfolding views of river towns.

River cruising has evolved from a sedate vacation for people in their 60s to 80s to one that appeals to active travelers in their 30s to 60s. “The re-invention of river cruising continues to evolve and leaves behind the old images of yesteryear,” says Judy Parker, senior vice president, marketing, David Morris International, which sells and promotes A-Rosa Cruises within North America

In a recent Travel Leaders Leisure Group survey (about 95 percent completed at press time), 959 agents were asked to name the five top “international destinations” they’re booking for 2014 based on actual sales data. Cruises are considered “destinations” within this survey. This year, European river cruising got a robust show of hands — cited by 21 percent of the agents. 

Trends for 2014 

Travel Agent asked Parker and other river lines sales executives for insight about river cruise trends for 2014, as well as sales advice for agents. 

Much Increased Visibility: River lines have sizably increased their marketing spend — thus increasing consumer exposure to the product. Viking River Cruises has taken its river vacation story to TV. In the past year, the pool of agents selling its products increased by 15 percent. “The main reason is that awareness of the category is growing rapidly, largely in part to our marketing spend,” says Richard Marnell, Viking’s senior vice president of marketing. 

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Characterizing river cruising as relatively new to the U.S. market, “we have heard from agents who said that they never thought they would sell river cruises until they saw the new Viking Longships in our PBS Masterpiece sponsorship during Downton Abbey,” noted Marnell. Expect sizable river line promotions to continue this year, helping build visibility for the industry.

More Players in the Marketplace: Ken Cohen, sales manager, Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection, is among the executives citing more entrants, such as Luftner and CroisiEurope, as a trend in the marketplace. Emerald Cruises will also launch this year in Europe, and A-Rosa, which launched its first product designed for the North American market in 2013, also expands this year in Europe. 

Uniworld and other river lines continue to introduce new ships in an increasingly competitive environment, although the berth capacity additions are far less than on the ocean size. 

Better Product Differentiation: “Many agents are still sorting out the differences between the various river cruise lines, and trying to match their clients to the lines that will best meet clients’ desires and expectations,” says Steve Spivak, vice president of sales, Tauck River Cruising. One plus for agents in 2014 is that increasingly, the products aren’t just cookie-cutter ones.

Ama Waterways’ Ama Vida plies Portugal’s Duoro River.

Ama Waterways’ Ama Vida plies Portugal’s Duoro River.

“The various river cruise products seem to be defining themselves and the segment they appeal to,” Cohen says. The experts interviewed say agents must continue to build product knowledge to take advantage of differentiating features when qualifying clients. “Just as different cruise ships have different key distinctions to their products appealing to varying cruise passengers, so do river boats,” says Parker.

Younger Clients: “River cruising is no longer just for grandma,” emphasized Parker, while Jennifer Halboth, director of channel marketing for the Globus family of brands, including Avalon Waterways, says agents who are marketing to younger clients — those in their 40s and 50s — are increasing their sales of 10-day or less cruises. “We see the average age on our shorter cruises to be much younger than our longer cruises,” Halboth said. 

Joe Maloney, vice president of U.S. sales and marketing, Scenic Cruises, confirms that the shorter duration trips, such as one-week cruises, really appeal to his group’s fastest growing age demographic — the 50-to-55 age segment. 

One interesting happening? While daytime sightseeing is included for many lines, more clients — often younger ones — are going ashore during the evening to embrace the local nightlife on their own. “Why have a cocktail onboard when you can ‘do as the locals do’ and drink in a centuries-old tavern?” asks Cristienne de Souza, director of national sales, AmaWaterways. “This is especially attractive for younger clients discovering river cruising for the first time.”

A More Active Experience: De Souza tells Travel Agent that many agents don’t sell river cruising as an active experience — and they should as “these days a river cruise can be as active as your clients choose to make it.”

She cites walking tours and guided biking tours as great ways to discover the region the ship is visiting, and “we carry our own fleet of bikes and provide two guides on our guided bike tours, so clients can pedal from one port to the next.” Many other lines also carry bikes onboard for guest use and onboard facilities on river lines range from small fitness rooms to walking tracks and even pools on some ships.

Enhanced Cuisine: Parker notes that consumers previously had fairly low expectations of riverboat cuisine. But the bar — both for operators and consumers — has been raised as the deep-water cruise passengers migrate to a riverboat experience. Now, the industry is moving to meet this culinary demand with themed cruises, alternative fine-dining restaurants, culinary demonstrations and even wine-and-cuisine focused shore experiences.

