Three months after Ellen Bettridge was named CEO of Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection, Travel Weekly's Michelle Baran caught up with the new-to-river cruising executive to talk about the challenges and opportunities the industry faces. During the conversation, Bettridge hinted at a millennial-focused product on the horizon for Uniworld, with details to come.
Q: Have you been on a river cruise yet, and if so, what were your impressions?
A: Yes, of course. I actually loved it. What I loved the most about it is because you're going into these adorable towns, everything is so easy and everything is taken care of for you. You're never waiting in line. River cruises are going into ports, into places that ocean cruises just don't go to. So it's a different way of experiencing Europe or experiencing Asia. Some people could say that the disadvantage is that you don't have as many dining venues, but you have the opportunity to actually have the destination right there. So if you want to go off and have lunch in a beautiful little cafe somewhere, you can, because everything is so easy and so close.
Q: You came to river cruising during a particularly challenging year. Do you think the river cruise industry is facing a larger slowdown?
A: I don't think it's a slowdown. I think the river cruise business has such an incredible opportunity still, and especially when I see what our repeat business is. I think it's an experience that a lot of people still have not done and don't even know about. It's just like the [ocean] cruise industry, when you think about it.
With the cruise industry, it's such a small percentage of Americans who have ever even gone on an ocean cruise, and an even smaller [number] who have gone on a river cruise.
Q: How are Uniworld's bookings looking heading into 2017?
A: They're pretty strong. The good news is that we have an opportunity to start to position ourselves where we belong in this space. We are a luxury product. Just like in the ocean cruise business, you have mass market, you have premium and you have luxury. I think the shame in river cruising is that we haven't defined that. Luxury travelers travel different, spend more money and they need to understand how this product is different, and I just don't think we've done a good enough job differentiating our product. We're very different than everybody else.
Q: How so?
A: Whether I'm talking to a consumer or a well-traveled person, they all lump us together in a bucket, from a Viking to an Ama to a Uniworld. We're all kind of bucketed together. And I just think there's a great opportunity to distinguish us. We have a great story behind every one of our ships, as to what their inspiration was. Everything from the food to the wine, the way they're decorated, there's an inspiration, there's a story, there's a little bit of a romance behind it. And I just don't feel like that story has been told.
Q: So how do you plan on telling it?
A: I just hired a new advertising agency, and we're redoing our look and feel for our brochure. And then our website. We'll be spending a lot more money on digital in order to get that message out there. We're still a very small company when it comes down to it. I have 50,000 beds to fill. It's not huge. So I just have to think through how do I tell the story to the right agents.