“We know that an honorable reputation is worth its weight in gold, and the best way to gain a reputation in our business is to enlarge your first-hand product knowledge and develop personal relationships,” said Zane Kirby, president and CEO of the American Society of Travel Advisors (ASTA), kicking off the Society’s 2nd annual River Cruise Expo. “Because you’re here, you’ll be better able to guide, advise, watch over your clients and respond to this growing consumer preference.”
More than 700 travel advisors are attending this year’s event, with some 500 attending for the first time. By a show of hands during the show, at least 25% of attendees have not yet been on – or sold – a river cruise.
During the three-day conference, attendees can take advantage of several educational opportunities including a general session, educational workshops, a trade show, and networking. But, as Kirby said during his opening remarks: “The real stars of the show are the ships themselves.”
Attending travel advisors will have the opportunity to tour nine ships from six brands including AmaWaterways, Scenic, Avalon Waterways, Viking, Riverside Luxury Cruises and Amadeus, as well as have two lunches and two dinners onboard the ships.
“It would take you a year-plus to get the knowledge that you’re going to get in four days here,” said Jennifer Halboth, CEO of Riverside Luxury Cruises. The line’s Riverside Mozart is one of the ships participating – and the one most of the advisors TMR spoke with were most eager to tour.
A Growing Sector, But Challenges Remain
During the first of two panels moderated by Travel Market Report’s Anne Marie Moebes, some of the lines’ executives and two river cruise-selling travel advisors discussed why travel advisors need to be selling river cruises, why clients love them, as well as a few challenges facing advisors.
“We are growing in double digits,” said Kristin Karst, co-founder and executive vice president of AmaWaterways, speaking of the entire industry. “Why is that? It’s small intimate ships… and you double the leisure time of your guests because as you see the river cruise ships are docked right in the heart of the city most of the time. There is no tendering.”
“I think there’s three reasons why booking river cruises is so popular with all of us,” said Jeff Coggin, VTA, co-owner of Coggin Travels.
The first, he said, is financial, citing the fact that most commission checks when sailing river cruises have commas.
Second, he said, is the ease of booking, comparing booking a river cruise, which often includes air, sometimes transfers, and pre- and/or post-cruise excursions (either complementary or for an extra fee) in the overall fare, with FIT bookings.
“That’s like putting up a Christmas tree. You’ve got to go buy the tree. You’ve got to get the base. You have to put up the lights. You have to plug it in. If I book a river cruise, these folks take care of all of that for me…. Nobody ever books a river cruise and says, ‘man, I worked really hard on that.’”
Third, he said, is customer satisfaction, mentioning that he’s never had a client come back from a river cruise dissatisfied.
What the river cruise lines and travel advisors still have to face when booking river cruises, however, is a lack of awareness and erroneous perceptions.
“There is a huge audience of people that are just not familiar with what river cruising has to offer,” said Ken Muskat, referring mostly to ocean cruisers, though it applies to other types of travelers as well. “It’s all of our responsibility to get that message out there.”
“For me, it’s about vision and imagination,” Coggin said. “A lot of the traveling public can’t really envision what the experience of being on a river cruise is like… When you go on FAM trips, you have to share that vision, you have to prime their imagination. Get them to imagine that they’re you on that trip.”
Advice from the Execs
When asked what one thing travel advisors should do that they’re not doing now, the cruise line executives each offered a different tip.
“Use the opportunity for a co-branded website so that all the marketing materials that we are creating for you is in your website,” Karst said.
“Take advantage of the special interest cruises and go out and find the people in your community that have wine clubs, breweries, garden clubs and put groups together,” said Pam Hoffee, president of Avalon Waterways.
“Follow-up,” Muskat said. “So often we get advisors that come onboard and see our vessels and do FAMs and then it kind of ends. What can you do to do the follow-up? Share pictures, share videos… When your clients come back and you follow up with them and you hear what a great time they had, ask them how can they share that with their friends and family. How can they become advocates for our industry and for you to drive more business to you.”