Travel agents stand to earn more commissions selling river cruises than ocean cruises, according to a successful agent in this niche.
And it's not as hard as you think to convert clients to river cruises, including clients who have never cruised before, Trish Gastineau, CTC, MCC, told Travel Market Report.
She should know. Gastineau, an independent agent in Montgomery, Ala,, who is Avalon Waterways' top-selling cruise specialist for 2011, derives 70% of her overall business from river cruises.
Future potential should be even greater, given that river cruises are a fast-growing trend, with at least a dozen new ships debuting in 2012.
Market: younger than you think
You may think river cruises are for passengers in their 60s, 70s and up. Think again, Gastineau advised her colleagues.
What's happening in river cruises is much like what happened in Alaska, she said. The age of the market is dropping. At age 47, she is no longer the youngest on ships, she said.
"The clients that I have are typically Baby Boomers, mid 40s up to their 70s. A good majority are past ocean cruisers who want to go and do something different.
“The deep-water ships are starting to get too big for them. They matured past the party atmosphere in the Caribbean and then went to Mexico and then the Mediterranean and now they are looking for something else."
Convert motorcoach clients
Gastineau said she's also had success converting clients who have done motorcoach tours (such as with Avalon's parent company Globus) into river cruisers.
"They understand, among other things, the advantage of only having to unpack once on a river ship and not having to schlep stuff. And they understand the advantages of having guided tours, which are included on river cruises, to enrich the experience," she said.
Thanks to their informal atmosphere, Gastineau said river ships are an ideal destination for multi-generational and family reunion groups, especially those with 'tweens or teens.
Gastineau added the caveat that younger children should be qualified "to make sure they can take the tours and not be miserable."
Docking in the center of town
When she talks to a client about a river cruise, Gastineau said she discusses, among other things, the fact that river ships are able to dock right in the historic center of cities and towns that grew up around the river.
"These vessels come right into the old part of town. Some motorcoach tours, you are staying on the outskirts," she said. "There is great appeal in being able to walk off the ship and sightsee."
River ships afford an opportunity for a more intimate experience in town, such as people watching at a sidewalk café.
"You can do that on a ship with 150 or so passengers but on a big ship with 3,000 people it's hard to blend in," she said.
In convincing a client why they should pay more for a river cruise, as opposed to a Mediterranean cruise, Gastineau said she also stresses the all-inclusive nature of the product, which means that, unlike their ocean counterparts, excursions and drinks are included in the fare.
"When someone says, 'Trish I want to go on a cruise or a group tour,' I will ask about their expectations and budget and suggest they look at a river cruise as an option. It's a great value vacation when you look at what's included."
Improvements in river ships are also a selling point, she added, noting that the newest vessels boasting larger cabins (from 172 square feet on Avalon), French balconies, flat-screen TVs. Wi-Fi, hotel-like beds and other niceties.
Encourage clients to book early
The hardest thing for agents in selling cruises is getting space, as prime dates sell out fast. "I tell clients if they're thinking about it, we need to move on it and get your deposit down," Gastineau said.
"I'm really starting to educate my clients that this is not like the big ships where you can wait and get the best deal.”
Booking early is particularly important when selling groups, she added.
Spread the word with social media
As a river cruise specialist who is also a home-based agent, Gastineau relies heavily on both word of mouth and social media.
She has her own web page (www.trishtravel.com/) and does frequent blog posts, talking about her own experiences with river cruises, highlighting cruises and answering client questions.
It's not that difficult, she said. "I have my Twitter, the blog and Facebook and they are all linked, so a blog entry goes to Facebook and is tweeted automatically."
Europe still hottest destination
Gastineau specializes in Europe, and while the river cruises are expanding in places including Russia, China, Vietnam and Africa, she said most of her clients feel there is much of Europe to be explored first.
Her top seller is the Romantic Rhine itineraries because her clients are comfortable with the idea of cruising from Amsterdam to Basel, Switzerland, and like the idea of seeing castles.
After that is Paris and Normandy because men tend to like the idea of visiting the World War II landing beaches, "as perhaps done by their father or grandfather," and women like the fact the first two nights are in Paris. Also popular are Danube cruises to Budapest and Vienna.
Get out there and get educated
Agents who have not tried a river cruise should "get out there and do it" if an educational opportunity comes along, Gastineau said.
"Once they experience what it's like they can come back and be excited and explain it to the client. That's so much better."