Rudi Schreiner helped turn river cruising from a niche product to one of the most popular forms of cruising around the globe.
Schreiner, along with the late Jimmy Murphy and Kristin Karst, founded AmaWaterways in 2002. (Karst is now executive vice president of AmaWaterways.) Schreiner, who studied architecture, was inspired to enter the travel industry by his youthful adventures rafting down the Amazon River in Peru.
Travel Market Report spoke with him about his life, his career and the explosive popularity of river cruising.
When did you first become interested in the travel industry? I know you went to university in Austria for architecture and anthropology.
Schreiner: I spent 13 years altogether studying and I traveled extensively during that time. My first trip was driving from Vienna to Nepal, where I spent four months with wise farmers in the mountain areas. Later I went to the U.S. and planned a long trip driving from New York to Peru and Panama.
I spent seven months in 1975 in the Peruvian Amazon building a raft and doing research close to the Ecuadorian border. I was doing research on how changes in society create changes in architecture: What does it do to their housing?
At what point did you settle in the U.S.?
Schreiner: In 1979 I got married in Oklahoma then moved to New Orleans to get my MBA. In 1982 I opened my own tour company in Los Angeles, Student Travel International, which planned student tours from the U.S. to Europe. Once you’re in travel, it’s really hard to get out.
What made you want to enter the travel industry?
Schreiner: In the end, I did enjoy my years with architecture, but the travel experience from the time I spent in the Amazon was such a different experience. You get a very different perspective on life from travel, and those to me were some of the most valuable times I ever had.
Friends of mine were in the tour business, so we got together to start Student Travel International. That lasted until 1990 when I started my next company, Amadeus International Tours in Calabasas, Calif.
How did you move from designing student tours to coming up with a blueprint for what would become the enormously profitable river cruising niche?
Schreiner: When the Gulf War and Yugoslavian conflict began, I started working for Uniworld which at the time specialized in tours to Eastern Europe. I was hired to develop new product, because the new war disrupted existing tours.
In September 1992 the main Danube Canal construction was completed connecting the Rhine with the Danube. It was constructed for industrial purposes for barge and freight shipping, but it allowed for long-distance river cruising as well.
I put the first programs together in 1993 and in 1994 Uniworld had maybe more than 100 passengers on that itinerary. Uniworld also had river cruises in Russia. Year-over-year river cruising took over all other sectors and by 2000 Uniworld had about 20,000 river cruise passengers, mainly in Central Europe.
How do you follow up such a big innovation?
Schreiner: I left Uniworld in 2000 and started Viking River Cruises with a group of 15. I had chartered ships from Viking through Uniworld previously.
Jimmy Murphy was the owner of Brendan Tours at the time, which was one of the largest distributors of Uniworld river cruises. One day, Jimmy said to me that we could do it on our own. We joined up with Kristin Karst and started AmaWaterways. In 2002, we began by leasing one ship from Austrian cruise line operator Luftner Cruises.
Today, our three families are equal partners. In 2015, we’ll own 14 ships in Europe mostly cruising the Rhine, Danube and other French rivers. We also have two ships on the Mekong River.
Looking back, what do you think accounts for the enormous popularity of river cruising?
Schreiner: From the beginning, there was extremely high customer satisfaction from returning passengers. When we did our first hotel-style charter through the new Danube Canal, it did extremely well. At the time, we had no idea how long it would even take to sail the route!
Nobody had done it before, and what we realized was that it is a way for people who travel a lot to see Europe in a very different style. It gives you double the leisure time of traveling by motorcoach, train or car. Here you go to bed in the evening and wake up the next day in a new city. It creates a wonderfully relaxing experience.
Will European river cruising remain strong given the renewed strife in Ukraine and Eastern Europe?
Schreiner: People who know the history of the region have no concerns. The issue is that people aren’t going to Ukraine and Russia, but it’s the same thing with the Suez Canal in Egypt. Europeans are slowly returning, and very few Americans are visiting. The sights are empty, but the people who do come are welcome.
I don’t think there will be any fallout from the Eastern Europe conflict in Western Europe. People will continue to travel, and Central Europe is as strong for the industry as it has ever been.