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European River Cruising’s Changing Face

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© Scenic Luxury Cruises & Tours PHOTO: The Scenic Gem sails alongside Normandy. (photo courtesy of Scenic)

By Claudette Covey, TravelPulse

No longer a niche product, European river cruising is going mainstream, offering agents an ever-expanding collection of lines, vessels, and travel experiences to sell to their clients. But with that expansion, it’s become more important than ever for agents to discern the differences between products.

“River cruise lines have spent a decade defining their brands, their ships and the river cruise experience they offer guests,” said Pam Hoffee, managing director of Avalon Waterways. “No travel style has grown or evolved so much over such a short period of time. Travelers—and travel agents—are taking notice.”

Rob Huffman, vice president of trade sales for Scenic and Emerald Waterways USA, concurred, adding that a result of that evolution is a clearer segmentation between contemporary, premium and luxury lines. “As an example, many river lines position themselves as ‘all-inclusive,’ just like all ocean lines did at one time,” he said. “The reality is that once you step aboard many of the river products, you will find there are a number of additional charges. This has led to a certain hierarchy between lines—the fully inclusive versus the menu-selection type.”

He added, “Ships are segmenting based on unique innovations that differ from cruise line to cruise line. And finally, there are those that look to focus on specific niches—be it theme sailings, cultural immersion or active markets.”

Meanwhile, the maturing of European river cruising is enabling lines to tap new consumer markets. While lines initially attracted primarily Baby Boomers and retired couples, the market has evolved to appeal to younger, more active travelers as well, noted Kristin Karst, executive vice president and co-owner of AmaWaterways,

“Anticipating this new segment of the market in 2006, we added a fleet of bicycles on board all our European ships and entered into a relationship with Backroads, an expert in hiking and biking vacations,” she said. “We also started to see multigenerational family groups on board and decided that this segment was also getting ready to take off. Thus, we entered into a relationship with Adventures by Disney and designed connecting and third-person occupancy staterooms to meet the needs of families with younger children.”

As a result, Karst said the company has seen considerable growth when it comes to younger cruisers and multigenerational groups sailing aboard the line’s ships. “I think this change is also due to the company’s focus on themed cruises, including a successful Wine Cruise program and new Wellness Cruise program, as well as the addition of more hiking and biking options within our regular shore excursions,” she added

Tauck is also seeing an increase in younger travelers, who choose to forgo the pre- and post-land programs—an option that is very popular with older travelers—due to time constraints, according to Katharine Bonner, senior vice president for Tauck River & Small Ship Cruising. “There’s a segment of cruisers who are still working and they want a cruise without land on either end,” she said. “Those who have more time opt for programs with anchor cities, like our Seine program, which starts and ends in London, with a train [excursion] to Paris.”

Bonner defined Tauck guests as intellectually curious travelers who are interested in one-of-a-kind excursions. A case in point is a London program that enables guests to meet with Celia Sandys, Winston Churchill’s granddaughter. “It’s that sort of innovation and way of looking at things differently that mark our trips,” she said.

For its part, Avalon Waterways announced plans to increase its experiential Active Discovery cruises to the Rhône River in 2019. “We have also unveiled a new Avalon Choice program that invites travelers to engage in Classic, Active or Discovery excursions on shore, on every itinerary,” Hoffee said.

The growing number of travelers who have sampled river cruises is also fueling positive word-of-mouth reports. “It is not uncommon to hear your neighbors, friends, and relatives sharing their recent river cruise experience or hear that they have a strong desire to go themselves,” Huffman said. “This certainly broadens our target audience, resulting in a much larger opportunity for our valued travel partners.”

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