Agents should rethink how they sell river cruises, says Kathryn Beadle, UK managing director Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection.
By Phil Davies
The term ‘chalk and cheese’ springs to mind when describing Kathryn Beadle’s switch from Hurtigurten to heading Uniworld in the UK. Both may be specialist cruise companies but there the similarity ends.
Rather than promoting coastal voyages on working ships that ply the Norwegian coastline, Beadle is now responsible for selling what are arguably the most luxurious river cruises afloat, seen by many as the Ritz Carlton of the rivers. From an outsider’s perspective it could be seen as swapping austerity for opulence.
But Beadle, recruited from the Norwegian coastal voyage company to establish a stand-alone presence for Uniworld in the UK, is quick to dismiss the suggestion.
“It is a contrast but there is also enormous similarities because both are a niche product,” she says.
“Both attract customers who are well travelled and are certainly looking for value but the ticket price isn’t the driver at all.
“They don’t want to drop and flop, they want to go on holiday and get some benefit out of it, be it some form of education, visiting a new place or getting an exciting new experience.”
However, Uniworld’s offering is described by Beadle as being “top of the range luxury”.
“We have this saying ‘No request too big, no detail too small’ – our raison d’etre is for the customer,” she says.
Uniworld continues to work with Titan for distribution to consumers while Beadle, who joined the US-based river cruise specialist six months ago, is working to encourage more agent bookings. Only four per cent of total sales come from the UK, a proportion Beadle hopes to raise to ten per cent in five years.
She has secured an ATOL licence for the company to allow it to act as a tour operator in its own right. This has also triggered the release of a new Asia programme featuring India for the first time, as well as a return to Egypt with Nile cruises from September.
Brochure prices across the range are cruise and land-only but the ATOL gives Uniworld the ability to build in flights at the best available fare, offering more options and protection for agents and their clients. It also means that agents can selfpackage by adding flights to cruises.
Beadle is quick to portray the Uniworld offering as an upmarket boutique hotel break that happens to be based on board a boat. She believes agents should market the river cruising concept in such a way to attract well travelled – and well heeled – clients who are looking for cultural, historical and memorable experiences from their holidays. With average prices of £3,500 for a week, Uniworld is not for the budget conscious, but Beadle believes its all-inclusive offering presents an opportunity for agents to enhance their commission earnings over ocean cruise bookings.
She concedes that a process is required to educate the trade about the different rivers, the diverse number of river cruise operators and their expanding fleets – and praises CLIA UK & Ireland for its training modules and annual river cruise convention.
“There’s a lot more competition than there was a few years ago and if you look at the number of ships being launched, it’s phenomenal,” she says.
“Uniworld is mindful that the majority of its business is from the States and it wants to spread that more across the globe.
“It made absolute sense in what was the second largest cruise market that we had an office here, it was an obvious next step. My remit initially is to concentrate on the trade, get around to see all the trade partners and move it on from there.”
But the attention river cruising receives from many agents is “negligible,” she argues, adding that the kind of passengers who may take an ocean cruise are not the same as those taking river trips.
“Most [agents] recognise there is an opportunity with river [cruising]; I think some agents have a way to go to understand how to promote it. Business is coming from a small number of agents and the big accounts with a large [ocean cruise] market share don’t have that with river.
“They all want to get into river, but one of the big challenges is to understand that river is very different from ocean cruising.”
Beadle adds: “River cruising sits under the cruising sector but it needs a different mindset and different marketing. River cruise boats are floating hotels, a fantastic way of seeing a multiple number of destinations with all the facilities that a hotel offers.
“I’m not interested in sitting in the cruise sector, I would much rather be in a city break or touring arenas. As we evolve and grow the sector, that will come. It just needs that understanding from agents.”
Uniworld claims 98% customer satisfaction levels and a 40% repeat booking level from the US, its main market.
With local food sourcing and provenance being highlighted as a priority by increasing numbers of consumers, Uniworld claims to be unique in ensuring the use of produce, wines and craft beers selected from the destinations its river cruisers visit. Passengers join the on board chefs on shopping trips to local markets as they prepare dishes designed to reflect the region they are sailing in.
Beadle is also keen to dispel any thoughts that river cruising is solely for the sedentary. The reality is quite the reverse, she stresses. Travellers need to be fit and healthy to take advantage of the vast range of excursions, many of which are organised on a one-off basis to “do as the locals do”.
These can entail walking cobbled streets on city explorations, climbing stairs to view ancient castles and cycling along the towpath on one of the fleet of bicycles carried on the company’s fleet of 13 vessels which sail on Europe’s waterways.
Another myth Uniworld is anxious to dispel is that river cruising is not child friendly. On the contrary, the company has five departures this year specifically aimed at multi-generational family groups. Beadle has ensured that extra dates allocated for 2016 are aligned with UK school holidays to make them more accessible to parents and grandparents travelling together with children, who are provided with specific facilities and excursions.
As a result, the number of designated multi-generational cruises has been more than doubled to cover 13 departures next year on itineraries covering the rivers Rhine, Danube, Seine, Main – for Christmas markets – and northern Italy from Venice. River cruising will become increasingly appealing to families looking for fun, education and culture as part of their holiday, Beadles believes. This will gain a massive kick-start by Disney’s decision to work with AmaWaterways from next year on a series of dedicated family-focused departures on Europe’s waterways. “The obvious evolution of the sector is product developed for children. It’s an area we’ve expanded for 2016,” Beadle confirms.