With experiential offerings, bigger vessels and pairings with activity companies, the river cruise industry has broadened its appeal significantly. By Geri Bain
Sipping drinks at a swim-up bar, zip-lining, kayaking and kid-friendly excursions aren’t what most people associate with river cruising, but these are among the features helping broaden its appeal. Perhaps this is why both Cruise Planners and Avoya Travel have reported double-digit growth in river cruising year-on-year.
The 2017 Virtuoso Luxe Report ranked river cruising as the third Top Travel Trend, just behind multigenerational and active/adventure. This makes sense, since the Virtuoso survey identifies the top travel motivators as: exploring new destinations; seeking authentic experiences; rest and relaxation; and personal enrichment — all natural attributes of river cruising. Now, with a proliferation of options in types of accommodations, on-board amenities and immersive excursions, plus a growing number of themed departures, from wine and food to literature and cycling, river cruising is beginning to mimic ocean cruising in catering to diverse niches and demographics.
Much of the differentiation has come through new builds. CLIA’s 2017 State of the Cruise Industry Outlook reported that the year started with 184 river cruise ships, with 13 new vessels planned — an increase of seven percent. And that’s on top of 18 new vessels in 2016. While river boats can’t compete with mega-ships in terms of theme park-like amenities and gala entertainment, many are adding more of what cruisers actually value. In CLIA’s 2017 Cruise Travel Report, 63 percent of those surveyed said they wanted suite and balcony cabins, while 46 percent said internet access. Both are increasingly available, along with other popular amenities, including health clubs, pools and Jacuzzis.
About 42 percent of cruisers travel with kids under 18, according to the CLIA survey. However, a lack of adjoining or three- and four-berth cabins, or kid-oriented activities, historically made travel agents hesitant about sending young families on a river cruise.
“With companies such as AmaWaterways collaborating with Adventures by Disney and providing connecting cabins, and Tauck Bridges’ program which offers third berths in certain categories, and programming specifically geared towards families, we’re seeing more opportunities for multigen trips,” said Michael Consoli, an Atlanta-based Cruise Planners franchise owner whose river cruise business grew by 30 percent last year.
Mary Bingemann, owner of Mary Bingemann Travel, an Avoya affiliate, also sends many multigen groups on river cruises and often arranges special events and dinners for them. “However, river boats have limited capacity, so availability can be a challenge. I urge groups to book as early as possible; some book next year’s gathering before they leave the ship and go their separate ways,” she said.
Bingemann also keeps her eyes peeled for sailings that waive the upcharge for singles. “I have repeat clients who wait for those. Sometimes, friends and family groups want to sail together but not share cabins,” she said.
Actively courting a younger set
Those who think river cruising is, by nature, passive and sedentary are behind the times. While AmaWaterways has long promoted its pioneering fleet of bicycles, and its partnership with Backroads, other lines have been jumping aboard with active touring and other amenities targeting millennials.
Avalon Waterways’ ‘Active Discovery on the Danube’ program was so popular that it added Active Discovery on the Rhine for 2018, reported Terri Burke, managing director. “Those who’ve already sailed on the Rhine may want to return since this itinerary features 10 different ports, along with our signature ‘Local Favorites’ tours with activities like canoeing on the Danube, learning to waltz in Vienna or helping a farmer in a sunny apricot orchard.”
Scenic Cruises is also targeting a younger demographic. “We partnered with luxury cycling vacation company Trek Travel this year on nine sailings which are all nearly sold out,” reported Joni Rein, vice president, sales and marketing. The line also offers E- (electric-assist) bikes, a GPS handheld tour guide system for each guest, and Apple/Mac TVs with internet access in every cabin.
One of the most talked about new developments is U by Uniworld cruises, set to launch with two dedicated ships in 2018. The ships target active travelers aged 18-40, featuring communal dining tables, creative mixologists and international DJs. Immersive itineraries will provide active and adventurous excursions and increased time in port for independent discovery, including nightlife.
Serving up uber luxury
The industry is also buzzing about the super-luxurious Crystal Mozart; its maiden Danube voyage in July 2016 marked the official launch of Crystal River Cruises. The largest European river vessel, it features 79 spacious butler-served suites, an array of elegant and casual dining options and lounges, an indoor pool and fitness center, and the largest spa on a river boat. Four more Crystal river vessels are in the works; two are slated to launch on the Rhine this year.
“From the moment you step on board the Crystal Mozart, you’re surrounded by luxury,” said Vicky Garcia, COO and co-owner of Cruise Planners. “The suites are luxuriously appointed to every last detail and the entertainment is truly world-class. It’s unlike anything else out there.”
AmaWaterways will be taking river cruising to a new level of luxury in 2019 when the AmaMagna begins cruising the Danube. Twice the width of traditional European river ships, the 97-stateroom vessel will offer larger living and public spaces, enhanced evening entertainment and onboard activities, plus an open-water platform, a first for river cruising.
Honing in on interests
The Rhine and Danube are the destinations of choice for most first-time river cruisers, and agents reported that once clients experience river cruising, they’re eager to find new destinations to explore. The Douro in Spain/Portugal and the Seine in France are among the destinations trending up.
In addition to cruise lines adding new activities, they are continually opening new destinations, even on familiar routes, said Kimberly Wilson Wetty, co-owner and co-president, Valerie Wilson Travel. “More towns are wanting to welcome river cruises, so itineraries and shore excursions are changing.”
Options in Asia are also growing. “The newest itinerary is a seven-night India cruise round-trip combined with Oberoi hotel stays. Lines are also doing many different Asia itineraries to Mekong and Myanmar,” reported Nancy Yale, president, Cruise and World Travel, a Virtuoso agency.
Themed departures offer a special kind of marketing opportunity, noted Scott Koepf, senior vice president of sales, Avoya Travel. Wine cruises are a great example, but agents don’t need to rely on the cruise lines. Agents can reach out to a winery that might want to host a group sailing. The same might be true for beer, culinary, Jewish heritage, wellness and other special interests.
The diversification of the river cruise product, and variances in what lines include in their pricing, underline the value of a travel agent. “A client can go online and see prices for five different brands, but they have no idea of the differences in value. And that’s where a travel agent is needed!” said Koepf.