Avalon Waterways is hoping to differentiate itself from the river cruise pack by focusing on choice with a new program and marketing campaign for 2013 that gives river cruisers a wider selection of sightseeing, dining and cultural options to choose from.

The Littleton, Colo.-based river cruise operator is calling the new concept Avalon Choice, which emphasizes enhancing the experiences onboard and off the ship, rather than further changing or tweaking the design of the ships, as competitors such as Viking River Cruises have recently done.

Avalon Panorama"The industry's needle has really been stuck on new ships and hardware," said Steve Born, vice president of marketing at Globus. "We've been in that category, as well, with a lot of focus on the Suite Ships [Avalon's newest class of vessels] and new design."

But after analyzing feedback from past and prospective passengers, Avalon found that land experiences emerged as a top priority, followed by the quality of the ship, and then dining and onboard amenities.

"The mission is really to explain in a simple way that Avalon is owning the choice space," Born said. "This is more of an experience strategy, where it's about breaking the mold of one-size-fits-all. The philosophy of Avalon now is offering a choice at every element of the cruise."

Among those choices will be one slight tweak to the actual design of Avalon's two newest ships, the 128-passenger Avalon Artistry II and the 166-passenger Avalon Expression, launching in 2013. While both will be very similar in design to the Avalon Panorama -- the first of Avalon's Suite Ship class of vessels, which was introduced last year -- a new feature on the ships will be an alternative dining venue adjacent to the bar and lounge area.

The new Panorama Bistro will bring the number of dining venues on the ships to three, including the main restaurant and the grill area on the sky deck. Just as with the sky deck grill, passengers will have to sign up for the limited-seating Panorama Bistro, which will serve a light dinner with local specialties and regional wines.

In addition to Avalon's existing traditional land excursions, it is introducing an "Essential Sightseeing" option for travelers who want more free time to explore the destination on their own as well as a "Leisurely Sightseeing" option for travelers who want to visit at a slower pace, and alternative sightseeing options in larger cities, such as an off-the-beaten-track art tour in Amsterdam.

Lastly, Avalon is hoping to enhance sailings between cities, which Born said has traditionally been positioned as time to relax, with better onboard cultural activities, such as demonstrations and tastings by local chefs or performances by local musicians.

Along the lines of fully customizing the river cruise experience, Avalon unveiled a service called MyAvalon in February, an online service center through which select optional excursions can be prepurchased, dietary preferences selected and beverage packages purchased, among other options.

"Many of these elements already exist on an Avalon cruise, so it's a matter of bringing them to the forefront and packaging them," said Born about the launch of the Avalon Choice brand, which is being unveiled to agents today together with a new site, www.choicecruising.com.  

For news on tour operations, wholesalers and river cruising, follow Michelle Baran on Twitter @mbtravelweekly.

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