CORRECTED: The river cruise landscape post-Deilmann

Viking River Cruises
Fleet size: 19 company-owned ships
Charters (2010): Two vessels in Egypt; one in China
Newest ship: 189-passenger Viking Legend, July 2009
Oldest ship: 210-passenger Viking Surkov, 1984 (refurbished 2008)

Grand Circle Travel 
Fleet size:15 company-owned ships
Charters (2010): N/A
Newest ship: 164-passenger River Adagio, 2003
Oldest ship: 140-passenger River Symphony, 1998

Uniworld River Cruises
Fleet size: 10 when the River Tosca launches on the Nile this month
Charters (2010): Three vessels in China on an allocation basis; will charter an additional ship in Egypt
Newest ship: 160-passenger River Beatrice, 2007 (refurbished 2009) 
Oldest ship: 128-passenger River Ambassador, 1993 (refurbished in 2006)

Avalon Waterways
Fleet size: 8 leased ships (two more slated to launch next year; three more for 2011)
Charters (2010): One vessel in Egypt; two in China; and one in the Galapagos
Newest ship: 140-passenger Avalon Creativity, Aug. 2009
Oldest ship: 178-passenger Avalon Artistry, 2004

AMA Waterways
Fleet size: 9 (six owned, three leased; one more company-owned ship slated to launch next year)
Charters (2010): One vessel in Russia; one in Southern France and Spain; one in Portugal; and one on Asia's Mekong River, a new program for AMA launching this fall
Newest ship: 148-passenger Amadolce, May 2009
Oldest ship: 150-passenger Amadagio, 2006

Tauck World Discovery
Fleet size: 3 Tauck-branded vessels
Charters (2010): One vessel in Egypt; one in China
Newest ship: 118-passenger Swiss Jewel, April 2009
Oldest ship: 118-passenger Swiss Emerald, 2006

This article has been corrected to reflect that the River Beatrice was built in 2007 and refurbished in 2009.

Twenty-six years after Peter Deilmann Cruises helped pioneer commercial river cruising in Europe, the industry trailblazer has been usurped by younger competitors with newer ships and a focus on river cruisers from the U.S.

At the end of June, Deilmann announced that the 2009 river cruise season would be its last, signaling a shift from the Old World-luxury, multicultural model Deilmann invented to a more dynamic product targeting North Americans.

In the 1990s, river cruising "was something unknown [to Americans]. It was something the Europeans did," said Ron Santangelo, former president of Deilmann's North America operation, who was named vice president of business development at AMA Waterways on Aug. 27. The U.S. market "didn't understand why people would really enjoy cruising on a river."

Eventually, Deilmann, along with Uniworld River Cruises and Viking River Cruises, succeeded in making Americans understand exactly what there was to enjoy about river cruising.

"In the '90s, the few players that were there were very busy trying to convince everybody what river cruising was all about," Santangelo said. "In 2000, Viking came along with huge marketing budgets, a very big fleet that was aggregated quickly because they took over KD [River Cruises] and they built their own vessels. With their huge spending, within about two years, the questions stopped being asked as to what river cruising was all about. And it started to change over to: Why Viking? Why Uniworld? Or why Peter Deilmann? People now could see there were differences being propagated by these three companies."

The one-dimensional river cruise product had evolved into a multidimensional marketplace. But paradoxically, the increase in choice that triggered the river cruise boom ultimately contributed to Deilmann's demise, as more and more entrants to the market provided a greater array of product developed specifically for Americans.

Deilmann declined to comment for this article, but in previous statements it has attributed its decision to close its river cruise operation to a rapid fall in the number of U.S. and British passengers and to unfavorable currency exchange rates.

However, some retailers see it differently. "The Deilmann model of river cruising failed because they did not focus on the North American consumer," said Maria Saenz, senior travel counselor at Montrose Travel in California, which sells river cruises. "Given that the mix was 40% [American] to 60% European, I can see why they did that, but ultimately the market never grew, mainly due to [permissible] smoking and language [barriers]."

