River cruise

Change is afoot in the river cruise industry, and that’s probably a good thing. Because, let’s face it, after steady growth led by four or five of the same players, the river cruise industry sometimes seemed at risk of getting a little staid.

Over the course of 2016, the sector faced some notable challenges, new and renewed companies entered the fray and there were several shake-ups at the senior management level, all of which point to a changing dynamic in the landscape as we head into 2017.

The big question on everyone’s mind as the industry faces the new year is how robust the river cruise recovery will be following a year that was fraught with hurdles.

After several years of impressive growth, the market hit a major stumbling block in the aftermath of terror attacks in Europe at the end of 2015 and in 2016. Travel to France, where river cruise lines in recent years had been beefing up inventory, was hit particularly hard. High water levels at the start of summer, which pushed the Seine River to the cresting point, didn’t help the situation.

A rendering of the Joie de Vivre, which Uniworld plans to launch on France’s Seine River in the spring.

As river cruise lines rally for a return to France (Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection still plans to launch its latest Super Ship, the Joie de Vivre, on the Seine this spring), other destinations have been trending up for 2017, not the least Portugal’s Douro River, which will welcome several new vessels next year.

Early indicators are that 2017 should see a return to healthier booking figures, fueled in part by some of the pent-up demand from passengers who might have put off river cruising in 2016.

AmaWaterways, for example, reported that its future bookings were at a record high as it kicked off the 2017 selling season.

Some fresh (female) faces

Toward the back half of 2016, new executives were installed at several river cruise lines, signaling the opportunity for a fresh perspective and some possible changes to the way the business has been operating.

This new batch of leaders all happen to be women: Ellen Bettridge, Joni Rein, Christine Sustreanu, Pam Hoffee and Terri Burke. Two hail from the ocean cruise industry — three if you count Edie Rodriguez, CEO of Crystal, which launched its own river cruise business this year and will introduce its first newbuild vessels in 2017.

So what do these new bosses have in store for the river cruise industry?

According to Bettridge, the CEO of Uniworld, who took over for Guy Young, river cruise lines should take this opportunity to embrace their differences.

“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. And I just think there’s a great opportunity to distinguish us,” Bettridge said.

At Uniworld, she said, she plans to use her post to better define the line as a luxury brand and make consumers understand the unique stories and themes behind each individual Uniworld vessel.

In addition to Bettridge, the Globus family of brands promoted Hoffee and Burke to lead its Avalon Waterways line following the retirement of managing director Patrick Clark. Scenic named ocean cruise industry vet Rein, most recently of Carnival Cruise Line, to serve as its vice president of U.S. sales and marketing, and it tapped Sustreanu to be managing director of global river cruise operations for Scenic and its sister line, Emerald Waterways

River cruise renewal

In an ongoing effort to ignite (or re-ignite) passengers’ passion for river cruising, brands new and old have been shaking things up a bit for 2017.

Most notably, they are continuing to go after potential new customers with more active itineraries, family-friendly sailings and sleeker ships.

Avalon Waterways has added an Active Discovery river cruise that will give cruisers the opportunity to bike, hike and canoe along the Danube River. The company has also introduced Avalon Fresh, a menu concept that emphasizes tasty, wholesome foods.

Crystal Cruises, which entered the river cruise market this year with the relaunch of the Crystal Mozart, will be debuting its first four newbuild river vessels in 2017, which the company describes as “river yachts.”

The four — Crystal Ravel, Crystal Bach, Crystal Debussy and Crystal Mahler — have some notably one-of-a-kind features, including a sprawling, 759-square-foot Crystal Suite; staterooms that will all be above the waterline (a first in a river ship design); and true open-seating dining, a departure from the industry standard of set meal times.

French river cruise line CroisiEurope is going through a bit of a renaissance as it works to capture the more budget-minded cruisers. Croisi is having enough success with the approach that in 2017 it is launching a new Douro vessel in Portugal and a Mekong ship in Southeast Asia.

It is also refurbishing the Symphonie on the Rhine and the Douce France on the Danube.

CroisiEurope has been racing to build and rebuild its vessels in line with the more modern standards that U.S. passengers are coming to expect from the river market. The results are some pretty nice looking ships at hard-to-beat prices from a company that has been in the business for more than four decades.

Not to be overlooked in the accessible-luxury space is Emerald Waterways, Scenic’s four-star side project. It has been quietly gaining momentum with its boutique-style riverboats, two more of which (the Emerald Liberte on France’s Rhone and Saone rivers, and the Emerald Radiance on Portugal’s Douro) will be added to the fleet in 2017 for a total of seven ships since Emerald was launched by Australian parent company Scenic in 2014.

Mississippi rising

Finally, here at home, the Mississippi River is experiencing some disruption as well.

Following the news earlier this year that new U.S. river cruise company French America Line had purchased the former Columbia Queen and transformed it into the upscale, 150-passenger Louisiane, the American Queen Steamboat Co. announced it will be launching the all-suite American Duchess on the Mississippi in 2017, which will feature some snazzy bi-level loft suites. 

Michelle Baran is a senior editor, covering river cruise and tours.

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