Last month, more than 3,500 river cruise staff members, including 2,800 crew and 700 officers, headed to Viking River Cruises campuses in six cities across Europe to train and prepare for the start of the 2016 season. Elsewhere in Europe, other river cruise lines were hosting their increasingly sophisticated annual staff training events, too.
With the rapid expansion of the river cruise industry over the last five years, operators have had to quickly overhaul and expand their operations, evolving from boutique companies that could manage their small fleets with something as simple as a spreadsheet into large, dynamic enterprises that carry tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of passengers each year on anywhere from a handful to dozens of vessels.
The growth has required river cruise lines to implement advanced inventory-management systems, enhance their customer service strategies and hire a myriad of additional staffers each year to adequately cater to the additional passengers and vessels -- all within a relatively short period of time.
The challenge along the way has been to ensure that increased quantity has not meant a decrease in the quality of the experience. After all, it was high customer-satisfaction ratings that helped river cruising take off in the first place.
"As an industry grows, it is not unusual to gain more attention and sometimes be challenged for resources," said Guy Young, the president of Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection. "Clearly, competition for good staff has intensified."
Young said that in addition to the fast pace of growth that has sent operators racing to find quality employees, the increased competition and exposure has also meant pressure to improve the standards of service onboard as well as manage the added inventory.
"Managing and meeting guest expectations has also intensified," Young said. "Guests are better informed than ever, have high expectations and may be quick to post on social media when expectations are not met. This is both a challenge and opportunity for us."
As an example, Young recalled how a few years ago Uniworld received feedback from guests who didn't like having to pay gratuities for what was being marketed as a luxury cruise.
"Many guests commented that we should pay our staff a fair wage and not expect the guests to subsidize their wages," he said. "So in 2014 we went all-inclusive, including all gratuities onboard and on shore, and our ratings improved dramatically. So guests are more vocal and have more outlets to communicate to a wide audience. But it also allows us to get great feedback and make the necessary improvements to continually improve our product delivery."
Viking crew members prepare for the upcoming river cruise season during a preseason training session onboard one of Viking’s Longships. Viking has added 52 Longships in the past five years.
Finding the right people
With a small-ship model, river cruising has built its reputation on being an intimate experience with highly personalized service. While the ships are developing into sleeker and more sophisticated vessels with each generation, the limitations on their dimensions and amenities means that passenger satisfaction often ends up being much more dependent on other aspects of the experience, such as onboard customer service and off-ship sightseeing excursions -- all of which are driven by people.
For Viking, which has launched 52 Longship vessels on Europe's rivers in the past five years, that has meant creating extensive recruitment and training programs. The line must identify, coach and prepare thousands of crew members each year to ensure that it isn't just the Scandinavian-designed Longships that impress travelers; the customer service experience must be consistent across all 52 ships.
"We have a number of measures in place to maintain and improve quality control," said Richard Marnell, Viking's senior vice president of marketing. "One of the things we are most proud of is our season-start training program, which takes place each March and is essentially an intense off-site service-training camp for new and seasoned crew members."
With thousands of crew to train, Viking divvies them up across its campuses, using its vast fleet to house the recruits and undertake the training programs. New and returning staff members go through several different training modules over the course of between three and eight days, guided by either Viking staff or professional external trainers.
As for the initial recruiting efforts, Marnell said, "Our crew ... are actually our best recruiters." That sentiment was echoed by several other river cruise lines, which noted that they often get referrals through their staff. Marnell said Viking has a crew retention rate of just over 90%.
Joe Maloney, the vice president of sales and marketing, USA, for Scenic, which has grown into a 14-vessel river cruise line in the eight years since it launched, said many of its new hires also come from staff recommendations. He said that Scenic also pulls from across its global tour operation, as well as from the ranks of ocean cruises.
With such a high demand for large numbers of quality crew members, river cruise lines have come to realize just how crucial retention is.
"Competitive pay, rewarding outstanding service, engendering loyalty and respect are the hallmarks of Scenic," Maloney said. "And retention has been the cornerstone of our management philosophy."
“We believe that a happy crew creates happy guests,” Avalon Waterways managing director Patrick Clark said about improving crew retention rates, which he said are currently at around 80%.
Other lines are also trying to reduce turnover by improving benefits and living standards for their crew members.
Patrick Clark, the managing director of Avalon Waterways, said, "We believe that a happy crew creates happy guests [and] working conditions are an important part of that process.
For example, we offer crew cabins on a twin-share basis with several amenities. With different shifts, a crew member can still have a good deal of privacy. The twin feature also allows us to recruit couples who can work together for the season and thus provide additional recruitment opportunities."
Clark added that Avalon likes to provide its staff the opportunity to work in different departments and to encourage promotions and growth. He said the current retention rate is around 80%.
