River cruises are increasingly popular and in growing demand, but most leisure agents do not sell river cruises on a regular basis. One reason is lack of familiarity with the product. Few agents have actually been on a river cruise.
Travel Market Report asked five successful agents who had just returned from their first river cruise to share their sales advice, experience and insights with other agents.
The river cruise newbies were among 50 top-producing members of the TRAVELSAVERS and NEST marketing groups who were on a recent charter sailing of the Avalon Tapestry. Of the 50 agents, 40 had never before been on a river cruise.
What surprised you most about river cruising?
“I had a preconception that the cabins would be extremely small, that it would mainly be for a considerably older age group and that the activities would be limiting. I was completely wrong. The cabins were much bigger than I expected – the bathroom was very big compared to a regular cruise ship. I was not disappointed at all.” – Peggy Fischer, president/owner, Shooting Star Travel, West Bend, Wisc.
“I thought that river cruising was more like the Mississippi Queen, a paddleboat. I never thought of it as something to do in Europe. I thought river cruising would be for a much older generation of vacationers, maybe for 60-years plus, and it’s not.” – Deneen Andrews, operations manager, Illinois International Travel Ltd., Rockford, Ill.
“What exceeded my expectations and really impressed me was the level of immersion in a destination. On an ocean cruise, you go to Rome, you sail by, but you’re mostly on the ship. On a river cruise, you really feel like you’re there. You’re staying there and you really get more of a sense of being in-country.” – Andrew Bonichi, vice president, Touraid Travel Cruise and Vacation Group, Plattsburgh, N.Y.
“I was amazed by the fact that, because of the network of locks throughout Europe, you can travel throughout [so much of] Europe by water. And I was impressed by the fact that there’s a lot of different companies that offer river cruising.” – Donald C. Raad, president & CEO, MSW Travel Group, Hicksville, N.Y.
What are the main selling points for river cruises?
“The intimacy and the proximity to the historical sites along the way. The shore excursions also are a big selling feature.” – Connie Skrine, owner, CM Travel, Abbotsford, B.C., Canada
“It gets you all of the advantages of a tour, without things that people don’t like, [such as] spending half a day on a motorcoach or checking in and out of hotels every other day.” – Bonichi
“Everything is so accessible. The staterooms are terrific – there’s plenty of luggage space, plenty of room for clothes.” – Raad
“The destinations. Breaking them down and experiencing them as a small piece of Europe and really enjoying the area. It’s a much nicer way to really go in-depth with a region.” – Fischer
Who is the right client for a river cruise?
“Current cruisers – people who are already sold on the idea of being on a boat and seeing many different places at one time – are prime for river cruises. I thought it was for 65 and older and was informed it’s more like 52 and older. That’s a great market.” – Fischer
“People who have traveled a bit before. People who are really interested in history and not looking for the onboard experience as much as for the shore excursions, the scenery and the tours.” – Skrine
“It’s a client that is perhaps younger than I had imagined. I’m in my mid-40s and I thought it was great. If you really want to get in-country and see the capitals and the palaces, then a river cruise is a great way to go.” – Bonichi
“I would recommend it to people who don’t necessarily want nightlife in the cities, because you’re usually sailing at night. I would recommend it for couples that want a relaxing trip through Europe, who do not want to have to pack and unpack every night and who want to see a number of locations from one home spot.” – Andrews
Who is the wrong client for a river cruise?
“Somebody who needs to be entertained at all times, rather than enjoy something for its beauty.” – Fischer
“I would never put children on it because there’s not enough entertainment for children. It would have to be a late teen who is willing to deal with history.” – Raad
“You have to sell it properly. There’s not a rocking atmosphere onboard; it’s pretty laidback. And there are not a lot of shipboard activities. You’d definitely want to inform your clients, so they’d know what they were buying into.” – Skrine
“If you want to kick back and just have a vacation and you love nightlife and you love casinos, then I would say take an ocean cruise to the Med.” – Bonichi
What did you love about it?
“I really liked that when we were in Hungary they had Hungarian dishes on the menu, and when we were in Austria they had Austrian dishes. It gave you the sense of being in-country, versus coming back to the ship and having a strip steak just like you’re at home.” – Bonichi
“Going to destinations like Budapest, Bratislava and Vienna and when you come out [of the ship] you’re right where the action is. You’re not coming into an airport, you’re not coming into a port of call with lots of ships; you’re right smack downtown. You can get off the ship and walk across the street and be at a parliament building.” – Raad
“Being in one ‘hotel’ the whole time and not having to pack and unpack was a big plus. And visiting the small, quaint towns along the Danube. I was surprised to find that three of the cities we visited were large capital cities; then we went to places that were very tiny, so it was a nice mixture.” – Andrews
“It was very deluxe. The sliding patio doors that open up and you get a full view of everything, and the boat is going at such a nice speed, and the fresh air in the morning was just wonderful.” – Fischer
What are possible drawbacks?
“If you didn’t go to the lounge, and it wasn’t warm enough to sit up on the sun deck, you basically went to your room. They really didn’t have another room where they offer bingo or something else. I’m in my 40s. For my age group [or younger] that didn’t want to go to bed at 10 o’clock, there wasn’t a lot to do later in the evenings.” – Andrews
“If you have difficulty with mobility, this may not be ideal because there is a fair amount of walking on the guided tours. The boats are fully accessible, but a lot of the older towns have cobblestone paths and the footing isn’t always the best.” – Bonichi
Please see How to Position Value-Rich River Cruises, March 7, 2011.