European River Currents

1) Get to Know a Company: AmaWaterways
2) The Top River Cruising Destinations
3) Viking, the Travel Agency

Get to Know a Company: AmaWaterways

To the uninitiated, river cruise companies can all seem the same.  And it's true, their ships look fairly similar, mostly by necessity: Constraints imposed by bridges and locks enforce a size and design range that nearly all ships fall into.  

On top of that, most river cruise companies offer great service, free internet, complimentary tours, and included alcohol, so these are not the differentiating factors that they can sometimes be on ocean cruises.  

An experienced cruise seller, however, knows his Vikings from his AMAs, and from a selling perspective this is what counts, the ability to make clients feel like they are getting the company that "fits" them.  

So how do the major cruise companies differ? In a continuing series, we'll take a look at the differences between key river cruise operators, starting with AmaWaterways.


A Bit of Backstory

Rudi Schreiner and Kristin Karst have worked hard to bring their once-small company (founded in 2002) to where it is today, with more than a dozen ships operating in Europe. 

Born in Austria, Schreiner is the operations man, designing ships to function well, not only on Austria's own Danube, but on rivers across Europe.  

Karst was born in Dresden, Germany, and is the face of AmaWaterways for travel sellers. Karst works nearly every major trade show and is often on AmaWaterways' ships, eager to inform anyone who will listen (and today that's a lot of people) about her company and about river cruising in general.

I've cruised on several occasions with Rudi and Kristin, and in terms of defining their brand, they focus on AMA's three newest flagships: AmaPrima, AmaSonata, and AmaRiena.

What Makes an AMA Ship?

There are two complimentary dining venues (some companies' ships only have one).  In addition to a main restaurant is a smaller restaurant at the aft of the ship, featuring panoramic views of the receding scenery.  Both serve regional wines and beers at no extra charge.  As for the food itself, Primus Perchtold, AmaWaterways' executive chef, says that the company sources only the best meat and seafood.  Lamb comes from New Zealand, fish from the North Sea, and the Certified Black Angus Beef from the United States--Nebraska, to be exact.
Desserts are predictably sumptuous.
Health and Wellness:
For passengers wanting to work off a little of their own beef, AmaWaterways' vessels feature fitness centers, not to mention spas and massage rooms.  The ships also have pools, not quite big enough to swim laps, but great for cooling off.  "We believe in having a very active environment," Schreiner says. "Our European ships have 30 bicycles that guests can use free of charge, and on every cruise, we have at two or three guided bicycle tours."
The pool area features a swim-up bar.
Theme Cruises:
For those who enjoy their spirits, Karst says that AmaWaterways' ran 22 wine-themed cruises this year. Next year, the roster is full of themed cruises again, including a beer-themed cruise.

On Ama's latest and greatest, Category AB staterooms measure 235 square feet, with floor-to-ceiling mirrors, flat panel televisions, free internet, spacious wardrobes, fridges, safes, and marble bathrooms that have rainforest showers.  The cabins come with not one, but two balconies, collectively spanning the stateroom's entire exterior wall.  One balcony is a full step-out balcony with an exterior sitting area and chairs for actively enjoying the scenery.  The other is a French balcony with a sliding glass door you can open for fresh air and views along the river.  
Two balconies make for great views and lots of fresh air.
If we had to sum up AMA, it's for those who care truly and deeply about the little things. The ships aren't as extravagant as Uniworld's, and sailings are usually more expensive than Viking's.  But an air-tight commitment to quality permeates every corner of the experience, with absolutely no exceptions.  With food that doesn't skimp on the finest ingredients, staterooms that are easily among the best in the business, a dedication to health and wellness that is far more than perfunctory, and let's not forget the breeze from the dual-balconies, your clients will leave an AMA Cruise feeling their absolute best.

Next issue, we take a look at what differentiates Viking River Cruises.

The Top River Cruising Destinations

Amsterdam, Budapest and Basel are the three top European river cruise destinations, according to a new survey put out by Cruise Holidays. The results are based on percent of river cruise bookings booked by members for 2015 departures.

That Amsterdam, on the Rhine, is the number one destination, followed by Budapest, on the Danube, is much a function of where the inventory is as anything else, points out Cruise Holidays Senior VP Kevin Weisner.

"The Rhine and the Danube obviously have the most itineraries," he says, adding that this is in large part due to companies giving consumers what they want.  "From a demand perspective, the river cruise suppliers have a pretty good grip of where they need to have the inventory."

He also says that the top three destinations are primarily first time business, and that whether the first cruise is Rhine or Danube is almost a coin toss for a lot of consumers. "They don't necessarily have enough familiarity with what's on either one to have really strong feelings about one of the other. It's 'I've heard these river cruises are great, I'd like to check one out.'"

Analyzing Travel Patterns

It's no secret that river cruises are highly destination-oriented vacations. "The TV advertising paints a lovely picture, and it really does focus on the destination," says Weisner.  As for the rivers themselves, Weisner says that the Rhine is probably the European river equivalent of the Caribbean in terms of awareness.  "The Danube might be a little bit more like Alaska and the rest are still somewhat developing as destinations."

