The small ship cruising specialist is having no trouble filling 2017’s ocean itineraries but Managing Director Jos Dewing tells Katherine Lawrey that the next logical move could be an expansion into river cruising.
Voyages to Antiquity could be about to break into the river cruise market. Managing director Jos Dewing has confirmed the ocean-going cruise line is exploring the concept of river cruises, which could be introduced as early as 2018.
“We’re not at the point where we can say if that would be through a partnership or a soft charter,” he said. “We’re purely looking at whether a river cruise proposition suits our brand.”
However, he declared it was an “obvious” lead for the line to follow: “We believe a large chunk of our passengers are interested in river cruises. There are many parallels, with our inclusive shore excursions and our use of the QuietVox headsets. Our cruises up the Gironde to Bordeaux and up the Guadalquivir to Seville have been well received.”
Dewing ruled out adding a second ocean vessel, despite Aegean Odyssey being on track for a sell-out 2017.
“We have pockets of availability in June and at the latter end of the season,” he said. “But our no-fly cruises are pretty much full, and the two cruises to Iceland have a wait list.”
A new itinerary at the start of the season, departing from Athens on April 17, was only added for sale in November, and it’s already sold out.
With unprecedented growth in the UK – sales for 2017 are 70% up year-on-year – and the US and Canada holding their own with 20% growth, going on the acquisition trail would be an understandable move.
But the privately-owned company looks to favour a more conservative approach, keeping a tight hold of that ‘small ship cruising at its best’ tagline.
“Aegean Odyssey is part of our brand,” said Dewing. “There aren’t many ships like her – traditional, elegant, authentic. She’s immaculate and well-maintained – you wouldn’t think she had been built in 1972.”
The company owns Aegean Odyssey outright and doesn’t outsource the hotel management side so it has complete control of the onboard operations.
“Our customer satisfaction scores tend to average 94-5% but if it dips below 90%, alarm bells ring and we jump on any issues straight away,” he added.
Dewing has an agency background, having worked at The Cruise Line, when he sold Voyages to Antiquity among others. That gives him an insight into the tools agents need to sell the brand, and he says great strides have been made in the last couple of years, with a focus on video content and social media.
“We were considered too high brow and a tough sell if you hadn’t been with us since the beginning,” he admitted. “But Michelle Daniels, head of groups and partnerships, has changed that. She’s out there training agents and breaking down those barriers. We’ve educated agents that history is a subject that a large majority of cruisers are interested in.”
Last year more than 30 agents took part in fam trips, and another 40 places should be available this year. More than 1,000 agents have registered with video-based training platform vtaexpert.com.
Those who complete the training become “luminary agents”, with access to special privileges, bonus commission and fam trips.
The line also has a strict no discounting policy, giving agents a level playing field. “We have no need,” said Dewing. “That’s the benefit of a niche product, we don’t attract the type of client to haggle on price.”
There are plenty of marketing tools at agents’ disposal. New this year, each itinerary has its own Cruise Guide, detailing each day’s highlights, guest speakers, tips on relevant reading materials, and deck plans. These can be ordered online anytime, and they will be sent out with tickets. Bespoke videos have also been made for each individual cruise, which agents can use in the sales process.
With this year almost sold, and a thriving base of agent support, Dewing could sit back and relax. But with winter 2017-2018 about to go on sale [February 20] and next summer to plan, there is much to keep him busy.
He dropped a few hints about what’s to come in 2018; more intensive cruises in the Aegean; an extension of the overland concept trialled in Morocco; a return to Iceland, a popular introduction this year; and Norway for the first time.
“It’s the most interesting process within this company. We start with history books, look at how relevant places are now, we chat to the experts, the land agents, and only then do we start to put together an itinerary.”
This winter Voyages will head to the Caribbean and Cuba for the first time. Carrie Gibson, author of Empire’s Crossroads, one of the Observer’s Best History Books of 2014, has lent her expertise to the itinerary planning.
If the company does press forward with river cruises and takes the same conscientious approach to creating itineraries, it’s likely to have another sell-out season written all over it.