Uniworld's Young, too, said that achieving low turnover (Uniworld retained 95% of its 2015 crew for the 2016 season) is "based on core pillars of treating our employees with respect, providing above-market wages and benefits, offering great training opportunities and doing our very best to promote from within."
Once Uniworld has made all its hires, the company brings them together at the start of the season for a two-week training session, which this year was held in Cologne, Germany, at the end of February and start of March. In addition to both general and department-specific training sessions, Uniworld also likes to inject some fun and motivation into the process, ending the program with a big party for the staff.
"We value and recognize the importance of our staff and try to treat them like family," Young said. "This is how our ownership, the Tollman family, has approached all of their businesses and is, I believe, one of the reasons they have enjoyed so much success."
Uniworld crew members prepare vessels before the river cruising season gets underway.
A web of logistics
River cruise lines have numerous variables to balance beyond just the crew. They have many more passengers to manage and more ships to keep track of today than they did as recently as a few years ago. They have to keep clients happy in good times, such as birthday and anniversary celebrations, as well as in bad, such as during itinerary disruptions caused by high or low water levels.
In some cases, that has meant better technology and automation to keep track of everything from passengers' flight information to their dietary preferences while still keeping the experience hands-on and personalized.
In the high-tech realm, Viking this year implemented My Viking Journey, an online portal that enables booked guests to create an account and customize their experience in advance. They are able to browse and book excursions, access and print documents, manage their daily schedule and opt for other add-ons. The site launched last year for Viking's ocean guests and is now rolling out for its 2016 river guests.
For several years now, Avalon Waterways has had a similar system in place that it calls My Avalon, an online service center through which optional excursions can be prepurchased, dietary preferences selected and beverage packages purchased among other options. In addition to web-driven options for guests to manage their vacations, river cruise operators have had to invest in and develop more sophisticated back-of-house systems to keep track of all their passengers and inventory.
"When you have one or two ships for example, you can manage inventory on spreadsheets," said Avalon's Clark. "We realized early that in order to grow we needed a more sophisticated centralized inventory system so that all markets could have real-time access to it, and we developed one accordingly."
But no matter how much high-tech has helped the lines manage their growth, when they encounter tricky situations such as water-level disruptions, many say there is no way to automate the kinds of solutions you need to put in place and that they still rely on the same old-school problem-solving they used years ago.
"While we have specific processes and protocols for many scenarios," said Viking's Marnell, "there is nothing automatic about managing these situations, and our staff individually manages the logistics and communication with guests."
In fact, Viking touts that while it has more ships to manage, its larger fleet size gives the company greater inventory to rely on if and when ship swaps are needed to help itineraries bypass high- or low-water areas.
"We have a Switzerland-based nautical team and a network of local partners and authorities that are focused on monitoring and adapting to current water levels so that our guests experience the least possible disruption," Marnell said. "Our size is a significant help in the event of high or low water, as we have the largest fleet with sister ships sailing in opposite directions. This allows us to implement a ship swap that is typically seamless for guests. Both they and their luggage are able to be transferred to their exact, identical stateroom on a sister ship."
Viking staffers run through the bar selections onboard while preparing for the 2016 river cruise season. Viking has six campuses that it uses to train its crew. Richard Marnell, Viking’s senior vice president of marketing, said the line has a crew retention rate of just over 90%.
At the same time, the river lines that have grown more slowly say that their unhurried approach to expansion has made them more flexible when dealing with challenges such as high- and low-water issues, maintaining product consistency and dealing with unpredictable market factors such as a slowdown in bookings following the terror attacks in Paris and Brussels.
Rudi Schreiner, the president and co-owner of AmaWaterways, defended his line's slower growth as strategically wise.
"We have been increasing our fleet slowly and steadily to ensure that we not only maintain the highest standards but also to increase the quality onboard year after year," Schreiner said. "Since 2006, every year, we have built either one or two ships for our European fleet. We continued building one ship per year during the recession years, and we didn't build more than two ships per year during the big, booming years."
Schreiner said that rather than figure out ways to reaccommodate hundreds of passengers during high water or drought situations, the company has been focused on a prevention strategy, minimizing itinerary disruptions by building ships with a low draft and by managing their deployment based on historic weather patterns to avoid problem stretches of various rivers.
In the end, each line has tackled the rapid growth and the opportunities and challenges that have come with it in their own way.
Few passengers realize how much has changed and evolved behind the scenes in the river cruise industry in the past few years. Some of that change has likely been for the better, especially competition-driven enhancements in onboard amenities and services, while some passengers might feel the river cruising industry has become less personal and is gradually being run more like a big business. According to the river cruise lines, passengers should feel that river cruising is and will remain a very customer-oriented industry no matter how big it gets.