It’s no secret that the river industry has undergone a renaissance of late. New competitors have shaken up the market, but the rise of river cruise has mostly been driven by experiences in the ocean cruise market. About 80 per cent of river cruise passengers have previously been on an ocean cruise, that’s the same when it comes to any river cruise company.
Ocean passengers have a huge amount of choice – from multiple restaurants to theatres and gambling. We can’t replicate that on the rivers because space is very clearly defined, but it has led to attempts to add amenities to river vessels. You will now see multiple dining venues, an improved quality and selection of meals, more choices for excursions and more entertainment. Ocean cruising has driven that.
The difference with river cruise is that we are smaller and offer a more intimate ambience. You step off and you are immediately in the middle of a small, charming town. It’s all-inclusive whereas with ocean it can all start to add up.
The other thing that river cruise lines are doing differently now is seeking ways to differentiate.
With Avalon, the way in which we set ourselves apart is with our ship design. We introduced the Panorama Class, which is truly unique. We enlarged our bathroom and changed our beds so that they faced the window – not the wall like on most cruise lines. That means you have this huge panoramic view when you open your eyes in the morning and when you go to sleep at night. We placed a small couch, table and chair by the window so you can enjoy the view while you’re having a cappuccino in the morning. To this day, no one else has incorporated this design.
The other thing that is unique to us is the group. We’ve been in the touring business for 85 years. We’ve got all of this experience on land with hotels, developing itineraries, shore excursions, local guides – what that does is give us a slight advantage compared to firms who just do river cruise. You know when that really helps? When there is an issue. Like a water level problem – you have to wait for the water level to go down. Well, we’ve got all of these hotel contracts, so we are able to put people up at short notice.
The ships are like a box. There is a limit to what you can do. People are trying new things – from wine bars to swimming pools – but they are incremental changes. Unless you wanted to completely revolutionise the design and say we’re not going up and down the river at all – and then you would just be creating hotels or casinos. It’s a challenge for a river cruise company. It’s not been an issue so far because the growth has been so dramatic.
There are about 23 million ocean cruise passengers and about a third of them have said they are interested in river cruising. There are 600,000 river cruise passengers from English speaking markets, so the upsides are good and the demographics are still baby boomers.
When it comes to attracting new to cruise passengers, highlighting the destination is key. The rivers were the original highways of Europe anyway. All of the major ports and cities are along the rivers. Unlike going on a coach tour, you don’t have to keep unpacking, so the convenience factor is also there.
There is also the opportunity to meet like-minded travellers. I keep meeting past customers who will say they’ve met this brilliant couple from Australia, they’re the same age, both have kids who have grown up and now stay in touch.
They might not know that before they get on board, but they do know that they don’t want to be taking a cruise with 3,000 other couples and be sitting in a queue of 50 coaches outside Rome.
There is definitely a challenge for all of us to reach younger demographics – we all need to attract future cruisers. However, even among baby boomers we have been told that river cruise was too sedentary. That’s why we’ve created more active excursions. It’s a trend we’re seeing across the industry.
Travel agents are becoming increasingly important to us. Within the UK we have embarked on an effort to engage with the travel agent community more and more. In other markets, 90 per cent of our business comes from agents. It’s not that in the UK but certainly when you look at the efforts being made it is clear that we are pushing for more engagement. It’s a great opportunity to agents.
Within the UK we package our products with a home pick-up service when passengers are within 100 miles of the airport. It’s a big thing for a lot of customers. If agents let us package that up for them, our research shows that they love it.
The special interest products we sell are increasingly popular, too. It’s a great way for agents to sell a cruise knowing that their client has a particular interest, be it wine or cooking.
Sometimes it’s made the difference when it comes to making the booking.