Anthony Pearce attends the annual Clia River Cruise Conference and finds the mood to be largely celebratory as the sector marks a successful year
After eight years in Amsterdam, Clia moved the River Conference to Paris this year. On the first evening, as we sailed past a glittering Eiffel Tower on CroisiEurope’s tiny Raymonde barge, it became clear that this was a good idea. Although the Dutch capital has charm in abundance, the City of Light provided a fantastic alternative.
The decision to return the conference to two days, the ease of the Eurostar and the city location made it an enjoyable event. That’s not to say there weren’t a few logistical problems because of the navigability of the Seine, meaning transfers were required when visiting ships on the Sunday: CroisiEurope’s Raymonde and Renoir, Avalon Tapestry II and Uniworld’s Joie de Vivre were docked together; Scenic Gem and Amadeus Diamond further up the river; A-Rosa Viva, the largest ship on display, was docked in Saint-Denis.
The conference itself was mostly celebratory. This is a sector that has gone from strength to strength, particularly in Europe. According to Clia’s most recent figures, last year passenger numbers rose by 21 per cent and total bed nights were up by 24 per cent against 2016. Some 210,400 Britons took a river cruise last year – the first time passenger numbers have broken 200,000. At 188,000 passengers, European river cruises accounted for 90 per cent of those bookings.
That’s not to say river cruise hasn’t faced its challenges this year, and next year’s figures may reflect that. Low water levels have disrupted many cruises. Giles Hawke, CEO of Cosmos and Avalon Waterways, said: “You can have high water levels, you can have low water levels. You can have high water levels where the ships cannot get underneath the bridge. Conditions can change almost overnight.” He went on to say that the industry had to be prepared to make decisions quickly.
In a session shared with John Fair, CroisiEurope’s UK sales director and Paul Melinis, APT’s UK regional director, Hawke said that the growing popularity of river cruise could change its complexion. He said that he “would put money on the fact that there will be consolidation”, noting that he could see “companies coming in and buying river cruise lines and forming massive fleets”. He said it was “only a question of when” an ocean cruise line would buy a river line.
Hawke added that destination was behind the growth: “We can get into tiny places [because of the size of the ships] without having an impact on a local village – it doesn’t overcrowd the place. Size is a bit of red herring.”
This year, there was less talk of attracting millennials and more of the importance of baby boomers – a cash and time rich market. APT’s chief commercial officer Debra Fox said: “Baby boomers are a critical market to connect with. To know how to talk to them, we have to know how they think and what’s important to them.”
She described how this was a generation who was now more interested in creating memories than owning possessions. She said they don’t want “cookie-cutter” holidays, but tailor-made experiences.
“We have this wave of people who are right in the sweet spot of getting into river cruising,” she explained. “Research suggests that in the next seven to eight years, the amount spent on travel for experiences is going to double.”
One of the key selling points of the River Cruise Conference is that it demonstrates the amount of diversity in the sector, even on individual rivers. In his talk, Stuart Perl, managing director of AmaWaterways, added that it was key to understand these differences and pair customers to the correct product. “When you’re talking to new-to-river customers, find out everything you can about them. Make sure you get them on the right brand,” he said.
River Cruise Excellence Awards winners
Best River Cruise Newcomer: Cruise1st
Best Overall Performance (North): Connoisseur Travel
Best Overall Performance (South): Fred.Olsen Travel
Best Marketing Promotion of River Cruise (Online): Rivercruising.co.uk
Best Marketing Promotion of River Cruise (Homeworker): Go Cruise
Best Marketing Promotion of River Cruise (Retail): Miles Morgan Travel
River Cruise Ambassador of the Year (Agency): Ponders Travel
River Cruise Ambassador of the Year (Agent): Margaret McCorriston, Planet Cruise
Special Recognition Award: James Hill, Go Cruise