River cruise operators are moving beyond the one-size-fits-all mentality that has historically defined the niche.
With stylish, modern hardware in place, operators are seeking to differentiate themselves – and appeal to ocean cruisers – based on experience and by offering more choice and flexibility.
The latest – and most comprehensive – example of the trend is Avalon Waterways’ new Avalon Choice program.
Array of options
Avalon Choice gives passengers an array of dining and shipboard entertainment options, allowing them to personalize their experience. (See sidebar.) It also offers a choice of included shore excursions, rather than one complimentary shore excursion, which had been typical.
The decision to change Avalon’s product was driven, in part, “by the fact that 80% of guests on Avalon have had an ocean cruise experience,” said Steve Born, vice president of marketing for the Globus family of brands, which includes Avalon Waterways.
“They’ve become accustomed to the idea of a lot of variety and choice throughout a cruise – something ocean cruises are doing a great job of delivering, but that hasn’t yet made its way to river cruising,” Born told Travel Market Report.
Instead, river cruise lines have focused on their ships as a way to differentiate themselves.
Every river cruise operator has introduced at least one new ship in the past year, most offering all-suite accommodations, or nearly all suites, and many featuring balconies or floor-to-ceiling sliding doors. “Since every operator has a new ship in port, it kind of blurs the lines a bit,” Born said.
“All the new ships are great. They all have their own unique benefits and identities. But where not enough attention has been put, until now, has been on the idea of personalization.”
Prospects prefer choice
To expand the river cruise market to a wider range of prospects, operators need to expand their offering, particularly in terms of shore excursions and dining, agreed travel agent Craig Pavlus.
“Consumers want the ability to choose. They want to make their own decisions. It matters significantly in the American market,” said Pavlus, president of Albuquerque-based Pavlus Travel & Cruise, Inc., an Ensemble member.
River cruise operators – Avalon in particular – understand this, Born said. Consumers who expect flexibility and choice increasingly make up the market for river cruising, he said. “That’s what’s going to guide its growth in the coming years. We see that in our crystal ball as the next step towards what cruisers expect.”
Next generation of river cruisers
By expanding dining options and offering a choice of included shore excursions, Avalon is putting out the “welcome mat” for the next generation of river cruises, Born said.
“Flexibility, where it’s not one size fits all, is much more of a boomer mindset than it is for the mature market.”
Pavlus said he, and his clients, appreciate greater choice, including in shore excursions. “Maybe we feel tired and don’t want to walk quickly. Now I’ve got a choice to take it easy.”
Don’t expect Johnny Rockets
Just how far river cruise operators can go in the direction of ocean cruise lines in terms of flexibility and choice in dining and entertainment options remains to be seen.
One agent who specializes in river cruises said river cruises can never reach the level of choice that ocean cruises offer.
“I don’t think they can, just based on the physical size of the ships,” said Mike Davies, owner of RiverDiscounts.com. “They’re severely restricted by the size of the kitchen and the number of staff.”