As U by Uniworld prepares to sail its first revenue cruises, the line is no longer restricted to 21- to 45-year-olds. Last month's
decision to open sales to all adults highlights how hard it can be for travel
companies to crack the millennial market.
Sherry Laskin Kennedy, a travel agency owner who runs the
sites Cruisemaven.com and Guidetorivercruising.com, suggested that there were
several reasons the generation is hard to target.
"Keep in mind the average spending habits of
millennials and the amount of debt that many of them carry," said Kennedy,
who also produces a river cruise podcast. "Even though it may sound like a
bargain -- $2,100 per person for a U by Uniworld Seine river cruise sounds
pretty good to me when compared to a boomer-preferred river cruise experience --
it's not a bargain to millennials."
Kennedy estimated the per-person cost for a U by Uniworld
cruise, plus air and additional expenses, would come to about $3,500. She said
she asked her two millennial daughters what they would do if someone offered
them that amount of money to take a vacation: Would they choose a river cruise
in Europe? Both responded that they would go to Europe without hesitation but
would rather visit Paris, London and Rome in a week on their own or with a few
friends than do a river cruise with a set daily schedule.
"I think river cruise lines need to market to the real
next generation of river cruisers, the 35- to 50-plus-year-olds, not jump over
that demographic and go after the millennials," she said.
U by Uniworld was unveiled in late 2016 by the higher-priced
luxury line Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection. It was initially pitched
as a brand for guests ages 18 to 40. But by April 2017, when U cruises went on
sale, Uniworld had changed the age range to 21 to 45.
Uniworld CEO Ellen Bettridge said last month that while the
age restriction has now been lifted, she still expects to see a younger
"Removing the hard age restriction was made based on
feedback and consumer demand," Bettridge said. "We learned that the
experience is less about a number and more about attracting a new generation of
adult travelers who share a similar mindset and travel preferences to river
cruising. Since we are not changing the product or the way we market it, we
expect the onboard demographic to remain mostly unchanged."
A lower-priced option to Uniworld's main product line, U
will feature cocktail mixologists and silent disco parties onboard plus
excursions such as sea kayaking, blokarting (like windsurfing but on wheels),
pub crawls and quirky walking tours. To allow for lower pricing and greater
freedom, there are also fewer included meals and shore excursions, and the
ships will stay longer in ports, including some overnights, so passengers can
experience the nightlife in various cities.
Uniworld repurposed two of its older vessels for the new
line. The River Ambassador and the River Baroness are now the A and the B,
all-black ships outfitted with more boutique hotel-style finishings, such as
communal dining tables. They will begin sailing Europe's Rhine, Danube and
Seine rivers this month. U by Uniworld also said last month that its next
vessel will sail the Mekong River in Southeast Asia, indicating that the line
is intent on expanding.
To get the word out about U, Uniworld has been taking some
new approaches, including hosting a wide range of social media influencers on a
preview cruise last fall. The influencers posted photos about their experience
to their social media feeds, predominantly Instagram and blogs. U by Uniworld
was also featured in the Feb. 5 episode of ABC's "The Bachelor,"
during which the B served as the female contestants' home while they were in
Jennifer Brammer, a Charlotte-based AAA travel agent and a
millennial, was optimistic about the new product when she first heard about it
from Bettridge during a Rhine River holiday markets cruise on Uniworld's
Antoinette in December 2016.
"It's possible that they didn't give it enough time to
catch on," Brammer said. "But at the same time, I think word got out
about it being a more cost-effective way to river cruise, and people were
disappointed that they couldn't have the same opportunity if they were too old.
Maybe it's actually a good strategy that they are changing the policy now
before it really sets in people's mind that this is only for young people."
Brammer said millennials seem to want to travel
independently and to have one-of-a-kind experiences. She said the trick with
this age group is making them understand that an organized itinerary is not a
U by Uniworld's attempt to attract a considerably younger
demographic to river cruising is unique. The sector has for years battled the
perception that it appeals predominantly to baby boomers and retirees. More
recently, several companies, including Uniworld, had been working to attract
younger travelers by offering multigenerational family itineraries and more
active excursions and fitness options. But no major river cruise lines had
created a product specifically for millennials and Gen Xers, younger travelers
in their 20s, 30s and 40s.
Dispatch, Amadeus Provence
Michelle Baran was on the Amadeus Provence for a preview of a river cruise itinerary designed to appeal to young travelers. Read More
Since the launch of U by Uniworld, one other river cruise
company has decided to go after millennials. Earlier this year, Amadeus River
Cruises said it would launch a series of sailings for millennial travelers for
2019. It has so far not changed that plan.
"We are going forward with our millennial product and
are excited by the feedback we are receiving," said Amadeus executive vice
president Marcus Leskovar. He said Amadeus' approach differs from Uniworld's in
several ways, including that Amadeus is not refurbishing any vessels to devote
specifically to the millennial market, nor is it dedicating any ships entirely
to this market for an entire season. Instead, the product is offered on some
select departures, and Amadeus is predominantly marketing the cruises online
and through social media.
"We create our millennial cruises around the social
media personae who promote the specific departures, and these individuals will
be onboard hosting their custom departures and connecting with their audience,"
Rob Clabbers, president of Q Cruise + Travel, a Virtuoso
agency in Chicago, said that U by Uniworld's former age limit "did feel a
little cut-and-dried to some potential clients. At the end of the day, it isn't
so much about a specific age but about how young a client feels and behaves.
Some 48-year-olds might much prefer the design concept, touring style and other
unique U by Uniworld features over those of more traditional river cruise
Clabbers was en route to Amsterdam last month where he would
be seeing the A firsthand as part of the 2018 Virtuoso Symposium, which was
being hosted on seven river cruise vessels (the AmaKristina, Avalon Impression,
Crystal Bach, Tauck Savor, U by Uniworld's A, Uniworld's Antoinette and the
Clabbers predicted that greater awareness of the brand, once
it officially starts sailing and word starts getting out, will help U by
Uniworld take off. With not much awareness in the market yet, he said, it's up
to travel agents to spread the word.