Riviera Travel CEO Clemson Talks Selling River Cruises in the U.S.

One of Riviera Travel's many river cruise vessels is shown docked at Belgrade, Serbia. The line is now selling its English speaking river product in the U.S. (Copyright by Riviera Travel)

Earlier this month, Riviera Travel, a major United Kingdom river cruise operator on global rivers, said it's going after the U.S. market. The news comes as the firm has just launched four new European river vessels this year, and will have another new one in 2018.

Travel Agent talked one-on-one with David Clemson, CEO, Riviera Travel, about the brand. What's it all about? What are the price points and inclusions? Where does it sail? And how will it attract travel agents to help sell its product. Here is insight into the line's plans and philosophy for making waves in the U.S. market. 

Building a Reputation

Riviera Travel’s mission is, first and foremost, “to gain a reputation in the U.S. market,” says Clemson. It's already established a U.S. office in Fairfield, CT, and is now selling river cruises to U.S. travelers on nine ships for 2017 and 10 ships for 2018.

Seeking to deliver a high-quality product for U.S. travelers, Clemson emphasizes it's already done that for its U.K. guests and points to the brand recently being named “The Which? Best Travel Brand.” It was chosen by U.K. consumers over a slew of hotels, airlines, tour operators and other travel firms. Other category winners included Apple, Samsung and Marks & Spencer

"Now we’re [focusing on] building the same sort of reputation of quality and value for money” in the U.S. marketplace," he says. In addition, “we want to put out a five-star product but at a four-star price,” he stressed, noting travel agents can expect the Riviera Travel river cruise brand to include high-quality ships, top-notch service and fares with a strong value proposition.  

Clemson says five-night cruise fares begin at $850 per person double. For a seven-night Danube cruise, the starting fares in a standard suite on one of the line’s new ships range from $1,500 in low season to $2,500 in high season. 

Cruise fares have many inclusive perks, among them shore excursions with use of Quietvox headsets; free Wi-Fi; use of bicycles during port visits; complimentary water, coffee and tea in staterooms and the dining room (staterooms have K-cup type machines); and all port charges. 

What's not included? Fares don't include gratuities or alcoholic beverages. 

For those who do want wine or beer with meals, “our drinks package is $129 per person for a seven-night cruise and includes complimentary house beer, house wine, and sodas with lunch and dinner while in the dining room,” says Jana Tvedt, vice president, Riviera Travel USA, who adds that individual drink prices for spirits, apertifs and cocktails are very reasonable.

It's all about choice, the executives say. “We believe that guests that don’t drink at all shouldn’t be paying for the pre-dinner martinis of the other guests," says Tvedt. 

As for tipping, the line follows the British approach of no automatic tipping. Riviera does provide guidelines so the guest is comfortable in tipping if they feel the service was very good. But that's a choice that is "absolutely at the discretion of the customer,” says Clemson. 

If guests sail with Riviera, they'll find their fellow guests hail from Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, IrelandSouth Africa and Canada

Riviera Travel’s river vessels are staffed with a multinational crew, although the technical crew are all European and many service crew members are European. “All are English speaking,” Clemson notes. 

Itineraries for the U.S. Market 

The bulk of the line’s U.S. offerings are on the Rhine, Main and Danube rivers, as well as France's Rhone and Portugal's Douro rivers.

Photo by Riviera Travel
Itineraries for sale in North America include: five-day "Amsterdam, Volendam & the Dutch Bulbfields"; eight-day "Bruges, Medieval Flanders, Amsterdam & the Dutch Bulbfields";  eight-day "Rhine & Moselle"; eight-day "Rhine, Strasbourg & Heidelberg"; eight-day "Medieval Germany, the Main to the Danube"; eight-day "Rhine Cruise to Switzerland"; 15-day "Cruise the Heart of Europe"; eight-day "Blue Danube"; four-day "Plus Budapest Extension"; eight-day "Douro, Oporto & Salamanca"; four-day "Plus Lisbon Extension"; eight-day "Burgundy, River Rhone & Provence"; and 15-day "Budapest to the Black Sea."

