Gary Peters joins Uniworld’s UK MD Chris Townson for a last-minute sojourn in Paris, where there’s only one thing on the menu – luxury. But you’d expect nothing less from the line that puts so much into giving its ships the wow factor.
It’s late – very late. Sitting in the plush lounge on the SS Joie de Vivre, Chris Townson is almost at the end of an evening entertaining a select group of travel agents. They have travelled to Paris for a much sought-after chance to sample some of the famous Uniworld hospitality.
Unsurprisingly the drinks are flowing, as is the conversation – ably backed up by a quite divine dinner at Le Bistrot – the ship’s super-intimate restaurant, inspired by bygone days in the French capital. Nonetheless, while this doesn’t feel like work, there’s a serious angle to all this wining and dining. Cue interview.
“I’ve been around in the industry for 12-13 years… this is a different level to everybody else.” Yes, that’s Townson’s opening gambit. Bold.
Uniworld’s managing director continues: “Throughout all the venues we have on our ships, it feels like you are part of the destination in which you are sailing. For example, on the SS Joie de Vivre, we have the Le Bistrot, with the best French food, wine, service and so on.” He’s not wrong, there, either.
Heard that line before? Well, there’s more, and it’s about an attention to detail, a focus that is rarely seen elsewhere. “Where we are sitting, in the lounge, the fabrics on the sofas… the last time this was in place was the 1930s. We spoke to the manufacturer and they renewed it exclusively for Uniworld. It’s not about having the biggest fleet; rather, it’s about having the best ships on every river in the world.
This doesn’t feel like a sales pitch, however. Townson is utterly confident in his belief that Uniworld represents something extra, that little bit different from the others on the waterways.
He adds that the brand wants “to under promise and over deliver”, to counteract a world in which there is a “huge amount of over-marketing, as there is in the river industry”. He tells Cruise Trade News that “some of the claims you hear are over the top… we don’t over claim”. He adds:”We’re not here for the short term, that’s for sure. It’s about the long term. We’re profitable and investing in the future.”
The super-ship programme
Which brings the conversation nicely on to Uniworld’s super ship programme – in essence a transformation project. What began in 2017 with the SS Joie de Vivre, followed by the debut of the fully renovated SS Beatrice in 2018, has rapidly grown to encompass more and more of the fleet.
The SS Bon Voyage – formerly River Royale – has recently re-emerged after a full-ship renovation. “What we’ve done with the SS Bon Voyage, for example, is take it down to steel,” explains Townson. “The only piece of the old ship that is left is a mural behind the reception. We will spend more on that refurbishment than most operators spend on a new build.”
By 2020, more than half of its vessels will be classed as super ships; three new builds will also join the fleet, to operate in Vietnam, Egypt and Portugal. What’s more, River Countess will undergo a complete renovation and re-emerge as SS La Venezia on 27 March 2020. Uniworld also plans to launch a new ship on the Volga in Russia in 2021.
While some of the finer details are yet to materialise, what guests – and agents – can be sure of is that each will look and feel very different. “Most operators have the same approach – the same ship – whether you’re in Paris or on the Danube,” Townson says. “However, on our ships, everything is specific, and that’s what our guests like. There is a sense of place.”
Communicating the Uniworld message
Townson admits, however, that Uniworld can do a better job at communicating this difference to the trade and guests. He believes that in the UK “we’ve been guilty of not communicating what we’re about”, so over the past year, he explains, “I’ve been focused on getting the top river cruise sellers in the UK to come on board and experience the brand and cruise with us”.
He adds: “We’re working with more and more partners. We have fantastic cruise partners but we all need to work with more luxury operators. We have so much to talk about and, in the UK, we’re just at the start of communicating it all. When people understand what guests are after, then we are a great choice.
“There’s a huge audience that will pay the extra for that different level of experience. For us the future is super ships, multiple venues, choice, all with top level service. It’s all about guest experience. We need space for each product to grow and develop.”
And with that, it’s back to the bar for one more taste of SS Joie de Vivre’s Parisian flavour.