River cruising only became an “Americanized” product in the 1990s, but it has since grown into one of the industry’s hottest segments – with high profits for travel sellers and the potential for still more growth, according to river cruise executives.
“River cruising has been around a long time, but it used to be the domain of the Europeans,” said Rick Baron, managing director of worldwide accounts for Tauck. Now, with demand high in the U.S. market, “there’s not enough supply,” he noted.
Baron joined other river cruise operators to discuss the trends in river cruising – and what they mean for travel sellers – during a panel at the New York Times Travel Show in New York City last month.
10% annual growth
There are 21 million known cruise clients today, and one-third of them have said they are interested in taking a river cruise, said Baron, citing research from the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA).
In the past five years, river cruises registered a 10% annual increase in passengers, compared to just 7% a year for the cruise industry as a whole, according to CLIA.
For best deals, book early
With demand high and supply tight, river cruising is one segment where clients need to book in advance. This is contrary to the idea that the best deals are those booked at the last minute, the executives said.
“They’ll miss out if they are buying last minute,” said Bill Spaeth, director of marketing for Scenic Cruises. “There’s just too much demand.”
High air fares to Europe, the leading river cruise destination, also makes early booking a necessity, said Baron.
But despite the high air fares, “clients are still going,” said Cindy Sullivan, regional manager, eastern region, for the Globus Family of Brands, which includes Avalon Waterways.
“Clients need to buy a year in advance. And, contrary to what people think, the best deals are in the brochure,” she added.
The all-inclusive nature of river cruising, the more intimate atmosphere of its smaller vessels, longer port calls and in-depth destination experiences are the main factors accounting for the popularity of river cruises, according to the executives.
They advised travel agents to capitalize on those features in selling river cruises.
“Think outside the boat. Don’t sell the boat, sell the entire experience,” said Baron.
“Cultural enrichment” is key to river cruising, whose fares include daily excursions at each destination, said Eric Molina, director of business development for Viking River Cruises.
“Ocean cruisers have to decide what to do; not so with river cruisers,” Molina said.
The typical river cruise client skews older, but the product also appeals to other age groups, as well as to singles and families.
“The average age is 63, but when you get into the longer itineraries, it’s older clients. For shorter itineraries it’s a variety of ages along with families,” said Sullivan.
The “lowest hanging fruit” for river cruising is seniors, according to Baron. He said the gentle nature of this type of travel means seniors can extend their traveling life by 10 years.
“We all offer cultural, immersive experiences,” said Spaeth. “Your best customers are those who are looking for more. Whether they’re 30 or 90, they want to get out and explore.”