Helping travel agents sort out the brand elements and the positioning within an increasingly crowded river market is going to happen over the next few months. Agents can expect the line to show up at U.S. trade shows and travel agency programs. 

In addition, Riviera plans to offer lifetime commissions to travel agents. "This means that once a travel agent brings us a client, if that client decides to book directly the second time around, the agent will still get the commission," said Tvedt. Details will be announced soon. 

The travel company is also launching an agent campaign. "Once they register with us in 2017, they will be entered to win a free cruise in 2018," she says. 

Travel agents can register by emailing [email protected]

Clemson reports that the line typically attracts clients who are empty nesters or retirees in their 50s, 60s and 70s, with an average age of mid- to late-60s.

What about children? “To be honest, we don’t go down that road,” Clemson says, noting that it's not easy to provide amenities to satisfy kids on a river vessel. Thus, the minimum age for Riviera's river cruises is 12. 

So whom does he see as the line’s prime competition for American guests? I wouldn’t position us with Tauck or Crystal,” acknowledges Clemson. We don’t play in that [high-end] space. We’re more in the Viking space.” 

“It’s about quality," says Clemson. "It’s about value for money. We believe that’s possible, but the hardest thing is convincing agents who have that skepticism. They want to know, ‘What’s the catch? How can we get such good pricing?’”

Clemson says the firm is very transparent about the quality and price of what it offers. One absolute commitment it makes to consumers and agents who sell its cruises? Riviera never discounts its product. 

“The customer who comes on a trip with us knows they paid the same price as anyone else,” he emphasizes, noting it’s a powerful message agents can use with their clients. “There is no incentive to delay and wait for a deal.”

In fact, “we eventually let cabins go empty rather than discount them,” Clemson stresses. “Why would you penalize your most loyal customers? We want to treat people fairly.”

Fast Growing Fleet 

Photo by Riviera Travel

Newly launched this year are the Thomas Hardy, Emily Bronte (shown above) and Oscar Wilde. Set to launch next spring is the new Robert Burns. These four new vessels each serve 167 guests and carry a crew of 88. Standard suites are 183 square feet.

Also newly launched this year is the 121-passenger Douro Elegance, now sailing Portugal’s Douro river. Standard cabins are 151 square feet. The four new vessels nearly double the size of the company’s river fleet. 

In addition, the Lord Byron was launched in 2013 on the Rhone, and the Jane Austen set sail in 2015 on the Rhine, Main and Danube; both serve 140 guests with a crew of 36. The standard cabin is 161 square feet.

The William Shakespeare launched in 2014 and the Charles Dickens set sail in 2015 on the Rhine, Main, Danube rivers. Both serve 142 guests with a crew of 35. Standard staterooms are 162 square feet. The Swiss Corona, sailing the Rhone, was launched in 2004, and also serves 142 guests with the same standard cabin size. 

Describing Riviera's onboard product as akin to a “boutique hotel," Clemson says vessels have luxuriously appointed accommodations, most have two dining venues (a main dining room and an alternative restaurant that's more intimate), a lounge, small spa and more. 

Riviera's river vessels also "have lots of natural wood, lots of brass," says Clemson. All are a bit different in interior design but generally they have rich tones (various shades of burgundies and grays, for example) and in some ways resemble what guests might envision for a traditional ocean liner, he believes.   

While Clemson positions his line in the same space as Viking, he stresses that it’s a slightly different experience. First, there are typically all English speakers onboard Riviera; it's not an international mix of guests from other countries who may speak some English but not as their prime language.  

Second, “it’s a more relaxed pace, and we provide time for guests to spend a little bit of time relaxing and enjoying the on deck experience,” he says.

Many river lines spend the bulk of the day in port. Some even squeeze in two ports on one day. Guests often spend their days on land, either sightseeing or heading out on activities throughout the entire day.

In contrast, on Riviera's vessels, “in the morning, there will be a lot of activities," says Clemson, "but in the afternoons we like to cruise…and watch the world go by.” 

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