For one of the first times in the river cruise line’s history, the entire AmaWaterways’ fleet is suspended from sailing. Its ships are sitting at terminals on the Rhine, on the Danube, and in the passenger terminal near central-Amsterdam, without guests onboard. At the moment, the river line is suspended through the end of June – and in two weeks, the team will reconvene to discuss a possible extension to that suspension.
AmaWaterways doesn’t know when the season will start up again, and there are still a lot of unknowns, but Rudi Schreiner, AmaWaterways’ co-founder along with Kristin Karst, still hopes to “get a couple of good months of cruising in,” he told Travel Market Report in an interview last week.
Signs that sailings may be possible later this summer or even later in 2020 will be when the German or Austrian governments begin to reopen businesses and allow European river cruise companies to resume operations. That could be as early as late June or July, Schreiner said. The concern after that is whether or not North Americans will be able to travel to Europe (95% of AmaWaterways guests are sourced in North America).
The nature of river cruising, along with both of Karst’s and Schreiner’s years in the industry, gave them the experience they needed to deal with the crisis.
“We are well prepared. It was always our philosophy. Over the last 20 to 30 years, there have been so many heavy events, between 9/11, terrorist attacks, and civil wars, that we have to be prepared for a very bad season with limited and no cruising,” Schreiner said.
“We have been face forward addressing every challenge that has come our way,” Karst added.
Travel advisor support
“Our travel partners have been so supportive,” Karst said. “We probably are one of the few companies that only work with travel advisors and don’t do direct bookings that, for us it was never a discussion not to support travel advisors.”
AmaWaterways has made a number of moves during the past few weeks in order to help its travel advisor partners through the pandemic.
One was to offer guests on canceled sailings a 115% future cruise credit of the entire value paid for their sailing, including anything paid for pre- or post stays, insurance, air, and anything else booked through AmaWaterways.
That credit, aside from being valued higher than the complete fare of a booking, is also transferable between guests and can be given to friends and family members should a guest not be able to rebook.
AmaWaterways will also pay advisors an extra commission on new bookings made with the future cruise credits. It’s offering an additional 10% on all bookings made with the new value.
Karst and other members of the AmaWaterways sales team are also connecting with travel partners on a new Wednesday Webinar series. Originally a monthly series, the live webinars are now held weekly to educate and empower travel partners through the crisis. Karst and the team are also doing webinars and town hall meetings with “pretty much every consortium,” where they can address in person how they are handling the situation.
“There are these emotional times as well because every travel partner has a different situation.” Karst said that the team has tried to be as “empathetic” as possible “put ourselves in their shoes more than ever.”
And, with no date as of yet in place to when AmaWaterways will resume operations, Karst and Schreiner are still optimistic about both the short- and long-term future.
“Now everyone is at home thinking about their desire to travel. You live only once. It is part of your bucket list. Families are going to want to get together again. Families want to have experiences together,” Karst said.
So far, cancellations from the sailings disrupted by the COVID-19 travel restrictions are starting to come back. Most group bookings have already returned, Karst said, while individual bookings are making new plans for August, for later this year, for 2021, and also for 2022. The line has already opened up some bookings for 2022 to accommodate those travelers.
"We try to really make it possible for every situation,” Karst said. “We have created our schedule for that year now earlier than ever so that our clients can build their itineraries,” she said, adding that the full 2022 schedule should be out by May 11.
“The travel advisor community has been the foundation of our company since day one, and every decision we have made would be from their best interest,” Karst said. "They are important now and will be even more important for everyone in the future. The crisis has shown they have lifted their clients through the crisis. Whether they have looked after their air or rebooked their cruise, they have taken personal care for the clients.”
Social distancing and the future
In order to get sailings out when it is safe, Karst and Schreiner told TMR that it is possible AmaWaterways would adapt new measures to meet social distancing requirements, including limited capacity onboard, offering a different check-in process, and changing dining configurations on some of its ships.
While most of the changes would come relatively easy for AmaWaterways, compared to other segments of the travel industry, some of them will be more difficult than others. Jimmy’s, a family-style restaurant named for AmaWaterways’ late Co-Owner Jimmy Murphy onboard AmaMagna, for example, would probably need some creative solution, Karst said.
There’s also the possibility people are only permitted onboard if they have some kind of immunity passport or a negative coronavirus test, but no final decisions have been made yet.
The main thing right now, however, is to continue to monitor travel and flying restrictions so that if ships are allowed to travel, AmaWaterways’ North American guests will be able to get onboard.
The line does have an advantage in that European river lines, who source local European guests, will be able to sail first. “We will have a good learning experience from the Europeans, the key is going to be how it will be handled by the individual countries,” Schreiner said.
The line, and the rest of the river cruise industry, also have a size advantage—AmaWaterways sails with an average of 156 guests (AmaMagna’s double-wide capacity of 196 helps raise the average)—which may be ideal for social distancing compared to larger ocean vessels. The ships also dock in the center of cities and towns, close to medical services should a guest ever require it.
"We hear a lot from advisors that when cruising comes back, river cruising will be back first because the size allows it to be very easy to have it all under control,” Karst said.
As for Karst and Schreiner, this period is the longest that either of them have gone without traveling, they told TMR, but that doesn’t mean that work has slowed down.
“I said now that I will be able to read a book,” Karst laughed, “I still haven’t started one of those books. We are definitely not bored and there’s a lot of creativity coming in right now, all the things that will happen in the future.”
For now, they both are looking forward to traveling again and are hoping to go ahead with sailings later this summer, as well as December sailings where they’re both scheduled to host groups for Christmas market itineraries.
“The moment we can go over there and the moment we can travel, we’ll be ready,” Schreiner said.