Arnie Weissmann
Arnie Weissmann

Every March, Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection holds "Kickoff," a combination staff training/global sales conference/motivational retreat/family reunion. I attended the 2019 edition last week in Dusseldorf, Germany.

Uniworld senior vice president of global sales Kristian Anderson and the painting of a chair given to him at the company’s Kickoff event.
Uniworld senior vice president of global sales Kristian Anderson and the painting of a chair given to him at the company’s Kickoff event. Photo Credit: Andrew Turley

This year, on the second evening of this business and social event, an auction was held to sell, piece by piece, artwork created by some of the 500 staff who were in attendance. The proceeds benefit a local hospital that provides services to children with terminal diseases.

Sales manager Sheryl Garavelli paid 750 euros for a painting of a solitary chair. After taking possession of it, she walked over to Kristian Anderson, senior vice president of global sales, and handed it to him.

The next morning, I asked him why.

"The day before, at the start of our sales meeting, I had brought an empty chair onto the stage," Anderson told me. "I said to the team that it would stay up there as a reminder of the person who wasn't present, but for whom we put in all of our time, energy and focus. It's the person who fuels our growth. The chair, I said, represents travel advisors. And now, that painting will be my own reminder to keep them always present."

He told me another story about the importance of the people represented by that chair. Uniworld is an underwriter for the PBS program "Amanpour & Company," and he said there was a sticking point in the negotiations with the network.

"We had asked that the tagline include a phrase to the effect of, 'Contact your travel advisor to book your next Uniworld trip.' Believe it or not, they said no."

It wasn't that the network is anti-travel agent, but their rules only allow the actual underwriter to be mentioned in a credit.

"We had to fight for a referral to advisors, and we were prepared to walk away if we didn't get it," Anderson said. "In the end, we were able to work with their writers to come up with 'Bookings available through your travel advisor,' which worked within their guidelines."

Too little water?

Kickoff, Anderson told me, is the only time everyone gets together and reviews the successes and challenges of past year, where they are at moment and where they're heading. They review how to adapt to, and take advantage of, changing market conditions. A record number of passengers sailed in 2018, and growth is predicted for 2019, but success was uneven.

"Australia is in a slump. Latin America is doing well. The U.S. is stable," Anderson said. "We know the election season could have a great impact on consumer demand, and also that we can get ahead of that now."

While the meet-up was overwhelmingly upbeat, challenges were acknowledged. As a new season begins, Uniworld has at least one thing in common with all other operators on European rivers: fresh memories of record low water levels that resulted in disrupted -- or, in the industry's preferred terminology, "deviated" -- departures.

I was able to take advantage of Kickstart's concentration of management to hold an informal roundtable on that topic with Uniworld's director of nautical operations, Alexander Oost; its vice president, technical, Rolf Reachlan; its director of hotel operations, Yoke De Bruyn; and Jean-Marie Queriaud, director of operations in France.

The extremes of last year's water deficit tested the industry and laid bare any weaknesses for all to see. In particular, the sector came under fire for under-communicating with guests and travel advisors.

"We were accustomed to a month or two of lower levels, but half a year?" Oost said. "We now have new policies in place. We can't control the weather, but we can control messaging. The client wants to be informed about potential problems as early as possible. Communication is key here."

Part of the challenge lies in working with a global clientele. Even the best predictions of what's going to happen might not be timely enough for some guests, he said. "An Australian would want to know about potential problems two weeks ahead of time, but our best predictions may be only one week out. And sometimes, those predictions are wrong."

Queriad said that experiencing such an intense season of low water did improve the line's ability to anticipate issues and improve its predictive capabilities. It also improved decision-making processes about when to prepare to deviate or even cancel a sailing, which Uniworld did for the first time in 2018.

Among the options they weigh are whether they can move a vessel with a shallower draft to an area where water levels might drop, Oost said.

"Deviation is a very costly exercise," Queriad added, citing the organization of motor coaches and securing hotel rooms. "And even if you do all that right, a quarter of the guests will be dissatisfied."

Oost said, "No matter what you do and how carefully you explain everything, it's not always the right decision for every guest."

A deviated or canceled voyage has an impact on staff as well as the guests, De Bruyn said.

"We know this is a once-in-a-lifetime experience for many people, and if they do not have the cruise they expect, everyone onboard also feels terrible," he said.

Too many boats?

Uniworld believes another industry challenge is overtourism on the rivers.