Deilmann did not introduce a smoking ban for the interiors of its river ships until March 2008, and it has been criticized for attempting to try to cater to both German-speaking and English-speaking markets.

cover0907newMozartBut smoking and multiple languages aside, Deilmann was a much-revered, upscale river cruise innovator. Its flagship luxury vessel, the 200-passenger Mozart, built in 1987, still evokes nostalgic sentiment from past passengers.

"Many new riverboats have premiered since then, some with Deilmann, some with other lines, but none, to my thinking, have even come close to the quality and pure luxury of the Mozart," said Jay Caulk, manager of the Travel Experts of Pompano Beach, Fla. Caulk is also the travel adviser and production manager for the TV program "The Joy of Music," which has been filmed on the Mozart.

The Mozart was a state-of-the-art ship in 1987, and for nearly 20 years it enjoyed little competition at the luxury level.

"She definitely was a cut above and very different from anything else that was to come later," Santangelo said. "The Mozart was really distinguished by the size of her accommodation."

He noted that the vessel had 100 staterooms, each 203 square feet, at a time when standard staterooms aboard river ships averaged between 120 and 130 square feet. Additionally, the Mozart remains one of the only river cruise vessels in Europe with a full-size, indoor pool.

As for Mozart's age, "eight or 10 years ago, they were all older vessels," said Peg Haskins, president of Viking Travel and the Cruise Shop in Westmont, Ill., who has been selling river cruises for a decade. "That didn't seem to matter, it was what was available. ... [People] loved the idea of river cruising."

cover0907cabinNow, however, companies such as AMA, Globus' Avalon Waterways and Tauck World Discovery are building river ships at an impressive pace. And the new vessels are targeting the deluxe market with larger cabins, refined interiors, upscale service and gourmet dining.

Consequently, Santangelo said, "the differences against Mozart are not so dramatic as they once were."

What presented a challenge for Deilmann was an overall lift in the industry standards, which made Deilmann's product less attractive. While its river cruise business suffered because of it, the industry as a whole has benefited from this quality race.

"The newer ships with modern decor, larger cabin options and added amenities have helped the river cruise industry experience considerable growth in a short amount of time," said Terry Lobo, president of Atlas Travel Center, a Florida-based Ensemble agency that also sells river cruises. "In the age of technology, we also find more clients asking for WiFi, which is not available on many of the older ships. You now travel in more style and comfort."

Staying relevant

With American river cruisers getting used to more and arguably improved choices, the remaining legacy brands, Viking and Uniworld, have had to work hard to remain relevant in this highly competitive market.

"With the added competition and rapid growth, the river cruise sector has undergone changes, to the ultimate benefit of the customer," said Guy Young, president of Uniworld. "What we have seen is a very marked evolution in the service standards onboard the ships. Basic service no longer satisfies the needs of travelers attracted to river cruising."

Consequently, Young said, the number of onboard staff has increased, and the quality of the staff has improved.

As for the ships themselves, "20 years ago, you did not have a river cruise ship with spacious staterooms, hotel-style beds, comfortable mattresses, luxurious linens and other fine amenities," Young said. "You also didn't have all-inclusive wine with dinner, an all-English speaking staff, Internet, TV."

cover0907newBeatriceTo keep up with the evolving demands of the marketplace, Uniworld, for one, adopted an aggressive refurbishment schedule.

"All of our ships have been completely refurbished since 2005, and we have a strict capital improvement plan whereby all of our ships undergo a refurbishment every four years," Young said. "Our two oldest ships are the River Ambassador and the River Baroness, and these are also two of our most successful ships in terms of load factors."

Uniworld's River Ambassador entered service in 1993 and was refurbished in 2006. The River Baroness entered service in 1994 and was refurbished in 2005. Truth be told, the Ambassador's refurbished interior is not all that different in look and feel from Uniworld's new ship, the River Beatrice, which launched last spring.

Saenz said that "since TravCorp bought [Uniworld], I've seen a major difference and a huge investment in upgrading and refining their product. Uniworld did their homework and studied what the North American consumer was looking for. The new River Royale, Beatrice and Tosca with Uniworld are setting a standard in mainstream river cruising. Their small, luxury boutique design, with the help of Red Carnation Hotels, sets them apart."