A Viking Longship Explorer Suite

A Viking Longship Explorer Suite 

Many New Itineraries: Cohen says his line is always looking for “new itineraries that have both broad appeal and significant content to sustain a program.” De Souza reports that guests want more exotic and off-the-beaten-track destinations, such as Myanmar, Africa, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Portugal

From Halboth’s perspective, “France is hot and getting hotter. Between the differences of northern France on the Seine River and southern France on the Rhone & Saone, there is a lot to offer new and returning river cruisers.”

More Special Interest Cruises: Increasingly, your clients can travel through the world with like-minded individuals who share the same interests. Halboth says special interest cruises, such as those themed around cuisine, wellness, wine, music and so on, really offer agents “a nice angle” to garner bookings from clients who have a particular passion.

More Solo Cruisers: Clients are getting younger, and “more of them are opting to travel solo,” according to de Souza: In 2014, AmaWaterways will waive the single supplement on nearly 70 European cruises. This year, Tauck is once again waiving the single supplement for all Category 1 cabins on its European river cruises, plus it’s taking $1,000 off the price for solo travelers booking Category 4 and 5 cabins on 28 departures of 13 different river cruises. Other lines also are catering to solo river cruisers. 

Celebratory Travel: “We’re seeing more guests marking important life events with a river cruise vacation,” says de Souza. She urges agents to pay attention to client graduations, family reunions, anniversaries, weddings, new careers and so on.

How to Sell River Cruises

What can travel advisors do to increase their river cruise sales? “I think everyone tends to get caught up in how many ships one company has or how many ships are now in this ever-growing segment,” says Cohen. “It isn’t relevant — not now and certainly not for the foreseeable future. It ultimately comes down to emotional selling.”

So can your client picture themselves in that chair looking out their stateroom window, sitting in the main dining room enjoying a savory meal while peering at castles or gorgeous scenery, or simply relaxing in the ship’s lounge or their own stateroom? Cohen said river lines can say anything about their product or anyone else’s, but in the end, it all comes down to the “experience” the guest has and how it individually impacted them, “often in ways that they never ever expected.”

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Sell the romance of Europe combined with the comfort and convenience of being right there in the destination locales, advises Scenic Cruises’ Maloney. “You park the ship either right in the heart of downtown areas or within easy walking distance — great location and ease of access translates into a better cultural experience.” 

River cruising is still relatively new to the U.S. market, and the agents who take the time to really learn about river cruising tend to be the most effective, according to Marnell. He also advised agents “to really understand which products are profitable to sell and which products are not profitable to sell in order to know where you should invest your time and your money.” 

Once you know which lines you want to sell, qualifying the client is critical. Ask clients what they liked or didn’t like about their last vacation. What’s most important on a vacation, such as service, food, price and so on? After you’ve qualified them, you’ve defined what river product would best suit them regardless of which line they thought they wanted coming in, says Cohen.

Parker says it’s important to tell clients that all-inclusive river cruising provides a carefree approach to a vacation: guests pay once and eliminate surprise charges, fees and add-ons. De Souza recommends telling clients that the best deals are offered further out. Let them know the best deals are typically early bookings, and that the choice of accommodations will be optimum at that point.

Definitely, “pitch the value,” says Maloney, noting that with the all-inclusive nature of river products the client isn’t “nickeled and dimed.” Segment your cruise database to match the river cruise company best paired with like-minded travelers.

“Cross-sell your tour clients,” adds Halboth. “Tour clients love the land programs but do really appreciate the ‘unpack-once,’ hassle-free nature of river cruising.” They still get a similar social dynamic that they have had with past tours; that includes local guides, VIP access to sites and like-minded guests. 

Move ocean cruisers over to a river cruise experience. “River cruises provide far more opportunities for shore excursions and unique cultural experiences that reveal the history, culinary traditions and character of each place,” Spivak says, adding that some agents don’t fully appreciate how important the destination experience is to the overall river cruise vacation. “It’s entirely understandable, because it’s a paradigm shift away from the ocean cruise segment where the ship is the destination,” Spivak says, noting that in river cruising, the vessel is “really a means to experience the destination rather than being the destination itself.” 

Even while sailing, river cruisers get closer to the destination — from vineyards to castles, village scenes to storied city sites. Cruisers who like to watch the world float by from their stateroom are, according to Halboth, “looking for that all-important stateroom space to be intuitively designed, well-appointed and luxurious,” noting that many lines have realigned space to maximize functionality. For example, Avalon Waterways has a wall of sliding glass doors on its newest ships; that offers a balcony-like experience without cutting back on interior space. 

Whichever line you prefer to sell, though, our experts predict you’ll make good commission on river sales as the checks typically have amounts with “commas.”

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