"It's a real threat," Brett Tollman, CEO of parent company the Travel Corporation, said in an interview. The industry, he said, has "more than enough capacity on the rivers in Europe. You wake up in the morning and you see four, five, six boats tethered together, and at some point, a government is going to say, 'Enough!'. If you don't believe there's too much capacity, why are we seeing the two-for-one offers, or 75% off? What good is that for any company or for the industry?"

The Travel Corporation CEO Brett Tollman: “Overtourism on the rivers is a real threat. You can’t be building ships on a conveyer belt.”
The Travel Corporation CEO Brett Tollman: “Overtourism on the rivers is a real threat. You can’t be building ships on a conveyer belt.” Photo Credit: Arnie Weissmann

In the roundtable discussion, Reachlan said pushback to additional capacity is already coming from residents. The areas around ports have traditionally been attractive places to live, and too many boats make it less attractive.

"The nature of this business is intimacy," Queriad asserted. "Unfortunately, three ships come into the same dock, and there are 12 buses waiting. People don't know which bus to join. It's not good for guests. It's not good for residents. Nobody wins."

Current operational functions and infrastructure are under stress, Oost said.

"Some ports are saying we want to have you, but we already have too many ships," he said. "You can build extra docks, but then you need extra coaches. You have to have a trained crew, and all that takes time."

Still, Oost believes there's room for growth, as long as it's thoughtful growth. He and his team are looking at maps and calendars for lesser-known ports and days when fewer ships are present at popular stops.

"And you always look for new rivers, which present their own challenges because you're a pioneer," Oost said

"Thoughtful" was a word that came up frequently at Uniworld's Kickstart. Charts projected by the line's CEO, Ellen Bettridge, during her "state of the company" address, showed how many fewer ships the company was adding than was true, on average, of the eight largest lines combined. The total number of river ships leaped from 58 in 2011 to 182 in 2018, representing about 150% growth. Uniworld, in that same time period, grew about 30%, from 14 to 19 ships.

It was a counterintuitive brag, but it provided a springboard to discussing the line's differentiating brand factors.

"In true luxury, you don't rush the design," Bettridge said. "You're careful not to overpower the environment. You make sure you can continue to source local, fresh food along the rivers and offer unique, authentic experiences.

Later, Tollman told me, "You can't be building ships on a conveyer belt, adding five to 10 a year. Yes, we want to keep growing, but cautiously and prudently. There's a bubble out there, and one day it will come home to roost. We're going to stay the course of thoughtful growth, and I couldn't be happier."

This message has been embraced by his staff as a point of pride.

"Nineteen ships, and no two are the same," marketing vice president Shirnett Fleet said of the company's fleet. "People ask for renderings when we announce we're working on a new ship or transforming an existing ship, but they don't exist -- at least not right away. It's an organic process. We're building a new ship for Egypt for 2020, and the design team is going through markets there, looking at how traditional hand woodcarving is done. This is not a computer doing renderings. The design is inspired by the destinations where we sail."

Fleet said that's why Uniworld, in its videos, emphasizes the interiors more than exteriors.

"Everyone uses a drone shot of their ship on the river in a beautiful location. We have something special, and it's inside," Fleet said.

"And it doesn't look like it's from Ikea," chimed in sales leader Anderson.

Focus on staff

One of the other differentiating points that Uniworld staff take pride in is that they are, in fact, staff. According to Bettridge, many of the positions filled by employees at Uniworld are typically contracted to third parties, such as river boat culinary staff. As employees, Uniworld staff receive paid vacations and other benefits, as well as bonuses, including 1,000 euro payouts to the parent of a newborn.

Anderson said that among the beneficiaries of retaining staff vs. hiring contractors are travel advisors, whose clients are better served by happier service providers.

It was also clear in conversations with staff that many of them take pride in working for the line that positions itself as the most luxurious, and their relations with guests are undoubtedly eased by the all-inclusive nature of Uniworld, which includes airport pickups, WiFi and gratuities in the sailing price.

That price, of course, is generally higher than competitors'. Tollman said the rate also reflects the higher costs that go into an employed staff, the fixtures, amenities and services such as butlers.

"I understand that the average per-passenger daily cost in the industry is 38 euros, all-in. Ours is 120 euros," he said. "We spend 27 million euros to build a ship; the others average 18 million."

Tollman added with a smile. "We appreciate we're not for everyone."
While the majority of activities during the three-day Kickoff event could be categorized as training, it was just a slim majority of the time. For the balance, the focus was on social affairs: a '70s-themed party, a formal dinner, a chef's party and a black-tie gala.

