Michelle Baran
Michelle Baran

This year might actually be a great time to introduce newbies to river cruising. And here’s why.

In previous years, the high demand for river cruises meant that inventory often sold out and the cruises had to be booked as far out as two years in advance if passengers wanted their pick of itinerary and cabin category. But now, a general slowdown in the market is changing the stakes and making it much easier for the less-committal to get onboard.

Case in point, Viking River Cruises’ recent risk-free booking offer, which applies to new bookings made during the entire month of February. Available for U.S. residents only for any 2016 river cruise sailing, it allows for a penalty-free cancellation up to day of departure. While Viking’s move is clearly intended to help stimulate a sleepy marketplace, it would also appear to serve as a great selling tool to help intrigue new passengers who may have been intimidated by the river cruising industry’s much more fast-paced and all-in booking environment of years past.

Of course, travel sellers may be looking at this kind of promotion with a bit of concern. Sure, it might bring in some more bookings, but with the potential of losing them down the line when clients get cold feet. But in a segment of the market that offers notoriously attractive commission rates (Viking touts an average commission check of $1,400 per booking), the risk could very much be worth the reward.

“Making a fair profit in the river cruise market is not something that has ever been a problem,” said Don Baasch, owner of American Canyon, Calif.-based LastCallCruises, Inc. “And with Viking, their commission almost always exceeds the amount we would make selling an ocean cruise to the same customer.”

But Baasch admitted that he’s watching the current river cruise environment with caution.

“I’m remembering how low the ocean cruise lines needed to go after 9/11 to get anyone to book and if it goes too low then everything I said about river cruises being associated with a fair profit goes out the window,” said Baasch.

But river cruise lines don’t want to get to that place any more than travel agents don’t want them to go there. In fact, much of the promotional activity we’re seeing at this start of the year — Viking’s risk-free offer, free airfare deals from the other lines — is meant to prevent any kind of slash-and-burn discounting environment further down the line that would ultimately slash into everyone’s profits.

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