Finally, as the pandemic has become an endemic the world over, more than 500 U.S.-based travel advisors met face to face at the American Society of Travel Advisors (ASTA) Global River Cruise Expo in Budapest on March 16-20, along with representatives from global river cruise brands and European exhibitors, all cordially welcomed by the Hungarian Tourism Agency.
The overall feeling was encouraging and optimistic about the return of travel. Attendees were so happy to be able to mix and mingle again, share stories, and strategize together – and, of course, to travel freely once again to one of Europe’s most welcoming and beautiful cities.
“The ASTA River Cruise Expo, and the rescinding of travel restrictions now occurring around the world, support the reality that the pandemic is fading fast,” said Zane Kerby, president & CEO of ASTA. “That’s good news for all of us. It is especially good news for all the Americans who are ready to travel the world now! Travel promotes peace, understanding, and empathy. The opportunity to connect with people and places around the globe will again be realized. Travel advisors will be there to guide, advise, and watch over. All at a time when the bonds of our common humanity are needed more than ever.”
Just weeks before the start of the ASTA Global River Cruise Expo, when war broke out between neighboring Ukraine and Russia, it may not have been an easy decision for some as to whether to attend or not. But, interestingly, there was only a 1% cancellation rate, as a result of the unrest. To that we say, “Well done, travel advisors, for boldly leading the way for your clients.”
Budapest was chosen to host the event because it is considered the “river capital of the world.” A premier port destination along the Danube River, Budapest is easily accessible via direct flights connecting major cities of North America with Hungary.
What’s more, the phasing out of almost all COVID-related restrictive measures means that travelers can enter Hungary without the need for any vaccination or immunity certificate or any type of tests. Vaccination certificates and mask-wearing is no longer required to access indoor conferences, accommodations, spas, sporting or cultural events, music and dance festivals, or outdoor events of any type.
“We were thrilled to be partnering with ASTA to host their inaugural Global River Cruise Expo in Budapest,” said László Könnyid, deputy CEO of the Hungarian Tourism Agency. “Our hope is that all travel agents and advisors attending the event will get to know our beautiful capital and the surrounding region with all its off-the-beaten path destinations – to hopefully convince their clients to spend some extra days with us before or after their river cruises. This event once again underlines Hungary’s prominent position among river cruise destinations, and it is an honor that the industry leaders gathered in Budapest for the first time ever for such an occasion.”
Hungary's latest tourism campaign in the U.S. market is launching this month with a focus on the outstanding architecture of Budapest, the unique folk traditions, and the exceptional thermal spa culture of the country.
A new concept for the river cruise sector
ASTA’s Global River Cruise Expo is the first event of its kind for the river cruise sector. As Kerby told it, some 18 months ago, it was the brainchild of Bob Duglin, ASTA’s former vice president of international membership (who sadly passed away last July). His idea was for attendees to be able to compare ships side by side, simultaneously, in one relevant river cruise host city.
The ASTA team got to work to make Bob’s dream a reality. And, at this year’s expo, lined up at the pier for ship inspections as well as lunches and dinners onboard were: Amadeus River Cruises, AmaWaterways, Avalon Waterways, Scenic Luxury Cruises & Tours, Emerald Cruises, Uniworld Boutique River Cruises, and Viking. Quite a line-up, and it did not disappoint. Kerby also acknowledged Visit Hungary, Allianz, and Celebrity Cruises for their support in making the event happen.
The Global River Cruise Expo gave travel advisors the chance to build firsthand knowledge of what their river cruise clients experience; and to gather information to help them make safe and responsible travel decisions.
Education and supplier meetings
During the general session, Master of Ceremonies Sandra McLemore asked how many travel advisors in attendance were “niche curious about river cruising,” which turned out to be a sizable number, as many of the attendees had not yet been on a river cruise.
Also at the general session, panels of river cruise line executives discussed their unique selling points; the differences between ocean cruising and river cruising; and critically important topics such as sustainability.
Breakout sessions also explored topics such as how to attract new-to-river-cruise clients; how best to partner with river cruise suppliers; a guide to going live on social media in-destination; the importance of selling travel insurance; and the key tourism aspects of Hungary.
Many attendees signed up for pre-and post-FAMs. The expo has now ended but, this week, travel advisors are sailing with Ama, Avalon, and Emerald on both classic and road-less-traveled itineraries.
Travel advisors react
Every travel advisor we spoke to praised the event. “I was truly impressed with Bob Duglin's vision of a River Cruise Expo,” said Suanne Adair, ECCS, LCS, DS, PRTE, of Adair to Travel, LLC. “ASTA did a fabulous job of turning his vision into reality. The number of vendors was impressive and I learned a lot about the area and the surrounding countries. I especially loved being able to tour so many different river ship lines without having to actually fly to Europe several times and cruise a week or more on each one. My new in-depth knowledge of the different lines will definitely help me grow my niche river cruise market and help me assist in matching my clients to the right product. The investment that ASTA put into both us and the river cruise lines was superb, and I really appreciated being able to attend the first annual ASTA River Cruise Expo.”
Roberta de Grandis, CIS, CTA, MCC, of Let’s Go Travel, LLC, commented: “It’s been a wonderful experience. I probably wouldn’t have come to Budapest, except for this. I’m so surprised and delighted by the city. And all of the major players of river cruises are here. They sent top representatives to speak with us one on one, and that’s impressive. It shows their commitment to travel advisors.”
Lisa Sheldon, CTIE, of I Do Island Weddings & Honeymoons, “signed up for next year’s expo, as they have already stated there will be different ships to see. It’s a great opportunity to see the ships and network with local travel suppliers.”
What suppliers had to say
The feedback from river cruise line representatives in attendance was equally positive. Richard Hickey, senior director of national accounts, Scenic Luxury Cruises & Tours and Emerald Cruises, noted: “I was amazed at how many travel advisors had not yet been on a river cruise. And although we’re not new, we are a younger brand for the U.S., so the event has given us an opportunity to showcase both of our products. Advisors walked away saying,’ Wow I didn’t know …’”
Camille Olivere, chief sales officer, Globus family of brands, which includes Avalon River Cruises, said: “It was incredibly rewarding to have the beautiful Avalon Envision featured side-by-side other river cruise company ships, after so much time apart, at the ASTA River Expo … The trade show itself, and the educational sessions offered, gave Avalon the opportunity to showcase our travel advisor-friendly and profitable group programs as well as our easy-to-use booking engine. It was a great week that we look forward to repeating next year!”
Speaking of which, ASTA announced that the second Global River Cruise Expo will take place, once again, in Budapest on March 15-18, 2023. Registration is already open, and judging by the reaction to this year’s event, the 2023 expo will likely also sell out quickly.
Aid to Ukraine
ASTA, as a 90-year-old trade association, has always been committed to supporting its international partners through times of war and global crisis. To assist with the current humanitarian crisis in Ukraine, ASTA announced at the Global River Cruise Expo that the organization made a $25,000 contribution to the Global Empowerment Movement. They are working with a travel agency in Poland, Why Not Travel (a Travel Leaders affiliate) to relocate displaced refugees who have friends and family in safe places across Europe. At the behest of ASTA Vice-Chair Jackie Friedman, Travel Leaders Foundation also donated an additional $10,000 to GEM.
And, ASTA attendees brought a generous amount of supplies, such as blankets and hygiene kits for women and children, with them from the U.S., which were collected onsite during the Global River Cruise Expo and sent directly to the Ukrainian border, with the help of the Hungarian Tourism Agency.