There are two very different versions of river cruising.
In one version, the vessel acts as a sort of floating hotel and passengers who like to do things on their own use the ship and its included meals, excursions and amenities at their convenience.
In the other version, river cruising is similar to a fully organized guided tour where you do everything with your fellow passengers: eat together, go on excursions together and ultimately, really bond with each other.
For river cruise lines, figuring out how to satisfy both types of guests can be a delicate balancing act between those who are more inclined to do things independently and prefer to sit alone during meals and roam ports on their own, versus those who like the idea of making new friends and engaging in onboard group activities.
Both kinds of guests can ultimately be satisfied, it just takes a little more work and investment on the part of the lines. And there are some that cater a bit more to independence and some to the group way of doing things.
For instance, river cruise lines have been playing with the seating arrangements in their main dining rooms for a while now. If they don't offer enough two-top tables, those who prefer to dine solo get annoyed. If they have too many smaller tables, those who like the social aspect of river cruising can feel left out.
Avalon Waterways recently said that it will offer open seating dining in 2019 and will also add more two-tops to its dining venues, indicating that it sees a trend toward passengers that don't always want to join others for meals (and for those that do, there are larger four-, six and eight-top tables).
Crystal River Cruises already offers open seating and more intimate two- and four-top tables. In general, Crystal definitely caters to more independent-minded passengers, offering more overnights in ports so people can go out on the town at night, rather than investing much in onboard evening activities.
River cruise lines are also giving passengers more tools to go out on their own, whether through apps and devices with in-destination information to navigate ports of call or by providing bikes for passengers to tool around on off-ship.
At the same time, lines recognize that many people still count on them to provide sophisticated guided group tours. Tauck, for example, has made a name on its top-notch excursions, and Tauck guests might be more likely to want to engage with the group on these daily outings.
The onboard entertainment is another issue. Some passengers roll their eyes at the idea of heading to the lounge after dinner to dance the night away with fellow river cruisers, while for others this can be a highlight of the trip. So do the lines invest significantly in live music performances and DJs, or is it not worth it because people will prefer to see the local nightlife if docked in port, or to retreat to their cabins? It can be a bit of a gamble from one departure to the next.
On a recent river cruise, one passenger made a good point to me about the importance of a good cruise director and said that fun onboard entertainment can create an upbeat atmosphere and an environment in which passengers bond. I realized that I hadn't fully appreciated how important that part of the experience might be for the passengers for whom those experiences ultimately make the cruise memorable.
In the end, river cruising is suited to both independent travelers and those with more of a group mentality. Travel agents should be sure to understand their clients and which category they fall into to better guide them to a sailing that either offers more autonomy or one where they will end up with a whole new bunch of forever friends.