At a black-tie gala, housekeeper Maria Iulia Olariu, second from right, received “rising star” recognition from (left to right) Ben Wirz, managing director global river cruises; CEO Ellen Bettridge; and director of hotel operations, Yoke De Bruyn.
At a black-tie gala, housekeeper Maria Iulia Olariu, second from right, received “rising star” recognition from (left to right) Ben Wirz, managing director global river cruises; CEO Ellen Bettridge; and director of hotel operations, Yoke De Bruyn. Photo Credit: Arnie Weissmann

Two awards sessions were held. One, during the state-of-the-company presentation, recognized those who, nominated by peers, best represented one of the line's 10 "guiding principles," as spelled out in a business card-size, accordion-fold pamphlet distributed to all employees. The recipients represented the full range of departments: The award for "social, economic and environmental responsibility" went to a waitress, while the "health and safety awareness award" was given to a captain.

The gala ball was held in nearby Cologne, Germany. Travel Corporation chairman Stanley Tollman and his wife Bea, president of portfolio company Red Carnation Hotels, flew in for the event. Bea Tollman, who along with daughter Toni Tollman takes a large role in the design of the hotels and Uniworld ships, also created many of the recipes served on the ships.

Peer-nominated "Rising Star" and "Best of" awards, each with a 1,000 euro stipend, were handed out in every department, with all of the recipients receiving a standing ovation.

One recognition was offered posthumously. The line's corporate executive chef, Mirko Peters, had died in November, and an award category was renamed in his honor. Earlier, bartenders had shared with me that a cocktail was added to the bar menu to keep his memory alive: The "Lemon, No Lime" refers to his favorite style of gin and tonic, and mixologists add a few drops of Aperol for color, plus a scoop of beer foam on top.

Once all the honors were distributed and petit fours placed on the tables, a band, flown in from Paris for the occasion, provided a high-energy beat as attendees danced into the wee hours of the morning.

Employee satisfaction seemed to filter upward, as well. Two executives told me, separately, that they were convinced they had the best job in the world. One was Michelle Palma, vice president field sales, North America. The other was Bettridge.

Sharing intel on face yoga and potato-based plastic

The nights were for celebration, but the days were focused on intramural sharing of information.

While those in sales and marketing have obvious reasons to learn about details, new features and amenities for the coming season, Kickoff gave staffers from all areas an opportunity to get a 360-degree view of what goes on in the company.

After department-specific meetings concluded, representatives of each work group, from bartenders to maritime officers, were positioned at "fam stations" on five docked Uniworld ships and were visited by roving groups of staff to learn about what was new and different. Some teams had prepared video presentations, while others performed skits to get their points across.

Well-being coach Elena Nejloveanu demonstrates “face yoga” to members of the staff.
Well-being coach Elena Nejloveanu demonstrates “face yoga” to members of the staff. Photo Credit: Arnie Weissmann

There were hands-on demonstrations: The wellness team invited fellow staffers to join a "face yoga" session or get a hand massage or back rub.

Chefs took over a large space to display and explain new menu items, including vegan offerings, breakfast smoothies that won't separate and the wonders produced by a Thermomix, a puree machine that blends sauces that show up as smears, dots and lines on plates.

Sommeliers showed off a bottle of wine they had blended and whose label displays all their signatures.

One thing that impressed me while visiting the fam stations was how often the presentations reflected the corporate guiding principles.

"Sustainability" ("We are dedicated to a safe and sustainable living and working environment") was referenced by a chef who said the culinary staff had been able to source a biodegradable plastic made from potatoes that was suitable for wrapping and cooking food in a sous vide machine.

A human resources officer (the department is called "People and Culture" at Uniworld) emphasized the "Guidance" principle, which states, "We thrive on clear structures, mutual trust and respectful cooperation," before explaining a new electronic timecard that keeps the company in compliance with ever-changing European Union regulations.

There was no station to educate staff about the role travel advisors play in Uniworld's success, but at the state-of-the-company presentation, the full staff, from housekeepers to barbacks to bridge officers, also heard about the importance of agents.

Bettridge, who began her career as a travel agent, flatly stated that advisors were crucial to the business. That sentiment was echoed by Tollman, who referenced advisors as "vital to the current and future success of the company."

I wondered if the significance of advisors really had made an impression on other Kickoff attendees, so I asked about it during my informal roundtable.

"Oh yes," Queriaud said. "Everyone's aware, because we all meet a lot of travel advisors onboard. The season begins on the 24th of March for the SS Joie de Vivre, and we have 24 advisors onboard the night before."

It's interesting that advisors had a presence at Kickoff without actually being present. And, ironically, their powerful seat at the table found a potent new symbol: an empty chair.

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