Luxury barging broadens in appeal

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NEW YORK -- This year marks the debut of a new generation of luxury barges, as untying locks and navigating canals become increasingly attractive to U.S. travelers bound for Europe.

During the late 1970s, luxury hotel barging began in the Burgundy region of France, where the majority of deluxe barges is still concentrated. During the 1980s, the luxury barge cruise experience amounted to a mere flash in the pan in the vacation marketplace.

But as awareness and audience grew, and as more barges were converted to deluxe canal and river cruisers on a variety of continental waterways, a product developed that is finding a wider audience, according to industry sources.

That audience is comprised of upscale, well-educated travelers in general, with groups of friends and families for charter barges in particular.

While France is still the leading barging destination, there is a good market for hotel barge cruises in Holland and England, and a few vessels are available for cruising in Scotland and Ireland.

As barging has become more popular, it also has diversified. This season marks the debut of several special-interest cruises that cater to families, golfers, wine lovers and antique and opera buffs.

Premier Selections of Harrison, N.Y., reported that the company saw a 25% upturn in luxury barging in 1999, growth that president Michael Wellner credited to the strength of the U.S. economy, a strong dollar and low air fares.

"Confident people spend money on travel," said Wellner, and "that confidence continues to show in strong advanced bookings as well as a continuing upward trend in bookings among passengers in their 40s and 50s, in addition to the more mature traveler."

Other new trends in hotel barging are a "much broader, more mainstream type of traveler and a growth in repeat barging travelers trying new vessels and new routings on European waterways," according to Naomi Kabak, marketing director for B&V Associates in New York.

She reported that the company's canal cruises business increased 30% in 1999, and said that "we also had good success last year in marketing an expanded season in cruises operating in March and November."

Kabak pointed out that one of the biggest problems facing many agents is being able to differentiate between what's out there in the market, especially among the many independent, small hotel barges, "often described as 'luxury' or 'gourmet' without [these terms] having much connection with reality."

B&V has introduced a three-tier grading system designed to clarify for agents some of the differences in hotel barges that accommodate up to 12 guests:

  • The platinum category features top-of-the-line barges for up to eight guests. The cabins are deluxe and spacious, with marble bathrooms.
  • On-board furnishings include antiques, tapestries and oil paintings; hotel-style amenities and facilities are offered such as terry-cloth robes and deck-top hot tubs.

  • The Gold category refers to barges for six to 12 passengers, with nicely appointed, moderately spacious cabins with private bathrooms; wood-paneled salons, contemporary furnishings and a spa or Jacuzzi.
  • Silver barges accommodate six to 12 passengers in comfortable cabins with private bathrooms, a salon, contemporary furnishings and wood paneled interiors.
  • Another major luxury barge cruise operator is Abercrombie & Kent, Oak Brook, Ill.

    The tour operator is offering departures on 22 barge and river cruisers this year. The company has exclusively reserved all departures of L'Abercombie and Lafayette, both of which carry 22 passengers and cruise April through October in the center and lower Burgundy regions, respectively.

    B&V, Premier Selections and Abercrombie & Kent all book the barge fleets owned by two French-based companies: European Waterways (featuring the smaller barges) and Continental Waterways (accommodating from 20 to 50 passengers).

    Many other travel firms in the U.S. also market cruises aboard these vessels.

    French Country Waterways, also based France, is unique in that it directly markets its vessels in the U.S.

    The firm whose deluxe vessels carry from eight to 18 passengers, offers cruises on Burgundy, Upper Loire Valley, Champagne, Moselle Valley and Alsace-Lorraine routes .

    Abercrombie & Kent
    Phone: (800) 323-7308

    B&V Associates
    Phone: (800) 676-6613

    French Country Waterways
    Phone: (800) 222-11236

    Premier Selections
    Phone: (800) 234-4000

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