But they're developing at a rapid rate.  Already, repeat cruisers are seeing the value in going off the beaten path.  "What they start doing is cycling through the different itineraries," he says. "They kind of get that collector mentality in terms of 'I've been to these places, what else do you have for me?'" And he predicts that the trend will grow even more pronounced, with top rivers starting to flatten and even come down (as a percentage of the total rather than in absolute terms).  

This may be the future, but for now top ports one through six are almost all either on the Rhine or Danube, with the lone exception, Paris, hardly a scrappy underdog.  What's perhaps more revealing are the ports with the highest increase in passengers from 2014 to 2015, a list that includes Prague (Main, Danube, some Elbe), Passau (Danube, with a Main connection), and Lyon (Rhone, Saone).  

Growth of Group Business

Analyzing the destinations themselves is interesting, but arguably the biggest change cited by Weisner is in the number of river cruise customers traveling as part of a group.  "The number of guests that will travel with us as part of a group on a river cruise looks to be 31% greater in 2015 than those who would have been traveled in a group with us in 2014," he reports.

Indeed, what's on the books for groups in 2015 already exceeds 2014 by 11% and there's plenty of time left.

Yet river cruises are traditionally thought of as a FIT product. "Conventional wisdom is it's small, boutique, niche, that not going to find a lot of people who are want to go on the same date at the same time," Weisner says. "But now there's such interest there. You can take what's already a really satisfying product, add to that the added value of `I'm hosting it', and put some pre and post around it."

Indeed what he's hearing from franchise owners is that not only are they putting groups more together, but traveling with them as escorts, certainly a win-win situation if there ever was one.  In addition to the opportunity to take a river cruise, Weisner says it makes good business sense.  First, agents get to learn more about the product they're selling.  Also, it's great for building a rapport with clients. "By going along and being with their customers during these types of first time, unique experiences, it's a great relationship builder."
The full top-10 chart, courtesy of Cruise Holidays.

Viking, the Travel Agency

For many veteran agents such as Peg Haskins, Viking Travel/The Cruise Shop, Westmont, IL., "River cruising is the hottest trend going."
We stopped by this storefront agency and asked Haskins what steps were taken to grow the business, and where she sees it going from here.  

The company has been around since 1971, and having "Viking" in the name by coincidence naturally helped when it came to selling  river cruises.  But the decision to focus more on river cruises in recent years was motivated by economic necessity.

"We saw what was happening with the noncommissionables and the pricing constantly being adjusted," she says. "With river cruises there wasn't [an outlet] for people to go online and find a better price with a discounter after we spent time servicing them."

A Preferred Relationship

One of the early steps in building the business was making it imperative that she and staff members travel on all the preferreds of her agency group.  "In my opinion, it's about staff having the confidence to sell the preferred product," she says. "How do they get confidence? Experiencing the product."

In her case, the preferred are Viking, Uniworld, and Avalon, as her agency is a member of Ensemble, but Haskins says that whatever group an agency belongs to, having a relationship with suppliers is one of the key aspects of a successful river cruise seller.  "Suppliers [in this segment] have invested not only in getting agents on the product, but in making their reps and national accounts knowledgeable about the product."

"Everything is about relationships now," she says. "You pick the suppliers based on their understanding the importance of relationships." 

Her point is that support comes in many forms, and it's not just monetary. "If something goes wrong, we need somebody who is going to stand behind us to make it right. And with river cruises that's what they do."

As for the consumer element it was relatively simple: Word of mouth combined with solid destination marketing, primarily by Viking (the river cruise company).  She says Viking River Cruises does so much in the way of marketing that the whole business benefits.  "Everyone says, `Will you quit sending me brochures?' But it obviously works."  

Once customers were aware that river cruises existed, it wasn't a particularly difficult sell: "You're up close in the cities, smaller, limited number of people on the ships, you unpack just once and it's casual. The customers would say, `I just went on a river cruise, it was wonderful.' And the buzz began."


A Changing Business

She notes that as the business matures, it's not as simple as it used to be. "We just had a meeting with our Viking [River Cruises] rep this week," she says as one example. "It used to be you could go to them and just say, `I want to do this event,' and they would co-op with you. Now they want marketing plans for the whole year if you're going to get co-op."

Nevertheless, she sees marketing plans as great for both agents and suppliers.  This year her agency spent $500 promoting business on one river cruise company and in return produced close to one million dollars in business. 
"What a return on investment," she enthuses. "So think what could we do if we utilized what we could get in marketing dollars and support? It's going to be interesting to see next year just what we do, now that it's more structured and we have a plan in place."

Of course there are always concerns. "With others coming into the marketplace will pricing change? There's Scenic and there's CroisiEurope among others. [Fortunately] there's such demand."

But Haskins is very optimistic that the formula that has worked so far will work for the foreseeable future. She says it's because the same principles that were in place from the beginning--strong personal relationships, mutually acceptable commission structure, and satisfied customers--are still there today.
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