River lines pitch small-ship size and stringent standards

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In the session, agents Danny Guenung and Suzy Schreiner, far left, posed questions to river cruise executives so they could 'pitch' their product. Clockwise: Marilyn Conroy of Riviera River Cruises, Pam Hoffee of Avalon Waterways, Marcus Leskovar of Amadeus River Cruises, Gary Murphy of AmaWaterways and Walter Littlejohn of Crystal River Cruises. The sesison was moderated by Mary Pat Sullivan, top left.
In the session, agents Danny Guenung and Suzy Schreiner, far left, posed questions to river cruise executives so they could 'pitch' their product. Clockwise: Marilyn Conroy of Riviera River Cruises, Pam Hoffee of Avalon Waterways, Marcus Leskovar of Amadeus River Cruises, Gary Murphy of AmaWaterways and Walter Littlejohn of Crystal River Cruises. The sesison was moderated by Mary Pat Sullivan, top left. Photo Credit: Travel Weekly

The safest way to send clients to Europe next year is on a river cruise -- that's what Crystal River Cruises managing Walter Littlejohn director told advisors during CruiseWorld on Friday.

Executives from other lines agreed, adding that the ships' small sizes, stringent health and safety standards and the natural bubble created by staying on one ship with one group offer more protection than moving on land between hotels.

Littlejohn said Crystal created "social distancing before it was even a thought," saying that the Crystal ships were built to only carry about half the passengers of most ships the same size.

And the company's new health and safety protocols, which include testing of guests, he said, were designed to create "the Crystal bubble  to keep them safe but at the same time enjoy the vacation they are looking for."

While most lines were grounded by the pandemic this year, Marcus Leskovar, executive vice president of Amadeus River Cruises, said they were able to prove the safety of river cruising with their protocols while sailing this summer with about half of their fleet.

"I am happy to report to all of you that we just finished our season just last week, and we were able to keep every passenger safe," Leskovar said.

Gary Murphy, senior vice president of sales and co-owner of AmaWaterways, said they, too, sailed one of their ships with a German tour operator without incident.

River cruising, he said, "is a safe, comfortable and delightful way to travel during this time."

Marilyn Conroy,  executive vice president of sales and marketing in North American for Riviera River Cruises, and Pam Hoffee, managing director of Avalon Waterways, also participated in the Pitch Perfect session, where travel advisors Danny Genung, CEO of Harr Tavel, and Suzy Schreiner, owner of Azure Blue Vacations, posed potential client concerns and questions.

One of those questions: Won't customers get bored?

"This comes up a lot," Hoffee said. To help address that question, she said, the company a few years ago began creating itineraries with more overnights in port.

"Because what's better than going out and enjoying the nightlife in Europe versus what can be done onboard?" she said.

Leskovar said it is important for advisors to explain to ocean cruisers considering a river cruise "that it's easy and safe after dinner just to get off the ship and enjoy a city, town or village."

Hoffee said Avalon also has increased its included excursion options, with some itineraries offering a choice every day between active, discovery and classic outings.

The other lines have also moved to offer more excursion choices and more overnights in port.

And while Conroy said river cruising is obviously different from sailing on large ocean ships that have everything from ice skating rinks to rock climbing walls, river ships stop in the heart of vibrant cities like Paris,  Budapest, Vienna and Amsterdam.

"Those cities alone should certainly keep them entertained," she said.

Onboard activities, she said,  includes live entertainment, a putting green, a spa, a hot tub. There are bicycles that guests can use to explore on land on their own.

"In short, unless your clients are expecting to find waterslides, they should not be bored on a river cruise."

Another question posed to the panel by the advisors: What should they tell clients concerned about fluctuating water levels in Europe? That issue made headlines in 2018 after low water levels forced some ports to close and forced some lines to adjust schedules, swap passengers between ships and in some cases uses motorcoaches for part of their itineraries.

That event, Conroy said, was "totally unprecedented."

Murphy said that just  3% of European sailings were impacted. And he and the others emphasized that their companies did everything they could to tweak sailing schedules to avoid taking guests off ships and onto coaches.

"I would reiterate this is really rare," Littlejohn said. "2018 was a historic year."

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