River cruise ships might be a fraction of the size of oceangoing vessels, but river cruise companies are convinced they can give the big ships a run for at least some of their money.

"Our average commission is $1,052 per booking," said Janice Tully, senior vice president of sales at Uniworld River Cruises. "We don't have all the [noncommissionable fees] that the big ships have, because we're mostly all-included.

"We actually still pay commission on air. We pay commission on insurance, on transfers. The agent's going to make a lot more money selling river cruises than on big ships."

Tully is among several river cruise and small-ship operators speaking on a panel Thursday at the Travel Weekly CruiseWorld 2010 conference. She and other river cruise operators believe that ocean cruisers present one of the biggest opportunities for the burgeoning river cruise market.

"Eighty percent of our customers have been on at least one big-ship cruise," said Patrick Clark, managing director of Avalon Waterways. "Almost a third of ocean cruisers that CLIA has surveyed have indicated a desire to go on a river cruise. That's a huge pool. My view is that we see the demand and the interest in the river cruise product by big-ship cruisers."

Avalon is one of the river cruise companies that is aggressively adding ships to meet growing demand.

Last month, it launched its newest ship, the Avalon Felicity, and the Avalon Luminary will launch this summer, bringing the fleet size to 10.

The challenges, according to river cruise operators, is simply to get more big-ship cruisers to know and understand the river cruise product.

"It's making sure [agents] know a lot of their customers do indeed want this as an alternative or a second cruise," Clark said.

Indeed, said Tully, who worked for several ocean cruise companies before joining Uniworld, "Our major challenge is finding where we sit in the marketplace. Coming over to Uniworld, I was able to walk onto our ships and go, 'Oh my gosh, we sit between Holland America and Crystal.' "

One of the big misconceptions that ocean cruisers have about river cruising, Tully said, is the size and quality of the river cruise ships.

"People would think that river ships are barges," Tully said. "What they don't know is that we're actually a boutique hotel."

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