Viking River Cruises
) plans to sail into 2013 with four new river itineraries – three in
and one in
- and two new land tour extensions, including one that will take guests to the real-life castle that's the setting for the television show, "
Celebrating its 15th year in business, Viking is also fielding an early booking discount applicable to 2013 sailings. Guests receive up to two-for-one pricing on cruise departures and international air, if bookings are made by July 31, 2012.
Travel Agent spoke with Richard Marnell, senior vice president of marketing, Viking River Cruises, about the line's robust 2013 schedule as well as trends in river cruising, marketing and itinerary development.
New European and China Itineraries: The line’s new itineraries include a 23-day “European Sojourn” voyage between Amsterdam, the Netherlands, and Bucharest, Romania; a 22-day “Grand Rivers of Europe” itinerary from Basel, Switzerland to Budapest, Hungary, and an 18-day “China Explorer” voyage on the Yangtze River.
With increasingly tech-savvy customers, cruisers – many not yet retired – are able to keep in touch and potentially take longer voyages. Cruises lines, both ocean and river, say they’re seeing both a resurgence of demand from past guests, as well as interest from new types of clients in the lengthier, more robust voyages.
On the longer voyages, “we are seeing a little bit of younger clientele,” Marnell acknowledges, “with the average age north of 60.”
The “European Sojourn” itinerary takes guests to the canals of Amsterdam, the castles of the Rhine Valley, such storied Danube cities as Vienna and Budapest and many capitals of Eastern Europe on a cruise tour that transports guests from the North Sea to the Black Sea, via the Main-Danube Canal.
In addition, the new “Grand Rivers of Europe” itinerary combines the best of the "Rhine Getaway" itinerary from Basel to Amsterdam with the "Grand European Tour" from Amsterdam to Budapest.
“We added these longer itineraries exactly out of that demand - as people want to experience everything there is to experience ... yet they don't have to do the transport," says Marnell, referring to the packing-unpacking and travel required for a traditional motorcoach tour or air package to a combination of cities."
Plus, he says, guests enjoy an inclusive product with such features as shore tours and wine with lunch and dinner included in the cruise fare.
The new “China Explorer” itinerary will feature the chance for guests to visit six UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Highlights include a tour of Beijing’s Forbidden City, a visit to the excavation site of the famous Terra Cotta Warriors and a tour of a giant panda sanctuary in Chengdu.
Marnell says clients headed for China most like that they are traveling with other like-minded clients on a Viking vessel - rather than being part of a group booked into inventory on another operator’s ship: “That creates a distinctive experience, as they’re traveling with Viking all the way through China, and seeing all the cultural sites."
In addition, he notes that guests also enjoy giving back. Viking sponsors three schools in China, and “a highlight of any of our trips is a visit to one of the three schools,” he stresses.
Viking also will offer a new 10-day “Portugal’s River of Gold” sailing for 2013. This trip will give cruisers a taste of the centuries-old Portuguese culture, the country's distinct food and, as Marnell says, "a bit of a different landscape."
Clients will visit Porto, a UNESCO World Heritage site, with well-preserved architecture in the old city, the area in which Viking docks. In addition, on this itinerary, guests will travel to Lisbon, which is off the river but included in the tour.
New Land Options: For anyone who has ever felt that filling out passenger feedback forms are a waste of time, think again, says Viking. Past passengers told the line exactly what they liked and where they wanted to go. As a result, the line formed a partnership with PBS and began sponsoring Masterpiece Theater last fall.
So a new three-day land extension, “Oxford & Highclere Castle,” will allow guests to visit the real-life castle that's the setting for the television show, “Downton Abbey.” Guests receive a special champagne welcome and also visit the historic town of Oxford.
“Passengers wanted the experience of being able to link [visually and on vacation] to what they see on television," notes Marnell. This trip can be booked as a pre- or post-cruise extension to Viking’s “Cities of Light” or “Paris & the Heart of Normandy” cruise itineraries.
Another new land option for those cruising the Rhone and Saone rivers is a three-night “Barcelona” land extension. The line currently offers a Marseille extension. In Barcelona, guests will enjoy the whimsical architectural masterpieces of Antoni Gaudí and the Miró and Picasso museums.
Opportunities for 2012: Most river lines have about 85 percent or so of their inventory for the current year booked by March. That applies to Viking as well.
But while the bulk of Viking’s inventory for 2012 is already booked, there is space available here and there throughout the year. And, the line still has significant holiday product available for those wishing to take a Christmasmarket cruise in November and December, Marnell notes.
More New Longships: Viking’s 2013 program includes the launch of six more new Viking Longships - Viking Bragi, Viking Forseti, Viking Rinda, Viking Skadi, Viking Tor and Viking Var.
Designed by maritime architects Yran & Storbraaten — the team behind the Disney Dream and the newest ships of the Yachts of Seabourn — the Longships have patent-pending technology and innovations such as diesel-electric hybrid engines, solar panels and onboard organic herb gardens.
As for guest feedback thus far, Marnell says “guests love the Aquavit Terrace,” an indoor-outdoor dining and relaxation area on the bow. It’s the place for panoramic views. “They also love the understated elegance of the vessel, and those that chosen them, love the balconies,” he says.
With so many new Longships launching, is there any chance of Viking expanding into North America in future years?
Marnell’s response: “It’s something we’re looking at with the Mississippi and other larger rivers in the U.S. They are interesting to us. But we have nothing to announce at this point. It’s something we’re actively investigating.”
Refurbished Russian Fleet: Next year will also mark the completion of bow-to-stern refurbishments of Viking’s owned and operated Russian fleet.
In addition to redefining the interior space to create significantly larger staterooms, all four of Viking’s Russian ships will feature full, private verandas added to all staterooms on the Upper and Middle decks, which house four Suites, two Junior Suites and 60 Veranda Staterooms.
“We’re finding that many of our passengers are coming from ocean cruising and they like to have a balcony,” stresses Marnell. The line currently has such balconies on one of the Russian vessels and is expanding that to the other three vessels in that market.
The revamped Russian fleet will sail the "Waterways of the Czars" 13-day itinerary, traveling from Moscow to St. Petersburg, or the reverse.
New E-Brochure: The 2013 River Cruise Atlas, Viking’s consumer brochure, is now available for order or PDF download at www.vikingrivercruises.com/brochure.
Also for the first time, the 148-page brochure has been converted to an interactive “e-brochure” that’s optimized for computers and tablet devices. It features more than 40 imbedded videos about the Viking River Cruises experience.
Marnell says that it's important agents are in tune with the way that clients prefer to communicate. It could be online, via television or by a tablet: "If the consumer is on the Web, you have to be on the Web, if they’re on an iPad, you have to have some facility for tablet communications” and so on.
For more information on Viking, its 2013 programs and the Viking Longships, visit www.vikingrivercruises.com.