Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection's Ellen Bettridge on the future of U

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U by Uniworld, the river cruise line that set out to be the world's first millennials-only brand, then backtracked on age restrictions to focus on "the young at heart," just canceled the second season for one of its two ships, the B, and said it would reposition it from the Seine to the more popular waters of Central Europe next year. The move raised new questions about the viability of the brand. Senior editor Jeri Clausing talked with Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection CEO Ellen Bettridge about the decision and the future of U.

Q: The launch of U was seen as a bold experiment by many. What prompted this seemingly sudden move?

Ellen Bettridge
Ellen Bettridge

A: We saw sales on the A increase and decided this was on opportunity to move the B over to Central Europe. You know with anything that's new, particularly a new brand, you have to go with the ebbs and flows and figure out what works best. We looked at the great success that the A was having and knew there was such excitement about that, it just made perfect sense. The destination is what it's all about. It's not just the experience. You have to have both.

Q: Isn't it unusual to pull a ship out for the entire season?

A: We wanted to do it for 2019, but there is quite a bit involved, not just getting docking space but creating separate itineraries, all of these things. So, unfortunately, we had to push it to 2020. Probably in about May or June the ship will transfer over. We've got to completely close her up, then reopen her. She'll probably be there in August or so.

Q: Still, that must have been a hard decision to cancel and change course like that after just one year.

A: Everything like that is a hard decision. But when you look at the data and say, "Wait a minute, the A is doing so awesome." I want this to be ready and raring to go for 2020 to make it an incredible success. In order to do that we need to have the ship there and ready and the itineraries ready. We sell so far in advance. 2020 is right around the corner.

Q: What was it about the Seine that wasn't working for this new line and its target demographic?

A: The Seine has one itinerary. There are no options but that one itinerary. With the A, we have three different options to offer. That's the biggest change, to give customers the most options. The itinerary on the Seine from Paris to Normandy is fantastic, but we've already got a ship there, the Joie de Vivre, and we couldn't make it different enough.

On the A, we stay overnight longer, giving people more time to be in the destination. It's about what you do in these destinations, about more active excursions. That's really the thing that sets them apart. There's lots of fun, lots of bicycling and lots of hiking.

Q: A lot of tour operators and cruise lines are starting to add options for exclusive access to popular sites. Will that be part of the U itineraries?

A: We haven't seen that as necessary, but we will continue to listen to the customers. What they absolutely love is our popular inclusions like mixology classes, painting and wine, yoga on the rooftop. They love having a barbecue at night. We don't sit still. We are going to continue to evolve this product.

Q: Will you be making any changes to the ship itself?

A: It's 100% in the itineraries. The ships are still cool, still sexy. They are gorgeous.

Q: So, the company remains fully committed to the brand?

A: Yes. We are very excited about how well the brand did do. The A is doing well and the feedback has been good. We had some repeat customers already booked again. That's exciting. The momentum is building. We don't expect things to happen overnight.

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