TravCorp also owns the Red Carnation Hotel Collection of luxury boutique hotels, which consults on Uniworld's interiors.

That investment in creating fresh design appeal is not unwarranted in a market where a company like Avalon is on course to introduce two new ships in 2010 and just announced that it will add three new vessels in 2011.

cover0907diningSimilarly, AMA plans to add one vessel next year in addition to the two launched this year, for a total of 10. And this year, Tauck unveiled its third new, Tauck-branded river ship, the Swiss Jewel.

Avalon's strategy, said one Globus executive, "is to have the newest fleet of river cruise vessels, not necessarily the largest."

Three new vessels in 2011 would bring Avalon's fleet to 13, but with some of the older vessels' leases coming up for renewal, the company could opt not to renew, which would reduce that number.

"You keep your customers enthralled with new ships," Santangelo said of the recent emphasis on newbuilds.

Viking, whose 19 ships constitute one of the biggest river fleets in Europe, has a huge amount of inventory to sell compared with even the fast-expanding fleets of its competitors. Uniworld will have 10 company-owned ships when its first Nile vessel launches this fall, and Grand Circle Travel, a direct-to-consumer operator, owns 15 river vessels in Europe and Russia.

It's no surprise, then, that agents say Viking is the go-to river cruise line for competitive pricing, such as ongoing two-for-one river cruise deals. It is, many in the industry have said, what keeps Viking in the running against its younger contemporaries.

Though all the river cruise lines offer great discounts and time-sensitive promotions, Saenz said, "Viking seems to be the most aggressive one here. It's no secret they reward aggressive sales tactics."

In the current climate, Saenz said, pricing works in Viking's favor: "The price point will dictate whether customers will go for older, refurbished ships. Just like we see with ocean cruising, older ships will be less expensive in the not-so-popular itineraries as a byproduct of supply and demand."

The 21st century river cruiser

Deilmann brought river cruising into the 21st century, and now its successors are carrying the torch into the future, innovating and updating river cruise ships and services as more and more Americans -- including converts from land tours or ocean cruising -- are enticed by a travel style that, whether or not they know it, has been increasingly designed just for them.

European river cruising takes place in what is, at maximum, a 38-by-410-foot vessel, dimensions dictated by the locks and bridges the vessels must past through and under.

But even within that box, the 21st century river cruise experience has evolved.

Patrick Clark, managing director of Avalon Waterways, observed: "If you compare the amenities of the Avalon Artistry [built in 2004] at introduction with the Creativity at her christening [in August], we have added an elevator, rear club lounge, whirlpool on the sundeck, sundeck grill and outside forward viewing area; increased the percentage of floor-to-ceiling windows/French balcony staterooms; enlarged the shower; added flat-screen TVs, additional dining options -- the late-riser breakfast, afternoon cake and coffee and an alternative lunch option -- and added beer or soft drinks as a choice with wine at dinner."

Nor are passengers even necessarily aware of many improvements. Some of the new ships have quieter and more efficient engines and operations systems than their predecessors.

Viking's Legend, which launched this summer, has only three engines, as opposed to the standard five. The engines are diesel-electric and are linked to a computer that determines how much energy is needed for propelling the ship as well as for all other functions. Viking estimates the technology will help cut fuel costs by 15% to 20%.

Which isn't to say that newer is always better. Many have said they hope to see at least some of the eight Deilmann ships that will go out of service after October resurrected by another river cruise operator.

"I truly hope that Mozart finds a good home, because I want to use her again," Caulk said. "Wish I could influence AMA to buy her, since they now have Ron Santangelo with them."

Santangelo declined to comment on the fate of the Deilmann ships. But, he said, "ships don't go away; they just change owners, they change names. As the product becomes older, the people who want to stay on the cutting edge, they sell them, they don't scrap them."

As for whether there's room in that 38-by-410-foot footprint for further innovation, "I absolutely believe that will continue," Santangelo said. "People will continue to come up with some unique ideas and make the product interesting. And any limitations onboard are compensated for by the opportunities ashore."

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