Uniworld CEO paints rosy 2002

ruise editor Rebecca Tobin talked with Uniworld CEO Serba Ilich about the appeal of Europe river cruising and the direction the line is taking.

Travel Weekly:How did 2002 shape up for Uniworld?

Ilich: It turned out to be a very good year for us. After Sept. 11, we planned to be down 20% to 30% this year compared with 2001. We are going to be 11% ahead of last year in overall sales. And our advance bookings are fantastic.

The occupancy of our ships improved by a couple of percentage points. We would like to push it to 100%.

We had all kinds of concerns. I know there are many tour operators that are down substantially. We are lucky.

TW:Why do you think Uniworld was "lucky"?

Ilich: I believe there are two reasons. One is that about 60% to 65% of our business now is river cruises. Perhaps that particular segment is growing more than the travel industry as a whole; perhaps it's perceived as safer.

We also detect a polarization that travel agents and clients are leery of booking marginal companies.

Last year, we saw the bankruptcies of Renaissance and Kingdom Vacations. We've been in the business for 27 years.

TW:You said river cruising is perceived as safer. Why would that be?

Ilich: I think we are more insulated. This is a guess.

Here you have only one check-in. You're in small quarters. You're feeling comfortable. You're not on a 2,000-passenger ship or a big hotel ... [wondering] whom you will meet in the hallway.

On a motorcoach [tour], you check in and out of hotels five or six times. Or you're in a train station.

TW:What is new on your cruise ships?

Ilich: We introduced a number of things this year. First, our ships have magnetic key cards. You swipe it every time you get on board, so we keep track of who is on board. That provides a safety issue.

We have an Internet corner, or cafe, where passengers can check their e-mail. It's used around the clock. A few years ago, nobody could imagine such a thing on a cruise ship.

We are introducing the Clearvoice Audio Program with our Christmas market cruises. At the major attractions where there are groups in many languages, you strain to hear your guide.

Our guests will have a small [receiver] in their pocket and this little headset. They can hear the guide up to 300 feet away. We will have that on all of our ships; we will not charge [for it].

TW:Who's idea was that?

Ilich: It was my idea. Every once and awhile I go [on a Uniworld cruise]. And you're at the back of the group and you're straining [to hear]. Finally, you give up and start wandering on your own.

We are investing more than a million dollars into [the ClearVoice program]. Each ship will have a couple hundred headsets. But investing in quality is a good investment.

TW:Uniworld introduced Global River Cruises (GRC) as its river-cruise subsidiary earlier this year. But you're still marketing your cruises as being on "Uniworld ships." Will you rebrand your ships and brochures?

Ilich: Global River Cruises we own 100%. We still are saying in the brochure "Uniworld ships" because nobody knows about GRC. We did not quite explain the concept of Global River ... and we don't want to confuse anybody.

Eventually, yes, we will [rebrand the ships]. But it will take awhile, probably several years.

TW:Uniworld will bring out two new ships in 2003. Can you tell us about them?

Ilich: The ships will be identical to the River Empress. And, for 2004, we are building four new ships.

We are gradually phasing out the ships we charter and replacing them with ships we will own. Global River Cruises has 16 ships under its ownership and long-term lease. Next year, we are ending two ships' five-year leases.

TW:Are you introducing any routes in 2003?

Ilich: We are reintroducing Budapest to the Black Sea, sailing through Serbia, Romania and Bulgaria. We have only six [of those cruises] next year, and we hopefully will grow that in 2004.

This is an area that was not traveled during the turmoil in the Balkans.The cities are really different than the ports along the Rhine.

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