River Cruise Insider's Guide: Of First-Timers and Trends

Tauck guests arriving at Durnstein, Austria, set out to explore the town on bicycles.

Tauck guests arriving at Durnstein, Austria, set out to explore the town on bicycles.

Earlier this year, Travel Agent spoke with agents about ways to attract first-time river cruisers and also with cruise line executives about some of the latest trends. Here is a sampling of some of what they had to say.

When targeting potential first-time river cruisers, travel agents suggest:

* Talk about the intimacy of river vessels compared with most ocean cruise ships. Even the largest are under 200 passengers (many significantly smaller than that), so clients become part of a cruise family, not merely passengers.

* Note that the smaller size also ensures greater personal attention from the staff.

* Cite the overall ease of the river cruise travel experience that includes the fact that guests are met at the airport and transferred to the boat, and at port, guests simply walk off the boat and right into town.

Emphasize any included shore trips. For example, the Rhine has something for everyone, including culture- and history-rich towns, impressive castles and exquisite old wineries.

* Add the convenience of stepping off the ship right into the heart of a given city or town waiting to be explored.

Point out the further convenience of having to unpack only once and wake up in a new city or country each day.

Assure clients who have never cruised or who have had an uncomfortable experience on an ocean-going ship that there is virtually zero chance of getting seasick. Furthermore, there is always land on both sides of the vessel, which should comfort those who may be a bit fearful of a water-oriented vacation.

If clients still aren’t sold on European river cruise, suggest sailing on America’s waterways. River cruises—particularly lower Mississippi itineraries that include New Orleans or Memphis—have strong appeal to Americans who haven’t traveled overseas, don’t want to fly internationally, or wish to drive or take Amtrak to the embarkation city.

* Target existing clients who have previously booked upscale cruises and guided tours. Describe the tastes, colors and sights of the river experience—make them feel it.

Consider the potential appeal to clients 50-plus who have done much traveling and are looking for cultural immersion.

Likewise, retirees and other mature travelers may be attracted to river cruises because of the lack of demands on their time as well as the ability to experience new places.

RELATED: River Cruise Insider's Guide: Growing With the Flow

Execs Cite Trends For 2014 and Beyond

River cruise line executives told us that:

There is increased visibility and consumer exposure for the product because lines have sizably increased their marketing budgets.

There are more players in the marketplace, thereby affording clients greater choices. New entrants include CroisiEurope and Emerald Cruises, while A-Rosa, a long-time player in the Europe market, launched its first product designed for the North American market in 2013.

The increase in competition has led to better product differentiation as various river cruise products seem to be defining themselves and the segment they appeal to. The experts interviewed say agents must continue to build product knowledge to take advantage of differentiating features when qualifying clients.

The average age on shorter cruises tends to be younger than longer sailings. Agents who are marketing to younger clients—those in their 40s and 50s—are reportedly increasing their sales of 10-day (or shorter) cruises. Another fast-growing age demographic—the 50-to-55 age segment—likewise prefers shorter duration trips, such as one-week cruises.

Agents should sell river cruising as an active experience, emphasizing walking tours, biking and guided bicycle tours as great ways to discover the region the ship is visiting.

The river cruise industry is moving to meet the increasingly higher expectations for quality culinary experiences. They are raising the bar to meet this demand with themed cruises, alternative fine-dining restaurants, culinary demonstrations and even wine-and-cuisine focused shore experiences.

Guests who are always looking for new itineraries and want more exotic and off-the-beaten-track destinations are looking beyond Europe to Myanmar, Africa, Vietnam and Cambodia

Increasing numbers of guests are marking important life events with a river cruise vacation, so agents should pay attention to client graduations, family reunions, anniversaries, weddings, job/career changes and so on.