At the 2022 CLIA RiverView conference – held in Budapest last weekend – agents were urged to “rediscover river”, as the sector looks to rebound from the pandemic.
The theme for this year’s event, coming as it did following the enforced Covid hiatus, was designed to remind, reinvigorate and renew, with a keen eye on the future as lines push ahead with ship launches, new technology – particularly on the sustainability side – and longer itineraries to rival the epic explorations in ocean.
As Ben Bouldin, CLIA UK & Ireland chair and self-confessed river cruise virgin, said during his first speech at the conference: “There is an emphasis on exploration, new destinations, and there is an opportunity to grow river cruise.
“New to cruise is critical; there is no better way to see Europe than by river cruise. Theming and personalisation are important, and we know that river has an innate ability to immerse people in a destination.”
‘We need to educate clients’
This new-to-cruise element was also highlighted by Uniworld president and CEO Ellen Bettridge, who said in a rousing speech: “We need innovation to inspire people to travel; agents need to share their experiences and encourage clients to dream and serve up the unexpected.
“Many clients still need to be educated about why to choose a river cruise, so we need give clients options, listen to them, and watch their body language.”
However, Bettridge also reinforced the need to build a presence on social media, urging agents to “tell the story; travellers find inspiration on social media… 87 per cent of millennials use social for travel inspiration. Video content is crucial, but it doesn’t have to be perfect. Show clients what you are seeing.”
One itinerary where there will be plenty of chance to explore is Uniworld’s new 43-day itinerary, described by the line as the “world’s most exotic river and land journey”, which UK MD Chris Townson explained “reflects the clear trend we are seeing of customers booking back-to-back river cruises”.
The itinerary, which will take place in January and February 2023, is exclusively for the UK market, and comes off the back of the luxury line revealing that the UK is now its second-best performing market, and high demand for its first Rivers of the World itinerary, which “sold out within days of going to market”, Townson added.
Guests will start in Egypt and also take in India, Vietnam and Cambodia across three ships, with prices starting from £18,885 per person, based on two people sharing.
Investing in the future of river cruise
As expected, sustainability formed a key part of the agenda and general discussion. During a panel debate, A-Rosa UK MD Lucia Rowe was keen to stress the need for agents to learn and understand what is being done to reduce emissions and protect the environment.
“If we don’t protect destinations, there’s nothing to sell,” she said. “You [travel agents] have to be ready, as one day a customer will choose a holiday based on sustainability. At A-Rosa, we are getting ready.”
The line is doing this by going down the hybrid power route. Its new ship, A-Rosa Sena, will use such a system to operate on battery power when approaching a port, and Rowe outlined a bold plan to have a fully hybrid-powered fleet by 2030.
“The majority of us understood it [sustainability] a while ago – we can’t be reactive,” she explained. “This is a journey as technology advances every day. It is vital we keep up and understand what is next.”
Also speaking in the session was Ben Wirz, Uniworld global river cruises MD, who added: “It [new technology] is an investment in the future. We can learn from each other.
“Many of the technologies we will need in river cruise are not yet available to us, so we are working with research companies to develop those. We can work collaboratively and figure out what works for us in river.”
One of the challenges, said Wirz, is ensuring that the “technology developed for new ships can be used on older ships”, as the issue of retrofitting comes into play. Rowe, however, added that A-Rosa has steps in place to complete any retrofitting needed between now and its 2030 target, so watch this space.
Mentoring for travel agents
Sticking with the theme of looking forward, APT UK MD Paul Melinis suggested that as soon as “people travel in 2022, feel comfortable, it will be a domino effect; 2022 is going to be a late market – with earning potential”.
Avalon Waterways MD Pam Hoffee agreed, noting that with travel restrictions being lifted across many markets, it is now “far easier to plan itineraries”. She added on future bookings: “Special interest cruises are a trend – wine-themed cruises are incredibly popular.”
To help agents tap into this demand, CLIA river cruise lines have created a mentorship programme to boost knowledge. To date, 10 lines have joined the scheme, and agents who sign up will be assigned a mentor from one of those lines and collaborate on how to increase sales.
That, coupled with the fact that clients are eager to splash the cash, said numerous experts, puts the agent and river cruise relationship in perhaps its strongest position ever.
Main image credit: Steve Dunlop Photographer