European river cruise industry sees better booking patterns

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Despite challenges in selling France this year, Uniworld this spring still plans to launch the S.S. Joie de Vivre, shown in a rendering.

Nearly a year after terror attacks in Paris paralyzed traffic from the U.S. to the Continent, the European river cruise industry is starting to see more promising booking patterns for 2017.

"The softness that we saw in 2016, it [is] directly related to the terrorist activity that has taken place," said Joni Rein, the newly appointed vice president of U.S. sales and marketing at Scenic. "We're seeing an uptick for 2017. We're seeing a recovery."

Scenic, the Australian company that owns the Scenic and Emerald Waterways river cruise lines, is among several river operators that have reported much-improved booking patterns for 2017 after the industry's momentum was rocked by a cascade of unfortunate events in Europe.

First, the terror attacks in Paris last Nov. 13 took place just as the busy booking season was about to get underway. Four months later, suicide bombings in Brussels on March 22 took the wind out of some of the recovery that river cruise lines were just beginning to feel post-Paris. Then, high waters on France's Seine River made headlines in late May and early June, adding to the river cruise lines' woes.

There wasn't much that river operators could do about terror fears. They have been forced to more or less wait that one out.

But on the weather front, high and low water levels have become an increasingly taxing image problem for the river cruise industry. For its part, Scenic has now included river cruise travel insurance that covers all passengers for several high- and low-water scenarios, including the need to be bused for more than three hours each way from the ship, as well as for delays of more than 24 hours, something the company hopes will help vanquish any concerns prospective clients might have.

Rein said the hope is that the included coverage will help Scenic overcome a barrier that she sees with potential new river cruisers. She described the high and low water levels as "a major concern that a consumer would have."

But as river cruise lines look to press the restart button for 2017, early signs indicate that weather and terror aside, demand does in fact remain strong for the once-booming travel segment, and business is bouncing back despite the setbacks.

"Over the past month, we've seen a dramatic spike in bookings," Steve Born, senior vice president of marketing for the Globus family of brands, said of the company's river cruise line, Avalon Waterways. Born said Avalon was up 11% year over year in the number of passengers booked, following a television ad campaign in the U.S. that ended on Oct. 16.

"So after a softer start to the season, it definitely appears we have changed the sales momentum," Born said.

Additionally, AmaWaterways reported that September was the strongest month in its 14-year history for cruise bookings, and October booking revenue for 2017 slightly topped September revenue. 

These reports appear to counter any concerns that the river cruise industry might have been experiencing a larger slowdown beyond the terror attacks. After several years of impressive expansion, the question hanging over the industry was how much more it could continue to grow.

"I don't think it's a slowdown," said Ellen Bettridge, CEO of Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection. According to Bettridge, Uniworld's river cruise bookings for 2017 are "pretty strong," and the company is moving forward with plans to launch its newest Suite Ship, the S.S. Joie de Vivre, on the Seine, despite the fact that France has experienced softer sales since last year's terror attacks.

For its part, Tauck's river cruise business enjoyed very robust growth in 2016, with bookings up double digits, due in large part to the increase in capacity that came with the launch of two vessels, the Grace and Joy, according to Katharine Bonner, senior vice president of Tauck river and small ship cruising. 

Bonner said that "2017 early sales do show some softness in France," a sentiment that was echoed by several lines that reported that while France is recovering, it doesn't appear to be recovering as quickly as other river cruise destinations in Europe.

Viking less confident

Viking River Cruises was not as bullish as its competitors about 2017. Viking operates nearly half of the river cruise ships that carry North American passengers in Europe, and according to the company's chairman, Torstein Hagen, Viking's 2017 European river cruise bookings are "not good. Not much down, but down. And certainly less than we had hoped."

Hagen attributed the lackluster bookings to two causes: lingering fears of terrorism across the pond and the U.S. presidential elections. 

"Election time has not been traditionally a good time for any travel business," Hagen said.

Nevertheless, he remains confident in the industry's staying power, saying, "I'm sure the river business is going to come back, but it may take some time."

As for river cruise destinations that are seeing the most promise for 2017, while France continues to lag somewhat, river operators reported that itineraries on the Danube River continue to thrive. Additionally, Portugal's Douro River is also seeing positive bookings. Meanwhile, Uniworld's Bettridge said the company's Po River itinerary in Italy is showing promise, as is Egypt's Nile River.
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Tom Stieghorst contributed to this report.

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