It’s hard to believe that 2014 will see considerably more investment and expansion in the European river cruise market than the previous couple of astonishing years of growth and interest — but it will.
For starters, Viking River Cruises will break its own shipbuilding record with 14 additional vessels in Europe next year; a startup river cruise line, Emerald Waterways, is launching with two ships and competitive pricing; and the largest river cruise company in France, CroisiEurope, has decided to make a run at the U.S. market.
And that doesn’t even cover the standard handful of newbuilds and itineraries that most other existing river cruise players are planning to introduce next year.
But even with all that added inventory, retailers insist there’s still a lot of room to grow in this category. That’s because despite all the new capacity and itineraries in the industry, river cruising still only accounts for a small percentage of retailers’ overall business.
In Travel Weekly’s Travel Industry Survey this year, river cruising accounted for 6% of travel agents’ overall business mix, and 22% of travel agents said they were already selling river cruises. But agents say that client requests for river cruises are mounting as the category continues to grow and gain exposure.
“Everybody’s asking about river cruises now,” said Debby Hughes, owner of a CruiseOne franchise in Big Bear City, Calif. “People are hearing about all the new ships and all the new changes. People are looking for something different, something a little more cultural, a little more unique. It’s more inclusive than the larger cruise lines.”
Hughes said her river cruise bookings probably account for between 10% and 20% of her overall bookings, and there is still plenty of opportunity in the river cruise market.
But even Viking, which launched 10 ships this year and six in 2012, in addition to the 14 it plans to unveil next year, has acknowledged that while the demand merits the growth, the industry needs to make sure the infrastructure in Europe can keep up.
“We have 14 Longships on order for next year because the demand among our passengers is there, and we believe that the waterways we sail in Europe can accommodate that type of growth,” said Richard Marnell, Viking’s senior vice president of marketing. “But we do recognize there is a need for investments in local infrastructure, and we will actively work to play a role in those discussions.”
Asked if her clients have started to notice any degree of crowding on European river cruises, Hughes said they had not, nor did she expect they would.
“People are used to larger ships,” Hughes said. “They’re used to getting off with thousands of people. I’ve never had a complaint that there were too many other tourists in town.”
As for the growing issue of rafting, where river cruise ships are forced to dock alongside one another, thus requiring passengers to walk through other vessels to embark and disembark, Hughes said, “Being able to go from one boat to the next, it’s one of the quirks of being able to cruise in Europe. It’s just one of those neat things.”
Few can deny that the growth and increased competition in the river cruise industry has spurred a race for better and more diversified product.
While for some river cruise lines, such as Tauck, that has meant amping up its upscale accommodations with more suites (Tauck is launching two newbuilds in Europe in 2014 that will each have 57% more suites than the company’s existing vessels), for others, such as Emerald Waterways, it has meant coming to market with more attractive pricing and amenities.
Earlier this fall, Scenic Tours, an Australian company, announced that it was launching Emerald Waterways, which would serve as the lower-priced alternative to its existing river cruise brand, Scenic Cruises.
In an attempt to capture the four-star river cruise market, Emerald Waterways will officially launch on April 15 with the unveiling of two newbuilds, the 182-passenger Emerald Star and the 182-passenger Emerald Sky, both of which are being outfitted with more playful features such as a heated swimming pool and a movie theater.
An eight-day cruise along the Danube, Rhine and Moselle rivers on Emerald Waterways will start at $2,230 per person, compared with an eight-day sailing through the Netherlands on Scenic Cruises that starts at $2,735 per person.
French river cruise line
CroisiEurope thinks there is space in the lower-priced river cruise market, as well. After 38 years of selling river cruises in Europe, CroisiEurope this fall launched a website and call center devoted to U.S. retailers and clientele. The company’s pitch: low-cost river cruises with a multicultural mix of passengers.
“The founder of the company had the philosophy to make this product available for the mass market,” said Michel Grimm, international sales director for CroisiEurope. “Our pricing is very aggressive.”
An eight-day CroisiEurope river cruise, including meals, open bar and excursions, won’t run more than $2,400 per person, Grimm said.
As a European river cruise operator, CroisiEurope will host a mix of nationalities onboard, something the former Peter Deilmann Cruises tried to do with German- and English-speaking clients on its ships. Some observers say that strategy played a role in Deilmann’s demise several years ago.
But CroisiEurope’s executives are adamant that for the right customer, having people from different countries onboard will be seen as an added draw, not a drawback.
“This is not for people who want the safety of being with all other English speakers,” said John McGlade, director of CroisiEurope’s U.S. reservation center. “For people who want the international experience, it’s the perfect marriage.”
CroisiEurope is also building up its own fleet of canal barge vessels that have a capacity of 24 guests. The barges will allow the pricing on the canal itineraries to also be more aggressive than existing, more expensive canal barge trips that can often host only six to 12 passengers onboard.
Tour operator Abercrombie & Kent had resisted the river cruise market for years, focusing solely on those much smaller capacity and intimate canal barges in Europe.
But last year, the company introduced its first river cruise program with the launch of Connections by A&K, its new line of itineraries priced about 30% less per diem than a typical A&K small-group journey.
For 2014, Connections by A&K is expanding its river cruise offering from three departures in 2013 on the 152-passenger Amadeus Brilliant, to 18 departures in 2014 on a fleet of three Amadeus ships. The vessels are owned by Austrian shipping company Luftner Cruises, and Connections will limit its onboard group sizes to 24 passengers.
For 2014, Connections will offer nine river cruise itineraries ranging from nine to 17 days.
The river cruise industry “is growing by leaps and bounds,” Hughes said. “They’re getting innovative, they’re getting more competitive.” All of which, she said, is better for retailers in this swelling market segment, as well as for their clients.
Follow Michelle Baran on Twitter @mbtravelweekly.