Last month, travel marketing veteran Marilyn Conroy joined U.K.-based Riviera River Cruises as vice president of sales and marketing for North America. Senior editor Jeri Clausing talked with Conroy, who held sales and marketing positions with Silversea, Cunard and Crystal before co-founding marketing firm David Morris International in 2009, about why she decided to work for another cruise line after a 10-year hiatus.
Q: Riviera is a bit of an unknown here in the states. What prompted you to take on this role?
A: About six months ago they asked my company, David Morris International, to help it launch in North America. I just fell in love with the product.
Q: What makes them unique?
A: What they have come out with is a very strong price-value situation. Their published prices are their prices. They don't discount. They don't do this bait and switch. It's fair trade. If you look at their prices versus AmaWaterways or Viking, they are about 25% less expensive,
and they have a very, very high-quality product.
Q: Are you still in business with your long-time business partner, David Morris?
A: Yes, but I only do totally noncompetitive stuff. David and I still work together. But we don't currently represent any other river cruise lines. My main thing, obviously, is Riviera.
Q: When you and Morris first went out on your own, you told us one reason you were forming the business was to avoid being tied to one company, that you wanted to be masters of your own domain. Obviously, something changed?
A: To be truthful, and I'm going to be very honest, I really, really bought into this river cruise product. I thought, 'This is a unique company.' It's got a niche in the marketplace. It's an uphill battle, because there are so many river cruise companies out there, and so much money is being spent to market them in the U.S. This isn't going to be an easy gig, because of the competition in the U.S. I wanted to see this thing to the end, at least as long as I am prepared to keep working. ... I really bought off on this product, and I thought, 'I am going to give this everything I can.'
Q: If there is as much growing demand for river cruising as reported, what makes it an uphill battle, and who are you focused on? Agents, I presume?
A: My focus for Riviera has been on the travel agencies, for sure, 100%. You have to fish where the fish are. But you get a little bit of resistance because certain agencies are affiliated with national accounts like Virtuoso and Signature, and they are directed to preferred suppliers. And they are more loyal today to those suppliers than they ever have been in the past. But I think because of my social capital, I can get in the door. I think they know I wouldn't mislead them. And there's always a time when a client comes in and wants something different, or maybe another river boat is sold out. So it's a little bit more of an uphill battle. But never say never! We are one of the best-kept secrets in the river cruise business, although we are now being supported by major companies like Avoya and Travel Edge, who have inspected the boats and come back with very positive reviews.
Q: You are a bit of a legend in the industry. Tell me more about your background.
A: I came from England in my mid-20s. I started with Cunard. I was brought over to run their hotel division. Then they asked me to go to the ship side and change the entire sales division. That made me the only female vice president in the late '70s in the cruise business. Then I was headhunted by Crystal, which had just launched the Harmony. They hired David and myself and we were there for nine years and had a blast. Thereafter we were headhunted by Silversea Cruises to head up sales. And after many years, we decided to do our own thing.