With neon-lit lounges, high-energy land excursions and a youthful marketing vibe, U by Uniworld has set sail this inaugural season minus its initial concept of selling only to Millennials.
As a result, travel agents are trying to figure out who they should be marketing the river cruise line to and how. They know they need to ensure that they are taking advantage of the distinct product U by Uniworld has to offer, but not place a customer on a vacation that doesn’t match their personality.
“I love Uniworld so much, but I don’t see how they could target the older demographic with this product, unless they change what the perception of river cruises is. They would basically need to break out of river cruises to make this product go,” said Trish Gastineau, MCC, CTC, an independent agent in Naples, Florida, who sells travel under the name Simply Customized Travel.
“My ideal river cruise client is someone in their 60s, and I’m not sure if it is right for me,” said Gastineau, who is at the younger end of the Baby Boomer demographic.
“My counterparts and co-workers are very curious,” said Jessica Ourisman, a Millennial and owner of Ourisman Travel, an independent affiliate of Brownell, a Virtuoso Member Agency, based in Baltimore, Maryland. “We’re approaching this change delicately to see who can we sell it to and why.”
Are Millennials the right market?
According to the 2017 MMGY Portrait of the American Traveler, 8 percent of Millennials had taken any kind of cruise in the last 12 months leading up to the survey, which is published annually in the spring. Only 6 percent of Generation Xers responding to that year’s survey said they had taken a cruise.
MMGY respondents were not asked about river cruises specifically, so it is likely Millennial and Gen X river cruisers would be a much smaller percentage of even those low figures. Approximately 11 percent of Baby Boomers had taken a cruise in the last 12 months, while 13 percent of Matures had done the same.
Jacob Marek, a Millennial who founded and owns IntroverTravels, an agency in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, thinks Uniworld made a smart move widening their audience.
“For starters, Millennials tend to bristle at things that are explicitly ‘Millennial.’ But I think the real issue was that U by Uniworld felt like it was ‘Millennial by Committee.’”
“Millennials aren’t likely a great audience to target for cruises, yet, he said.
"These people studied abroad in high school, backpacked in college, and had destination weddings and honeymoons. Spending lots of time on a cruise, with pre-planned activities, just doesn’t appeal to this audience.”
Some experts and agents privately wondered how the cruise line’s bookings were faring, and if underperforming advance reservations were the reason for the marketing shift.
“It could be they learned a lesson, that for the product they were creating, age doesn’t identify the demographic that would be interested in the product,” said Ourisman.
Booking and pricing insights
As recently as this week, U by Uniworld was offering cabins on some of its 19 Seine Experience itineraries, starting at $1,699 per person for two people in a studio, and $1,899 per person for two in a balcony cabin. Most sailings in August and September still held availability this week.
For its 13 Danube itineraries this year, only one was listed as sold out on the company’s website the week of May 7, with per person pricing starting at $1,499 per person for a studio and $1,699 for a balcony.
Ellen Bettridge, CEO and president of Uniworld, wouldn’t comment specifically on bookings and pricing, saying, “These are early days, but we’re excited about our debut and the interest in the U brand.” She said the line is “expecting to finish the year on target,” and that the company’s confidence “in the strength of the concept” led to a commitment to expand itineraries next to the Mekong River.
“Less than a month in, we’re staying true to the experience we always envisioned for this brand and continue to attract like-minded travelers – Millennials, Gen Xers and beyond – who want its sleek style, fun onboard vibe, longer stays in destination and immersive experiences.”
Shifting marketing could expand the river cruise market
While agents struggle to identify non-Millennial clientele to sell U by Uniworld to, they praised the river cruise line for taking a bold risk and listening to agent feedback. They also expressed hope the company’s marketing and media coverage will grab the attention of consumers who have yet to try river cruising.
“I think they are still figuring it out. And the best thing I can say is they are being very open-minded,” said Ourisman.
She believes that the U by Uniworld product’s strength is “a lack of structure, a lower barrier with how you are interacting with the environment you are visiting.” That spirit of independence is more a psychographic than a demographic, Ourisman said. “I think it is the new way of traveling today, how we all travel.”
Bettridge echoed those sentiments. “We listened to our agent partners who shared customer feedback and decided to remove the age restriction based on what we were told: U is about the fresh, sexy approach to river cruising and not the age of the guest. It’s aimed at a new generation of river cruisers that are like-minded in their desire for this experience at any age.”
“By expanding their offering to Millennial-minded people, I think they may have found a sweet spot,” Marek said. “Perhaps people who are more comfortable in a cruising environment but who want the types of experiences that Uniworld thought appealed to only Millennials. It remains to be seen, but I think it’s an interesting pivot.”
Ourisman, an older Millennial who experienced U by Uniworld’s Amsterdam to Frankfurt Rhine cruise, agreed with Marek. She said several of her agent colleagues had asked her if the cruise was right for some of their non-Millennial clients. She said, “there is no real litmus test right now.”
Some agents with older clientele think that with the right marketing, they might be able to penetrate older age groups if they focus on the mindset of cruisers who live a more active lifestyle.
“I do have those clients who are in their 50s, but live like they’re 30,” said Lisa Fitzgerald, owner of Fitzgerald Travel, Spofford, New Hampshire. Most of Fitzgerald’s clients are Baby Boomers, so while she is cautious about introducing the majority of her clients to U by Uniworld, she might speak to customers who, for example, cruise with AMA Waterways because of their bicycle tours.
“Some of the things that they are doing might be attractive to my customers,” Gastineau said, like clients who “want more nightlife.” She also thinks many of her clients might be interested in U by Uniworld’s mixology and cooking classes.
To become more comfortable with selling to older cruisers, Gastineau said she is waiting to see more marketing from the company, as well as feedback from clients older than the Millennial demographic.
Bettridge noted how the company recently completed the process of making its inventory available on the Tandem network, which will make it easier and more efficient for agents to sell U by Uniworld.
But while it is expanding its marketing, U by Uniworld is not letting up on its Millennial outreach either. Coming off being featured this winter on the popular television reality series, The Bachelor, U by Uniworld is about to embark on a partnership with The League, a dating app targeting young professionals.
Bettridge said the cruise line is “going full force to capture the audience we’ve always pursued: a new generation of river cruisers who want to sip cocktails on our cool rooftop, take advantage of the nightlife in some of the world’s most amazing cities, and so much more.”