A little over one year ago, a momentous change came over the river cruise industry as, over the course of just a couple of months in the fall and summer of 2016, new executives -- all women and all transplants from ocean cruising -- were installed at three of the major river cruise operators.
A year later, it's clear that this new generation of leaders is out to shake things up at the lines and across the sector.
"It's a very creative time to be in river cruising," said Terri Burke, managing director of Avalon Waterways. "We don't even have a box anymore, we've stepped so far out of it with some of the ideas we're coming up with."
Burke has been with Avalon's parent, the Globus family of brands, since 2011. Prior to that, she worked both in the ocean cruise industry and on the retail side of the business. While she said it's too soon to reveal all of the new ideas that have emerged from her and Pam Hoffee, who was simultaneously promoted to chief product and operations officer, she also said her background in other segments of the travel industry had helped inform her take on river cruising.
"No one will ever accuse Pam and me of not asking questions and not shaking things up," she said, adding that Avalon Waterways' former managing director, Patrick Clark, "laid the foundation that we get to build this incredible new house on."
One of the first big breakthroughs for Avalon in establishing itself as having a unique river cruise product was the launch of the Panorama class of vessels in 2011. The ships feature what the company calls "panorama suites," staterooms that have floor-to-ceiling, wall-to-wall windows that slide open to give the entire stateroom an open-air balcony setting.
Five years later, Burke said, the company has embarked on the next generation of Avalon innovation.
"To me," Burke said, "the next chapter has been [Avalon's] Active Discovery [program], where our guests can interact in the destination in a different way in two areas: the whole getting active -- kayaking, canoeing, hiking, cave exploration -- and then discovery, where you go into the towns and villages. And they really do come alive with all the experiences [Avalon offers], whether it be that medieval knights tournament or conducting an orchestra in a tuxedo or gown. That's how we're taking that onboard and off-board product and enriching it."
Burke isn't the only river cruise executive who feels that coming from outside the sector has helped her do things differently.
Joni Rein, vice president of U.S. sales and marketing for Scenic, said, "Having come from ocean, I didn't really realize how extraordinarily different ocean is from river."
Prior to joining Scenic last year, Rein was vice president of worldwide sales for Carnival Cruise Line, and she has also held executive positions in sales, marketing and business development at Costa Cruises and Renaissance Cruises.
She said many of the trends that ultimately took off in ocean cruising have been influencing the evolution of river cruising, too.
For example, she said the smaller size of river cruise vessels hasn't stopped the industry from cramming in as many dining venues and options onboard as possible. And just as with ocean, which initially appealed to older travelers before attracting a much broader demographic, she said, river cruising is increasingly resonating with younger and more active travelers than the 60-plus crowd who formerly made up the majority of passengers.
"We're at an average age of 54 to 60, and they're active; it's no longer about just having a lazy river experience," Rein said. "People ask me, 'Well, river compared to ocean, river has got to be for retired people, no?' And I respond, 'No, actually, it's a very active group of people.'"
Rein said those active travelers are demanding a greater quantity and quality of experiences and amenities both on and off the ship.
"They expect more," she said. "And I think that we're all ready to provide that. The fun part of being in a new segment is that you can continue to reinvent."
The B, U by Uniworld’s restyled river ship, on a preview cruise out of Paris last month. Uniworld’s new brand is designed to attract younger river cruisers.
Expanding the market
When it comes to reinventing the river cruise market, few can take as much credit as Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection.
Four months after Ellen Bettridge was named president and CEO of Uniworld in August 2016, the line took a bold stab at the millennial market by announcing the launch of U by Uniworld. The brand is targeting river cruisers ages 21 to 45 by renovating two of its older vessels, the River Ambassador, launched in 1997, and the River Baroness, launched in 1999. The upgraded vessels will officially be relaunched as the A and the B this spring.
Aimed at younger travelers who share a greater spirit of independence, U by Uniworld is a more flexible product with a lower price point and more free time than the six-star, all-inclusive luxe Uniworld product.
"To develop a product and a brand in nine months and bring it to the market was like the coolest thing I've ever done in my career, hands down," said Bettridge, formerly of Azamara Club Cruises and Silversea Cruises. She acknowledged that while much of the development of U by Uniworld happened under her watch, she couldn't take total credit for the move.
