While “the route forward” through the COVID-19 pandemic isn’t clearly defined for any segment of the travel industry, Avalon Waterways is hoping to set sail on European rivers this summer, Globus COO and Avalon Waterways managing director Pam Hoffee told TMR this week.
“The reality is that nothing that I’ve experience in my 25-plus years working in travel has been quite like working through this,” she said. “It’s the most significant event I’ve experienced.”
Avalon, like other river cruise lines, is currently in a holding pattern, preparing its ships and crew members for an eventual return to travel, while monitoring the situation worldwide, and awaiting word of when North Americans, one of its largest markets, will have the green light to travel to Europe.
In late February, Avalon made the decision to delay the start of that spring season as COVID-19 started to really take hold in North America. Hoffee told TMR that the line was fortunate to not have to repatriate a hugely significant amount of guests—Avalon had a couple of ships in Southeast Asia and one on the Amazon when travel restrictions started to come in.
The line, at that point, made the decision to be as flexible as it could with its guests and travel advisor partners. Avalon, along with the rest of its Globus sister-brands, launched its Peace of Mind policy, allowing guests to reschedule their trip to any destination offered by any of the Globus brands through 2022, without any cancellation fees.
“We wanted to allow people choice,” Hoffee said. “Globus, and Avalon, would then extend suspension of operations through June 30, which would help give its guests and partners some stability in an unstable environment.”
“It was really clear to us that the situation was fluid and it was uncertain that we would be able to operate travel at that time. We wanted guests and advisors to have plenty of notice and opportunities to change their plans.”
Avalon also made the decision to pay commission on future cruise credits at the time the credits were issued, for those same reasons.
According to Hoffee, Avalon saw about 50% of those guests on cancelled itineraries, rebook for either later this summer, or for 2021.
“Many people are resilient travelers and we know our guests love to travel with us.”
When will sailings restart and what will they look like?
Right now, Avalon doesn’t have concrete plans or a definite date as to when sailings can restart, just like the rest of the industry. And while Hoffee is confident that the river cruise industry will be amongst the first segments to get a full restart, she said it isn’t “quite there yet” when it comes to giving a definitive date.
July is a possibility, but it all depends on the European Union’s protocols on Europe’s rivers and, even more so, on the ability for North Americans to travel to Europe.
“The bigger picture for July, for instance, is if there will still be a travel warning from the U.S. government, and if borders will be open in Europe. Because if that’s the case, then obviously we won’t be able to operate in July,” Hoffee said.
Avalon, and other river cruise lines that source most of their guests from North America, also have the advantage of waiting for the European river lines to start sailing first, which can serve as something of a test case for when they are able to return to operations.
As the cruise line continues to wait, the team is having discussions about what’s going to happen onboard in order to keep guests and crew safe.
Though nothing has been finalized yet, Avalon plans to eliminate buffets and replacing them with other self-service items, like its coffee bar and snack stations; add another dining venue onboard to make more room for guests; employ a new embarkation plan; require health checks prior to boarding; and update cleaning procedures to better sanitize soft goods.
Avalon is also preparing to sail with reduced capacity to further ensure passengers are able to maintain social distancing. But any decision is going to be made knowing that “it still has to be a great vacation.”
“We’re definitely getting feedback that the general feeling in the industry is that river cruising will come back faster,” Hoffee said. “The small size of our ships, and the open-air balconies, really makes social distancing easy on our guests.”
What’s to come
Along with making short-term plans to comply with a new socially distant world, Avalon is also making longer term plans.
In the past few weeks the line has made some announcements about what 2021 may look like, including new ports along the Danube, like Ilok, Croatia; Golubac, Serbia; Constanta, Romania; Ybbs, Austria; and Hainburg, Austria.
Those ports will be featured on a new set of Danube itineraries such as its 9-day Balkan Odyssey; its 9-day The Danube from Croatia to the Black Sea from Zagreb to Bucharest; its 16-day The Danube from Germany to the Black Sea from Deggendorf to Bucharest; and more.
Avalon in 2021 is also launching some new Active & Discovery itineraries, which feature more time in ports that will allow guests to do more at the destinations.
“It’s really built for travelers who want to do a lot on their vacations,” Hoffee said.
Avalon will offer a choice of three excursions on each stop of the itineraries, one discover excursion (wine tasting, art classes, cooking), one active (biking, hiking, canoeing), and one classic excursion.
“There will always be three choices. I’ve been on our Danube cruises twice and I could go a third time and do something different in every port. They are great for repeaters who have been on those rivers and want to go again.”
Avalon also this week unveiled some new, shorter sailing options for guests who might want to make a river cruise just a part of their European vacation.
“Many guests might not have the budget to do a river cruise for their full vacation, but they can do it for part of it,” Hoffee said. “It’s a great piece for advisors to have as a piece of a larger itinerary.”
The shorter options include a 4-day Taste of the Danube itinerary that visits three capitals in three countries in just three nights; a 6-day Danube Symphony itinerary that includes a visit to the Wachau Valley; and a 5-day Taste of the Rhine itinerary.
Avalon will also offer two short, wintertime itineraries in 2021—the 5-day Christmastime in Alsace & Germany, and the 6-day Festive Season in the Heart of Germany.
All three announcements, Avalon said, were made to help advisors to keep marketing to their clients and allow guests to keep planning for their future travel as people are on lockdown during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We wanted to show that we know that there is a pause in travel right now but people haven’t stopped dreaming about travel and that’s what our focus has been.”