Richard Turen
Richard Turen

There were several reasons why I was willing to spend time in Amsterdam in the "off-off-season."

The annual Virtuoso Symposium would be closed to all but two or three members of the media. I would have a chance to interview executives and consultants from around the globe in a rather relaxed, unfettered way. Suppliers from around the world would be attending, with an emphasis on those catering to inbound business within Europe.

Even those reasons might not have been enough to get me to leave a uniquely busy 60-day period at our firm. But I didn't hesitate to do this trip, because there was a hook that I could not resist: There would be an armada leaving on a five-day sailing out of Amsterdam featuring seven river vessels, one from each of the major brands catering to U.S. travelers: Viking River, Uniworld Boutique River Cruises, AmaWaterways, Crystal, U by Uniworld, Avalon and Tauck.

This flotilla of products from the fastest-growing segment of the industry, and one that our firm has identified with for several years, would enable attendees to sail for the entire four nights on their assigned riverboat while providing numerous opportunities to dine onboard each of the other boats and to interact with executives and staff.

It was, I thought, a logistical nightmare. There would be six assigned hotels, numerous precruise seminars and presentations, luggage to be moved from hotels to seven river ships, individual schedules of some of the country's top consultants to arrange and several hundred overseas guests to accommodate. And how do you feature seven competing brands without showing favoritism? It was a concept that most of the better incentive firms would likely have turned down, a kind of meetings-planning Rubik's cube, shrouded in a fog of lousy weather.

The idea seemed to have developed during a casual conversation at a cocktail party between Virtuoso's senior vice president of events, David Hansen, and Gary Murphy, one of the owners of AmaWaterways.

The idea was discussed half-jokingly, because it would mean that several competing brands would have to cooperate in ways that were generally unheard of in our industry. Every line would need to be handled equally, and they would have to begin their spring season early, getting ships in place in Amsterdam.

The scope of this project was such that some wrote it off. But Hansen's team back at headquarters, led by director of conferences and events Muriel Wilson and director of events Silvia Zamora, saw this as the ultimate meetings-planning challenge. Within Virtuoso, their team is known as the Impossibles, so Hansen felt he could persuade them to proceed once it was clear that the seven river cruise lines were all in.

The main meetings day, prior to boarding one's assigned riverboat, was a Sunday. Everyone was transferred to the sprawling new Passenger Terminal Amsterdam. There were seminars and a keynote speaker whose message concerned winning "the analog hearts and digital minds of consumers." When Hansen spoke to the gathering he showed a video of his team meeting, in which the concept of the Armada was first discussed. The consensus in the video was that someone had "been drinking." The audience laughed, but there we were, and it was happening.

In the afternoon, we walked out the back doors of the terminal in temperatures so cold that walking was really challenging. But I still had to pause to take in a sight I will not soon forget. There, lined up like six gracious white swans and one really cool black swan, were the seven river ships. They were all in a row, awaiting their assigned guests. They all glistened as though they had just emerged from the world's largest car wash. It was hard for some of us to imagine that the Impossibles had pulled this off.

Just imagine the politics and the logistics that would have been involved in setting up a similar floating flotilla for the seven leading ocean cruise lines and getting them to agree to provide a ship to join the party. It has never been attempted, and I doubt it ever will.

My assigned river ship was the Crystal Bach. I had requested this product because it represents a newbuild in a new portion of the industry for Crystal. The line has a new CEO, and the company is devoting significant resources to dominate the luxury end of the sector. Would they succeed?

I was eager to reinspect many of the ships we had previously evaluated while sailing the new Crystal ship for the first time. I thought I would share my observations along with some general consensus from many of the top-selling agents I spoke with during the week:

• Crystal is, far and away, the top luxury player in this segment. There are 15 to 20 reasons why, but let me list just five:

1) The boat features large windows that open to the river with the touch of a button, true king-size beds that face the water and large showers with double vanities.

2) The galley on the Bach, which carries only 108 guests, is three times the size of competitors' standard galleys, enabling Crystal to serve meals cooked to order using top-quality ingredients. A lovely lobster course and fresh oysters are offered on all sailings.

3) The staff-to-guest ratio is almost double that found on other river lines.

4) Every cabin comes with full butler service.

5) Crystal intends to offer four or five touring options in each port designed to appeal to historical, culinary, active and lifestyle travelers. Each tour will be operated if only one couple signs up. Departures are guaranteed.

• There were two big surprises for many of the agents: Avalon's Panoramic Suites were seen as special, and the "light modern" decor was viewed as a plus. Most of the participants felt that Avalon's beds facing the water are an even greater competitive advantage than first imagined.

• AmaWaterways was clearly a crowd favorite. The double balconies, one French balcony and one veranda, were seen as a specific AmaWaterways edge, as was the food and modern (though not over-the-top) design. The line is seen as a product that can appeal to a younger demographic, and many of the agents pointed out how welcoming staff and management seemed to be.

• Viking River also surprised many with its cool Scandinavian design and alternative dining facilities on the Longship. The size of the Viking fleet was often mentioned as a positive, as "they can simply switch guests to a sister ship" in case portions of the river are not navigable. More than one agent commented that Viking has the best-looking ships.

• Tauck's crew seemed well prepared for the visitors, and the food served onboard was well received. The 300-square-foot upper deck category of seven staterooms impressed many of the visitors.

• Uniworld left few visitors neutral. Many likened the classic European design to an elegant hotel, and the lack of sameness in various venues went over extremely well. The food was also well received. Several of the agents I spoke with were impressed with the large table-sharing platter that begins each dinner service.

• U by Uniworld, the ship with the all-black livery in our convoy, stood out in many ways. The decor was darker than on many river ships, so one had the feeling of being on a floating lounge. There were neon hearts on the wall and a gallery of Marilyn Monroe photos. (I was not sure just how that artwork would attract millennials, the line's original target demographic. I would have thought pictures of various models of the iPhone might be more appropriate.) Black paper napkins and plastic dining chairs covered in cloth added to the casual nature of the dining room. Cabins were properly sleek and comfortable. This is a brand whose vibe will be controlled by its renters, and one can imagine the kind of floating millennial party envisioned by its founders.

This "Dutch Armada" was a truly memorable event. But don't try planning this at home.

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