Sam Ballard hears from Walter Littlejohn, VP at Crystal River Cruises, about how the line has elevated European river cruising to meet the global standard of luxury
When Crystal Cruises said that it was going to enter the river cruise market in 2015, it raised more than a few industry eyebrows. The announcement, which formed part of a mega expansion that included yachts, airplanes and expedition ships, was made that July. By November, the original two river ships had been expanded to five – with the first launching in the summer of 2016.
Within this hectic environment, Crystal appointed Walter Littlejohn as its vice president and managing director of Crystal River Cruises. That was in June 2016 – one month before Crystal Mozart’s maiden voyage.
“The global standard of luxury did not exist on Europe’s rivers before Crystal River Cruises,” says Littlejohn, who joined the company from AmaWaterways, when asked about why the role with Crystal appealed.
“I’m talking about the standard of luxury on a Seabourn, Silversea or Crystal ocean cruise, a Singita Safari or that of The Brando in the South Pacific. There is a standard that I as a consumer expect and that standard was not met on Europe’s rivers. At all.
“It is with Crystal River Cruises and that’s why I took this job, I knew it. The company was not going to deliver less than it does on its ocean liners.”
The numbers back up much of what Littlejohn says. The double-width Crystal Mozart – which can handle 154 passengers, has an astonishing 92 crew members. For comparison, a similar-sized Uniworld vessel has 46 crew. Tauck’s 130-passenger vessels are staffed with 43 crew. The AmaMagna, AmaWaterway’s double-width 196-passenger ship, has 70 crew members on-board.
“I’m not just hiring people for the sake of it, though,” Littlejohn adds. “All of those people have got a job. What we do is very special. I’m madly in love with our crew and the passion they have for what they do.
“Our closest competitors wish they could offer service like ours. Take our food as another example. We have Michelin-inspired cuisine, like all Crystal ships. But, because we’re sailing in some of the richest farming regions in the world, we can operate farm-to-table.
“Every ingredient that is brought on to the ship is fresh – nothing is frozen. That’s not the standard in our industry. Our galleys are three to four times the size of typical galleys – that gives us the space to do it.”
When asked what his favourite feature is on-board Crystal River, Littlejohn immediately cites food – “exhibited by the fact that I put on a pound a day when on-board” – as well as the ship’s highly skilled crew.
“Everything we do is a la minute – it’s prepared to order. We do not do banquet-style cooking where salads are prepared five hours before being served. That allows us to have true open-seating dining. Our guests can sit with whoever they want, whenever they want – it could be 7.30pm today and 8.30pm tomorrow.
“Whenever you see set dining times that is because a cruise line is doing banquet-style cooking. They need you to be seated by this time because they need to get their salads out of the way before they can do the appetizers.
“If everyone came to our restaurant at the same time, our whole system would come crashing down. It’s like coming to a Michelin-star restaurant and trying to book a table for 20 people – they couldn’t do it. The level of detail and effort that goes into each meal means it simply is not possible.”
However, with all five Crystal River ships operating on either the Rhine, Danube or one of its tributaries, the pressure from expectant guests for expansion cannot be far away. It’s a subject that Littlejohn won’t be drawn on.
“We’ll expand to wherever our guests want to go in the future,” he answers.
Perhaps the most interesting fact about Littlejohn is that he used to own his own travel agency in the United States, Chartwell Vacations, giving him experience as both a seller and operator – crucial given that Crystal’s trade sales make up about 95 per cent of global business and 98 per cent in the UK.
“Travel agents are extremely important to our business,” he says. “My background has helped me have a clear understanding about the types of conversations clients have with agents during the buying process.
“The most oft asked question I was asked as an agent was, ‘why this one over that one?’
“Because of that we spent a lot of time clearly defining how we’re different and doing it in a language that is understandable to the consumer and of benefit to agents.
“I believe that everyone operating on Europe’s rivers is good, I really mean that. It’s just that Crystal is
on a different level.”