Avalon Waterways is determined to have its newest ship stand out from the crowd. But to accomplish that, the company had to rethink the way river cruising is marketed.
"Looking at how the category markets river cruising, we saw the sameness and similarity," said Jennifer Halboth, marketing director for the Globus Family of Brands, which owns Avalon. "There's a real traditional formula to the marketing of river cruising, and it involves a deck, some European scenery and some chardonnay."
According to Halboth, the imagery that river cruise operators commonly employ in their ads and marketing materials -- a river cruise ship gliding past picturesque European cities, or close-ups of passengers onboard -- makes it difficult for companies to differentiate themselves and their products.
Avalon decided it would try to separate its product from the pack by putting the focus on its fleet -- specifically its newest ship, the Avalon Panorama, which launches in May.
The Avalon Panorama differs from Avalon's current ships in that it will feature 64 newly designed, 200-square-foot suites on the top two decks. Each suite will have a seating area adjacent to an 11-foot-wide, floor-to-ceiling, panoramic window, with the idea of converting the entire suite into a sort of open-air balcony.
Avalon employed a new interior-design team to enhance the Panorama's design features, which include marble bathrooms; new, Avalon-branded bedding; and love seats in the suites. There will be fresh flowers in each cabin and L'Occitane body products.
In an attempt to create buzz and excitement about the new ship, Avalon sent agents marketing materials bearing messages such as "Our newest ship just became Europe's latest attraction" and "When you build a ship that has everything, it makes for a vacation that does, too."
The dominant image of the campaign is just of the ship itself, with no backdrop, which is a departure from the standard image of a ship in the distance floating along an iconic European river.
"We just didn't want to come out with another ship announcement," said Steve Born, vice president of marketing for Globus. "This was an opportunity for us to tell our story."
As a relatively new entrant into the river cruise market, Born said, Avalon can't bank on legacy like some of the older players, such as Viking River Cruises or Uniworld River Cruises.
"It was necessary, because we didn't have the history, to look at the market [and] see what the market needs," Born said.
"Why would you trust this new river cruise operator, since there are already river cruise operators out there?"
Facing that challenge, Born said, is what has forced Avalon to innovate not only in terms of product but also in terms of marketing.
Putting greater emphasis on the ships has been a strategy Avalon has built up over time.
"Before we even got to this campaign, we've been full-frontal," said Halboth, adding that Avalon has invited passengers to "look at every nook and cranny of our ships" with the virtual tours of four of its ships it has available online: the Avalon Poetry, Tranquility, Scenery and Panorama.
But with the Panorama, Avalon said it kicked it up a notch.
Halboth, who oversees marketing for all four Globus brands -- Globus, Cosmos, Monograms and Avalon -- said that two years ago, Avalon accounted for about 30% of her trade marketing budget.
This year, she said, Avalon accounted for about 50% of her trade marketing budget.
That money translated into a multi-pronged marketing strategy.
First, Avalon reached out to its top-producing agents with a three-step direct-mail campaign, which included an initial teaser postcard, followed by a decoder game the week the Panorama launch was announced and then an "owner's manual" encouraging agents to "own" the Avalon experience.
Agents were sent a launch kit, complete with a launch flier, promo flier and, for top-selling retailers, an exclusive booking-incentive card.
Business development managers were armed with packages that included highlights about the Panorama, fast facts about fleetwide enhancements and a four-page minibrochure with an overview of 2011 cruises and pricing.
Online, Avalon created a Web page, www.avalonwaterways.com/inspired, devoted to marketing, and the company also unveiled an Avalon specialist program for the 2011 selling season, which includes incentives, marketing materials, a certificate of completion and a specialist logo.
But the big push was about more than just Avalon; it was about the increased competition in the river cruise market overall.
"We're hand-to-hand combat here; we're in the trenches," Halboth said.
Indeed, as U.S. river cruise operators gear up for 2011, a year when most of them have new ships launching, competition is heating up, and other operators are also beefing up their marketing messages.
Uniworld River Cruises, for instance, is also investing more heavily in marketing for 2011.
"Our marketing budget [for 2011] will be quite a bit bigger than 2010, based on new capacity and everything else we're trying to achieve," said Uniworld President Guy Young.
Uniworld's overall message was underscored in a recently launched trade advertising campaign titled "2011: Uniworld Continues to Raise the Bar."
Uniworld's strategy to separate itself from the other guys is placing emphasis on its ships' boutique designs, a product of partnering with sister company Red Carnation Hotels.
"In recent years, the renowned Red Carnation Hotels' design team has personally overseen every detail of our ships to create stunning, welcoming interiors, as remarkable as the sights you'll see on your travels with Uniworld," reads an excerpt from a recent Uniworld ad spread.
With its push to be identified as the "boutique cruising" operator, Uniworld, like Avalon, has also shifted some of the attention from the destinations to its fleet and what separates Uniworld ships from the competition's.
As Young stated, the increased marketing efforts are directly correlated with the new capacity Uniworld is bringing to the market.
In addition to launching a new ship in Egypt at the end of 2009, the River Tosca, and a new ship in Europe this year, the River Beatrice, Uniworld has three new ships entering the market next year: the River Antoinette, sister ship to the River Beatrice, which will begin sailing Uniworld's Castles Along the Rhine itinerary in March; the Duoro Spirit in Portugal, which Uniworld will charter instead of the Duoro Queen; and the River Victoria, a refurbished ship in Russia on which Uniworld will have a five-year charter.
Viking River Cruises, too, has a lot on the line, having announced earlier this year that it plans to build eight ships in the next three years.
That announcement was followed in June by Viking's coming out with a new policy to eliminate noncommissionable fees and pay commission on all components of its cruises, including port charges and airline taxes and fees.
At the time, Viking came out with a corresponding ad campaign that stated, "Say hello to more profits and goodbye to NCFs."
Torstein Hagen, chairman of Viking, said that Viking no longer wanted to produce ads that benefited the entire river cruise segment by marketing the overall river cruising experience. He said that Viking would embark on an ad campaign that would set Viking apart.