What’s happening on the waterways: CLIA 2019

As CLIA 2019 wraps up on day one, Emily Eastman reports on what’s in focus, from next-generation river cruising to product reinvention

The Clia River Cruise Conference has this year returned to Amsterdam, where media and agents have gathered to learn all about the latest trends and new products.

And of the latter, there are many. What with 16 new river ships set to float out in 2020, TUI launching its a river cruising programme, Saga building its first river ship and more international brands starting to sell into the UK market, it’s an exciting time for the industry. And as it looks to the future, it’s appropriate that the next generation of river cruising is in focus.

“Next generation means that river cruising really can offer something for everybody,” said Stuart Perl, chair of the River Cruise Working Group. “Due to the amenities now available both on board and on shore, river cruises can now cater to every generation…it means that we have never had a larger target market for river cruising, which in pure business terms means that [travel agents] now have many, many opportunities to bring in new cruisers and new sales.”

Perl called on the industry to dispel the myth that a river cruise is a sedentary experience only for the older generation. The key difference between ocean and river cruising? According to Perl: “An ocean cruise takes you to countries, a river cruise takes you through countries.”

The industry may be growing somewhat organically (river cruise passenger numbers increased by 10% in 2018), with the average age profile on the slide, but agents still have a key role to play in educating clients on the pros of river cruising – especially those reasons that are helping to bring down the age bracket, such as a rise in wellness and adventure excursions.

The conference acknowledged the challenging Brexit-era market and the impact of Thomas Cook’s collapse, yet river cruising remains on the upward curve.

In fact, Perl believes that the industry is on track to reach 250,000 river cruisers. In 2018, there were 230,000 on the waterways.

Travel journalist Jane Archer reassured agents that there’s a cruise out there for everyone and encouraged them to “tell all your clients how wonderful it is, find them a river cruise they can’t resist and make sure they don’t miss out”.

The CLIA Working Group berated a lack of first-hand knowledge about river cruising across the agent community. It shared six top tips for agents under the categories Focus, Range, Insight, Planning, Opportunities and Tips, also known as FRIPOT – or, when rearranged, makes PROFIT. Getting to know a few specific cruise lines and destinations really well is key to productive sales.

“Don’t rely on customers coming in and asking for a river cruise,” said Janet Parton, sales director at Cosmos and Avalon Waterways. “It’s really important to get on the product and utilise the cruise lines for FAM trips…it means greater customer engagement and adds value to you. You become an expert in that area.”

The Working Group broke down the rivers into types of break, saying that although there is of course some crossover, it’s a great place to start for those clients who are new to cruise:

  • City breaks: Rhine, Danube,
  • Scenic: Douro, Rhone
  • Deep dive into cultures: Mekong, Amazon, Irrawaddy
  • Food & Wine: Garonne, Dordogne

John Fair, UK sales director at CroisiEurope, said “it gives you confidence to sell the right river to the right customer. It’s about repeat business – if they enjoy one river cruise they’re likely to want to do another.”

Their key sales hooks included only having to unpack once, the inclusions (such as excursions, drinks, dining and wellness activities) and getting to the heart of a destination.

Walter Littlejohn, VP and MD at Crystal River Cruises, agreed that healthy industries evolve based on creating new products for repeat customers. The ones that do well are those “with fresh concepts that meet untapped demand and serve a change in consumer tastes and preferences”.

Littlejohn noted that new prospects include ocean cruisers, and that while repeat river cruisers are of high value, it’s also worthwhile thinking about how to sell the same destination to a cruiser that allows them to see that place in a new way. He said the growth of the ocean cruise industry came from the realisation that they’re not competing with each other, but rather with the all-inclusive resorts worldwide.

“One of the easiest and quickest ways to get people into river cruising is to go into your database and match existing clients with the right cruise,” said Littlejohn. “You can turn people not keen on ocean cruising to river cruise – there’s less motion, you can always see land. And then when they go on a river cruise they become much more open to buying an ocean cruise.”

He dismissed concerns that the river cruise market could become oversaturated. “As operators, we will become very smart about how and where we deploy the ships.”

To appeal to a new demographic of cruisers, Crystal has built in flexibility and introduced more seven-night itineraries to appeal to working professionals with limited holiday time.

AmaWaterways executive VP and co-owner Kristin Karst touched on the destinations piquing interest – among them the Danube, Romania, Bulgaria, Serbia and Croatia. It’s a trend partly borne from greater demand for history tours and a look behind the Iron Curtain. 

Karst also talked about safety on board in relation to AmaWaterways’ return to the Nile. It’s a point Debra Fox, APT’s chief commercial officer, agreed with, saying that clients like to reach destinations they possibly couldn’t get to on a land-based trip but enjoy retreating to the sanctuary of the ship post-excursion.

Fox encouraged agents to focus on Asia and the Baltics, refocusing efforts on “what’s hot, rather than worrying about the climate in Europe”.

“I always believe wholeheartedly that under every travel challenge there is a greater or equal opportunity to be had,” she said.

It was a sentiment echoed across the conference. Recent and prospective growth have buoyed the industry, and as agents continue their work in educating a brand new client base, the opportunities for further expansion are almost endless.

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