Dear Jack and Diane: I think I can help with that river cruise …


A recent tongue-in-cheek, two-part Reality Check column by Richard Turen presented a fictionalized account about two young travelers searching for the best European river cruise line and discovering that, depending upon which website their search led to, the answer could have been any number of different lines.

Former world geography teacher Hank Schrader has been traveling to Europe for more than 50 years and holds specialist certificates from multiple river cruise lines. He and his wife, Anne, have co-owned Visit Dream Destinations, an agency specializing in riverboat cruises, for more than 26 years.

We in America seem to always be seeking the best of the best -- who is No.1? But the question misses a key point: Does someone else's opinion really matter when selecting a river cruise vacation?

My wife, Anne, and I own Visit Dream Destinations, an agency that specializes in European river cruises. We've been in business for 26 years. And we believe there is a better way for clients to choose which line to sail with.

The problem with looking for "No. 1" is, as Mr. Turen suggests, it only adds confusion. Search long enough, and you'll discover that every one of the eight lines we sell will get at least one "best line" designation or award somewhere in the ratings metaverse. There is no consensus, and for a very good reason: most lines that market to the U.S. are very good options -- for specific clients.

So, what's the solution? It may take some time, but it's important to match the line to a client's travel style.

Why a river cruise?

Our approach is to first understand why they want to go on a river cruise. We generally find our clients go on a river cruise for one or more of these reasons:

• The destination and itinerary, almost always the most important factors.
• They like an all-Inclusive luxury vacation at a reasonable cost, i.e., perceived value.
• They want real-life experiences in smaller towns and villages, often combined with the great cities of Europe.
• They really like to have land programs and sightseeing included in the price.
• They like smaller ships and intimate ambience.
• They appreciate shipboard services and caring staff.
• They like the hassle-free convenience.

If one factor is more important than another, that helps narrow the selection process.

Now comes the time to match your knowledge of river cruising to the client's expectations. Here is what we consider to be essential:

What are the routes? You must have a good working knowledge of them. Most Europe river cruise lines visit the same ports so you need to become familiar with the subtle differences. This requires extensive knowledge of the ports and what is included and not included on a specific itinerary. You must be able to talk about the advantages and disadvantages of each route.
You must know something -- probably a lot -- about the companies that sell river cruises. Most clients have heard of Viking River Cruises due to their extensive TV ads on PBS and will want to know what other companies offer and how the different lines compare with each other. We have developed our own rating system that helps us cite the advantages and disadvantages of each line, a far better approach, in our opinion, than looking at it from the perspective of which line is "best."
You must be able to talk about the entire experience and its specific benefits to clients. Folks new to river cruising will want to know why they should spend $10,000-plus for this vacation. Detailed product knowledge is key. Sticker shock is real--many can't wrap their heads around what they perceive as the very high cost of these vacations. You will need to be comfortable explaining the value of that $10,000-plus

Hank and Anne Schrader at a special wine tasting event in Tournon, France, that was part of an AmaWaterways cruise. The couple, owners of Visit Dream Destinations, have been on 21 river cruises.
Hank and Anne Schrader at a special wine tasting event in Tournon, France, that was part of an AmaWaterways cruise. The couple, owners of Visit Dream Destinations, have been on 21 river cruises. Photo Credit: Courtesy of Hank Schrader

It certainly helps to have taken at least one European river cruise if you're serious about selling and promoting river cruising. I had read about the experience, but until we took our first river cruise, I didn't really understand how good this vacation can be for many of our clients. Since then, Anne and I have been on 21 river cruises. We have paid our own way each time, unlike others who write about these vacations, so we can offer reasonably unbiased recommendations.

We have noticed that some publications try to define luxury or differentiate the 4- or 5-star experience in river cruising. To us, it is a fruitless mission -- luxury is in the eye of the beholder.

What to ask your clients

Instead, focus on the features and the different "vibe" each line offers. Here are some of the questions we ask clients:

• Does your client want butler service? What level of service?
• Does your client care about wine? Regional wines? Do they want to make sure all alcoholic beverages are included?
• Is cabin size or a balcony important? Stateroom features such as a bathtub? The decor?
• Does the line sail on the route your client wants, with the appropriate port stops, at the time the client wants to go?
• Do the clients care whether the guides are onboard or local?

Here's the real reality check: If you can't answer these questions without a lot of research, you probably won't sell many European river cruises. In fact, your clients might know more than you.

As with any type of vacation, a river cruise is not for everyone. Folks who don't like schedules, have mobility challenges, want huge staterooms or are looking for the Vegas-style night entertainment ocean cruises often feature may find river cruising a poor choice.

Who is a good fit for river cruising?

On the other hand, how do you know who will enjoy a river cruise? Here are some of the characteristics we find indicate a potential candidate. Are they:

• Well-traveled, having visited Alaska/Hawaii/Europe previously?
• Age 60 or older (although recently, we've noticed this trending younger)?
• Retired?
• The type who enjoy small villages/historical sites?
• In the $80,000 median annual income range?
• Veterans of a seven-day or longer ocean cruise?
• Willing to spend $400 or more per person, per night, if the value is there?
• Celebrating a milestone event?
• People who enjoy good food and wine?

Bottom line? If your clients: desire fine dining; a hassle-free vacation that is easy to plan and arrange; want to discover leisure destinations that they may later want to return to and explore in-depth; are looking for good value; and seeking a reliable and safe vacation, then European river cruising is a great choice.

Focus on matching your clients to the right line for them, on the right route, and you will likely have earned lifetime, repeat clients.

Trust us: Jack and Diane will love this approach!


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