It was cold, damp and rainy in Amsterdam last week as Rudi Schreiner sat at a table in the lounge of Ama Waterways' Amalegro. The next day, the ship would begin a 10-day wine cruise on the Rhine and Moselle rivers.
The foliage along the route was all but gone, and the weather wasn't expected to improve much for the first four days. But Schreiner, president of Ama, was happy.
More than happy. Joyful.
Sitting at the table with him was Koert Kamphuisen, a shipbuilding consultant. Schreiner has built ships with him for the better part of 15 years. Spread before them were blueprints for the next ship Ama will order.
It would be an overstatement to say that Schreiner is the father of river cruising, but perhaps not an exaggeration to say that he's its midwife. Over the past 18 years, Schreiner has played a key role in operations or the distribution chain of Uniworld, Grand Circle, Peter Deilmann, Avalon and Viking, as well as lesser-known European lines.
The blueprints in front of him were for a ship to be deployed on the Mekong River in Vietnam. When I asked about specifics, he would say only, "Top secret."
Inhabitants of the global travel community comprise a broad continuum. On one end are those whose approach is strictly business. They could be happy and successful in many industries but ended up in travel. At the other end are those who view the industry simply as a means to do what they enjoy most, which is travel.
Schreiner embodies a rarely occupied spot that blends business savvy, creativity, entrepreneurial zeal and a deep love of travel.
Though he didn't know it at the time, he began down the travel path when he was studying architecture in his native Austria. He and two friends decided they wanted to vacation in Afghanistan (in 1973, when it could be considered pursuit of adventure rather than confirmation of insanity). They had no money, so they applied, successfully, for a government scholarship to study architecture in rural Nepal, on the far side of Afghanistan.
The trip was life-changing. In addition to crossing Afghanistan and spending three months doing research in Nepal, they visited Sikkim (then an independent country) and came back through the Middle East.
Upon returning home, the friends were asked by Austria's leading newspaper, Kronen Zeitung, to serialize their adventures over 20 weeks, with a two-page spread every Sunday. The first installment opened with a photo of the three young men standing on the roof of a VW Microbus, the Himalayas rising behind them.
The following year, they arranged another journey, this one to South America. Newspaper serialization was prearranged, a government scholarship (this time to study the architecture of Amazon basin tribes in Peru) was more easily secured, and they had no trouble finding corporate sponsors. Rather than a Microbus, they traveled in a Mercedes, which was shipped to New York. From there, they drove to Panama, stopping along the way to learn Spanish in Guatemala.
After working their way to Peru on a sugar freighter, Schreiner and friends built a raft and made their way up the Amazon, providing him with his first experience in both river cruising and in building river craft.
It will come as no surprise that after obtaining his degree, he found that sitting in an architect's office seemed dull. A year into the profession, he left it to join a friend working as an escort with a company offering American students eight-week tours of Europe.
It wasn't long before he followed one of his guests back to the U.S., and they married. He picked up an MBA from Loyola University in New Orleans and decided to start his own business, turning to a model he knew well. Student International Tours was born.
And shortly thereafter, it died. He had opened the company just as the first Gulf War was brewing, and parents weren't keen to send their children overseas at that particular moment.
Over the following decade, he worked for others, initially expanding Uniworld's river cruise business (when he joined it, Uniworld was primarily a land operator). He contracted for ships to be built and forged distribution pacts with many would-be competitors.
One of his best distribution partners was Brendan Tours, and he and its president, Jimmy Murphy, along with his current vice president (and chief sales strategist) Kristine Karst, joined forces in 2002 to start Amadeus Waterways (later shortened to Ama Waterways, due to trademark conflicts). The line grew from one ship to its current fleet of 12. Along the way, the partners invited Australian Pacific Touring's Geoff McGeary to join the ownership team.
I was curious, given his early adventures, whether Schreiner had his eye on new and exotic routes. He responded to my question with a survey of the world's rivers and their potential: In China, the Yangtze is all people want to see, and it's usually part of a longer, mostly land tour. It's impossible to expand in Egypt beyond the Nile, and the problem with other African rivers is that attractions are spread out over too great a distance. India's potential is stymied by red tape, and despite his early experience navigating the Amazon, he's underwhelmed with its potential. And although his Mekong programs are successful, the river's physical attributes inhibit navigation much beyond its current itineraries.
However, Schreiner was encouraged by the news that Myanmar dissident Suu Kyi was released. He has long eyed an Irrawaddy River itinerary that might take in Yangon, Mandalay and Bagan, and he has been waiting for the political situation to be more favorable.
In the end, he firmly believes that most of his growth potential remains in Europe. The diversity of cultures and the variety of scenery along its extensive network of rivers continues to offer the most opportunity.
I can think of many successful enterprises run by people who ended up in their positions because they needed a job and happened to be hired by a travel company. Some of those companies deliver excellent products, do well financially and, like Ama, have satisfied customers even on cold, cloudy, leafless winter days.
I don't know for certain that passion for travel gives someone an edge in this industry, but it can certainly add a dimension of happiness to those who possess it. After learning more about his background, I had a deeper understanding of why Schreiner was filled with joy on a bleak winter's day.
Email Arnie Weissmann at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter.