The optimism was undeniable, as cruise lines, agents and other travel partners gathered for CLIA’s 2018 river cruise conference in Paris.
Life really could be a lot worse for river cruise lines. Last year, passenger numbers jumped by 21 per cent and long-term favourites such as the Douro and the Rhine are being joined by new-found delights on the Nile and Russia. Furthermore, in 2019 lines will launch 18 new ships.
Some could probably be forgiven for putting their feet up and celebrating a job well done. Well, not a bit of it.
At the 2018 CLIA river cruise conference in Paris, held 9-11 November, the overriding message and tone of debate was not one of congratulatory pats on the back, but rather a call to action. In effect, this is only the beginning of the river cruise revolution.
The format of the conference – panels, Q&A sessions and a trade exhibition – gave plenty of scope for examining why Brits, in particular, are taking to the rivers in ever-greater numbers.
To kick things off, John Fair, UK sales director, CroisiEurope, pinpointed the range of itineraries leading to greater awareness. “Passengers can go to places that they couldn’t visit on other forms of transport,” he explained, adding that “first-timers” are seeing the potential to try something different.
The line is experiencing this first-hand and has announced it will build a new ship for Africa – the eight-cabin Zimbabwean Dream, which will launch in March 2020.
“We are happy to continue our development in Africa,” explained Lucas Schmitter, CroisiEurope’s e-commerce and sales director, while Fair added that the line could eventually build up to five or six ships for the region.
Taking to the road
In truth, there were plenty in the audience also trying something different, in that this was their first river cruise conference. This only reinforces the point that education is a fundamental part of future development. Agents, in particular, are only just starting to develop the same understanding of river product as they have with ocean cruising.
Paul Mellon, sales development manager at Riviera Travel, said that agents need to “make the most” of the opportunities on the table and “grab those extra bookings”.
“For years, people have got their head around ocean cruising, and now that is happening with river. There’s the classic line of it being an escorted tour on water. For example, ships are right in the heart of Paris. That’s a big selling point; when you can physically see the destination. I think they are switched on to it.”
The big news for agents was the launch of CLIA’s largest river cruise roadshow, visiting six cities over a two-week period in March 2019.
The evening roadshows, which will be free to CLIA members, will focus on advice on trends, experiences and sales opportunities, and will be held in Newcastle, Liverpool, Birmingham, Bristol, Oxford and Ipswich.
Andy Harmer, CLIA UK & Ireland director, said: “These events are a fantastic opportunity for our travel agent members to speak to experts within the industry.
“They also provide a platform for our cruise line members to meet agents face-to-face and update them on their products, experiences and destinations.”
Harmer added that the association is still on course to launch a new river cruise course to allow agents to become an “ambassador specialist” in river cruising. “We are just waiting for a new platform to put it on, but it will be ready in the New Year,” he promised. In conjunction with this is a new dedicated CLIA agents Facebook page, providing a go-to place for information, support and networking.
Your mission, should you choose to accept it…
One area where growth – in its literal sense – will be limited is with the size of river ships. As ocean vessels continue to expand in size, their river companions have to be ‘smarter’, as “we can only go so big”, said Paul Melinis, APT’s UK regional director.
Giles Hawke, CLIA UK’s deputy chair, and CEO of Cosmos and Avalon Waterways, dismissed the notion that everyone wants something bigger and better, instead highlighting the need to develop more efficient fuel systems and improved environmental performance.
“We can get into tiny places [because of size] without having an impact on a local village, for example – it doesn’t overcrowd the place. Size is a bit of red herring,” he said.
Addressing delegates directly, Stuart Perl, MD AmaWaterways, laid down the gauntlet to the “lifeblood” of the sector with a challenge to hit 250,000 passengers in 2019.
“I would like to challenge you. We had 21 per cent growth from 2016-2017, but, for 2019, we can raise the bar to a quarter of a million passengers. Are you up for it? Let’s get to it.”
Focus on the baby boomers
With the adrenaline pumping and Perl’s challenge well and truly accepted, Selina Wank, AmaWaterways’ sports scientist and leader of their wellness programmes, got everybody up off their feet to sample a couple of simple exercises. Next year, the company is going fleet-wide with its wellness concept, demonstrating that this is a trend that is here to stay.
“Some people choose to cruise with us purely because of our wellness programme. It’s for everyone, not just young, active people – my eldest participant was 92 years old,” she said. “I want everyone to be able to take part.”
Like Wank’s point about creating something suitable for all ages, APT’s chief commercial officer Debra Fox argued the trick is “to bring new people into river cruise… I really think we are in a revolution at the moment”.
She explained that the key is to target the baby boomers. “This a critical market to connect with and introduce to river cruise.
“To know how to talk to them, we have to know how they think and what’s important to them. For them, it is all about desire and experiences. They are the largest market and the majority of money they spend is on travel.
“We have this wave of people who are right in the sweet spot of getting into river cruising. Start talking to them. They are wealthy people who don’t want to settle for less. It’s about experiences versus material possessions. Research suggests that in the next seven to eight years, the amount spent on travel for experiences is going to double.”
One of the most intriguing points of discussion was the possibility of consolidation in the sector, either through river lines merging, ocean operators coming in, or private equity investors sensing an opportunity.
“I’d bet money it,” explained Hawke. “I think there will be people coming in and buying river cruise lines and creating super fleets. It’s a question of when.”
That, perhaps more than anything, demonstrates that the confidence that reverberated around the conference hall in Paris is not confined to those currently in the sector. The word is spreading: river cruising is no longer hidden in the shadows.
Header image – Photo by Steve Dunlop