"I'm a very collaborative person, almost to a fault sometimes, and super passionate and always coming up with the crazy ideas," she said. But this, she insisted, was a team effort.
Bettridge got a sneak peek at the U by Uniworld product last month when the first of the millennial-focused river cruise ships, the B, debuted in Paris, where the line hosted agents and social media influencers for a preview cruise along the Seine River. And while it remains to be seen if river cruising will ultimately resonate with millennials and a younger demographic than has traditionally embraced the travel style, Bettridge said she has high hopes for the product.
"You know how you plan something and generally you have a higher expectation of what something is going to be, and then sometimes you're disappointed?" she said. "This is one of those situations where I got on the ship for the first time and I was just blown away. I have never been so excited about anything. The quality of everything is still Uniworld, but it's just done cool. It's just very contemporary and sleek and sexy. The product itself ... anyone who sees it is going to love it."
While U by Uniworld is arguably one of the bravest moves by a river cruise line in recent years, other lines have also been bringing innovative ideas to the table.
AmaWaterways, for example, made a splash when it partnered with Adventures by Disney in 2015 to create family-friendly Disney-branded departures, further opening up the market to younger family travelers.
The company is also in the process of building a megaship that the company has claimed will be the largest river cruise vessel in Europe. Scheduled to launch in 2019, the AmaMagna will be twice as wide as AmaWaterways' current ships, allowing for larger staterooms and enhanced spa and gym space, among other improvements.
And then there's Crystal River Cruises, which got the market's attention last year when former CEO Edie Rodriguez (another female ocean cruise executive who made waves in the river world) brought the company's brand of upscale ocean cruising to Europe's inland waterways. Rodriguez shook up the way river cruising was done by introducing concepts such as open-seating dining and unique excursions like private helicopter tours.
"The demographics are changing, with a younger audience finding river cruising more attractive," said Walter Littlejohn, vice president and managing director of Crystal River Cruises, who added that the average age of Crystal's river cruisers is actually lower than that of its ocean clients, with the younger cruisers being drawn to the modern, upscale-casual ambience and the flexibility of Crystal's river programming.
The Crystal Mozart, the first ship in the Crystal River Cruises brand, which was started in 2016. Crystal’s innovations include open-seating dining and unique excursions.
Differentiation and growth
Scenic's Rein said she has noticed that the river cruise industry has in recent years become a much more dynamic and competitive marketplace, and it is currently going through a period of much-needed brand differentiation whereby each line is working to carve out its segment of the market, define what its product stands for and target which consumers it's going after.
Along those lines, not long after Rein joined Scenic last year, the company entered into negotiations with National Geographic to develop a partnership, which finally came to fruition this month with the launch of National Geographic River Cruises. The brand features eight itineraries for 2018, seven in Europe and one on the Irrawaddy River in Myanmar. Each National Geographic river cruise will host an expert who will give educational presentations, and the European cruises will also feature a National Geographic photographer who will help guests hone their photography skills.
Rein said that aligning with National Geographic helps Scenic distinguish itself from the competition.
"Right now, there are so many opportunities to differentiate, there is no reason to duplicate," she said. "And I think that is a benefit for the consumer. For our valued travel partners, they'll know, OK, Scenic is National Geographic, Ama is Disney and family-oriented, and U by Uniworld is millennials. When you are able to articulate in three words or less what each of the brands is, well, that's a home run."
The idea is that there is a piece of the pie for everyone, as long as their slice is well-defined. But a larger question looms in the river cruise sector, and the newbies won't be immune to its repercussions: How big can the pie ultimately get?
In order to continue to grow, river cruising needs to surmount some very real challenges, such as limited docking space in certain European ports and crowding in port cities. But here, too, the industry's new crop of executives is hoping to get creative.
"There are ports and towns that aren't being visited along these rivers," Avalon's Hoffee said. "There are opportunities to build relationships and build new ports, so that's one of the things that we've been working on: to create some new docking facilities, to create some new overnight opportunities and work with a community that wants to have a ship overnight."
As an example, Avalon has partnered with the German town of Engers on the Rhine River to build a new dock and overnight vessels there.
Ultimately, Hoffee said, developing stronger bonds with local communities and working together on solutions that help facilitate an ever-expanding river cruise market will be the key to making that expansion not just possible but sustainable.