Sustainability in the spotlight at CLIA River Conference 2019

Emily Eastman reports from the sustainability panel at the CLIA River Cruise Conference, which tackled the issue of how to better communicate sustainability work to agents so that agents can better communicate it to customers

Recent years have seen sustainability enter mainstream discussions across the travel industry. Rather than floating on the periphery, environmental policies and practices are taking centre stage. At the 2019 River Cruise Conference in Amsterdam, a panel on sustainability addressed some of the prominent issues, from going paperless to cutting ship emissions.

Ben Wirz, MD operations at Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection and U River Cruises, commented that although the issue has been around for a while, it has only recently become a talking point in the media. He spoke of the misconception that making significant changes along the supply and operations change can be costly. “There are possibilities to save money, and we always look at the return on investment. In general, there’s always a return, and from a sales point of view it’s worth spending the money, as we’d rather do it upfront and properly than have to do it later because you have to, and usually when it’s more expensive,” he said.

Uniworld has set itself a target of removing all single-use and unnecessary plastics in its operations and throughout its global offices within the next 24 months. “The most interesting part is that the higher cost of alternative products has been offset and more by removing unnecessary items and reducing the use of others, or using them in more efficient ways. And we can do all of this without having an impact on the guest experience,” said Wirz.

Preserving the guest experience and meeting expectations remains central to the work of river cruise lines. Giles Hawke, CEO at Avalon, called for a better culture of sharing among lines on what they’ve learnt so that others can implement sustainable practices and products more quickly and easily. “The river cruise industry needs to create its own sustainability guidelines and all lines should share it, so we can have a factsheet for agents when they’re talking to customers and have all the details at their fingertips. Even if customers don’t care at the time of purchase, they will care by the time they cruise,” he said. “It’s incumbent upon us as cruise lines and the industry to provide the information.”

Hawke believes that people will eventually vote with their feet, but also that many customers simply expect lines to be already engaged in sustainable work. He cited ABTA research that found 70% of customers believe their tour operators should ensure their holidays fall under responsible tourism. And while he believes customers would pay more for this, he isn’t convinced that they would need to. “A lot of what we’re doing around sustainability actually has financial benefits,” he said.

Wirz agreed: “Those guests with a conscience about sustainability love the fact that we’re taking these steps,” he said, noting the elimination of plastic straws, the introduction of glass and metal water bottles and digital, rather than paper, communications as examples of Uniworld’s work.

But some consider such steps a drop in the ocean (or river). Fuel consumption and emissions remains a major sticking point as more lines and more ships take to the waterways. 

It’s something that A-ROSA has been aware of for a while, and something the line is aiming to tackle with its new E-Motion ship. 

“The current situation is seeing river cruise experience more demand to see towns and cities, but the infrastructure is not moving as fast as new ship builds, so we’re facing a lot of problems in how we reduce emissions,” said Matthias Lutter, head of new builds at A-ROSA.

The new ship switches to battery power when it approaches a town or city to save fuel, reduce emissions and keep noise disruption to a minimum. It will operate on the Rhine from 2021.

It’s efforts such as these that – as public appetite for sustainable travel increases – agents would do well to include in their communications. Recounting an anecdote in which cruise customers began litter-picking on an excursion, Hawke said: “Customers are choosing to do that, it matters. People care about it, and I think travel agents need to push us as the industry and cruise lines to give you the information so you can proactively talk to your customers. You need to push us, say ‘give us what you are doing, make it easy for us to tell the story’.”

It’s a new sales model, but it could be the model of the future as public demand continues to go eco.

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