Michelle Baran
Michelle Baran

It's that time of year again, when river cruise lines make a big marketing push in an effort to show travel agents and travelers what makes them stand out from the others.

And while the photos and videos that those lines formerly used as marketing material made it almost impossible to get a sense of how they differed from one another (the cliche and indistinguishable images of river cruise ships floating past historic European towns), these days river lines are offering up some real points of differentiation via their marketing messages.

Most notably, Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection has pivoted from producing promo videos simply showcasing the ships' over-the-top interior design elements, to actually delving into the company's history and the stories behind its vessels. Uniworld CEO Ellen Bettridge has said that one of the main marketing changes she would like to make is to tell more of Uniworld's story.

In this initial promo video, which does just that, you can get a bit sucked in listening to Beatrice Tollman, president and founder of the Red Carnation Hotel Collection, talk about the origins of the hotel brand, which is owned by the same parent company that owns Uniworld. Tollman then delves into how she oversaw Uniworld's design overhaul, completely transforming the look and feel of the fleet.

Last year, Avalon Waterways decided to take a much more playful approach to its marketing and developed a series of videos that emphasize the views that passengers have from within their Avalon cabins. Unlike most river cruise lines, Avalon's beds face outwards, towards the wall-to-wall sliding glass doors that are featured in all the upper level staterooms.

Avalon developed some of those videos into several ad spots that aired on TV last fall and is revisiting the theme again with another TV ad spot this month.

"Remember how you felt when someone else made it hard for you to see what you wanted to see?" goads the new Avalon ad. It's a refreshing departure from images of river cruise ships gliding along European waterways.

But we haven't escaped those entirely. Several river cruise lines still rely on that classic and conventional approach, not least of which is Viking River Cruises, which continues to hold court on public television and radio with its long-running, straightforward and consistent message, focusing on the destinations and how river cruising (specifically Viking's version, of course) gets passengers into the heart of European cities.

It's nothing new, but it certainly gets the job done: Viking probably remains the most recognizable name in river cruising in great part because of the investment it has made, if not in the most innovative ads, certainly in the most ads, period.

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